Why We Fly

From the New York Times bestselling authors of I’m Not Dying with You Tonight comes a story about friendship, privilege, sports, and protest. 

With a rocky start to senior year, cheerleaders and lifelong best friends Eleanor and Chanel have a lot on their minds. Eleanor is still in physical therapy months after a serious concussion from a failed cheer stunt. Chanel starts making questionable decisions to deal with the mounting pressure of college applications. But they have each other’s backs—just as always, until Eleanor’s new relationship with star quarterback Three starts a rift between them. 

Then, the cheer squad decides to take a knee at the season’s first football game, and what seemed like a positive show of solidarity suddenly shines a national spotlight on the team—and becomes the reason for a larger fallout between the girls. As Eleanor and Chanel grapple with the weight of the consequences as well as their own problems, can the girls rely on the friendship they’ve always shared? 

Why We Fly was inspired by real people who took a stand against racism. John Carlos and Tommie Smith raised their Black power fist at the Olympics in 1968. Similarly, Collin Kaepernick kneeled during the national anthem in protest of the treatment of Blacks. Why We Fly explores the idea that players should “shut up and play” and the consequences athletes face if they voice their opinions. The story’s message is clear—athletes and others should not be punished for peaceful protest. However, the main characters’ experiences also highlight the importance of having a plan before you protest. In addition, the story reminds readers that no one should be forced to support a cause. By reading, Why We Fly today’s readers will gain insight into effective activism and be encouraged to explore ways they can help others. 

The chapters alternate between Eleanor’s and Chanel’s points of view. Since the girls are of different races, readers will begin to understand how race and wealth affect a person’s experiences. While the story explores important themes, the main characters are difficult to relate to. Even though Eleanor and Chanel have been best friends most of their lives, neither one is a good friend. For example, after Eleanor is voted captain of the cheerleading team, Chanel ghosts her. In addition, Chanel is critical of Eleanor’s relationship with star quarterback, Three. Many readers will dislike Eleanor’s and Chanel’s behavior and thus will have a hard time relating to them. 

On the other hand, Eleanor has a difficult time considering things from other’s point of view. When she is voted cheerleading captain, she accepts the position and never considers how it will affect Chanel. As cheerleading captain, Eleanor doesn’t show positive leadership skills and Chanel eventually has to jump in to unite the team. Then, when Eleanor encourages the cheerleaders to kneel during the national anthem, she doesn’t think about the consequences or how it would affect others. Eventually, she goes to talk to a rabbi who says, “Living up to a legacy doesn’t mean celebrating it. It means we pick up the baton and keep running the race. It also means we need to check ourselves and our assumptions about how far we’ve come, or haven’t.” Eleanor learns that when protesting, having good intentions is not enough—she should have also considered different people’s points of view and the consequences others would face if they protested.  

While many books have imperfect characters, Why We Fly’s characters are unlikable because they are self-centered and have unhealthy relationships. Despite this, readers who are interested in activism can learn important lessons about effective protest. In addition, readers may want to research some of the influential people the story mentions such as Dorothy Buckhanan Wilson, President of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority. Readers who want to explore issues of discrimination and wealth should also add these books to their reading list: Jackpot by Nic Stone, The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas, and I’m Not Dying with You Tonight by Kimberly Jones & Gilly Segal. 

Sexual Content 

  • After physical therapy, Three and Eleanor are talking. “He leans closer, and I freeze, dying for him to kiss me and feeling ridiculous that I’m so desperate for him to kiss me that I’m willing for it to happen in this doctor’s office. . . I lift my face, and his lips brush mine gently at first, and then he presses closer, and we fall over a cliff into the kiss.” The doctor interrupts them. 
  • One of the characters wears a shirt that reads, “Woke Up Lesbian Again.” 
  • Eleanor and Chanel go to a BBQ at Three’s house. When Eleanor and Three begin to flirt, Chanel says, “It’s a Planned Parenthood cautionary tale right before our eyes.” 
  • Before a football game, Three and Eleanor have a moment alone. Eleanor kisses him. Three “holds me to him, running that hand all the way up my back and into my hair. His lips part mine, and we kiss until we’re so tangled in each other that the stadium noises fade. . .” They are interrupted by another football player, who yells, “Three! Untangle yourself from that octopus, and let’s go.” 
  • A friend drops Three off at Eleanor’s house. Eleanor wonders, “Why did he have to get a ride to what is obviously going to look like a hook-up?” 
  • Eleanor slept with her previous boyfriend, Roman. Eleanor’s friend said, “Roman was the type to kiss and tell, and she was right. . .” Eleanor isn’t sorry that she slept with Roman, she’s “just mad everyone thought it was cool to slut-shame me for my choice while admiring him for doing the same thing.” Later, Eleanor reveals that Roman is the only person she has had sex with. 
  • Eleanor and Three are hanging out at her house. They begin kissing. Three says that he doesn’t expect her to have sex with him, but Eleanor says she wants to. “Three lies back, taking up my entire bed, leaving me no space and no option other than to press up against him and rest my cheek on his chest. . .” Before they can have sex, they get into an argument, and Three leaves. 
  • On social media, someone posts: “Looks like Chanel Irons will be the next Barack Obama. Anyone know if she’s straight? I’m here for being her Michelle. We can un-hetero that White House together.” 

Violence 

  • Before the book begins, Eleanor falls during cheerleading practice. Eleanor “came down wrong. . . I flailed, trying to save myself too. My head thwacked James’s shoulder on the way down, then hit the mat. One leg bent under me, and my ankle collapsed. . . when I came to, the throbbing in my head blinded me to all the other pain.” Months later, Eleanor is still in physical therapy. 

 Drugs and Alcohol 

  • In order to deal with stress, Chanel sneaks into the school bathroom to vape marijuana. She loads “the cartridge of Runtz, press and release the button, and take a short breath.”  
  • Chanel is suspended from school. Afterwards, she hides in the shed behind her house. “Even though I normally take only one short puff, I find myself taking extra puffs today and holding the vapor longer.”  
  • Because of the pressure of applying to colleges, Chanel is “stoned for nearly two months.” 
  • After a football game, a bunch of teens go to a player’s house. Before his parents leave the room, they padlock the liquor cabinet. 

Language 

  • Profanity is used frequently. Profanity includes ass, bitches, bullshit, crap, damn, hell, piss, and shit. 
  • Fuck is used once. 
  • Oh God and dear God are infrequently used as an exclamation. 
  • Three’s mother dislikes Eleanor and calls her “locker-room lice.” 
  • Eleanor and Chanel kneel during the national anthem at a football game. Afterwards, someone posts a picture with a caption that says, “Now we’ve got a Jew bitch on her knees with the primates.” 

 Supernatural 

  • None 

 Spiritual Content 

  • Eleanor was part of a competition squad that would pray “before every tournament—in Jesus’s name.” Because Eleanor is Jewish, she seeks out her rabi’s advice. “His guidance gave me the guts to ask the team to change the prayer to something more egalitarian.” 
  • Eleanor mentions religious holidays such as the High Holy Days and Rosh Hashanah. 
  • Eleanor goes to synagogue during the High Holidays. Her brother wears a bar mitzvah tallit (a prayer shawl), but Eleanor is upset that she forgot hers. The knots on the tallit represent “the number of commandments in the Torah.” 
  • During the service, the rabbi says, “When I look around, both at our larger world and our own community, I see enormous pain. I see injustice . . . There are those who deny the humanity of people of color. Who asks that they be silent in the face of unequal, hateful, violent treatment. . . We have a moral obligation to bear witness to injustice in society. . . it is our responsibility to protect the marginalized and to partner with other communities to confront the powerful who perpetuate injustice.” The sermon goes on for two pages. 

Ace of Spades

Chiamaka, one of two Black students at the elite Niveus Academy, is more than ready for her senior year. Since her freshman year, everything she’s done at Niveus has been with Yale’s pre-med program in mind – taking the hardest classes, staying on top of her grades, making connections. When she is selected to be one of the senior Prefects at the back-to-school assembly, she is pleased but not surprised. After all, this was the track she meticulously planned for since day one. 

By contrast, Devon, the only other Black student, is ready to fall back into Niveus’s monotony, finish his senior year, and get out. Quiet and shy, the only place he truly feels at ease at Niveus is in the music classroom, where he can escape into building his portfolio for Julliard’s piano performance program. So, when he is also selected to be a senior Prefect, he is taken aback: he is a good student, but not an exceptional one.  

But things never stay quiet at Niveus for long: soon after the semester begins, a mysterious entity who calls themselves Aces begins sending incriminating messages to the entire school, exposing students’ deepest, darkest secrets. After a few texts, Chiamaka and Devon realize something disturbing: Aces seems to be only targeting them. They pair up to try and take Aces down, but the more they dig, the more they uncover about their classmates, teachers, and Niveus’ dark past. It soon becomes clear that they can only trust each other – or can they do even that? 

Ace of Spades is a gripping read from the start. The pacing is a bit off-putting at times– the book starts slow, uncovering the story layer by layer, and then speeds up in the end with several plot twists that are not as developed as they could be. Nevertheless, Chiamaka and Devon are both such smart and compelling narrators that readers will quickly get hooked – the story is told from both of their perspectives, so readers get full insight into both characters’ lives and see both similarities and differences in their experiences. Both Chiamaka and Devon go through a lot of character development throughout the story. Despite their flaws, they are sympathetic characters that readers will root for and be able to relate to.  

While Ace of Spades is a deeply important read, it does handle many difficult topics, such as institutional racism, drug use, incarceration, and death. None of these issues are sugarcoated and they are all integral parts of the story, especially racism. Because these issues are given the gravity they deserve, several parts of the story are rather heavy. While readers should be aware of the heavy subject matter going into this book, it should not deter them from reading it since all of the issues are important to talk about and learn about as they are prevalent in our world today. 

Overall, Ace of Spades is a suspenseful thriller that exposes many systemic injustices prevalent in our world today, sending an important message about how to combat them. It has a multi-layer plot that is slowly and carefully peeled away to reveal a big picture that is truly shocking and thought-provoking. Although parts of this story are uncomfortable to read about, they reflect important issues in our modern society that are vital to address and discuss. Ace of Spades will hook readers from the start, and leave them thinking about it for weeks to come.  

Sexual Content 

  • Chiamaka remembers the first time she and her best friend, Jamie, hooked up at a party. “He told me to meet him in his bedroom, and while that night we only made out, it was the catalyst for what happened the rest of the year: Jamie sneaking kisses, whispering things in my ear, asking me to come over . . . ” 
  • Aces leaks a video of Devon and his ex-boyfriend having sex. Chiamaka (and the rest of the school) get a text notification from Aces, plus the video: “Just in. Porn is easy to come by these days. You either search for it online or it falls right in your lap when you least expected it to.” Chiamaka doesn’t click on it, but she “could hear the sounds of it playing from Jamie’s phone.” 
  • Aces exposes the fact that Chiamaka and Jamie hooked up last year. “Belle Robinson [Jamie’s current girlfriend], you have a problem. I’d ask your boyfriend and his bestie, Chiamaka, what they were doing this summer. Hint, it involves no clothes and a lot of heavy petting.”
  • Devon has sex with an ex-boyfriend. “Dre moves off the bed and goes over to the drawer in his desk, pulling out some condoms. I look away from him now and up at the ceiling, listening to the sound of the rain hitting the windows and the wind angrily crying out, letting it drown my thoughts. His weight tilts the bed as he leans over me and joins our lips together again . . . And then, when we are finally done and I’m in his arms, I let myself cry.” 
  • A poster of Chiamaka is circulated at a party and spreads around Niveus. “Posters of a passed-out Chiamaka in a short silver dress, black tights, black heeled boots, mascara dried on her cheeks, and her hair a tangled mess. Some of the posters have Bitch written in big black bold text, others Slut.” 
  • It’s implied that Chiamaka and her girlfriend make out, or more. “Belle nods, a sly smile on her lips as she reaches up to her shirt and starts to unbutton it. ‘Want to continue not talking?’ she asks, the yellow of her bra making everything inside tingle. ‘Not talking is my favorite thing to do,’ I tell her.” 

Violence 

  • Chiamaka has a flashback to when she was in the car with Jamie behind the wheel, and they hit a girl. “Rain pounds the road as I peer out the window at the body – her body. Through the rivulets, I see her face. Blond curls, pale skin, a dark pool forming a halo around her head. I gag, gripping on to the cold, hard dashboard, closing my eyes. I feel so sick.” This scene is described over two pages. 
  • After a picture of Devon and his ex-boyfriend kissing is leaked, Devon worries about the violence he might face from the homophobic community. “The guys in my neighborhood, the ones I used to go to school with, they’d kill me if they saw that picture. Toss my body into the garbage disposal once they were done with me. These guys watch me on my walk home, staring me down, smirking. Sometimes they yell shit. Other times they push me to the ground, then walk off laughing. The picture would make things in my neighborhood ten times worse.” 
  • Jamie physically attacks Chiamaka, and she defends herself. “I’m cut off by Jamie wrapping his hands around my neck and squeezing. He’s shaking as he strangles me and I’m wheezing, laughing and gasping for air . . . I don’t want Jamie’s face to be the last thing I see before I die, and so I summon all the remaining strength I have, and I kick him in the crotch. Jamie staggers back, releasing me. I cough, throat hurting, chest aching. I don’t give myself time to pause before I kick him again. This time he falls to the ground.” Chiamaka runs away, shaken but uninjured. 
  • The headmaster of Niveus holds a gun to Chiamaka’s forehead to stop her from exposing Niveus’ secrets but doesn’t shoot her. “Before I can do anything else, I feel a large hand grab me, dragging me away through the curtains. I glance back, trying to break out of this powerful grip, and that’s when I feel cold metal pressed to my forehead. A gun.” Chiamaka gets away by “[sticking] something in [the headmaster’s] neck. He freezes up and drops to the ground, the gun dropping with him.” 
  • A fire breaks out at Niveus. Most make it out, but a few people die, including Jamie. These deaths are only mentioned, not described.

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • Chiamaka got drunk at a party with her best friend, Jamie. “We’d both gotten drunk, so drunk I don’t remember much of that night.” 
  • Chiamaka got drunk at a party with her now-ex-boyfriend. “He thrusts his hand out, this time spilling a bit of his drink, before concentrating hard on placing it down straight.” 
  • Devon has sold drugs to support his family. When he asks his mom to let him help with the bills, she “shakes her head. ‘I know what you want to do and I don’t want you doing that ever. I want you off those streets, in that classroom – making your life better, not jeopardizing it.’” 
  • Chiamaka and Devon have some wine in her basement. “I open up one of the liquor cabinets and I take out a bottle of Chardonnay, placing it on the island. I get out two wineglasses and pour some into each, before sliding one over to Devon. I don’t even like the taste of it, but I know it will help me relax a little. I only poured half a glass so that we wouldn’t be too relaxed or out of it, just enough to give us some liquid courage.” 

Language 

  • Shit and fuck are used occasionally. 
  • The n–word is used once. 

Supernatural 

  • None 

Spiritual Content 

  • Devon’s mother is a devout Christian and often prays to God. For example, when the family is struggling financially, she says, “It’ll work itself out, Vonnie. God never falters.” 

The Science of Being Angry

Eleven-year-old Joey is angry. All of the time. And she doesn’t understand why. She has two loving moms, a supportive older half-brother, and, as a triplet, she’s never without company. Her life seems good but sometimes she loses her temper and lashes out, like the time she threw a soccer ball—hard—at a boy in gym class and bruised his collarbone. Or when jealousy made her push her (former) best friend and crush, Layla, a little bit too roughly.

After Joey has a meltdown at her apartment building, the family is evicted and Joey is desperate to figure out why she’s so mad. A new unit in science class makes her wonder if the reason is genetics. Does she lose control because of something she inherited from the donor her mothers chose? 

The Science of Being Angry follows Joey, who is struggling to understand her place in her family. Joey feels different from her brothers because she’s a fraternal triplet and her brothers are identical twins, but they’re only genetically related to one of their moms. When Joey’s class begins a genetics unit, Joey begins to question how her DNA is affected by her mothers’ sperm donor. In addition, Joey wonders if the sperm donor’s DNA is the link to her uncontrollable anger.  

Joey and her friend Layla decide to send Joey’s brother’s DNA to 23 and Me. For some reason, Joey thinks that sending her brother’s DNA will lead to better results Unfortunately, when Joey’s moms discover the 23 and Me account, they have it deactivated before Joey learns anything. This abruptly ends the story thread without answering any of Joey’s questions about the donor.   

In addition to exploring family bonds, The Science of Being Angry also focuses on Joey’s inability to control her anger. Joey’s confusion about her biological father and her insecurities about her moms’ love causes Joey to lash out at others. Joey may have sensory sensitivities that cause her to become irritable, but this thread is left unexplored. To make matters worse, her moms don’t always agree about the best way to help Joey. In the end, Joey and her moms seek help from a therapist, which ends the story on a hopeful note. However, some readers may be disappointed that the story doesn’t include any anger management strategies.  

The Science of Being Angry uses sensitivity as it explores complicated family dynamics. Joey’s feelings are described in detail in kid-friendly language. However, much of the story focuses on Joey’s emotions and inner turmoil so there is little action. In addition, readers will have to pay close attention to the text because Joey’s moms are referred to as Mama and Mom, which may make it difficult for some readers to keep track of who is talking. Readers who have nontraditional families will relate to Joey and can benefit from reading The Science of Being Angry. However, the story will mostly appeal to readers who are interested in exploring Joey’s vast emotions and the genetics that make her unique. Middle-grade readers who want to explore difficult family dynamics may also want to read We Are All Made of Molecules by Susin Nielsen. 

Sexual Content 

  • Joey’s moms occasionally kiss. For example, when Mom “kiss[ed] Mama on the cheek. . . Mom pressed her face against Mama’s cheek to kiss it again and wrapped her arms around Mama, holding tightly.” 
  • Mom explains meeting Mama. “She was such a kind, sweet little dweeb. How could I not fall for her?” Then Mom explains how she knew she liked girls. “I didn’t want to think about it, because I was confused for a long time. I married Luka, because I thought that’s what I wanted. . . But something was missing with Luka. With me. When I met your mama, I found that something.” 
  • Joey is confused about her feelings for her friend, Layla. While at her house, she “suddenly wondered what it would be like to kiss her.” Joey wonders if she is gay. Thinking about her feelings makes Joey angry so she “shoved Layla as hard as she could onto the floor. Layla hit her elbow on the coffee table in front of them. She was okay; she got a small bruise and cried, but she didn’t bleed or anything.”  
  • At a party, Layla sits next to Joey. Layla’s “voice was too soft, her leg felt too good against Joey’s. . . Joey, without thinking, kissed her.” Afterwards, Joey runs out of the house. 
  • Joey is thinking about her moms watching a movie. “She couldn’t see them. . . but she knew what they’d look like, anyway. Mom was probably draped along the couch, Mama lying on top of her between her legs. They were much like that. . .”

Violence 

  • Joey and her brothers sneak out of their apartment and go to the swimming pool. Before they can jump in, a security guard appears, and “Joey responded the way she always did, the way that her moms both begged and yelled at her not to. With her fist. . . Joey turned and punched the security guard square in the belly. He fell directly into the pool. . .”  
  • At hockey practice, Eli calls Joey a bad name, “so Joey used the hook of her stick to pull at Eli’s leg, knocking him off balance and sending him spiraling on the ice. . .” 
  • While watching TV, Joey’s brother Thomas sits on the couch. Joey gets upset that Thomas keeps touching her so she “kicked her leg into Thomas as hard as she could.” 
  • Joey and her brothers go to a Halloween party at their friend Eli’s house. “The second they walked through Eli’s door, Joey found herself getting slammed against the wall, hard, with a loud oof! . . . She shoved Eli, and then backhanded him against his helmet.” 
  • At the Halloween party, Eli’s bullying of Joey continues. He “slapped her across the face with the slice of pizza in his hand.” 
  • While at school, Joey bruised her classmate Danny’s collarbone. “Joey didn’t think she meant to hurt him, but she definitely meant to throw the ball as hard as she could at him.” 
  • During science, Joey gets upset and yells “I don’t care about the stupid project!” Then she threw her “heavy science textbook at the classroom window” breaking it. She is suspended from school. 
  • While playing football, Joey tackles Mama. “Just as the ball flew over Mama’s head, Joey threw her entire weight at Mama’s middle. . . tackling her hard to the grass. Mama’s head hit the ground first. . .” Mom jumps in and “reached behind Mama to find her head and pulled away with some blood on her hand. . . Mama’s eyes opened but they didn’t look right. . .” Mom turns on Joey and yells, “What is wrong with you? What the hell is wrong with you!” Mama goes to the hospital but is released the same day. 
  • At hockey practice, Joey skates past Eli “when suddenly she felt something jerk her back. Eli had his hand gripped tightly into the collar of her shirt and he yanked it.” Joey starts to fall, but “Eli pushed her into the wall of the rink, hard, took the puck back, and scored.” Joey’s mom had talked to the coach about Eli’s bullying. The coach sees Eli’s behavior and sits him on the bench.  

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • Joey’s brother takes ADHD medication. 
  • After dinner, Mama “picked up the bottle of wine and refilled her and Luka’s glass.” 

Language 

  • Several times Joey calls a classmate a rat. 
  • Jesus Christ is used as an exclamation twice. 
  • Oh God and Oh my God are occasionally used as an exclamation.  
  • Heck is used twice. 
  • There is some name-calling including jerk and loser. For example, Joey’s brother says the landlord was a “jerk” for kicking them out.  
  • While playing hockey, Joey tells Eli that he’s being a ball hog. When Eli replied, “he used the B word that had been banned from Joey’s household.” 

Supernatural 

  • None 

Spiritual Content 

  • None 

Lupe Wong Won’t Dance

Lupe Wong wants to be the first female pitcher in the Major Leagues.   

She’s also championed causes her whole young life. Some worthy . . . like expanding the options for race on school tests beyond just a few bubbles. And some not so much . . . like complaining to the BBC about the length between Doctor Who seasons.

Lupe needs an A in all her classes in order to meet her favorite pitcher, Fu Li Hernandez, who’s Chinacan/Mexinese just like her. So when the horror that is square dancing rears its head in gym? Obviously, she’s not gonna let that slide.  

Lupe Wong Won’t Dance examines middle school drama by focusing on Lupe’s struggles. Middle-grade readers will empathize with Lupe as she tries to navigate the complexities of a middle school’s social hierarchy. Even though Lupe doesn’t mean to make enemies, she often does because she doesn’t always think about the consequences of her actions. For instance, Lupe gets upset and makes hurtful comments to her best friend, Andy. In response, Andy begins hanging out with the popular soccer girls and stops talking to Lupe. The two eventually work out their differences, and Lupe learns that she needs to “try to listen to people more instead of worrying about myself and my own goals.” 

Lupe’s family life is an integral part of the story. Lupe misses her father, who died in an accident. She also questions her father’s decision to quit playing baseball to care for his family. Lupe is desperate to meet Fu Li Hernandez because he reminds Lupe of her father, and many of Lupe’s actions are based on her need to earn straight A’s in order to meet Fu Li Hernandez. However, Lupe Wong Won’t Dance doesn’t include any baseball action other than one short practice and when Lupe finally meets Fu Li Hernandez. Still, meeting Fu Li Hernandez makes Lupe realize, “My dad was no quitter. Fu Li’s smile was like Dad’s the first time I whistled. The same smile when I finger-painted my entire face and body. . . And it’s the same smile he had when I hit my first baseball.”  

Lupe Wong Won’t Dance uses humor and middle school drama to highlight the importance of being inclusive. While the story explores the discrimination of the past, it does so in a nonjudgmental way that reminds readers that it’s important to take this advice: “I did then what I knew how to do. Now that I know better, I do better.” Another important lesson the story imparts is the importance of self-acceptance. As Lupe’s friend says, “I shouldn’t change just so people will like me.” 

Lupe’s story is perfect for middle schoolers, especially those who often feel out of place. Lupe Wong Won’t Dance acknowledges that others can be cruel while challenging readers to overcome their difficulties. In the end, the story encourages readers to be kind and inclusive to others, even those who are different than you. For more middle school reads featuring a protagonist who feels out of place, read Out of Place by Jennifer Blecher, Efrén Divided by Ernesto Cisneros, and A Thousand Questions by Saadia Faruqi. 

Sexual Content 

  • In order to get out of square dancing, Lupe researches the song “Cotton-Eyed Joe” and discovers the song’s origins. A YouTube video explains that the song refers “to a man making his rounds with the ladies. . . Why are his eyes white as cotton?. . . if one listens carefully to the words, poor ol’ Cotton-Eyed Joe’s eyes were whited out by chlamydia or syphilis—”  
  • After watching the YouTube video, Lupe looks up chlamydia and discovers it’s “a widespread, often asymptomatic sexually transmitted disease caused by chlamydia trachomatis” and syphilis is “a sexually transmitted disease caused by the spirochete bacterium treponema pallidum.” 
  • Lupe’s mom asks her if she’s gay. Lupe replies, “I don’t know. I’m only twelve. I thought I’d figure it out in a few years.” 
  • On an online forum discussing students being forced to learn how to square dance, someone writes, “Outrageous! Should we bring back petticoats and chastity belts?”  

Violence 

  • When Lupe was in second grade, she saw her classmate Zola picking her nose. Lupe began calling Zola “the Green Goblin” and the name stuck. “She eventually found out I was the one who started the Green Goblin nickname and hasn’t spoken a word to me since.” 
  • While practicing her pitching, Lupe’s brother Paolo “takes me out at the knees. The wind is knocked out of me a little. He hoisted me back up by the waist of my jeans, giving me a wedgie.”  
  • When Paolo learned how to square dance, he was partnered with a popular girl. And at the time, his mom was making the kids take “Crock-Pot leftovers for lunch” which caused Paolo to fart a lot. “It’s hard to hide a fart when you do-si-do and spin around. . . between hand sweats and farting. . . she told everyone. . . It’s taken two years for everyone to stop calling me Flutterbutt.” 
  • In the PE locker room, Lupe finds her locker decorated in shaving cream that reads Guadapoopy. When Coach Solden sees it, she goes to wipe it off the locker. “Coach spins back around and one foot slips on remnant shaving cream. Her foot flies up in the air, and she tries to catch herself with one arm. She falls to the floor with a thump and a small crack. Lips pursed together, noises burble from her mouth that sound like cusswords in an alien language.” The coach broke her arm in the fall. 
  • Lupe’s mom tells her about Coach Becky Solden’s square dancing experience. “One by one, as a joke, the boys approached her and then passed her by for other girls. She was the only girl left. . . Just like the rest, [Bruce] walked up to her, but he stopped and bowed. . . Just before Becky touched his hand, Bruce jumped back and ran towards the boys’ locker room screaming. . . For the entire two weeks, we danced, every time a boy danced with Becky, he made monkey noises under his breath. . . Even some of the girls made monkey noises and pretended to scratch their armpits.” 

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • When researching the song Cotton-Eyed Joe, one article says “he could have gotten his cloudy eyes from alcohol poisoning.”  

Language 

  • Variations of crap are used frequently. 
  • Heck is used occasionally.  
  • There is frequent name-calling such as jerk, dorks, doofus, idiot, nimrod, whiner, klutz, and others. 
  • When Lupe shows the school principal pictures of a “cropped, magged-up version” of an eye, the principal says, “Oh, gawd.” 
  • Samantha, a mean girl, calls Lupe “Guadaloopy.” Samantha also calls Lupe’s friend Andy, “Anda-loser.” In return, Lupe calls Samantha “Sam-o-nella.” 
  • During PE, Samantha whispers loudly, “Word is [Lupe’s] parents found her at the dump. That’s why she smells like a blowout diaper.” 
  • Lupe comments on “Skanky Potato Head.” 

Supernatural 

  • None 

Spiritual Content 

  • Before dinner, Lupe’s family prays. Her brother says, “Thank you God, for all that we have. Bless this interesting food to our bodies. And please help Lupe with her cleanliness so she can be next to you . . .” 
  • Before dinner, Paolo prays, “God, thank you for our grandparents who can cook. . . And thank you for giving Mr. Montgomery pinkeye so my algebra test is postponed. And help Lupe through puberty and bless this food.”  
  • Lupe thinks about her father. During Qingming, “the Chinese version of Dia de los Muertos . . . Grandma Wong takes us to the cemetery to burn paper things that represent what she thinks Dad needs in the afterlife. This year she burned a paper house and fake money. [Lupe] snuck in a paper baseball and bat.” 

The Holiday Switch

Lila Santos is ready for her last winter break of high school. The snow in her small town of Holly, New York is plentiful, the mood as cozy as a fuzzy Christmas sweater, and she’s earning extra cash working at the local inn. In other words, it is the setting for the greatest film of all time, Holiday by the Lake—while moonlighting as an anonymous book blogger.

But her perfect holiday plans crash to a halt when her boss’ frustratingly cute nephew, Teddy Rivera, becomes her coworker. Lila is Type A while Teddy is Type “Anything but Lila’s Way,” and the two of them can’t stop butting heads over tangled icicle lights and messy gift shop merch. But when they accidentally switch phones one afternoon, they realize they’ve both been hiding things from each other. Will their secrets—and an unexpected snowstorm—bring these rivals together?

While Lila’s conflict is understandable, her judgmental attitude makes it difficult to connect with her. Even though Lila is the protagonist, Teddy is more likable because he goes out of his way to show Lila that he cares for her. For instance, when Teddy finds Lila’s list of Christmas activities that she wants to do, he plans ways to get Lila to spend time with him by taking her to the different activities on her list. 

The two teens eventually connect because they are both keeping secrets from their parents. Both are afraid their parents won’t understand their passions. Readers will relate to Teddy’s and Lila’s desire to meet their parents’ expectations as well as live their own dreams. In the end, both teens discover their fears are unfounded. While Lila’s parents are upset about her dishonesty, they support her goals. Likewise, Teddy also learns that his family supports his dreams.

Readers who want to snuggle up with a book during the holiday will appreciate The Holiday Switch because of the town’s over-the-top Christmas activities. The winter puns also add to the romance’s cuteness. For example, while ice skating, one of the characters “slipped on the ice and said, ‘Holy night.’” The predictable plot has some sweet moments that will warm readers’ hearts and get them into the holiday spirit. However, if you’re looking for a holiday romance that will be more memorable, grab a hot cocoa and a copy of What Light by Jay Asher.

Sexual Content 

  • Lila babysits for a couple who “party like they’d been caged animals in a zoo. They come home sweaty and red-faced, and the PDA is over the top embarrassing.”
  • While outside, Teddy asks Lila if he can kiss her. She says yes and then, “I rise up to my tiptoes and shut my eyes. When his lips feather against mine, I’m infused with energy and thrill. My hands climb his back, his cup my face, and he kisses me as if I’m another puzzle he has to explore.” 
  • Before Teddy begins a climbing competition, he kisses Lila. “Teddy lifts my chin with a finger and presses a kiss to my lips.” 

Violence 

  • None

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • None

Language   

  • Oh my God and God are used as exclamations occasionally. 
  • Crap and pissed are used several times.

Supernatural

  • None

Spiritual Content 

  • None

How to Excavate a Heart

Shani Levine needs a break from New York. Following a bad breakup with her girlfriend, Sadie, she would rather be literally anywhere else. So when she snags a highly coveted internship at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. over winter break, Shani is elated. 

Shani’s high spirits are crushed, however, when she makes an enemy: her mother almost accidentally runs over a girl, May, while moving Shani into her D.C. lodgings. Shani is determined to watch her step from now on, but she keeps crossing paths with May. As they begin to talk, Shani begins to develop feelings for May. Once it becomes clear that May likes her too, the two girls begin to date, and for a short time everything is perfect. But can Shani juggle her new relationship and her internship? And is she really ready to be in a relationship again so soon after a messy breakup?

Readers will fall in love with Shani and May as they try to tackle these big questions together. How to Excavate a Heart is a cute, fun, fluffy romcom guaranteed to elicit smiles and warm feelings, even on the coldest winter days. At times, the pacing is quite slow, so readers looking for action should expect to consume this story in sweet, bite-sized chunks or over one long, lazy day. Because of this pacing, not every scene necessarily drives the plot forward, making some parts of the book less vivid and exciting than others  However, what really ties this book together is its cast of lovable side characters, from Beatrice, the eccentric and surprisingly spry elderly woman who houses Shani during her stay in D.C., to May’s adorable pet corgi, Raphael. Characters like these make even the slow moments delightful, especially for readers who are drawn to character-heavy books.

Teenagers will heavily relate to Shani as she struggles to find her place in a new city while also dealing with complex feelings and relationships. Issues such as love, loss, coming out of the closet, and adjusting to new stages of life are handled in a way that is informative and validating but not too heavy. How to Excavate a Heart features great Jewish and queer representation and is a perfect escape for readers dealing with big changes in their life.

Sexual Content 

  • When Shani reminisces about her failed relationship with Sadie, she explains that their relationship fell apart after having sex for the first time. “I was stressed, because if we were in love, then the next logical step was sex. And I had never done it before, I felt I needed to prepare…We had sex for the first time a couple days after we said ‘I love you,’ and, as it turned out, it was also the last time.”
  • Beatrice tells Shani that she’ll be sleeping in the bedroom Beatrice used to share with her husband. She tells her that “all six of [her] children were conceived in this room.” Later, Shani asks Beatrice where she’ll be sleeping if she’s taking the bedroom. Beatrice replies, “The attic. I haven’t been able to fall asleep in this room since my husband died. But I’m glad it’ll be put to good use.” Shani thinks, “It certainly won’t be ‘put to good use’ in the same way it was when Beatrice and her husband conceived their children here.” 
  • May’s dad, Greg, is the local weatherman. Tasha, another girl staying in Beatrice’s house, describes him as “kind of a DILF.” DIFL is slang for “daddy I’d like to fuck,” or an attractive older man.
  • Shani talks about her relationship problems with her internship supervisor, Mandira, who is also queer and in a committed relationship. Shani tells her about her bad experience with sex and how she doesn’t think she’ll ever have sex again because it ruins relationships. Mandira counters with, “Sex can be amazing. Especially queer sex. And especially if you communicate what you want with your partner.”
  • Shani’s best friend, Taylor, comes to visit her in D.C. on New Year’s. Taylor tells Shani that she was invited to a New Year’s Eve party by Teddy, the ex-boyfriend of their acquaintance Amy from Model UN, and invites Shani to come with her. Shani asks Taylor if she’s trying to hook up with Teddy; Taylor confirms this.
  • After work, Shani goes to May’s house. When Shani gets there, Shani smells badly so she takes a shower. They end up showering together but don’t have sex. “I keep my eyes closed as I press her closer to me, so that as much of our bodies are touching as possible. We explore parts of each other we haven’t before. I kiss down her neck to her chest, marveling at the fact that I get to touch her like this. But after a few minutes, the hot water runs out, and my knees hurt, and we’re kneeling in cold water.”
  • After a dinner date, Shani and May go back to Shani’s place. They start kissing, intending to have sex. Shani starts feeling uncomfortable but doesn’t want to ruin the mood. Shani hears Beatrice scream and goes to check on her. When Shani returns to the bedroom, she tells May she’s tired and doesn’t want to pick up where they left off. When May asks if she can just sleep over, Shani says no and May storms out.
  • Shani and May break up. While Shani is mourning her relationship, she texts her ex, Sadie, asking why she broke up with her. Shani tells the reader that she texted Sadie because she doesn’t actually remember having sex with her. “That Thursday, the day we said ‘I love you,’ we went to a house party and got drunk. Too drunk. Like, so-drunk-I-barely-remember drunk. Then we went back to my room. The only memories I have of that night come in flashes: Sadie grabbing my waist, leading me up to my room. Sadie kissing me. Sadie pulling down my pants, and her own. Me, copying what she did. Being excited to do it, to please her. And then, nothing. My memory goes dark. Until we woke up the next morning, both of us naked. Me with a splitting headache. Sadie grinning.” Sadie wanted to have sex again that morning. Shani told her she wasn’t ready; after pushing some more, Sadie ended it. 

Violence 

  • When moving Shani into her D.C. lodgings during a snowstorm, Shani’s mom almost runs May over with her car. “My mom finally sees her and frantically tries to slam on the brakes. She pumps them over and over, but between the snow and ice the car won’t stop. Then there’s a thud. The bump. Not a hard bump, but still. A bump. We bumped a person with our car.” 

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • Beatrice has a beige quote block at the top of the stairs that says, “Alcohol: because no great story ever started with someone eating a salad.”
  • At a New Year’s Eve party, alcohol is served. Shani pours herself a glass of a mystery drink that is “pink and sparkly and has mint leaves and blueberries and pomegranate seeds floating at the surface.” She says that it is “unbelievably delicious and barely tastes like alcohol.”
  • When Shani remembers the night before she and Sadie broke up, she says that they “went to a house party and got drunk. Too drunk. Like, so-drunk-I-barely-remember drunk.”

Language 

  • Profanity, such as variations of “fuck” and “shit” are used as exclamations often.

Supernatural

  • On her first night in D.C., Shani tries not to think about “the half-century-old sex ghosts haunting the room.”
  • Beatrice’s son, George, comes over to the house. He starts a conversation with Shani, in which he jokes that his dad haunts the room where she sleeps.

Spiritual Content 

  • When driving Shani to D.C., her mom sadly says that Shani won’t be home for Christmas for the first time. Shani reminds her that they don’t even celebrate Christmas. Her mom counters that it’s still the holidays, to which Shani responds, “Is it, though? Like, is it really the holidays? Hanukkah’s over, and it’s complete bullshit anyway. It was invented by American capitalists so that Jewish kids could be included in the Christian hegemony.”
  • After thinking about her failed relationship with Sadie, Shani resolves never to have sex again and be “the Jewish version of a nun.”
  • Beatrice’s house is decorated with “crosses and portraits of saints, along with some Christmas decorations– garlands, candy canes, a couple of wreaths.” Shani initially worries “that she’s really religious and that…she’ll be disappointed that I’m Jewish.”
  • Shani gets breakfast at a café next door, which has Christmas music playing inside. Shani thinks, “I know I complained to my mom about how Hanukkah isn’t a real holiday and how I don’t want to assimilate into mainstream Christian America, but the thing is…I fucking love Christmas music.”
  • Shani comes over to walk May’s dog, Raphael. Shani awkwardly tries to make small talk, and asks if May is Jewish because she saw a menorah in her window. May says, “Yeah, I am. But I’m not really that religious.” She later talks about how much she loves Hanukkah.
  • Mandira, Shani’s internship supervisor, tells her she’s going to a Christmas party later that night with her girlfriend. Shani is initially confused because Mandira doesn’t celebrate Christmas, but Mandira explains that she doesn’t celebrate in a religious way but her girlfriend does.
  • Shani comes over to walk May’s dog despite a blizzard. When May opens the door, she sees Shani shaking from the cold and exclaims, “Jesus Christ.” Shani jokes, “It’s almost His birthday, huh?”
  • Shani and May get snowed in at May’s house on Christmas Eve. On Christmas Day, the snow had stopped and been mostly cleared away, so Shani suggests that they partake in “Jewish Christmas” (watching movies and eating Chinese food). 

I Kissed Shara Wheeler

Chloe Green wants nothing more than the title of valedictorian, and she’s almost got it in the bag. There’s just one little problem and her name is Shara Wheeler, who happens to be Chloe’s greatest competition and school sweetheart. Chloe and Shara have been competing forces since Chloe arrived at Willowgrove Christian Academy during her freshman year of high school. They have a completely normal academic rivalry, until Shara corners Chloe and kisses her, leaving Chloe angry and bewildered. 

Then, Shara goes missing after prom night and the whole school is enraptured by the perfect Christian girl’s disappearance. Chloe is unfazed, however; she knows there’s more to Shara than meets the eye. Chloe discovers that she isn’t the only person Shara kissed before magically disappearing. Right before disappearing, Shara also kissed Rory, Shara’s next-door neighbor, and Smith, Shara’s boyfriend. Thrown into an unlikely alliance, chasing a ghost through parties, break-ins, puzzles, and secrets revealed on monogrammed stationery, Chloe starts to suspect there might be more to this small town than she thought. And maybe—probably not, but maybe—more to Shara, too. 

I Kissed Shara Wheeler takes the reader on a journey through the rigid conservative Christian values of False Beach, Alabama. Readers will get an in-depth look through the eyes of the residents who have a myriad of complicated feelings about their town and the places they occupy within it. The book is narrated by Chloe, whose perspective is strongly influenced by her liberal, southern California roots, but most of the other characters don’t know life outside of False Beach and their staunchly religious private school. As much as Chloe’s strong-willed opinions drive change, the other characters teach her about the complicated love they have for their home, even when it strives to suppress various aspects of their identities. 

Much of the book’s content discusses sexuality as the characters grow and learn to accept themselves for who they are. The story opens with Shara kissing Chloe, though at this point Shara has never appeared as more than just a conservative Christian girl. In contrast, Chloe is openly bisexual and anti-religious, but it takes both girls most of the book to realize that they have genuine feelings and attraction for each other. Many of the other characters also go through their own reckonings in the book, including Smith and Rory, who discover that their feelings for each other are more than just that of childhood best friends.  

Fans of Casey McQuiston’s other books Red, White, and Royal Blue and One Last Stop will likely enjoy the fun energy in I Kissed Shara Wheeler. McQuiston balances the serious moments with the characters’ sense of humor. Some readers may find Chloe to be a bit single-minded in her quest to triumph over Shara, but this doesn’t draw away from the story. Ultimately, readers will be able to take away that there is always more than meets the eye, and there is always room to change and grow into the person you want to be. Readers who enjoy I Kissed Shara Wheeler can find more romance by reading Instructions for Dancing by Nicola Yoon or The Statistical Probability of Love at First Sight by Jennifer E. Smith.

Sexual Content  

  • Chloe explains why she’s looking for Shara Wheeler. Chloe says, “Because two days ago, Shara found her alone in the B Building elevator before fifth hour, pulled her in by the elbow, and kissed her until she forgot an entire semester of French.” It then comes to light that Shara has kissed Smith (her boyfriend) and Rory (her neighbor) as well. 
  • No one knows where Shara is, and Chloe comes up with unlikely theories – one being that Shara has “some sugar daddy she’s holed up with or something.” 
  • Chloe writes a letter to her friend about being kissed by Shara. Chloe starts by telling her not to react while reading the letter because “if Madame Clark picks this one up and reads it out loud like she did with Tanner’s ranking of girls’ butt’s I will literally kill you.” 
  • Chloe notes that when she first moved to False Beach, Alabama, she was in freshman bio and noted that “the chapter on sexual reproduction was taped shut.” 
  • Chloe, Rory, and Smith go into Rory’s room to use his computer. Chloe “counts at least three different hand-drawn penises” on Rory’s bedroom wall. 
  • There is a joke school code of conduct that is presumably written by Chloe. Among other details, it includes, “No student may smoke, drink, dance, or have sex, which means half the students are smoking, drinking, dancing, having sex, and lying about it. Pills are fine. If you’re on the football team, just ask Emma Grace’s dad to write you a prescription.” This list lasts for a page. 
  • Chloe notes that once at a party, she “almost got French-kissed by Tucker Price from the Quiz Bowl team in his parents’ saltwater jacuzzi.” 
  • After a trip, Chloe’s two moms kiss. Chloe jokes that they kiss “like they’re on the bow of the freaking Titanic.” 
  • Chloe briefly mentions a situation where “a sophomore sent her boyfriend nudes and he forwarded them to all his friends.” This comes up on chapel day at school and the administration then gave “a very shame-y talk on modesty.” 
  • Chloe’s friend tells Chloe that he’s “a make-out hobbyist . . . I’ve kissed like, all my homies.” He doesn’t go into details. 
  • Shara’s neighbor, Rory, expresses his repressed feelings for Smith to Chloe. He says, “maybe I talked myself into [Shara], because when I looked at her and Smith together, I was so jealous, and she seemed like the right place to put it.” Chloe validates his feelings, telling him, “It would be okay. If you didn’t like Shara. If you didn’t like girls at all.” It is revealed later that Smith has similar feelings for Rory as well. 
  • Chloe finds Shara and Shara kisses Chloe. Chloe thinks that Shara “knows exactly what she’s doing when [Chloe] twists her fingers into the loose wisps of hair at the nape of Shara’s neck and kisses her back, hard. Her other hand grips the tulle where it fans out from Shara’s waist and holds Shara’s body up against hers like see, we’re a match, and it works — Shara sighs and lets go of the rail to slide her palm over Chloe’s cheek.” The description lasts for half a page. 
  • Chloe’s classmate Georgia gets caught “making out in the B Building bathroom” with their other classmate, Summer, and Georgia gets reported to the principal’s office. No other description is given for that kiss. It’s only said that Georgia has been dating Summer and Summer has “known she was bi since last year.” 
  • Smith and Rory kiss and Chloe walks in on their moment. She’s hiding and she describes only what she can hear, saying, “Then, after a few seconds, just long enough for a nervous first kiss, Smith laughs.” 
  • Two of Chloe’s classmates are arguing, and one tells the other that “if she wanted people to believe things she says, she shouldn’t have lied about giving her best friend’s crush a handjob at her birthday party.” 
  • Chloe and Shara kiss in Shara’s bedroom. Chloe describes, “She tips her head forward, and Shara kisses her. Chloe puts her arms around Shara’s neck and kisses her back.” The description lasts for a page. 
  • Chloe and Shara make out. “Chloe doesn’t know how long. It felt like a long time.” The page before, they have a conversation on how they both want to take it slow. Chloe says, “Shara’s hand drops from Chloe’s neck to her shoulder, and then she’s pushing Chloe down on the bed and kissing her, one hand pinning her to the mattress and the other on her waist.” 
  • Chloe fights against the school administration’s policies. For instance, she says, “Freshman year, she adjusted to Willowgrove by making problems on purpose, but nobody showed up to her GSA meeting, and she got suspended for bringing free condoms to school in protest of the abstinence-only sex ed policy.” 
  • Chloe’s classmate Dixon makes a rude sexual comment towards Chloe at the party, citing something he calls the Rachel Rule. He says, “‘It’s a rule the seniors made last year for Rachel Kennedy, who was a huge bitch but still got to come to parties because she had huge boobs.’ He’s looking down now. At her chest, and her wet shirt. He hands clench into firsts at her sides — ever since she sprouted D-cups in tenth grade, a guy staring at her chest has never ended well. ‘So, as long as you keep wearing that, the Rachel Rule says you can stay.’” Chloe does not like this, and she expresses her discontent by telling him that he peaked in high school and, even now, she “still wouldn’t sleep with him.” 

Violence  

  • Chloe finally finds Shara, and Chloe is furious. In her anger, she shoves Shara into a lake. Chloe describes, “with one solid shove, she pushes Shara — prom dress and all — over the railing and into Lake Martin.” 
  • Chloe “punched a mall Santa when [she] was five.”  

Drugs and Alcohol  

  • Chloe refers to her classmate, Jake Stone, as “Stone the Stoner.”  
  • Jake Stone was suspended once because he “was caught vaping” in the school bathroom. 
  • Every teacher at Willowgrove has to “sign a morality clause saying they won’t drink, express political opinions or be gay.” 
  • Chloe says that False Beach, Alabama has “the aura of a Mountain Dew bottle filled with dip spit.” 
  • Chloe goes to a high school party and is annoyed that she has to watch a classmate “slobber all over a beer bong.” There is plenty of drinking at this party, including something referred to as an “upside down margarita,” which is a drinking game. The party’s descriptions last for a couple of chapters. 
  • The Willowgrove school district hired a cop to scare the students about drugs, but instead, Chloe notes that the cop “ended up telling us exactly how many ounces of weed you can carry without getting arrested.” 
  • Chloe stays up too late thinking about Shara and has a massive headache the next day. She says, “This must be what a hangover feels like.” 

Language  

  • Chloe notes that Shara’s disappearance is odd. Chloe thinks to herself, “That’s the thing about popular kids: They don’t have the type of bond forged in the fire of being weird and queer in small-to-medium-town Alabama. If Chloe tried to ghost like this, there’d be a militia of Shakespeare gays kicking down every door in False Beach.” 
  • Strong language is used frequently. Profanity includes ass, fuck, idiot, d-bags, shit, megabitch, crap, dick, hell, and douchebag. 
  • Chloe says “Shara Wheeler is the most tragic heterosexual to ever cram herself into a Brandy Melville crop top.” 
  • Chloe describes her classmate’s understanding of her as “the weird queer girl from LA with two lesbian moms.” 
  • Chloe’s friend Georgia has a collection of books at her parents’ bookstore just for Chloe, and she “affectionately calls it Chloe’s Monster Fucker Collection” due to the fact that Chloe likes stories where the headstrong main female protagonist falls in love with the villain, which sometimes happens to be a literal nonhuman entity. 
  • Chloe and her friends identify as LGTBQ+, and they reference their sexualities somewhat often in-text. For instance, Chloe’s friend Benjy is worried about his future college roommate. He says, “My new fear is that he’ll be a hot straight guy. I cannot spend my first year away from home with an unrequited crush on a guy who wears neckties to football games…I don’t have high hopes for the gays of Tuscaloosa.”  
  • Chloe’s classmate is an unpleasant person by all counts. She details why, saying he’s “the type who insists it’s okay for him to make offensive jokes because he’s not actually racist/sexist/homophobic/transphobic/whatever so he doesn’t actually mean them, but aren’t the jokes so funny.” 
  • Smith asks Ash, a nonbinary student, to “explain the whole nonbinary thing” to him. Ash explains to Smith it’s, “Like if someone yelled your first name [William] at you. You might answer to it, but it wouldn’t feel right, because that’s not you.” Ash and Smith have this conversation for several pages. 
  • Chloe doesn’t want another student named Drew Taylor to be her salutatorian because “he has a YouTube channel about why girls at Willowgrove are sluts for taking birth control pills.” 
  • Chloe’s mom exclaims “Jesus Christ” when she finds out that Chloe has Shara’s expensive crucifix necklace. 

Supernatural 

  • Chloe sometimes wishes she lived in another place and time. An example of this is that she wishes she “were a vampire hunter in Edwardian England.” 

Spiritual Content  

  • The book opens with a service at the Willowgrove Christian Church, “where the Wheelers are spending their morning pretending to be nice, normal folks whose nice, normal daughter didn’t stage a disappearing act at prom twelve hours ago.” 
  • Chloe finds the spare key to the Wheeler’s house under a rock with “Joshua 24:15 engraved on it. As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.” Bible quotes are scattered throughout the book. 
  • The students in this book attend “Willowgrove Christian Academy.” Chloe describes a billboard for the academy reading, “Jesus Loves Geometry! A Christ-Centered Education At Willowgrove Christian Academy!” The school also has “chapel days” where the students are required to attend service. 
  • Chloe greatly dislikes her religious school, but she attends the school because of its academics and theater program. She says, “If this was her only option, she could put up with the Jesus stuff.” 
  • Shara wore a somewhat revealing dress at homecoming. Chloe describes, “It was only a blue silk slip with a modest neckline, but it stuck to her like water, and she wasn’t wearing a bra . . . God’s favorite daughter shows one hint of nip.” 
  • Chloe half-jokes that Shara Wheeler’s family “has more money than God.” 
  • Mr. Wheeler is the principal at Willowgrove, and he has a reputation for “telling teenagers they’re going to hell.” He says many religious things to the students, including telling Chloe that “gossip is against God’s will.” This is how many teachers and much of the curriculum work at this school. 
  • Shara expresses in her journal entry that “the loudest Christians I’ve ever met were the worst ones.” 
  • Shara and Chloe go through their notes for their AP European History exam, which involves a lot of religious history. For instance, they reference the “Defenestration of Prague” where “Protestants threw a bunch of Catholic officials out of a castle window in Bohemia. Started the Thirty Years War.” There is a series of notes like this for a couple of pages. 
  • Georgia explains to Chloe that Summer’s church “is more into Jesus the brown socialist than the whole eternal damnation thing.” 
  • Chloe explains that her understanding of Christianity is based on Willowgrove’s variety – “judgmental, sanctimonious hypocrites hiding hate behind Bible verses, twenty-four-karat crucifix necklaces, and charismatic white pastors with all the horrible secrets that money can protect.” 
  • The school finds out that there’s been an admissions scam at Willowgrove, and Benjy sees all the fliers with the information and exclaims, “Jesus wept.” 

Imogen, Obviously

Imogen is straight. She’s the world’s biggest queer ally and is surrounded by queer friends but is a self-described “raging hetero” herself. Her best friend, Gretchen, who has an amazing gaydar, confirms this every day with affectionate nicknames. 

However, Imogen’s world shifts when she visits her childhood best friend, Lili, on Lili’s college campus. Imogen is warmly greeted by Lili and her amazing group of queer friends, and she quickly forgets her anxieties about not fitting in. However, Lili tells Imogen a secret: at the beginning of the school year, she told her friends that she and Imogen briefly dated, to avoid revealing that she’s never been in a relationship before. She apologizes to Imogen and offers to tell her friends she lied, but Imogen tells her not to worry. It’s not a big deal to her if LIli’s friends think Imogen is bi. 

But Imogen can’t stop thinking about Tessa, one of Lili’s friends. And Tessa is constantly flirting with Imogen. Maybe. Imogen isn’t sure. After all, Tessa is flirty with everyone. But she does know that she should probably stop talking to Tessa like this because it’s not fair to lead her on. After all, Imogen is straight. Or. . . is she?

From the author of Simon vs the Homo Sapiens Agenda comes another brilliant journey of self-discovery and acceptance. Imogen, Obviously features a cast of funny, witty, and loveable characters that show that there’s no one way to be queer. Some teens will relate to Imogen’s long journey of discovering her sexuality amidst the rationalizing and denial that comes with the journey. Others will see themselves in her younger sister, Edith, who always knew she was different and proclaimed that she liked girls when she was seven. Still, others will recognize the darker side of this book, which tackles the uglier side of being queer. Biphobia is discussed, specifically, the pressure that many bisexual people face to “pick a side” as well as the downside of having labels be a prerequisite for being “queer enough” to truly belong in queer spaces. These complex issues are handled in a nuanced way, allowing room for discussion and growth.

While these issues are given the gravity they deserve, the book overall is still lighthearted. This atmosphere is kept alive by the characters – Lili’s college friend group and their antics are quintessential. Their warmth and immediate acceptance of Imogen as one of their own will make readers feel as if they themselves can also belong in that group.  Imogen, Obviously is a romcom perfect for teens that are looking for a story that is cute and heartwarming, but also thought-provoking and relatable. Readers who want more books that cast LGBTQ+ characters in a positive light should add the following books to their reading list: All the Invisible Things by Orlagh Collins, Last Night at the Telegraph Club by Malinda Lo, and All Boys Aren’t Blue: A Memoir-Manifesto by George M. Johnson.

Sexual Content 

  • Imogen and Tessa visit a sculpture of the world’s largest scissors and take a few pictures. Imogen posts a picture to Instagram with a scissor emoji for the caption. Gretchen texts her jokingly asking, “Who are you scissoring?” Scissoring is a term used to describe lesbian sex. 
  • Lili’s friends Kayla and Declan have an inside joke where they pass a sausage in a plastic bag back and forth between them. Many sexual innuendos are made with this joke, such as when Imogen texts Gretchen, “I don’t even want to tell you what I’m about to do with a German sausage” with no context and Gretchen responds, “IMOGEN. What are you about to do with a tiny German sausage???”  
  • Imogen and Tessa make out in Tessa’s room while Tessa is partially undressed. Imogen describes, “My words melt away when I see her. Tessa in an undershirt, white with short sleeves, the straps of her sports bra faintly visible underneath. Nothing on bottom but boy shorts.” 

Violence 

  • None 

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • Imogen goes to a party with Lili and her friends. Imogen has an alcoholic drink for the first time.

Language 

  • Profanity such as “fuck” and “shit” are used as exclamations, but rarely.

Supernatural

  • None

Spiritual Content 

  • None

The Tea Dragon Tapestry

The final installment in the Tea Dragon Trilogy, The Tea Dragon Tapestry, is a soothing synthesis of characters from the previous books who come together to celebrate their culture in a charming fantasy realm. In the opening pages, readers are reunited with Greta, a teenage villager training to be a blacksmith, and her love interest Minette, a young prophetess healing from traumatic memory loss.

When Minette receives an illustrious tapestry from the monastery she used to call home, she is reimmersed in a culture she left behind. She begins to have strange dreams about the Ancestor – the sacred creature depicted on the tapestry. Meanwhile, Greta is preparing to study under Kleitos, a master blacksmith. She also fosters pet tea dragons, one of whom is grieving over a former owner.

Greta and Minette meet Rinn and Aedhan, who have traveled from a mountain village to visit Rinn’s uncle, Erik, and his partner, Hesekiel. Readers will recognize these older characters from the previous books. Greta and Minette learn important life lessons from their role models, such as how to belong in a new place and reconnect with one’s origins and identity.

Greta completes a project to demonstrate her skill to Kleitos, and Minette weaves more details onto the tapestry to contribute to her culture. The graphic novel concludes with an epilogue in the form of a letter written by Hesekiel. The letter details how his generation has passed on their legacy to the younger generation, and how the cycle of life and death gives him hope for the future.

Nonbinary readers will likely identify with Rinn and Aedhan, as well as the elusive Ancestor, all of whom use they/them pronouns. Queerness is not called into question or judged in this world. The Tea Dragon Tapestry also provides positive representation for physically disabled people, as Erik lives a fulfilling life regardless of being confined to a wheelchair.

O’Neill’s endearing artistic style continues to immerse readers in a flourishing realm that values family, traditions, nature, and following one’s heart. Their choice of colors is more vibrant and pastel than the previous books. The Tea Dragon Tapestry brings satisfying closure and momentous hope to the series. Like previous installments, this book shows an impressive capacity for storytelling, art, and positive representation.

Sexual Content

  • None

Violence

  • Erik and Kleitos playfully duel with swords in a field, but nobody is injured.

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • When brewed into tea, leaves harvested from the small household pets known as tea dragons have the power to send the drinker into a trance and allow them to glimpse their own memories or past events experienced by those around them.

Language 

  • None

Supernatural

  • The book includes multiple fantasy creatures, such as shapeshifting dragons, anthropomorphic birds, and humans with features like tails, horns, furred ears, or goat legs.

Spiritual Content 

  • Minette’s culture performs rituals and prayers to a being known as the Ancestor. Minette formerly lived at a monastery dedicated to this primordial creature.

Tristan Strong Keeps Punching

In the final installment of Kwame Mbalia’s series, Tristan’s problems are greater than ever. The gods of Alke are scattered across his world and there are ghosts everywhere  —  good and bad, as it turns out. What a wonderful time to have a Strong family reunion in New Orleans, amidst all the chaos!

Tristan also has another issue: his powers are flaring with his mood swings, causing him to be covered in magical fire. And of course, Cotton, the main antagonist of the series and a powerful and evil spirit is back and ready to put up a fight. This time Cotton has brought even darker moments from American Black history. Tristan just hopes he can find his friends and the gods of Alke – and figure out how to control his temper – before Cotton can enact his plan on Tristan’s world. 

Tristan Strong Keeps Punching wraps up loose ends from the previous two books, includes familiar friends and foes, and introduces new characters in creative ways. For instance, Tristan and his friends encounter the Redliners, a barely disguised reference to the historic practice of redlining in the United States.  However, middle school students may who are not familiar with the historical practice of redlining may be confused by Mbalia’s dialogue. For example, the Redliners tell Tristan and his friends, “We, the Redliners, are the most tolerant and welcoming group you could find! We just don’t think you belong here.” The Tristan Strong Series deals heavily with the injustices that have occurred in American Black history, and Mbalia continues to handle the topic with grace and gravity, balancing historical facts with Tristan’s emotional stake in the issues at hand.

In this book, Tristan finds himself reckoning with his grief and anger, and he learns how to handle his emotions in a productive way. His emotions are validated, but he starts to understand how to conduct himself in a manner that accounts for other people involved. Previously, his actions previously endangered his friends. It is only when his magical animated sticky doll friend, Gum Baby, dies that he realizes his actions directly led to her being put in harm’s way. From that point forward, Tristan reckons with the consequences of his actions without losing the fire that keeps him fighting for justice.

Tristan Strong Keeps Punching is an excellent end to the trilogy. Readers should read the first two installments before tackling this one as this book makes many references to the previous books. Young readers will enjoy the fast-paced action plot and the balance between humor and grave historical fact. This book would appeal to fans of Riordan Reads mythology novels, like Aru Shah and the End of Time by Roshani Chokshi or Percy Jackson and the Olympians by Rick Riordan himself. Tristan’s remarkable gift as a storyteller of the gods of Alke is made more perfect by his perseverance to keep telling these important stories. If these books teach readers anything, it’s to keep dreaming, create a better world, and never forget the stories of those who came before.

Sexual Content 

  • None

Violence 

  • Tristan must fight various magical and evil entities. In one sequence, Tristan fights a haint (an evil spirit). Tristan narrates, “But I was attacking, too. The shadow gloves flashed in and out, jabs and straights, hooks and uppercuts. Gum Baby flipped from my left shoulder to my right and back again, hurling sap balls and insults with equal intensity. I dodged a slicing strike, slipped a bull rush, and turned and fired three punches at the back of the haint.” This sequence lasts for a chapter.
  • There are descriptions of slavery as this series deals heavily with the history of Black Americans and Black American culture. Tristan recounts some of these details, saying, “I read about the barges that had hauled the shackled enslaved north, up the river, to a giant plantation. A free man’s protests were scrawled in the grass of Artillery Park, where he’d been kidnapped and sold into slavery. A family’s prayers were carved into the pillars lining the docks along the Mississippi, where they’d been separated, never to see each other again. These were the hidden narratives Folklore hero and god High John had been talking about. This is what he had meant.” These descriptions come up somewhat frequently throughout the book.
  • Tristan fights coffles (malicious spirits) that have trapped some kids. Tristan “swung again and again, trying to take out the coffle before it could rise. The monster wriggled and writhed on the ground, and I had to hop and dodge its flailing limbs or my legs would’ve been ripped to shreds.” This fight sequence lasts for several pages.
  • Tristan’s friend, Ayanna, tells Tristan about one of her former friends who died in a fight. She says, “He wanted to go out and kill [evil magical creatures, including the fetterlings], and I didn’t, and we argued about it. He flew into a rage, took his raft, and left. We heard fighting and went out after him, but by then it was too late. The fetterlings used his anger against him, and I lost a friend.” 
  • Gum Baby is loudly and badly playing music, and Tristan asks her to stop. Gum Baby responds, “Gum Baby’s gonna tune your face with some sweet chin music if you keep talking,” insinuating that she’d hit him with her banjo if he insulted her again. She does not actually hit him.
  • Tristan says he thinks Cotton is going to Fort Pillow as he’s “raiding places where Black people suffered in large groups…[Fort Pillow] was the site of one of the biggest massacres of Black soldiers in the entire Civil War. People fighting for their freedom were cut down by Confederate soldiers without remorse.”
  • Tristan goes into High John’s memories and sees a town being burned to the ground. “Flames exploded out of broken glass and spread everywhere. More shouts and screams…Flames shot fifteen feet into the air. Every house in the small neighborhood was on fire. I couldn’t see anyone, but the screams…I knew the screams would haunt me for the rest of my life. So many. Old, young. I heard them all.” The memory lasts for a few pages and it is clear that Tristan witnessed the “Memphis Race Riots of 1866. Nearly all of South Memphis was destroyed…Black-owned homes, businesses, restaurants. People were killed. Abused. Beaten. And yet no one was ever brought to justice.”
  • Another magical being, Granny Z, tells Tristan, “My children are kicked, beaten, harassed, stolen, abused, abandoned, forgotten and stripped of their rights every single day. And it’s a sad fact that their abusers are always gonna be afraid that their own sins will be revisited upon them.”
  • Tristan and his friends Gum Baby, Ayanna, and Thandiwe are attacked in a Wig Emporium. “Gum Baby flipped out of nowhere, her hands moving a blur as sap rocketed through the air. Breakers exploded into smoke five at a time. I limped forward to help her, but she disappeared in a crowd of foes. I tried fighting my way free, but there were too many. We were being overwhelmed.” This scene lasts for a page. Gum Baby dies but the death isn’t described. 
  • Tristan helps ghosts save their stories from Cotton, who wants them erased. Tristan hears one ghost say, “I moved here to get away from the lynchings.” This point is not elaborated upon.
  • Tristan fights with many Breakers, magical creatures that can strip people and gods of their spirits, thereby killing them. Tristan describes how the Breakers “rained blows on me, snarled at me, shrieked at me, roared at me, sent wave after wave after wave of pure hatred and malevolence, and it was all I could do to keep my arms raised and defend myself, because I was so tired, incredibly tired, of defending myself, but it wasn’t just me I was defending, now was it?” The scene lasts for several pages.
  • One of the old folk gods, John Henry, fights Cotton. John Henry gripped the ghostly tentacles, “lifted one foot, and then exploded into motion, charging Cotton like a linebacker and planting a shoulder squarely in the haint’s chest. Cotton flew back a dozen yards —  through the air! —  before landing and skipping across the sand like a stone across a pond.” This battle sequence lasts for several chapters.
  • Tristan has one final battle with Cotton that lasts for several pages. Tristan narrates, “Cotton’s momentum carried him past me, and he was off-balance. My right fist, my power fist, knifed through the air and connected flush against Cotton’s chin. Just my fist, not the shadow gloves, because I needed them for what came next…The black flames flared to life one more time, with as much energy as I could muster flowing through them. Just as I’d done on the barge, I willed the gloves together, merging six into two shining beacons of black in the light of the setting sun…I darted forward and grabbed Cotton. He twisted, turned, fought, and struggled, but I didn’t let go. The flames of the akofena [magic] spread to him, devouring the thorns and cotton as if they hungered for the hatred binding the haint together.” Tristan destroys Cotton by turning him to ash.

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • Tristan ends up at an outdoor strip mall. He says, “Shelves are stocked with products you’d never heard of, or weird stuff you’ve seen advertised on TV — all two-a.m. hangover purchases, as my dad called them. I’m not sure what a hangover is, but if it made me buy an automatic toenail clipper that looked like two machetes taped together, I want no part of it.”

Language 

  • Gum Baby, a magical sticky being, loudly and frequently refers to Tristan as “Bumbletongue” or “thistle-head.” As they’re friends, it’s done mostly in jest.
  • Light language is occasionally used. Words include chump, rejects, and doofus.
  • Tristan meets a kid named Memphis, who uses they/them pronouns. 
  • A slave-patroller haint chases Tristan, yelling, “You ungrateful little stain on society, get over here! I will hunt you down, you hear?”

Supernatural

  • Tristan is having issues with his magic. Most notably he keeps bursting into flames when he gets angry. For instance, Tristan notes, “I stared in utter horror at the small silver flame popping out of my knuckles.” This happens frequently throughout the book.
  • As this is the third installment in the series, Tristan gives a quick recap of the last couple books. He says of his summer, “I’d eaten a bunch of key lime pie, done a little boxing, fallen into another world with powerful gods and made a bunch of folk hero friends…You know, the normal summer.” These gods and folk heroes feature throughout the book as Tristan is trying to rescue them.
  • Tristan’s magical smartphone is controlled by Anansi, the trickster god. Tristan says, “He was the Weaver, the owner of all stories, from truths to tall tales, and his name was embedded in my title of Anansesem.”
  • Tristan and his granddad enter Congo Square in New Orleans, where “ghostly apparitions dressed in their Saturday night finest were hitting moves that made my calves cramp as I watched…as if on cue, everybody started doing the Electric Slide.” Ghosts appear frequently in this book; many of them are friendly or give helpful advice.
  • Gum Baby announces that she’s been following a “ghostie” for a while because it was terrorizing everyone. This creature is like the haints, which are malicious spirits. Tristan describes the creature, saying, “I looked up and saw a long, lanky creature scuttling down from the top of the wheelhouse like a monstrous crab.” The group spends a chapter fighting the creature.
  • Tristan discovers that the haint that they’ve encountered is a coffle. His cousin explains its odd appearance, saying, “They were used to fasten slaves together when they were marched from the house to the fields and back.” Tristan describes its appearance, “Two long, wooden, bone-like structures protruded from the opposite sides of a loop, forming what looked like the skull of a hammerhead shark. Its body was a chain, and its four limbs were thorny, viny branches.”
  • Tristan’s magic storyteller abilities occasionally cause him to have visions. In one instance, he describes, “I saw stories — written in French and Spanish and Chitimacha and English — about the birth of jazz and the death of neighborhoods. I saw tales of Fon and the Ewe and the Igbo, and legends of Vodun and Vodou and the spirits within…I read about the slave ports that had dotted the Mississippi River. I read about the glamorous buildings that had been built around the sale of men, women, girls, and boys like me. Some older, some younger.” This description continues for several pages.
  • Cotton is the main antagonist of the series and is a powerful and evil haint. He is a manifestation of the evils of slavery. Tristan describes, “I once again saw the horrific true form of the haint underneath the disguise. Complete with his burning hatred and desire for power.”
  • A god, Mami Wata, rides in a boat that encounters Angola. Tristan notes that “a monstrous, nearly see-through house was superimposed over the prison…The house I was seeing was Old Angola, a long-gone plantation.” In this house and prison reside many trapped spirits and evil haints, including Cotton.
  • Tristan’s usual Ananasem powers (storytelling powers) change when he meets ghosts of former soldiers. He says, “I was inside the story!” In this instance, the sequence lasts for several pages and details the lives of a couple Black soldiers escaping the South to Vicksburg.
  • Tristan teaches some kids magic. When he tells them what he’s going to do so, one kid responds, “Ain’t no wizards ‘round here. That’s movie stuff.” Tristan then demonstrates that all the kids have magic within them. Tristan says, “Each of the kids had a story fragment nestled in their chest, right above their heart. A piece of the story of Alke lived on in each of them.”
  • Tristan meets Granny Z, who tells Tristan about Loa. Granny Z says, “L-O-A. The mysteres. The links between the High God and his people on earth, serviced by the mambos, their priestesses.”
  • Tristan and his friends drive a magic SUV after a magical horse that’s kidnapped a child. Tristan says, “We looked out the front windshield to see Twennymiles (the horse) leaping into the air and disappearing. Old Familiar (the SUV) followed.” They are magically transported through the air and through neighborhoods, and the scene lasts for a couple pages.

Spiritual Content 

  • Tristan encounters many different gods (like Anansi and Mami Wata) on his journey, and they’ve given him powerful artifacts for his magical powers. These gods exist throughout the book, and sometimes Tristan mentions his magical gifts. He says, “I reached for the adinkra bracelet on my right wrist. Dangling from it were my gifts from the gods. The Anansi symbol. The akofena from High John. The Gye Nyame charm. The Amagqirha’s spirit bead from Isihlangu. They gave me strength, power, and right now, all the confidence I needed.”
  • Tristan meets a girl named Hanifa, who “wears a hijab.” 
  • The gods of Alke, due to the events of the previous books, are now scattered in Tristan’s world. Some of them are weakened and some die in nonviolent ways. Tristan often laments that “Gods can’t die,” but the events of the book say otherwise, like when High John passes away beneath a tree. 
  • High John’s ghost tells Tristan, Ayanna, and Thandiwe about his upbringing and the influence of the Church. He says, “some Sundays, his lordship and most honorable, the man who wanted to be called Boss, graciously allowed the people who actually worked the fields to rest.”

The Maze Cutter

Isaac, Sadina, and their friends are living on an isolated island — far from the destruction and terror on the mainland caused by the Flare virus. But when a suspicious ship carrying a woman from the mainland arrives, the friends take this chance to leave the safety of the island for the opportunity to see what life on the mainland holds for them. Isaac and his friends leave their safety and their home behind for a chance at improving the world for future generations. The novel follows Isaac and his friends’ trip to the mainland, as well as two warring groups, both desperate for descendants of a certain bloodline that they hope to use for their respective causes.

Fans of Dashner’s original Maze Runner series (2009) will be thrilled to find a new batch of characters and references to the original series in The Maze Cutter. Though the story is set seventy-three years after the Maze Runner Series, the references to the original series will make it difficult to follow for readers who have not read the original series. The prologue opens with references to the events of the original series and there are interspersed excerpts from the diary of one of the characters in the original series. 

The Maze Cutter’s point of view switches between Alexandria, Isaac, and Minho. Alexandria is a goddess with powers stemming from the Flare virus. Isaac is a young man who joins his friends who return to the dystopian mainland. And Minho is a trained soldier for the Remnant Nation. The varying plots can be hard to follow since the different characters start out in completely different places, hundreds of miles from each other. However, by the halfway point of the novel, a trap set by one of the two warring factions brings them together with a battle scene that keeps readers wanting to know more. 

Minho and Isaac demonstrate the importance of building relationships and embracing “found family.” Isaac struggles to reckon with the loss of his family, as well as his perceived guilt because his family died when they entered stormy ocean waves to save him from drowning. Isaac’s willingness to push through his fear to protect his friends makes him a likable character, and readers will enjoy seeing his realization that “all the crazy people” that survived the battle with him “had made [the loss of his family] a little more bearable.” 

Minho is an orphan who “had no parents, no brothers, no sisters, no friends. Only enemies,” until he meets an older woman named Roxy who offers him food and shelter when he stumbles onto her property. Readers will appreciate how Minho’s mindset changes about having family, as he initially is taught to “follow protocol” and not trust anyone, but eventually, he lets Roxy in and shows his emotional side. During the battle scene at the end of the novel, Roxy saves him. Minho says, “It was kinda cool having a mom.”

Another major theme is humanity, and what happens when humans reach for power. To prevent any spread of the Flare virus, the Remnant Nation trains children, like Minho, to be soldiers that will kill any outsiders in hopes of eradicating the virus. By contrast, the Godhead wants to use the virus to infect all of humanity and cause “The Evolution”—powers they hope to gain from the virus. Minho explains of the Godhead and the Remnant Nation, “You’re talking about two religions here, both in a race to the end. And one won’t rest until the other’s gone.” Readers can take away the message that while sometimes people start out with the intention of protecting and helping people, the opportunity to gain power can cause them to hurt others to achieve their goals.

The conclusion leaves readers wondering what the characters will choose to do—will they stay on the mainland or look for a way to return home? Will Alexandria take complete power over her faction? Readers will be left looking forward to the next book in the series, The Godhead Complex, which shows Alexandria uncovering the most valuable asset in this post-apocalyptic battle—a clue that connects the book back to the original Maze Runner series. Readers who are not put off by violence will enjoy how the end battle brings the characters together and shows the survivors forming tight bonds of friendship. 

Sexual Content 

  • After Sadina is kidnapped, she is reunited with her long-time girlfriend, Trish. “Trish and Sadina had yet to let go of each other. . . kissing and hugging in a loop that might last another day or two.”

Violence 

  • Minho is approached by a man who begs for his life. Minho didn’t have the courage to disobey protocol” so he shot the man. The murder is described in detail, “A single shot rang out” and the man Minho shot is described as having “a small wisp of smoke leaking from the new hole in his head, slumped off the horse and fell into the mud with a wet splat. Another shot, and the animal fell as well.”
  • Alexandria finds out that another member of the Godhead, Mikhail, has been attacking followers in a vicious process called “hollowing.” During hollowing, “they’d been sliced from aft to stern, their very essence of life removed with violent but precise efficiency.”
  • When witnessing a young boy being attacked, Minho grabs the man attacking him and “slammed him against the wall . . . the stranger’s head cracked against the jagged stone.” It is implied that Minho kills him.
  • Sadina and Isaac are threatened by Timon, a follower of the Godhead, who attempts to kidnap them and threatens to kill their friends. Timon yells, “MEET ME OR THEY ALL DIE . . . TELL ANYONE, THEY DIE.” 
  • When Sadina and Isaac are kidnapped, Kletter, a suspicious woman who arrived on a mysterious ship at the beginning of the book, is brutally murdered. “Her neck . . . that was the bad part. The really bad part. It had been slashed with something sharp, from one side to the other like a necklace, and blood poured down the front of her body in gushes.” 
  • In order to protect his newfound friend Roxy, Minho attacks Letti, one of the kidnappers. Minho “swung the club of wood and smashed it against the side of Letti’s head . . . Letti collapsed to the ground in a heap.” She is not killed as, “Her chest moved up and down, still alive, but her bloody head sure didn’t look so good.” 
  • While trying to escape the confines of the Remnant Nation’s “Berg,” Minho’s friend, Skinny, is killed. It is brutal; Skinny’s “head was smashed, the arms and legs twisted at weird angles, blood everywhere.” Several people die, but these deaths are not described in detail. This “Berg” battle is described over ten pages.
  • During the battle scene, “Minho had barely stepped from the wreckage when he saw a man buried beneath a large chunk of the Berg that had fallen off . . . The chest didn’t move at all, and there was blood in all kinds of bad places.” 
  • Roxy saves Minho from being stabbed by a Remnant Nation leader during the battle: “Then a long object swung in from the left of his vision, slamming directly into the face of the priestess. The woman screamed, blood spurted, she dropped the knife, collapsed, and went still.”
  • Alexandria orders her followers to kill Nicholas and bring her his head. Alexandria “slid the box closer to her, lifted its lid . . . The eyes of Nicholas stared back at her. His eyelids removed so that they could never close again. She smiled at him, half-expecting what was left of the dead man to return the kind gesture. He did not.”

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • During a meeting of the Congress of the island, Sadina discovers that her mother and two other congresspeople have put something in the wine so that they can leave the island without resistance. They “spiked the wine. But don’t worry, it only puts them to sleep.”
  • Alexandria meets with Mannus, a wavering follower of the Godhead, who describes how he ended up with “horns sewed upon his head.” He says, “I was young and drunk and there might’ve been a lady involved. She’s dead now and I still got these damn horns.” 

Language 

  • Many of the younger characters frequently use hell and damn.
  • Other profanity is used occasionally. Profanity includes bastard, shit, and bullshit.
  • Characters from the Remnant Nation frequently use “thank the Cure” and “for Flare’s sake” as exclamations.
  • Within the setting of the Godhead, there are frequent exclamations of “Praise to the Maze,” “Glory to the Gladers,” and other expressions of worship towards Alexandria, “the Evolution,” and powers that come with it.
  • Old Man Frypan, one of the original Gladers, often exclaims, “hallelujah” and “amen.”

Supernatural

  • Though there are no direct examples of magic in the book, futuristic technology often appears to fill this type of role. For instance, when Isaac and his friends are reunited once more, they are horrified to discover “at least a dozen dark shapes hovered above the horizon as if by magic,” but “Isaac knew it wasn’t magic,” instead it is gigantic “Bergs” coming to take them away. 

Spiritual Content 

  • Characters with strength and enhanced senses from “The Evolution” are referred to as Gods and Goddesses of “the Godhead.”
  • Timon, one of the kidnappers, asks Sadina and Isaac if they have heard of the Godhead, to which Sadina asks, “Like in the Bible. . . Never read it.” But Timon exclaims, “No I’m not talking about the damn Bible.” 
  • The Remnant Nation forces Minho to go on a forty-day trek. While pretending to be loyal to the Remnant Nation, Minho says, “Long live the Cure . . . May I wander for forty days and nights and return a Bearer of Grief in her service! May the Godhead die, and the Cure rule the earth.” 
  • Jackie, one of Isaac’s friends, worries about her kidnapped friends, explaining, “We’re wandering the wilderness like freaking Moses from the Bible. Or was that Joseph? Paul? Who the hell knows.” 
  • Alexandria is part of “the Godhead”, and her goal is to overtake the other two “Gods” and become “their new God.”

by Elana Koehler

The Game Master: Mansion Mystery

Rebecca Zamolo has managed to foil the Game Master’s plans before, but this time the Game Master has snake-napped Nacho, her good friend Miguel’s pet. No way is Becca going to let the Game Master get away with this dastardly plan. When the clues lead Becca and her new friends in the direction of the one house in their entire neighborhood that none of them ever want to go near, they know they have no choice but to screw up their courage and dare to investigate if they want to rescue Nacho. 

But the problem is that getting into the super spooky house is way easier than getting out. The Game Master is up to their old tricks, and Becca, Matt, Kylie, Frankie, and Miguel are going to have to face their fears and use all their smarts and strengths to solve the puzzles and games and save the day. 

Mansion Mystery is another action-packed adventure from the super-sleuthing team Rebecca and Matt Zamolo, stars of the popular Game Master Network.  

In the second installment of The Game Master Series, the kids must face their deepest fears in order to defeat the Game Master and find Frankie’s pet snake. In this spooky adventure, the kids no longer argue and disagree. Instead, they work together and encourage each other to face their fears. While most of the challenges are harmless—collecting squirmy bugs, making it through a maze, eating mud pudding—in order to escape the mansion the kids must take a perilous walk on the mansion’s roof and climb into a huge tree. When the kids find a tree house, they realize that the Game Master has been using a telescope to spy on them and the Game Master has detailed notes of each person’s behaviors. Unfortunately, instead of being completely freaked out by this, the kids believe that the Game Master may be someone who wants to be their friend.  

While the plot is farfetched, the easy-to-read story will appeal to young readers because the fast-paced mystery focuses on friendship and working together. Another positive aspect of the story are the black and white illustrations that appear periodically. Readers will relate to the diverse cast of characters, who have common fears such as a fear of spiders. While the mansion has some creepy elements such as a red stain that could be blood, it is spookily mysterious instead of scary. 

While The Game Master Series lacks character development and the plot is at times unbelievable, readers will still enjoy the escape-room-styled mystery. In the end, the kids are only able to escape the mansion by working as a team to overcome their fears. Readers who enjoyed The Game Master Series should also check out the Zeus The Mighty Series by Crispin Boyer; both series are engaging and show the importance of using a person’s individual talents to overcome an obstacle.  

Sexual Content 

  • None 

Violence 

  • None 

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • None 

Language   

  • Heck is used four times. 
  • Darn is used three times. 
  • Dang is used twice. 
  • Holy fruits and holy cats are both used as an exclamation once. 

Supernatural 

  • None 

Spiritual Content 

  • None 

Breaking Time

When a mysterious Scotsman suddenly appears in the middle of the road, Klara thinks the biggest problem is whether she hit him with her car. But, as impossible as it sounds, Callum has stepped out of another time, and it’s just the beginning of a deadly adventure.

Klara will soon learn that she is the last Pillar of Time—an anchor point in the timeline of the world and a hiding place for a rogue goddess’s magic. Callum believes he’s fated to protect her at all costs after being unable to protect the previous Pillar, his best friend, Thomas. For a dark force is hunting the Pillars in order to claim the power of the goddess—and Klara and Callum are the only two people standing in the way.  Thrown together by fate, the two must learn to trust each other and work together. . . but they’ll also need to protect their hearts from one another if they’re going to survive.

Since the death of her mother and moving to Scotland, Klara’s life has been turned upside down. Things only get worse when Callum arrives. At first, Klara doesn’t believe he has traveled from the past nor does she understand the strange powers that have manifested through her. While many readers will relate to Klara’s grief and her inability to be honest with her father, Klara is not a very memorable character. Even after a man steps out of a mist and tries to kill her, Klara is still unwilling to believe Callum’s story. This conflict takes too long to resolve and slows the story’s pacing.

Breaking Time introduces many ancient Gods as well as some lore for the Fair Folk; however, some of the story’s magical elements are inconsistent. For example, while one goddess is only able to appear to Klara at a mystical site, another appears to her through a dream, and demon monsters can appear anywhere. Since Klara doesn’t understand her powers, she goes on a quest to different mystic sites in an attempt to understand them. At each place, she learns more about herself and what it means to be a Pillar. Unfortunately, the story’s worldbuilding is lacking and the magic elements are inconsistent which causes confusion.  In addition, some of the people and events are not clearly connected to the central conflict. To make matters worse, the conclusion is ambiguous and doesn’t wrap up any of the conflicts, which many readers may find frustrating.

Unfortunately, Breaking Time’s unremarkable protagonist and inconsistent worldbuilding make the story difficult to enjoy. Readers who have some previous knowledge of Scottish folklore may still find Breaking Time an interesting read; however, readers who have no previous knowledge of Scottish folklore may want to leave the book on the shelf. If you’re looking for a time-traveling romance, Time Between Us by Tamara Ireland Stone and the Ruby Red Trilogy by Kerstin Gier both have mystery, excitement, and some swoon-worthy scenes.

Sexual Content

  • Klara sees Callum watching for danger. Klara goes to him and Callum “took her waist between his strong hands, pulling her close. In a swift movement, he turned Klara so that her back was against a nearby tree. His body flush against hers. She could feel every inch of him. . . His lips pressed hungrily against hers, and she grasped the nape of his neck, wanting him closer. . . Their lips danced. She willed him to move faster, harder against hers. Her tongue dipped into his mouth and he moaned at the contact.” The two do not go further. The scene is described over a page.
  • After kissing Klara, Callum thinks about how “He had only kissed one girl before.”
  • After a near death experience, Klara tells Callum to kiss her. “His lips descended on hers, slow and meaningful. . . He slid the palm of his hand down to the back of her neck, she shuddered.”
  • Klara told Callum that she could send him back to his own time. He refuses her offer. Then, “his lips found her hairline and lingered there. He felt her palms up his back, felt his muscles tighten in response to her touch. . . Klara wanted him here, too. . . Everything that was fierce and gentle in Callum flowed out of his touch and into her . . .” They stop kissing when they are interrupted. The scene is described over a page.
  • While listening to a band and dancing, Callum “pulled her even closer, lifting her so she was on her toes. . . She pushed her fingers into his hair. He moaned, feeling euphoric. His lips descended to hers.” The kiss is described over half a page.

Violence

  • To pay for their meals, Callum and his friend, Thomas, fought in a local pub. Callum recalls one fight when “Thomas got pummeled. . . Sounds still rang in Callum’s ears: the thud of fist and flesh, the sickening crunch of bone.”
  • One night, Callum comes across Thomas lying in the street. “Thomas lay on the ground, his legs splayed at sickening angles. Blood seeped through his shirt. . . [Callum] pressed his hands against the deep slice that marred his friend’s torso. A knife wound.” 
  • While Callum kneeled next to Thomas, his “world flipped sideways. A blow had hit Callum like a runaway carriage. . . pain exploded along his ribs.” Thomas’s killer steps out of the shadows and “Callum didn’t see the blow coming, only felt the pain searing across his temple as he was thrown to the ground again.” 
  • During the fight, the man stabs Callum. “Callum touched his side, and his fingers came away with blood. He watched as crimson spread across his shirt. . . He tried to take a step, only to crumple to the ground beside Thomas, whose head rested limp against his chest.” Callum passes out. When he awakens, he is in another time period and he assumes Thomas is dead. The fight scene is described over four pages. 
  • A man steps out of a fog and grabs Klara’s throat. “He squeezed tighter, making her sputter. Her lungs worked fruitlessly, burning and straining like her ribs had been welded shut. He was trying to kill her. Was killing her.” Callum jumps to Klara’s aide and “ lunged forward and sunk his dagger into the man’s thigh. . . crying out in pain, the man released his grip slightly, allowing Klara to pull out of his grasp.”
  • While fighting the man, “A powerful burst of energy exploded inside [Klara], moving in electric waves outward from her chest into her limbs. Her fingertips felt like live wires. . . it suddenly sparked into a bright, white light that wiped away everything else.” Klara’s power sends the man into a different realm. The fight scene is described over four pages.
  • A beast appears “standing as tall as a horse and twice as wide, it bore the head of a snake, the form of a panther, and the cloven hooves of a demon.” The beast corners Klara, and Callum comes to her aid. “The creature lunged at Callum. He threw all of his strength at the beast, ducking down and ramming his shoulder into its stomach. . . [Klara] slam[ed] her phone into the beast’s snapping jaws.” 
  • During the fight with the beast, “the monster swung its neck like an unbroken horse, throwing Callum head over heels into the nearest partition wall. . . His body exploded with pain.” While Callum is down, “The monster lumbered toward [Klara], its tongue lashing the air as its hideous head darted and swayed. Its monstrous skull smashed into Klara’s side and sent her sliding along the floor.”
  • As the fight with the beast continues, Callum “slammed the rock into the beast’s spine, the spot on the neck where the scales met fur. The monster shrieked in pain. . . its scaled back, [was] now slick with dark blood as the monster fell on its side.” After being injured, the monster turned into “a pile of dust on the floor.” The bloody fight is described over five pages.
  • While fighting in the pubs, if Callum had a bad fight, his master “would be so mad that the beatings wouldn’t stop until I did better in the next fight.”
  • While in the forest, a god in the shape of a stag appears to Klara. Soon, another monster appears and attacks the stag. “The stag was crumpled before her, his neck in the jaws of another beast. Familiar teeth sunk into the animal’s furred flesh.”
  • Once the stag is out of the way, the monster goes after Klara. The beast “snapped its head up from the stag’s neck, blood dripping from the pearly points of its teeth.” Klara ran, but “spit flew from its mouth and landed with a heavy smack on the tree, acid sizzling where it met the bark—right next to her face.” Eventually, “the leopard-like tail came around and pinned Klara against the tree. Splinters cut through the back of her jacket and into the soft flesh of her skin. She convulsed with a full-body shiver as its jaws opened.” 
  • During the fight, the stag recovers and charges the monster that has Klara pinned against a tree. Once free, “Klara grabbed the broken antler from the forest floor and rammed it into the beast’s eye. The black pupil sunk like putty around the shard, which shuddered violently in her hand the deeper she plunged it in . . . the beast shrieked then collapsed into darkly shimmering dust.” The fight is described over six pages.
  • Aion, a man who Callum has only seen once, follows Callum. When Callum confronts him, Aion refuses to answer any questions. “Callum’s knuckles sunk into Aion’s cheek and nose, glancing off bone. His cry was muffled by Callum’s fist. He drew his hand back, chest heaving. A line of dark blood trickled from Aion’s nostril and over his lip.”
  • While at a mystic site, another monster attacks Klara and Callum. “Callum crouched in front of the beast, sword raised. With a twist of her heart, she noticed the blood splashed across his leg. His limp. . . [Callum] lunged again, this time striking the beast’s neck with the broad side of the sword. Rearing its head, the beast cried out. Then, it swung down in a flash. . . sinking its teeth into Callum’s side.”
  • As Callum and the beast fight, Klara jumps in. “She grabbed the hilt and ran headlong toward the creature. . . leaping as high as she could, Klara bore down and drove the blade into the monster’s open mouth.” When nothing else works, Klara uses her power against the beast, causing the beast to dissolve “until nothing more than a shimmering curtain of gold dust remained.” The scene is described over four pages.
  • Four beasts that “looked as if they were plucked straight from the pits of hell” attack Callum. When the lead beast runs at him, Callum “dropped, flattening his body against the ground to avoid the snarling beast . . . One hand grasped the beast’s muzzle, the other the meat of its neck. Callum felt the crunch of its crooked and uneven teeth under his fingers as he tightened his grip, then used the beast’s own weight to swing it away—and let go.”
  • As the fight continues, “Callum fell to his knee and thrust the dirk upward, catching the creature’s soft belly with his blade. . . The terrible sound of ripping flesh filled his ears. Hot blood splattered in his hair and face. . .” 
  • The beasts almost overtake Callum when one of them “sunk its claw into the front of Callum’s chest. The bite of fang and flesh tore a scream from his lungs.” After Callum fights the beasts, Llaw, a demigod who is trying to kill all of the Pillars, appears and attacks. “Llaw was strong. He stole the remaining breath from Callum’s belly with a sharp kick, sending his body reeling like he had run full force into one of the standing stones. Pain flared in his injured shoulder. Callum fell to his knees. Llaw drove a fist into his chest.”  At the end of the six pages of fighting, Callum’s “vision faded, along with the beat of his heart.”
  • When Klara finds Callum’s body, she pleads to the god Cernunnos. However, Llaw appears. “Llaw’s boot slammed against her chest, pinning her to the ground. The hound by his side. . . crouched. With its sickening sharp claws carving up the earth as it moved, the creature inched toward her until its snapping, snarling jaw was nearly pressed against her throat.” Llaw “pressed his foot down on her chest until a rib snapped.”
  • Klara calls on her powers and is able to distract Llaw. Then, she swung her sword. “The hilt shuddered in her fingers as the blade met resistance—as it cut through the flesh and bone of Llaw’s arm. Then the sword was free again, a swatch of blood on silver the only evidence that she hadn’t missed.”
  • At the end of the fight, Klara stabs Llaw in the chest. “He shuddered violently, like he’d been pushed onto her blade. . . She felt his body go limp.” Klara and Llaw’s fight scene is described over seven pages. 

Drugs and Alcohol

  • Callum thinks back to a time when he had whisky at a pub.     
  • After Callum gets into a fight, Klara calls a doctor. The doctor assumes Callum is drunk. The doctor said, “this young man needs aspirin, water, and perhaps to reconsider his life choices, if he’s already this drunk so early in the morning.” 
  • Klara and Callum go to a bar to listen to a band. Other people are served beer.
  • Klara’s grandmother “smoked a joint every Christmas.”
  • Klara’s father talks about the night before he married Klara’s mother when they had champagne.

Language

  • Profanity is used infrequently. Profanity includes ass, bastard, crap, damn, hell, pissed, and shit.
  • Goddamn is used once.
  • God, oh my God, and Jesus are used as exclamations a few times. 

Supernatural

  • In the woods, Klara and Callum come across an area that looks like a fairy ring. Then, a fog begins to take form. “The air in front of [Klara] began to shimmer as if it was the height of summer—but the air turned suddenly cold. . . The mist grew thicker still with every passing second, until it was a curtain of light and shadow. . . Callum watched in horror as a hand emerged from the mist and reached for her.” A man steps out of the fog. 
  • The story revolves around Samhain, “a Gaelic holiday, similar to Halloween, celebrating the barriers of the human and spirit world thinning out on October 31 through November 1, allowing crossover from both realms.”
  • Callum learns that Thomas was visiting mystical centers. A man tells Callum, “Different centers are thought to be closer to different gods or different locations in the Otherworld. . . Some say energy flows at these sites – at these mystic centers, or thin places— especially at certain times of the year, or with specific celestial events, the power of which is beyond our understanding.”
  • If Klara concentrates, she can feel the “pull of the Otherworld.” While trying to understand her powers, Klara walks into a forest and a stag steps out of the mist. “She watched in awe as the stag fell away, its body transforming until the only thing that remained of the beast were its antlers” that “crowned a man.” The man is Cernunnos, the god of the wilds, of nature, and of life itself. He tells Klara that “my essence is connected to the soil, the leaves, the trees, the ocean.” 
  • Callum wants to find the “bean-nighe” who is part of the Fair Folk. The bean-nighe “appears to those she chooses, and those who will die.” To find a bean-nighe, Callum will need to go to a lake, take part of his shirt, “soak it in your blood, and leave it in the waters. With it, you must swear to leave your life—if the bean-nighe would so choose to take it.” When Callum follows these directions, he asks the bean-nighe for “the strength of ten men” so he can protect Klara.
  • Klara goes to a mystic site. While there, a “pearl of light” appears. “The pearl grew. . . the spin stopped abruptly, and it flattened in the air in front of her, casting her in a blaze of white. . . Klara cried out, at first in shock, then in agony. It felt like she was being scorched alive.” The light takes her through a vision of the past.

Spiritual Content

  • Arianrhod, the Goddess of the Silver Wheel is “a primal figure of female strength—often associated with the moon, she had dominion over the sky, reincarnation, and even time and fate itself.” The goddess appears to Klara and Callum. Arianrhod shows a vision to Callum. “The fog gathered around them again. . . A familiar form took shape in front of Callum’s eyes. His chest wrenched open with disbelief and wonder.” Callum is shown his friend Thomas, and Arianrhod explains that “Thomas’s life was precious—more precious than most of the humans who walk this earth. There was a power in his blood more valuable than any mortal treasure. . .”
  • The Goddess reveals that Callum’s friends, Thomas, and Klara are both “pillars.” Arianrhod divided her powers “amongst ten human souls that would be born into your world. . . Spread across the centuries, each of the ten chosen ones became a Pillar of Time, with my power sealed within their blood.” 
  • Arianrhod’s son, Llaw, is a demigod who is trying to kill all the Pillars so he can gain their power. The goddess explains that “Llaw has already taken the power from the other nine vessels, but my power can all be restored as long as you live past Samhain.” If Llaw isn’t stopped, chaos will reign and time itself will be destroyed.

The Tea Dragon Festival

A worthy sequel to the debut graphic novel The Tea Dragon Society, The Tea Dragon Festival immerses readers in a charming fantasy realm where humans and dragons dwell in harmony. Readers may recognize cheerful bounty hunters, Hese and Erik, from the previous installment in the series, but the couple appears noticeably younger and are able-bodied, as this story takes place before Erik’s debilitating injury in battle. 

New characters include Rinn, a young chef learning to use natural ingredients in their recipes with the help of their grandmother, Gramman. While foraging in the woods outside of Silverleaf Village, Rinn stumbles upon a shapeshifting creature named Aedhan who has been asleep for eighty years. Aedhan belongs to the Shining Wing clan of dragons, whose duty it is to oversee the Tea Dragon Festival and protect Silverleaf Village. 

Soon Hese and Erik arrive from their bounty hunting escapades and reveal that they have been tracking a forest spirit that has the power to make its victims sleep for decades without aging. They follow clues to a magical glade and tell the spirit that if it wants to share memories of its flourishing species from thousands of years ago, it should make people dream for a matter of hours rather than decades. The creature bows its head and leaves peacefully. 

When it is time for the Tea Dragon Festival to begin, the village sets up decorations and shares a bounteous feast of home-cooked recipes made from foraged ingredients and tea leaves that will allow Aedhan to glimpse the memories and events during the eighty years he was asleep. Rinn and Aedhan share this meaningful meal and notice their new feelings for one another. Rinn decides that they would rather enjoy cooking as a hobby than as a vocation. Hese and Erik set out on new adventures hinting at the events of the other two books in this lovable trilogy. 

Nonbinary readers will likely identify with Rinn, as well as Aedhan, who remarks that dragons are capable of shifting between male and female forms. Queerness is not called into question or judged in their world. The Tea Dragon Festival also provides positive representation for disabled people, especially the deaf or hard-of-hearing and users of sign language. 

Like in The Tea Dragon Society, O’Neill’s endearing artistic style continues to immerse readers in a flourishing realm that values family, traditions, nature, and following one’s heart. The story is introduced with an author’s note about the depiction of sign language in italicized captions, to distinguish it from verbal dialogue without diminishing its value as a form of communication. 

The Tea Dragon Festival is an adorable companion to its precedent and fluently builds readers’ curiosity about the third installment in the trilogy. Although the premise of making peace with the forest spirit rather than slaying it is appealing, its execution is anticlimactic. The story does not explain how Hese and Erik avoid succumbing to slumber in their encounter with the creature, nor how they manage to communicate with it. Other than this oversight, this graphic novel shows an impressive capacity for storytelling, art, and positive representation. 

Sexual content 

  • None 

Violence 

  • Aedhan fights off a large griffin to protect Rinn and their little sibling, drawing blood from a painful gash. 

Drugs and Alcohol  

  • When brewed into tea, leaves harvested from the small household pets known as tea dragons have the power to send the drinker into a trance and glimpse their own memories or past events experienced by those around them. 

Language  

  • None 

Supernatural 

  • The book includes multiple fantasy creatures, such as shape-shifting dragons, anthropomorphic birds, and humans with features like tails, horns, furred ears, or goat legs. 

Spiritual Content  

  • None 

The Astonishing Color of After

After her mother died of suicide, Leigh Chen Sanders is only sure of one thing—when her mother died, she turned into a large, beautiful, red bird.

Days after her mother dies, Leigh feels “colorless, translucent . . . [like] a jellyfish caught up in a tide, forced to go wherever the ocean willed.” She begins sleeping on the downstairs sofa, farthest away from where her mother died. The night before the funeral, Leigh hears a “sharp rap on the front door.” She is greeted by a “red-crowned crane . . . with a long feathery tail” where “every feather [is] a different shade of red, sharp and gleaming.” “Leigh,” the bird cries out, in the voice of her mother. Suddenly, the bird flies away and all Leigh is left with is “a single scarlet feather.”

Leigh tries to explain to her father what she has seen, but he is dismissive of her. After the bird delivers a package and note from Leigh’s maternal grandparents, asking Leigh to visit them in Taiwan, he still doesn’t fully believe her. Eventually, after Leigh’s father is visited by a strange wind and even stranger red feathers, he finally books himself and Leigh two plane tickets to Taiwan.

In Taiwan, Leigh meets her maternal grandparents for the first time. It’s awkward because even though she is half Taiwanese, Leigh does not speak Mandarin Chinese and knows very little about her grandparents. To make matters worse, after an argument with Leigh’s grandparents, her father decides to leave for Hong Kong, leaving Leigh alone with them.

But Leigh decides to take advantage of being in Taiwan. She is determined to find her mother—as the bird—and search for answers about her mother’s death. She asks her grandmother and her grandmother’s friend, Feng, to take her to every place her mother loved, in the hopes of finding traces of her mother and of the bird. On Leigh’s journey, she finds a box of incense. Every time Leigh lights one of the sticks of incense, she is brought through space and time into memories of the past—some are her own memories, but others are her mother’s and grandmother’s memories. As Leigh enters each memory, she learns more about her family history and their secrets, including memories about an aunt that Leigh never knew she had, and memories about her mother’s illness and the pain she went through. Through her search for her mother, Leigh connects with her grandparents and eventually finds comfort in their support and love.

As she grieves, Leigh also comes to terms with her mother’s suicide. While her mother was taking her own life, Leigh was kissing her long-time best friend, Axel. In a way, she not only feels responsible for her mother’s death but also for ruining her friendship with Axel. As Leigh travels through time and memory, she also traces her friendship with Axel, wondering where they went wrong and why their friendship was “crumbling.”

The Astonishing Color of After is a story about loss and grief, but also about love and growing up. In the end, Leigh never truly catches her mother, the bird. Yet as Leigh is grieving, she learns to remember her mother during both her illness and during the happy moments. Leigh realizes that catching the bird will not fix the pain she feels. She learns to accept that, when grieving, it will hurt for a long time.

Since The Astonishing Color of After deals with difficult topics of suicide, depression, and mental health, it is better suited for a high school audience. Leigh explains, “[My mother’s] illness was something I’d been afraid to look at head-on . . . There was also the fiery, lit-up version of my mother. How could a person like her be depressed?” Leigh discusses the stereotypical image she had of a depressed person, that made her “think of this group of kids at school who wore all black and thick eyeliner and listened to angry music and never showed their teeth.” Leigh comes to understand that depression is a disease, and her mother’s illness did not have a singular cause, that no one is to blame for her suicide. Leigh learns, “We can’t change anything about the past. We can only remember. We can only move forward.”

Overall, The Astonishing Color of After is a fantastic book. Though it deals with serious issues, it also works to break down barriers surrounding mental health. Leigh is a great leading character who is a flawed, complex person, who struggles to understand the world around her. But she is also incredibly strong and brave as she works through grief and tragedy. She shows readers that even in one’s darkest times there is hope, not necessarily for things to return to normal, but to move forward. With beautiful prose, terrific characters, and great use of magical realism, The Astonishing Color of After is a must-read.

Sexual Content 

  • Axel, Leigh’s long-time crush and best friend, kisses her. “Instead of bursting into sparks, my body froze.” Then, “Axel’s hands stretched around my back and unlocked me. I was melting, he had released my windup key, and I was kissing back hard, and our lips were everywhere and my body was fluorescent orange no, royal purple no. My body was every color in the world, alight.”
  • Caro, Leigh’s good friend, complains to Leigh about her family’s snowboarding trip. Caro exclaims “My grandparents were killing me . . . half the time they sat in the lodge making out.”
  • Leigh and Axel join Caro and her girlfriend Cheslin at a photo shoot. “At one point, Cheslin began to shed her clothes. Off came the shorts, the tank. She unhooked her bra–.” While Axel and Leigh are slightly bothered by her actions, Cheslin shrugs saying, “It is, after all, just a body.” Eventually, Axel and Leigh walk away from the photo shoot. They comment on Caro and Cheslin’s intimacy, saying “It was almost like we were watching them have sex or something.”
  • After almost seeing Axel naked, Leigh is flustered. Thinking about that specific memory, Leigh explains, “My right hand ended up down between my legs and I wondered about sex. I thought of all the skin you saw in R-rated movies and the way bare limbs just slid together like they were made to be entwined. I thought of Axel, imagined us sitting on his couch and taking off our clothes.”
  • During a school dance, Leigh is talking to a senior. He asked her if she had “ever been kissed” and she replied no. He then leans in and Leigh thinks, “I knew what was coming. His face loomed close, his lips first finding the edges of mine before sliding in toward the center. He was eager with his tongue, and he didn’t taste great.” When he leaned in again, Leigh “moved aside before he could make contact,” and walked quickly away.
  • When Leigh asks Caro how her relationship is going, Caro confides in her that she and Cheslin have “decided [they’re] ready to . . . y’know. Go all the way.”
  • After Axel and Leigh discuss their feelings for each other, Leigh does “possibly the bravest thing I’ve ever done: I close the space between us and kiss him hard. He’s surprised for only a fraction of a second. Then my hands are at his face, peeling his glasses up over his head and tossing them on my nightstand. My body, drawing him down onto the bed. His lips, between my teeth. Our legs, sliding against each other.”

Violence 

  • The premise of this book surrounds the topic of suicide, as Leigh’s mother kills herself. The act is not described in great detail, as Leigh “never saw the body up close.” She explains, “All I could see were my mother’s legs on the floor” and a large pool of blood.
  • Suicidal thoughts are briefly mentioned. In a memory, Leigh sees her mother “rising from her bed in the middle of the night. She walks quietly, slowly avoiding the creaks in the floor. Down in the garage, she slides into the sedan and sits in the driver’s seat, car keys biting into her palm. She’s thinking. Debating. If she turns on the car. If she doesn’t open the garage door. If no one in the house wakes, and she falls asleep at the wheel. The vehicle doesn’t even have to move. She could sleep forever.”

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • Before she dies, Leigh’s mother takes “a bottle of sleeping pills.”
  • When searching for a note left by her mom, Leigh and her father find “a pile of capsules. . .  Mom’s antidepressants” in the garbage; they hadn’t been taken in weeks.
  • Leigh’s mom was taking medicine for her depression and Leigh often sees her mom with a yellow pill bottle next to her. At one point, Leigh’s dad explains her mom has “tried so many medications. They work well for a lot of people, but they haven’t really worked on her.”
  • In a memory, Leigh sees her mother “in the basement, holding a bottle of OxyContin and a jug of bleach. She heard once that it takes ten seconds for something swallowed to reach the stomach.” Before Leigh can see more, the memory moves on. 
  • During a school dance, Leigh goes outside for air and sees a senior. He reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out a steel flask, “unscrewed the top and took a swig.” He offers some to Leigh, but she declines. 

Language   

  • Profanity is used sparingly. Profanity includes goddamn, shit, and bullshit.

Supernatural 

  • One visit, the bird delivers a box, saying “The box is from your grandparents . . . bring it with you.” The box contains “yellowed letters, neat in a bundle. A stack of worn photographs, most of them black-and-white . . . [and] an intricately carved [jade] cicada” necklace, the necklace Leigh’s “mother wore every single day of her life.” Later, Leigh finds out her “grandparents put this package together [and] they burned it. . . They burned it so that your mother could have these with her on her next journey.”
  • One night “some strange, unexplainable compulsion makes” Leigh “roll out of bed and walk over to the dresser.” She finds “a curved Winsor red feather. And a slim, rectangular box [she’s] never seen.” Inside are “long sticks smelling of smoke and wreckage and used-up matches . . . incense.” Holding them, Leigh explains, “It’s strangely hot, like it’s been warming in the sun. And then: the whispering. The tiniest, most hushed of voices. It’s coming from the incense.” When lit, “the smoke that rises is inky black, drawing lines through the air . . . The smoke fills the room, until there’s only black.” By lighting each incense stick, Leigh is brought back in time, visiting memories. 
  • One night, as Leigh tries to fall asleep, she begins to see odd things. Leigh explains, “It happens in a flash, in a blink: My eyes close, and when they open again, the room is bright as day, the ceiling so white it’s glowing—except for the inky cracks branching off in all different directions about me. . . The in-between lines so thin, so black – like there’s nothing beyond that layer of ceiling but a gravity-defying abyss.” In the subsequent days, Leigh notices that the cracks on her ceiling are “widening, spreading farther. They’ve stretched across the entire surface and begun fissuring down the walls. An entire corner’s missing, like someone just took out a chunk of it. There’s nothing to be seen there, only oblivion made of the blackest black.” 
  • As Leigh wonders if her mother is a bird, something happens. “It’s as if my thoughts summon some kind of magic. The colors of my room begin to deepen their hues, like flowers blossoming. Crimson in the corners. Cerulean along the southern crack. Indigo by the window. Bioluminescent green tracing the creases of the wall closest to the bed. The things that are already black somehow take on a truer shade, pitch dark and empty.”
  • At a restaurant with her grandmother, Leigh finds a note stuck to the bottom of a dish, it has a few lines of an Emily Dickinson poem on it. Fred, who is helping Leigh, explains “This came from a ghost.” He sends the note back by burning it. Fred tells Leigh that this poem was burned for the wedding. Leigh questions him asking “what wedding?” Fred replies, “When I married the ghost of Chen Jingling. ” Chen Jingling is Leigh’s aunt. Fred married her aunt because Leigh’s grandparents were “grieving. So they could have peaceful hearts if they know their daughter has a husband.” He continues, “It’s like a normal wedding, but they made, like, a doll for her. Using bamboo and paper. She wears real clothing and jewelry. And afterward, everything was burned. We send it all to the spirit world.” Leigh asks Fred if he’s ever seen her ghost or spirit. Fred responds, “I see and hear and feel enough to know she is there.”
  • Fred explains that in Jilong, during Ghost Month, the Ghost Festival “is so big it brings the attention of many ghosts. And because of higher concentration of ghosts, they are more noticeable to the living . . . When ghosts come up here, they become more visible.” 
  • When Feng and Leigh are in a park, they see a young child and her mother. “The girl says she sees their grandfather. Her mother’s saying that’s impossible. . . Children know the truth . . . they hadn’t learned to walk around with a veil over their eyes. That’s a habit that comes with adulthood. Kids always know what they see. That’s why ghosts can’t hide from them.”
  • On the forty-eighth day after her mother dies, Leigh awakens to a weird smell. As she steps into the hall, the “scent gathers . . . [reeling her] in, down the hallway and toward the bathroom . . .”  As she opens the shower curtain, Leigh sees “in the bottom of the tub is a thick layer of feathers, dark and drenched, sticky and shining red.” Leigh calls her grandmother, but her grandmother does not see what Leigh is seeing. 
  • After the final memory Leigh sees, she “land[s] on the moon. Not the whole moon, but just a patch of it.” She is greeted by her mother, the bird. Her mother tells Leigh, “Goodbye.” Then, the “bird rises higher and higher. She turns and arcs. [Leigh] watch[es] as she burst[s] into flames . . . She burns like a star.”
  • Weird things happen to Leigh’s phone. For example, it begins to play music randomly – music Axel made for her. Leigh has been getting emails from Axel, he later explains while he wrote them, he “didn’t send those emails,” but instead kept them in his drafts. But magically they were sent to Leigh, and in their place in his draft inbox is a picture of a bird’s shadow. 
  • Towards the end of the novel, Leigh finds out the true identity of Feng. She was not Leigh’s grandmother’s friend. In fact, no one even remembers Feng’s existence. Feng is revealed to be the ghost of Jingling, Leigh’s aunt. She was there as Leigh’s guide “during the most difficult times,” after Leigh’s mother’s passing.

Spiritual Content 

  • In Taiwan, Leigh, her grandmother, and Feng visit Leigh’s mother’s favorite Taoist temple. Her grandmother explains to Leigh that her mother “would come here when she needed guidance when she was looking for an answer.” In “the heart of the temple, people bow before a crowned statue with a face of black stone, and dressed in imperial reds and gold.” 
  • In the temple, a young man is tossing things into the air. “In Taiwanese they’re called bwabwei. He’s asking his god a question. If one lands faceup and the other lands facedown, the answer is yes. If both land facedown, it means the god doesn’t like what he’s asking. If both land faceup, it means the god is laughing at him.”
  • Leigh, her grandmother, and Feng also visit a Buddhist temple, where Leigh’s mother spent most of her time and “where her spirit is.” There are hundreds of wooden plaques “painted in the color of marigolds. . . [The] yellow tablets bear the names of the dead,” including Leigh’s mother. There is a ceremony and “after a person’s death, they have forty-nine days to process their karma and let go of the things that make them feel tied to this life—things like people and promises and memories.” 

Newton’s Flaw

Best buds Izzy Newton, Allie Einstein, Gina Carver, Marie Curie, and Charlie Darwin are all about solving mysteries and revealing truths by investigating, experimenting, and finding proof.   

School has barely started and Izzy is already nervous about her public speaking class and ice hockey tryouts, when a pop-up science fair is announced. Just as the squad begins to power up their science and tech smarts to dominate the competition, a mysterious illness wallops Atom Middle School, threatening to shut the whole place down. Izzy is feeling dizzy. 

Can she and her friends pull together to solve the mystery and crush the science fair? Can Izzy work up the courage to conquer public speaking? Or will Izzy Newton’s flaws be the end of everything? 

When the S.M.A.R.T Squad finds mold in the library they are determined to figure out why the mold has invaded their middle school. Each member of the Squad uses their unique talents to solve the mystery, exploring the science behind the mystery. For example, Allie writes notes using the scientific method. The notes are written on lined notebook paper and use a different font which makes them easy to distinguish. Another character draws a graphic organizer that explains how water and mold were able to invade the middle school. While the S.M.A.R.T Squad works together, they are not perfect, and sometimes the members clash. 

Newton’s Flaw mixes middle school anxiety with science to make an entertaining story focusing on a group of smart girls. The story uses relatable conflicts—making a team, public speaking, and friendship drama—that will help readers connect with the characters. The story has the perfect mix of science and middle school worries that will engage a wide variety of readers. Plus, the S.M.A.R.T Squad’s enthusiasm for science allows the girls to make learning about mold entertaining.  

When the girls go looking for mold, they use proper safety measures. However, at one point, the group decides to sneak into the school’s basement. Allie encourages the others to break the rules by saying, “sometimes rules have to be broken.” Even though the book contains a lot of scientific terminology, the concepts are explained well. For example, when someone says Izzy is a “gravitation wave,” Izzy thinks “a gravitational wave was so fast that it made ripples in space-time like a boat causes ripples in a pond.”  

One subplot revolves around Izzy’s desire to be the first girl on the hockey team. However, she is ineligible to play because she has an F in one class because she is too afraid to give an oral presentation. While her teacher, Ms. Martinez, is kind about Izzy’s stage fright, Ms. Martinez refuses to let Izzy off the hook. Ms. Martinez gives Izzy clear expectations, advice, and encouragement. At one point, Ms. Martinez tells Izzy about her favorite poet, Emily Dickinson, who said “luck is work, not chance.” Eventually, Izzy finds a unique way to give her oral presentation and improve her grade.  

Overall, Izzy Newton and the S.M.A.R.T Squad is a fun and educational book that will appeal to a wide range of readers. The book’s format is visually appealing with black and white illustrations that break up the text and help readers visualize the story’s action. Readers will appreciate the diverse characters who all have different talents but come together because of their love of science. The easy-to-read book ends with ten pages explaining scientific concepts and introducing female scientists. Readers who enjoy science-related books should also check out the Kate the Chemist Series by Dr. Kate Biberdorf. 

Sexual Content 

  • None 

Violence 

  • None 

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • None 

Language   

  • None 

Supernatural 

  • None 

Spiritual Content 

  • None 

The Tea Dragon Society

The winner of several children’s literature awards, The Tea Dragon Society is Kay O’Neill’s debut graphic novel. The artistic style is wholesome and soothing, and the book’s harmonious color and meandering pace makes The Tea Dragon Society a meditative read. The attention to detail and choice of color schemes also contribute to immersing readers in the realm of this trilogy. The book is divided into four chapters, each titled after a season of the year, beginning with spring. 

The protagonist is a bright, young girl named Greta, the daughter and apprentice of the village blacksmith. After rescuing a stray tea dragon, she returns the hatchling to its owner and caretaker, the gentle and wise Hese. Hese has also taken a shy, young girl named Minette under his metaphorical wing. 

Greta grows increasingly curious about caring for tea dragons, so she returns to Hese’s house and meets his partner, Erik, whose days as a magical bounty hunter left him confined to a wheelchair. From Erik, Greta learns that tea dragon stewardship is a dying art. 

Hese and Erik teach Greta about the history of tea dragons and the Tea Dragon Society, of which they are the last surviving members. As the seasons pass, Greta and Minette’s friendship blooms into something more. Young readers may relate to Greta’s and Minette’s journeys of self-discovery, and queer readers may especially connect with their shy crushes on one another, as well as Hese and Erik’s companionship. Both queer relationships are depicted with healthy and supportive dynamics. Readers may also feel inspired by the author openly identifying as nonbinary. In addition to incorporating LGBTQ characters, the book also features people of color and people with disabilities. 

The Tea Dragon Society is a beautiful story about friendship and finding your place in the world. The story encourages people to honor traditions, the past, and to always remember where you come from. Those who enjoy fantasy for its escapism rather than violence or suspense will find The Tea Dragon Society a relaxing read. Although it feels beautifully brief and ends almost too soon, readers can seek solace in the rest of the trilogy, The Tea Dragon Festival, and The Tea Dragon Tapestry. 

Sexual content 

  • Hese and Erik are depicted relaxing in a hot spring, undressed from the waist up. 

Violence 

  • Erik wipes the blood off his sword after defeating a three-headed dragon that was threatening a village.  
  • Hese and Erik face a gigantic black dragon in battle and have bleeding wounds on their faces and arms. Erik is thrown into the mud and knocked unconscious. 
  • Erik has stitches across a scar on his face and two more scars on his neck from fighting magical beasts. 

Drugs and Alcohol  

  • The tea dragons grow tea on themselves and the tea allows people to experience memories of the past tea masters. For example, Greta drinks tea brewed from the leaves grown on a tea dragon and goes into a trance where she glimpses memories from Hese and Erik’s lives. 
  • Minette drinks the same tea and sees visions of her own memories. 

Language  

  • None 

Supernatural 

  • The book includes multiple fantasy creatures, such as goblins, dragons, and humans with features such as tails, horns, furred ears, or goat legs.  
  • Hese is a deerlike creature even though he walks upright, has humanlike hands, and speaks English.  
  • Tea grown from tea dragons has the magical power of giving dreamlike visions of memories.  
  • Minette has the supernatural power of seeing the future. 

Spiritual Content  

  • None 

The Game Master: Summer Schooled

Rebecca Zamolo is almost finished with summer school. Today she’s going to present her final assignment, and then she’ll finally be free to have fun. 

But as Becca waits for her teacher to arrive, a menacing voice comes over the intercom. It’s the Game Master! They’ve locked the doors, scared off all the teachers, and made it clear that if Becca and her friends don’t solve the clues that have been left behind, the kids will never escape.  

Becca doesn’t know who is behind this, but she won’t let them win. Will she and her classmates be able to work together and solve the Game Master’s puzzles before time runs out? Join YouTube’s favorite mystery-solving team as they go toe-to-toe with the Game Master in the first book of this series from YouTube creators Matt and Rebecca Zamolo, stars of the popular Game Master Network. 

Summer Schooled is a fast-paced story that highlights the importance of working together. Each chapter alternates between Matt’s and Becca’s points of view; however, the characters’ voices are not unique which makes it difficult to distinguish between the two characters’ points of view. While none of the characters are well developed, Matt is known for making practical jokes and no one trusts him. In the end, he learns to look at things from other people’s points of view. While readers may sympathize with Matt, Becca is not a very likable character because she is self-centered. Much of Becca’s inner dialogue revolves around being nice to others but only because she wants their help finding her grandmother’s zoetrope, which was taken by the person with the menacing voice. 

Readers familiar with the Game Master Network will feel an instant connection to Summer Schooled. The story is easy to read and has several black and white illustrations. Most of the time, the kids are locked in various rooms of the school, trying to find the next clue. While the clues are entertaining, readers do not have the ability to try to solve them on their own. Plus, some of the story’s events are difficult to believe. For example, one of the clues is hidden inside a cupcake. While only one kid eats a single cupcake, the key is luckily found. Plus, part of a clue includes fake blood being poured over one of the kids.   

Summer Schooled is an easy-to-read story with a simple plot that will entertain readers. The diverse cast of characters all have unique talents and one character uses the pronoun they. Neither the plot nor the characters are well developed which makes Summer Schooled a good choice for emerging and reluctant readers. Summer Schooled turns Matt and Becca’s school into an escape room with lots of clues and a creepy Game Master. Throughout the adventure, the kids learn about the importance of friendship. Readers who enjoy Summer Schooled will also enjoy the fast-paced, friendship based books Tom Swift Inventors’ Academy Series by Victor Appleton and Minecraft: The Crash by Tracey Baptiste. 

Sexual Content 

  • None 

Violence 

  • None 

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • None 

Language   

  • Heck is used four times. 
  • While looking for clues the kids find a note that “labels us as troublemakers. . . Who did this? What a jerk!” 
  • OMG is used four times and Oh my god is used three times. 

Supernatural 

  • None 

Spiritual Content 

  • None 

Saving Montgomery Sole

Montgomery Sole is used to being the odd one out, the “mystery” kid, at school and in her small town. Montgomery is used to being judged and misunderstood by those around her, mainly because she has two moms. But Montgomery finds solace in her friends, Thomas and Naoki, who, like her, enjoy a good mystery. Together the group forms a school club dedicated to all things mysterious, strange, and unexplained. 

One day, after falling down a deep rabbit hole on the internet, Montgomery finds the “Eye of Know,” a possibly all-powerful and all-seeing crystal amulet, that is only $5.99. Intrigued by the mystery and ambiguity surrounding this necklace, Montgomery buys it. But once she begins to wear the Eye of Know, strange things begin to happen. People Montgomery despises, like her school bully, have unexplained terrible things happen to them. 

Montgomery, not knowing what is happening, begins to confront the bullies and ignorance in her life, fueled by her anger toward them. Montgomery is forced to learn how to deal with these mean people, without losing herself and the people she loves most in the process. Montgomery is a caring, headstrong, passionate sixteen-year-old. As she is dealing with the bullies and ignorance in her life, she is also trying to grow up and explore her interests. While Montgomery becomes slightly obsessed with figuring out all the mysteries of the world, she is reminded that when “exploring… [in] the end of it, what you know is you.” Montgomery reminds readers that you don’t need to try to fit in with society’s standards and that it is okay to simply be a mystery. 

Saving Montgomery Sole discusses religion and its weaponization. Growing up, Montgomery has felt at odds with religion since it has often been forced upon her. Plus, it is the religious people in her life who have told her that she and her family need to change. For example, when Montgomery was younger, her religious, Evangelical grandparents often told her that she needed a real father and she needed to be a “good Christian” girl. Then, when a religious preacher moves into town and begins plastering posters around the community that say the American family needs to be “saved,” Montgomery again feels targeted. Montgomery feels as if her family and their way of life are being attacked by this preacher, who is claiming to know what is right and wrong, and his religion. In the end, Montgomery realizes that while there will always be some people who use religion negatively to force their beliefs on others, it does not mean she needs to feel attacked. Montgomery realizes she can rise above the hate. 

Saving Montgomery Sole also highlights the importance of friendship and family. Throughout the novel, Montgomery keeps her worries and fears to herself. While Montgomery is feeling attacked by the new preacher and the school bullies, she keeps this to herself, insisting to those around her that she is fine. This only increases Montgomery’s feelings of isolation. It is only when she talks to her moms and her friends about what is bothering her that she begins to feel better. Montgomery reminds readers that they are not alone, and of the importance of relying on one’s support system in times of need. 

Overall Saving Montgomery Sole is a great book, with a diverse and hilarious cast of characters. Its magical undertones and fun storyline balance out its serious messages about hate and bigotry. While Montgomery Sole is coming to terms with the difficult world around her, she reminds the audience that it is okay to be unique. Montgomery’s actions show that people do not need to fit into society’s mold.  

Sexual Content 

  • When Montgomery and her friends are discussing lucid dreams, Thomas “says most of his dreams are sexy dreams.” 
  • When Matt transfers schools, Montgomery befriends him and they go on a lunch date. After flirting, Montgomery “leaned forward and . . . kissed him.” She explains “I wanted to because at the time I thought he was cute. . . I was enchanted. We had three soft kisses. They were these amazing little melty kisses. Then his hand grabbed my thigh. Clamped down. And all of the sudden it was just like tongue. And I pulled back . . . We kissed again. I learned to manage the overwhelmingness of tongue. And the meltiness came back. But that feeling was quickly replaced by something else, specifically his hand pushing under the front of my sweater. I could feel him searching from my boobs, like clawing past my T-shirt in this weird, frustrating way.” Montgomery pulls away from Matt not wanting to continue further. Matt responds negatively, saying “Oh my God, I knew it . . . you’re a dyke, right?” 

Violence 

  • Montgomery reads a blog about a woman who thinks she is in the “process of becoming a human cyborg.” An article Montgomery reads later explains the woman “had to give it up because she was hallucinating, possibly due to lead poisoning from all the bolts and screws she was inserting under her skin. 
  • There are many instances of bullying throughout the book, specifically towards Montgomery and her friend Thomas, who is gay. For example, the school bully, Matt, purposely bumps into Thomas. Matt spins around and says, “I thought you gays, I mean, guys were supposed to be light on your feet.” 
  • One day Montgomery finds a white cross on her locker, as well as “kick me stickers, MONTYZ MOMZ HAVE AIDS signs, [and] MONTY IS A LESBIAN Post-it notes.” 
  • When she is walking down the hall, Montgomery is “nearly slammed into a wall” by Matt, who says, “Watch your face, Sole!”  
  • At Montgomery’s younger sister’s soccer game, a group of girls make incredibly bigoted comments at the other team. These comments include: “I think a couple of these kids are, like, Mexican. They’re probably not even legal,” “That girl needs an eating disorder,” and, “Does this girl with the pink bow in her hair look retarded to you?” When the girls see Montgomery’s mothers hugging, one of the girls exclaims “let’s get out of here before they, like, rape us.”  
  • While she is standing by her locker, Montgomery “was hit with a heavy thud against [her] back.” It was Matt who hit her. 
  • One day after class, Montgomery and Thomas find that his locker was vandalized. The writing says, “Thomas blow jobs for $5.” 

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • None 

Language   

  • Profanity is used occasionally. Profanity includes idiot, dickhead, dick, bitch, assholes, jerkoff, and shitty.  
  • Derogatory language is also used a few times. This includes retard, dyke, and fag. 
  • Some of the profanity in the book is only implied. For instance, at a soccer game, a woman yells obscenity “like the C word” at the ref.  

Supernatural 

  • Montgomery and her friends have a school club where they talk about the mysteries of the world, often these topics are of the supernatural nature. The topics include remote viewing, ESP, mind control, and more.  
  • The Eye of Know is described as a rock “excavated from an asteroid landing in the magical mountain ranges of Peru. When wielded by a skilled visionary, the eye is a portal to vision untold. Journey forward into insight. Explore the power of know.” 
  • When Montgomery was younger, she and her mothers went to a haunted antique store. Montgomery asks the shop owner about the ghost. The shop owner explains it is a “feminine spirit.” 

Spiritual Content 

  • Montgomery ponders on spiritual messages. She wonders if “maybe there was some connection between bread and Christianity that merited further investigation.” 
  • Montgomery explains that the new reverend in town thinks her and her friends are “going to hell.” 
  • Montgomery’s younger sister, Tesla, is interested in praying with some of her friends before their soccer game. Momma Jo explains “look. It’s not bad, Tesla. I just, I think what I’m saying is . . . I’m saying praying doesn’t win games. Praying is something people do as part of something much bigger, like a religion.” Mama Kate puts her hand on Tesla’s hand. “What we’re trying to say is, sweetie, praying is not something you do just so you can win a game.” When Tesla asks, “Why don’t we have a religious practice?” Montgomery snaps at her saying, “we don’t need one.” 
  • Montgomery explains, “Mama Kate’s parents are really religious. Evangelicals. Believers in the Second Coming. When we were little, they would give Tesla and me religious-type stuff all the time. Like for our birthdays they would send us books like Good Christian Girls tucked into the covers of regular books. They slipped little golf crosses into birthday cards signed, Jesus loves you.”  
  • Furthermore, Montgomery explains that when she was younger, she thought “Jesus was, like, this person my grandparents knew. Like a great-uncle. Great-uncle Jesus from Kansas.” 
  • Montgomery ponders about mystics. “A couple of mystics talk about Jesus a lot. About how Jesus was at work in the world of the living and the dead, shepherding people into heaven. Like Jesus was some kind of maître d’ for heaven. If he’s so important, I wondered, why is he working the door?” Montgomery says, “These people have no logic.” 
  • When Montgomery confronts the new priest, whose posters say he is trying to “Save the American Family,” he tells Montgomery she has a “depraved soul” and “will burn in hell with the rest of those who cannot and will not accept the love of Jesus Christ.” 
  • Montgomery confronts Kenneth, the son of the new radical preacher. The two begin to talk about religion. Kenneth explains “a person can believe in God and Jesus Christ, can be a Christian, and not be like my father.” They talk about what it means to be a “good Christian.” 
  • Kenneth comments on what his father preaches, saying “how about I don’t like calling stuff sin and saying people will go to hell? I don’t think it’s right. And I’ve studied my Bible my whole life just like he has. I don’t see that the Bible says you have to do all this and break in on other peoples’ lives and . . . don’t think that’s what we’re supposed to do. I don’t think that’s being a good Christian, to answer your question.” 

Last Night at the Telegraph Club

Seventeen-year-old Lily Hu can’t remember exactly when the feeling took root—that desire to look, to move closer, to touch. Whenever it started growing, it definitely bloomed the moment she and Kathleen Miller walked under the flashing neon sign of a lesbian bar called the Telegraph Club. Suddenly everything seemed possible. 

But America in 1954 is not a safe place for two girls to fall in love, especially not in Chinatown. Red-Scare paranoia threatens everyone, including Chinese Americans like Lily. With deportation looming over her father—despite his hard-won citizenship—Lily and Kath risk everything to let their love see the light of day. 

When Lily is first introduced, she is shy and reserved which is evident in her interactions with her best friend, Shirley. Shirley is more outgoing and assertive and outshines Lily most of the time. Whenever Lily brings up her ambitions to study space, Shirley quickly dismisses them as boring and insignificant. In part due to her Chinese heritage, Shirley has more realistic goals—getting married and becoming a mother.  

Then, Lily meets Kath. Kath encourages Lily’s ambitions and over time they become extremely close friends. Lily has been curious about the Telegraph Club (a lesbian club) after seeing an advertisement for it depicting a male impersonator. When Kath tells Lily that she has been to the Telegraph Club, Lily only becomes more curious about what is inside.  One night, they decide to visit the club. At the club, Lily discovers a whole new world that makes her question her identity.  Lily begins to explore her sexuality, which brings about an array of conflicts. 

Readers will have no trouble relating to Lily. She is dedicated to her family and culture but simultaneously struggles to find her place in the world. She also wonders whether there is a place for her outside of Chinatown. Some of the chapters are dedicated to discussing Lily’s family members, which allows readers to get to know Lily’s backstory better. This includes her mother, father, and aunt. While these backstories are interesting and provide extra detail to the story, it would’ve been more interesting to hear parts of the story told by Kath or Shirley because they are much more involved in the plot line. 

Another enjoyable part of the story is visual timelines that are provided every couple of chapters. Communism, McCarthyism, and xenophobia are big aspects of conflict within the Chinese community at this time frame. Therefore, these timelines give readers a wider view of what was happening during the 1950s. 

Overall, Last Night at the Telegraph Club is a great depiction of young romance, especially LGBTQ romance. Kath and Lily’s love story is not straightforward, but has many twists and turns along the way which makes the plot more realistic. The book won the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature in 2021. This was the first time a book with a female LGBTQ lead won the award. 

Sexual Content  

  • Lily has a sexual awakening after seeing a book featuring “two women on the cover, a blonde and a brunette. The blonde wore a pink negligee and knelt on the ground, eyes cast down demurely while the shapely brunette lurked behind her.” 
  • The girls go bowling. When their movements expose parts of their legs, some men “eye the girls and grin at each other.” 
  • Lily and Kath have a brief sexual interaction in an empty classroom where “Kath put her hand between Lily’s legs, and Lily helped her, fumbling with her underwear.” 
  • When Shirley is changing into a dress, Lily begins to feel awkward and “couldn’t help but notice the soft rise of Shirley’s breasts over the cups of the bodice; the way they shifted when she twisted back and forth.” 

Violence  

  • Police raid the Telegraph Club. During the raid, Lily and Kath are separated. Lily reads the newspapers account of the raid, using the terms “sexual deviates” and “lewd conduct” to describe the club’s attendees and activities. 
  • Lily tells her mother about her sexuality. To this, her mother reacts extremely negatively, slapping Lily and saying, “there are no homosexuals in this family.” 

Drugs and Alcohol  

  • While at the Telegraph Club, Lily has her first beer which she describes as tasting “frothy and a little like soapy water, but it was cold and went down more easily than she anticipated.” 
  • After she finishes the beer, Lily says she feels “a little warm, but not unpleasantly so.” 
  • While at a friend’s house, Lily impulsively smokes a cigarette hoping it “might burn away the haze of wine and the horrible day she’d had.” 
  • After the Telegraph Club is raided, a newspaper article discusses how “marijuana cigarettes were offered, and Benzedrine, known as ‘bennies,’ were for sale” at the club.   

Language                                                                                                                                               

  • None 

Supernatural  

  • None 

Spiritual Content  

  • None

The Way You Make Me Feel

Sixteen-year-old Clara Shin doesn’t take life too seriously, but when she pushes one joke too far, her dad sentences her to a summer working on his food truck the KoBra. Clara was supposed to go on vacation to Tulum to visit her social media influencer mom; she was supposed to spend lazy days at the pool with her buddies. Instead, she is stuck in a sweaty Korean-Brazilian food truck all day, every day? Worse still, she is working alongside her nemesis, Rose Carver. It’s definitely not the carefree summer Clara had imagined.  

But as time goes on, it turns out that maybe Rose isn’t so bad. And maybe the boy named Hamlet (yes, Hamlet) who’s crushing on Clara is pretty cute. And perhaps Clara actually feels invested in her dad’s business. What if taking this summer seriously means Clara has to leave her old self behind?  

Clara doesn’t mind being the center of attention if she’s carrying out a prank or causing mischief. Because of her bad attitude, Clara is a surprisingly unlikable protagonist who always focuses on herself. Even though Clara befriends Rose and Hamlet, the reader is left wondering why two nice, over-achieving teens would spend time with Clara. When forced to work at her father’s food truck, Clara matures slightly. Unfortunately, Clara’s personal growth doesn’t make up for her poor attitude and her transformation at the end of the book is not believable. 

While there is a host of other characters in the book, none of them are well-developed. Clara’s nemesis, Rose, seems like a well-adjusted teenager, yet she has no friends. Rose’s lack of friends is not believable because it is never explained why she has no friends. Plus, after years of hating each other, the girls quickly become besties, which is a little unrealistic. In addition, Clara’s father ignores his daughter’s outrageous behavior and temper tantrums. Even when Clara travels out of the country to visit her mother without telling him, her father’s reaction is mild. Because Clara is the only character who is well-developed, readers are left confused—why do Rose and Clara’s father act as they do? 

The Way You Make Me Feel has a unique premise that revolves around a food truck; however, most of the conflict comes from Clara and Rose bickering, which becomes tedious. Several times throughout the story, Rose’s old friends appear—however, they are equally unlikable and add little to the story. The lack of character development and the absence of genuine conflict make The Way You Make Me Feel a book that will be quickly forgotten. While The Way You Make Me Feel is a disappointing read, Maureen Goo’s other books—Somewhere Only We Know and I Believe in A Thing Called Love—are excellent books that will make your heart swoon. However, If you’re hungry for a food-related romance, both A Pho Love Story by Loan Le and Love & Gelato by Jenna Evans Welch are sure to please. 

Sexual Content 

  • While at a school dance, Clara and her friends “passed the time by taking Snapchats of people making out or groping one another on the dance floor.” 
  • One of Clara’s neighbors saw Clara “making out with my boyfriend” and doused them with a hose. 
  • Clara tells a friend that she and her boyfriend “made out so many times.” 
  • After Hamlet and Clara go on a date, Clara kisses him. Clara “took a step forward, and tugged him by his shirt until our hips bumped. . . I got up on my tippy-toes to reach his lips, and brushed them over his. . . He drew me in closer until our bodies were pressed against each other, one of my hands still clutching his shirt, the other wrapped around his neck, curling into his hair.” 
  • Hamlet’s mom “bought an American customer-service telemarking company in Beijing but didn’t realize until weeks into it that it was for sex toys.” 
  • After coming back from a trip, Hamlet picks Clara up from the airport. “Then he leaned over and kissed me. Kissing Hamlet felt like coming home, for real. I stood up on my toes to deepen the kiss. . .” They kiss several other times, but it is not described. 

Violence 

  • While at prom, Clara and her friends pull a prank. After being voted the prom queen, one of Clara’s friends dumps a bucket of fake blood on her. Rose, who helped plan the prom, got angry and grabbed onto Clara’s wrist. “Rose growled as she let go of one of my wrists to take another swipe at my crown. . . There were a few people onstage now, dragging us apart.” The two girls slip on the fake blood and knock over a lantern that causes a fire. 

 Drugs and Alcohol 

  • In ninth grade, Clara smoked a cigarette in the school bathroom. It was her first time trying a cigarette, but she got caught and was suspended. 
  • Clara and her friends go to a party and drink beer. 
  • Clara and her mom go to a party. While at the party, Clara “continued to drink—people kept offering me shots and various frosty cupped drinks with fruit in them.” Clara gets drunk and has a hangover the next morning. 
  • The morning after the party, one of Clara’s mom’s friends was drinking a Bloody Mary. 

Language   

  • Clara calls people names including jerk, nutjob, dick, butt-kisser, incompetent clown, and total fascist. 
  • Clara’s dad tells her that she is acting like a “little butthole.” 
  • Oh my God, God, and Jesus are all occasionally used as exclamations.  
  • Profanity is used sometimes. Profanity includes ass, damn, crap, freaking, piss, and WTF.  

Supernatural 

  • None 

Spiritual Content 

  • When Clara’s friend Patrick gets injured, he texts her saying his parents “think Jesus was punishing them for letting me date you.” 

The Hand on the Wall

Ellingham Academy must be cursed. Three people are now dead. One, a victim of either a prank gone wrong or a murder. Another, dead by misadventure. And now, an accident in Burlington has claimed another life. All three in the wrong place at the wrong time. All at the exact moment of Stevie’s greatest triumph. She knows who Truly Devious is. She’s solved it. The greatest case of the century.

At least, she thinks she has. With this latest tragedy, it’s hard to concentrate on the past. Not only has someone died in town, but David disappeared of his own free will and is up to something. Stevie is sure that somehow—somehow—all these things connect. The three deaths in the present. The deaths in the past. The missing Alice Ellingham and the missing David Eastman. Somewhere in this place of riddles and puzzles, there must be answers.

Then, another accident occurs as a massive storm heads toward Vermont. This is too much for the parents and administrators. Ellingham Academy is evacuated. Obviously, it’s time for Stevie to do something stupid. It’s time to stay on the mountain and face the storm—and a murderer.

The final book in the Truly Devious Series continues the fast-paced intriguing story that solves both the Ellingham’s kidnapping and the murders at the Ellingham Academy. Stevie is relentless in her desire to solve both mysteries and in the end, she is able to tie up all of the events in a satisfying manner. Even though the story ends in the typical detective story confrontation with all of the suspects together, the conclusion still has several surprises.

In addition to solving the mysteries, several of Stevie’s friends are able to find evidence of Senator Edward King’s corrupt behavior and come up with an ethical way to stop the senator from running for president. While his son, David, plays a part in King’s demise, David’s erratic behavior throughout the series makes him an unlikeable character who is difficult to relate to. While David had a difficult childhood, his bad behavior is never fully explained. And even though he treats Stevie with contempt and cruelty, in the end, she forgives him in order to give her a happy-ever-after ending.

The Truly Devious Series is highly entertaining and will keep mystery-loving readers on the edge of their seats. Even though the story revolves around high school students, the content has some gory details, some steamy scenes, and mature content. Readers who are ready for more mature mysteries should grab a copy of The Forest of Stolen Girls by June Hur or I Hunt Killers by Barry Lyga.

Sexual Content

  • Francis and Eddie, two students from 1936, have sex. Francis thinks, “there were certainly other couples who had sex on the Ellingham campus—one or two. Those people did it giddy, bashfully, and wracked with terror. Eddie and Francis came to each other without fear or hesitation.”
  • While walking through the woods, Eddie tells Francis, “Once more. Up against the tree, like an animal.” Francis declines because she is late.
  • Francis hears that Eddie “fathered a baby once and the girl had to be sent away somewhere outside of Boston. . .”
  • At one point, Stevie and David kiss “over and over, each one renewing the last.” Then later, David “leaned down to kiss her, his lips warm against hers.”

Violence

  • The murders from the first two books of the series are summarized.
  • When a detective finds one of the kidnappers, he “punched him in the face, sending him crashing into some trash cans. When he was down, he flipped Jerry on his back and slapped a pair of cuffs on his wrists, pinning his arms behind his back. . .” The detective removes the man’s gun, binds him, and then ties him to the seat of a car.
  • When Ellingham’s wife was kidnapped, she was quiet for days. When a kidnapper let the “kid” play outside, the kid ran and hid. Ellingham’s wife “jumped” the kidnapper. “She jumped on top of me, dug her thumbs into my eyes. I dropped my gun. . . I grabbed a shovel or something from the wall and hit her with it, hard. There was blood, but. . . she was still standing. . .” When the other kidnapper sees what’s going on, he shoots and kills Ellingham’s wife. The scene is described over a page.
  • One of the kidnappers, Jerry, takes a detective, George, to where he left Ellingham’s daughter. The girl was left with a stranger in a remote location, where she died of measles weeks before the detective arrived. When George sees the girl’s grave, he picked “up the shovel, and was shocked by the first blow, which knocked him to his knees. They came fast, a flurry mixed with cries and gulps. The snow splattered with blood.” Then George kills the man who had been caring for the child; the murder is not described.
  • A man explains that when Ellingham died, most of the body wasn’t found. “We found three hands, a leg, a foot, some skin.”

Drugs and Alcohol

  • While waiting for the birth of a child, a family friend drinks wine.
  • Ellingham’s wife was addicted to cocaine. Her friend noticed her “behavior was changing; she was fickle, impatient, secretive.”
  • Fenton, a professor at a local university was an alcoholic. She died in a suspicious house fire.
  • To help her through panic attacks, Stevie takes Ativan.
  • In 1936, some of the rich girls hid their gin and cigarettes in the walls.
  • At Ellingham’s wife’s funeral, some of the guests drank “countless glasses of champagne.”
  • While trying to track down a suspect, a detective goes into a bar and orders a “glass of whisky.” Later, he shares a drink of whiskey with a friend.

Language

  • Profanity is used often. Profanity includes ass, bitch, bullshit, damn, goddamn, fuck, hell, holy shit, pissed, and shit.
  • My God, oh my God and Jesus are used as exclamations frequently.
  • There is some name calling including dick, asshole, and jackass.
  • One of the faculty calls the students morons and boneheaded.
  • In a diary entry, a student calls Ellingham a “sanctimonious prick.”

Supernatural

  • None

Spiritual Content

  • One of Ellingham Academy’s students from 1936, “set up a ring of candles on the ground and drew a pentagram in the dirt. He was always doing things like that—playing at paganism.”

Cemetery Boys

Sixteen-year-old Yadriel’s family doesn’t accept his true gender. Despite this, he’s determined to prove to his family that he is a real brujo. Yardriel embarks on a mission to help a spirit cross over to the land of the dead. However, instead of summoning his cousin, Yadriel summons the ghost of his school’s bad boy, Julian Diaz.

Julian agrees to let Yadriel release his spirit, but only after Julian does a few things first. During their time together, the pair grow closer and begin to develop feelings for each other. However, Yadriel, Julian, and his friend, Maritza, slowly begin to realize that Julian’s death might be linked with a series of disappearances across East LA. What could be causing them? Will Yadriel’s family ever fully accept him? And will Yadriel be able to set Julian’s spirit free to the afterlife?

Cemetery Boys is an excellent introduction to the genre of magical realism mixed with a sweet and genuine, if somewhat saccharine, YA love story. The fantastical elements of brujo magic remain consistent throughout the story and helps the reader clearly understand what can be accomplished by magic, but the realistic elements are where Thomas’s writing truly shines. They convey a down-to-earth story of a young man seeking acceptance from his traditional family. In addition, the author interweaves several problems that Latinx teenagers face in East LA.

Julian discusses how his friend, Luca, was sucked into a gang. Julian and his friends “didn’t see [Luca] for weeks and his parents didn’t care . . . By the time we tracked him down, he was living in a drug den and had gotten branded with tattoos.” Julian also talks about how his friend’s parents were deported. His friend was “the only one who’s got parents that actually like him . . . But they got deported . . . They sacrificed everything to get to the US and make sure Omar had a better life than them.” In addition, Julian is incredibly open about his rough relationship with his brother, Rio.

Thomas excellently disperses the more upsetting material among scenes of Yadriel and Julian growing closer. The pair go on an Odyssey of cute moments and teenage shenanigans, which makes them and their relationship both believable and sweet. Because of their relationships, Yadriel gains confidence and learns the importance of accepting himself.

Yadriel and his friends—Julian, and Maritza—are strong role models for teenagers because they do what they believe is right, even if it is not easy or socially acceptable. For example, Yadriel goes against his family’s wishes by investigating the death of his cousin. Maritza sticks to her values as a vegan even though she cannot use her magic abilities effectively, since her healing abilities depend on her using animal blood. Plus, Julian chooses to stay in the land of the living in order to help Yadriel prove himself as a brujo.

Cemetery Boys is deeply rooted within Latin American culture, especially through its supernatural elements. Latin American folktales are also sprinkled throughout the story. Additionally, a lot of Spanish is spoken within the book, especially when Yadriel performs magic. While this novel can be easily enjoyed without being bilingual, having some knowledge of both Latin American culture and the Spanish language enhances the reading experience.

Thomas successfully creates a story within the genre of magical realism that is both heart-wrenching and heartwarming. If your child is interested in urban fantasy or wants to read a book featuring diverse LGBTQ+ characters, Cemetery Boys is an excellent choice.

Sexual Content

  • Yadriel kisses Julian. “Yadriel threw himself against Julian and wrapped his arms around his neck kissing him fervently. He felt Julian’s smile under his lips . . . Someone let out a low whistle.”

Violence

  • Animal blood is used in several of the brujo rituals. For example, when Yadriel performs a ritual to summon Lady Death, “The black Hydro Flask full of chicken blood thumped against Yadriel’s hip . . . the rest of his supplies for the ceremony were tucked away inside his backpack.”
  • Yadriel cuts himself to offer his blood to Lady Death in order to summon her. “Yadriel opened his mouth and pressed the tip of the blade to his tongue until it bit into him.” He then puts this blood into a bowl.
  • When Yadriel attempts to heal an injured cat, the ritual backfires and hurts the cat, causing it to bleed. Yadriel “could still picture the drops of scarlet on his mother’s white skirt. The terrible yowl. The sudden, sharp pain of the poor cat piercing into his head.” The cat is later healed by Yadriel’s mother and survives the encounter.
  • When Julian dies, there is “thrashing and pain on Julian’s face. The blood seeping through his shirt. His gasps for breath.” When Julian’s body is found “right above his heart, was a dagger.” Later, Julian finds out his Uncle Catriz killed Julian to be used in a sacrifice to gain powers offered by Xibalba, a jaguar spirit who seeks human sacrifices in exchange for preserving the world and granting power. Yadriel later resurrects Julian and he makes a full recovery.
  • Catriz kills three other people. When they die, the stone under them is “streaked with dark, dried up blood.” Yadriel resurrects them when he resurrects Julian.
  • Yadriel’s evil uncle is dragged to a hellish realm by Xibalba. The spirit “sank its teeth into Catriz’s shoulder, molten eyes blazing. A scream ripped through Catriz, the whites of his eyes surrounding his dark pupils. With a lurch, the jaguar dragged him down. Catriz’s howls turn to wet gurgles as he was pulled below the surface. Dark blood and water spilled across the floor in a wave.”

Drugs and Alcohol

  • In a ritual to call upon Lady Death, Yadriel uses tequila. “Yadriel had nicked a mini bottle of Cabrito tequila from one of the boxes that had been gathered for the Día de Muertos ofrendas.”
  • Yadriel carries alcohol that he uses in rituals. At one point he says, “Last thing I need is to get caught by campus security with alcohol and a knife in my backpack.”
  • Yadriel goes to a bonfire where there are “illegal substances” and alcohol.
  • People spread rumors that Julian’s older brother, Rio, is a drug dealer. These rumors are false.
  • While in the hospital, Julian is put on a sedative which causes, “a thick fog in his head, dulling his senses.”

Language

  • Profanity is used occasionally. Profanity includes asshole, badass, fuck, hell, and shitty.
  • When Julian sees Yadriel’s cat for the first time, he jokingly says, “Holy shit . . . That’s one messed-up looking cat!”
  • Julian tells his friend, “You got shitty taste in music, by the way.”
  • Someone calls Julian “a real asshole.”
  • After Yadriel questions why Julian doesn’t have a girlfriend, Julian says, “Because I’m gay, asshole.”
  • Julian, a gay man, says “Queer folks are like wolves . . . We travel in packs.”
  • After Julian has an outburst, Yadriel says, “What kind of machismo bullshit was that?”

Supernatural

  • The premise of the novel is centered around summoning ghosts, magical powers, and the idea of an afterlife.  Some rituals include summoning Lady Death, releasing spirits into the afterlife, and healing other people. Many of these rituals involve food and alcohol, and some involve blood.
  • Portajes, either daggers or rosaries, are used to release spirits into the land of the dead or heal people.
  • Quinces, fifteenth birthday celebrations, are when most brujos receive their powers from Lady Death.
  • Yadriel’s aunt tells him a story about Xibalba , a jaguar spirit who seeks human sacrifices in exchange for preserving the world and granting power. “Without human sacrifices to satiate his hunger, he threatened to unmake the land of the living.” Xibalba later enters the mortal plane to receive Catriz’s human sacrifices and, when Catriz fails to provide them, drags Catriz into his domain.

by Mia Stryker

The Nature of Witches

Witches have been in control of the weather for hundreds of years, keeping the atmosphere calm and stable. Each witch has powers based in the seasons: winter, spring, summer, and fall. Shaders, or people without magic, depend too much on the witches to keep the weather steady, pushing the limits of the witches. Thus, shaders have been starting to think that the magic is infinite and, as Clara says, “As if this planet were infinite.” More and more witches are being depleted of their powers and dying, causing the witch community to grow tired.

Clara Densmore is not just any ordinary 17-year-old witch, she is an Everwitch. An Everwitch is a witch that is tied to all four seasons. It is a rare and powerful magic; she can use her magic year-round whereas regular witches can only use their magic during their designated season. However, Clara cannot fully control her magic, which resulted in the deaths of her parents and best friend, Nikki. Clara fears her powers, and she is scared that by using her magic she will hurt other people she loves.

Then, Clara’s mentor and teacher, Mr. Hart, dies. Clara must continue her Everwitch training with two new visitors: a teacher named Mr. Burrows and his assistant, Sang Park, from the Western School of Solar Magic. Sang, a spring witch who has an interest in botany, is tasked as Clara’s primary trainer, and soon becomes Clara’s love interest. As Clara struggles with her Everwitch magic and explores the romantic pull she feels toward Sang, she must decide if she wants to improve her control over her magic or be stripped of her magic.

The Nature of Witches is a riveting story filled with romance, self-discovery, and magic. Readers may become very emotional because they are immersed in Clara’s first-person perspective. The story focuses on Clara, which allows readers to understand her thoughts and actions. Readers watch as Clara switches between wanting to be stripped of her magic and accepting it. Clara’s mental struggle is relatable because she is deciding between what she wants, what would be “easy,” and her duty as the most powerful witch. In the end, Clara realizes that her magic is a part of her and is something she can’t live without. Through her experiences, Clara learns the importance of loving both herself and her powers.

Readers will meet several complex, lovable characters inside the pages of The Nature of Witches. Clara and the other characters are portrayed with depth, showing both their good and bad traits. LGBTQ themes are expressed through Paige’s and Clara’s romantic past; the two girls were friends who became partners. There were no labels put on either person or judgment from anyone, suggesting that it is wholly accepted and integrated into society.

Griffin also includes thought-out and vivid worldbuilding by using mystical and descriptive language. The Nature of Witches is engrossing and easy to read, so readers will fly through the pages. Although the inclusion of witches and magic that controls the atmosphere is highly fictional, the story’s main idea is based on the possibility of snowstorms in June and tornadoes in winter. Climate change has been a hot topic for years and this story serves as a reminder that our world is still suffering, and readers must do something before it’s too late.

The Nature of Witches lets readers know that the first step to help stop climate change is to understand the harmful things humans do that affect the climate. The book does not give specific ways to make changes. However, it implies that people will have to face some type of horrible disaster before they accept that things must change. As Clara points out, “We aren’t in this alone and shouldn’t act like we are; the atmosphere is hurting, and that’s a problem for all of us, witches and shaders alike. The challenge is great, and we have a lot of work ahead of us. But we’re in this together, and if there’s anything I’ve learned this past year, it’s that together is where the magic lies.” At the end of the day, we must communicate with each other and work together to effect change.

Griffin gives readers an earnest, thoughtful, and fantastical story about magic and self-acceptance. Both the characters and plot will keep readers interested. While The Nature of Witches has a timely and important message attached to it, the message is not shoved in readers’ faces. The story’s vivid worldbuilding, the interesting plot, and the lovable characters make The Nature of Witches the perfect book for readers who love fantasy and climate fiction. Readers interested in reading another fantastical story that shows the dangers of climate change should grab a copy of Spark by Sarah Beth Durst.

Sexual Content

  • Clara spends the day with her summer fling Josh. After a long day, needing the comfort of his warm body, she “take[s] Josh’s hand, and he follows me the three steps to the bed. He tugs me close to him, brushes his lips against my neck.” They “fill the darkness with heavy breaths and tangled limbs and swollen lips, and by the time the mood reaches its highest point in the sky, Josh is asleep beside me.”
  • After a training incident with Clara’s ex-girlfriend, Paige, Clara remembers the time when they dated. Paige asked Clara to kiss her. “When our lips touched for the first time, [Clara] knew there was no going back.”
  • Sang, a spring witch, as well as Clara’s trainer and love interest, almost kisses Clara. “‘Clara,’ he says, his voice rough with something that sets my insides on fire. ‘If you don’t want me to kiss you right now, you’re going to have to stop looking at me like that.’ But that’s exactly what I want, I don’t care that his lip is bleeding and I’m out of breath, I want it so badly it doesn’t feel like a want. It feels like a need.” But they do not kiss.
  • Sang tells Clara that he likes her. Clara admits she’s tired of fighting her attraction. They hug and share their first kiss. “He kisses me as if it might never happen again, slow and deep and deliberate. There’s a gentleness to the way he opens his mouth and twists his tongue with mine, the way he traces his fingertips down the sides of my face and onto my neck as if he’s memorizing me.”
  • After Sang and Clara’s kiss, Clara admits, “I couldn’t sleep last night, kept awake by the ghost of Sang’s lips on mine, by the way his hand felt pressed against my lower back.”
  • Clara meets Sang outside a school building before their meeting with their teachers. “I can’t help the way my eyes drift to his lips, the way the back of my hand brushes against his.”
  • Clara walks a campus trail early and goes into the woods. She suddenly hears Sang’s voice coming toward her, but she hides. When she sees him, she confesses, “I want to run to him and wrap my arms around his waist and kiss him beneath the branches of our tree, but something keeps me rooted in place.”
  • While driving, Sang calls Clara impressive. “And before I know what’s happening, he pulls over to the side of the road, and I’m closing the distance between us, crawling onto his lap and wrapping my arms around his neck, I kiss him with the urgency of the water roaring down the mountainside and my magic rushing out to meet it.” They continue to kiss into the night. “His hands find my hips and his lips drift down my neck. My head falls back and I arch into him before returning my mouth to his. I kiss him until the sun sets and the moon rises, until my entire body hums with want.”
  • During one of Clara’s classes, Sang comes in as a special guest. When she looks at him, “My face heats with the memory of his body under mine, his face tilting up to me, his mouth on my neck and his hands in my hair.”
  • Clara hopes Paige can’t tell her heart is racing when she sees Sang. Clara remembers “echoes of his mouth on mine and his fingers on my skin and the way he breathes out when I kiss the notch in his neck flood my mind when I see him.”
  • Sang tucks Clara into bed, and “he gives me a soft, slow, lingering kiss.”
  • During the Spring Fling, Sang and Clara hug and admit how happy they are with each other. “Kissing him under the light of the stars makes me feel as if he is who I was always meant to find.” Clara admits to herself that Sang is magic to her, causing, “My lips [to] part, and the kiss deepens, each of us breathing the other in as if we’re the cool night breeze or the perfect scent of daphne.” When Clara falls backwards, “Sang follows, his mouth back on mine, and I think for a moment how perfect it is that two spring witches are falling for each other in the gardens at night.”
  • When Clara breaks up with Sang, she put “my hands on either side of his face and kiss him through my tears and his.”
  • In the aftermath of the solar eclipse, Sang runs to meet Clara and, “his lips meet mine, and I kiss him without hesitation or fear or worry. He weaves his hands through my hair, and his breaths are heavy, matching my own. I open my mouth and tangle my tongue with his, kiss him deeply, kiss him with greed and desire and longing.”
  • As Sang and Clara lay in bed, “I close my eyes, bend down, and kiss him. He puts his hands on either side of my face and opens his mouth, and I get lost in him, lost in the way his fingers feel on my skin, the way his hair tickles my face, the way his lips are soft and taste like black tea and honey.”
  • When Sang gifts Clara a journal, she thanks him and leans in to kiss him. “He kisses me again, then looks out over the meadow.”
  • Sang summons a small storm in his hand and commands thunder while Clara commands lightning. Sang tells Clara thunder will always follow lightning and they walk up to each other, and Clara describes, “I pull Sang into me and kiss him, greedy, deep, long, and eager, soaking up every drop of him before I leave.”
  • The storms dissipate and Sang and Clara cling to each other as they continue to kiss until the Autumnal equinox starts. “His lips are on my mouth, my neck, my chest, and I hold his face between my hands, run my fingers through his hair and down his back.”

Violence

  • As part of training, Clara and the other summer witches try to put out a fire. Clara is taken aback by the memories of the death of her best friend. Clara thinks, “This is the first time I’ve been involved in a group training session since I was on this same field last year, practicing with my best friend. Since the magic inside me rushed toward her in a flash of light, as bright as the fire in front of me. Since she screamed so loudly the sound still echoes in my ears.”
  • Clara’s teacher asks why she fights against her magic. Clara tells him that he knows the reason, elaborating, “He wasn’t here when my best friend died, when my magic sought her out and killed her in one instant, one single breath. But he’s heard the stories.”
  • Clara is paired with Paige for her training on how to handle storms. Clara recognizes that the storm is unstable and tries to pull Paige away. Clara tries to tackle Paige before the storm hurts her but the lightning strikes Clara and goes toward the gold chain around Paige’s neck. “Paige shakes beneath me. I scramble off her and stay by her side.” Paige ends up with a burn on her neck but is otherwise unharmed.
  • Sang accidentally poisoned his mother after growing a plant that has poisonous seeds that she put on her salad. He says, “She got really ill. Vomiting and pain, so weak she could hardly stand. My dad saw the seeds on her plate. He looked them up and realized they were toxic.”
  • After the Spring Fling dance, Clara, Sang, and some of their peers decide to play the ring of fire – a game where the witches need to keep a lightning bolt alive without it dying or touching them while passing it to each other. During a round where the lightning starts to get too strong, it aims for Sang, and, “lightning enters his chest and shoots down his left arm, exiting out his fingertips. He convulses and is thrown several yards before slamming into the ground, shaking, shaking, shaking.” Sang passes out and “a superficial burn is already forming on his skin, an intricate, fractal-like pattern that’s deep red and looks like the leaves of a fern. It covers all the skin I can see on his chest and neck.”

Drugs and Alcohol

  • During the Spring Fling, Clara is talking to Paige. On Paige’s breath is “the sharp smell of alcohol.”

Language

  • Badass is used twice.
  • Shit and fuck are both used once.

Supernatural

  • The book is centered around witches and magic. Below are some, but not all examples of the witch’s magic.
  • Spring magic is calm as “its sole purpose is bringing beauty into the world,” says Clara. It helps plants grow and deals with spring atmospheric occurrences such as tornadoes.
  • Summer magic is intense and bold. Summer witches specialize in thunderstorms and fires. Clara says, “No other season can absorb as much magic from the sun as summers,” making the season strong because witch magic derives from their connection with the sun.
  • Winter magic is aggressive and precise. Witches with winter magic deal with blizzards, wind, the cold, and moisture. According to Clara, “Winters are more straightforward than anyone else. We don’t soften ourselves with indirectness or white lies or fake niceties. What you see is what you get.”
  • Autumn magic is slow and steady, building “on an undercurrent of thankfulness and sorrow.” Since it is a transitional season, it is attuned to its environment and can easily change to accommodate it.
  • Sang picks a fight with Clara, hoping to get her mad so she will use her magic without restriction and to relieve any anger built up between them. They have a small magic fight and by the end of it, Clara has unknowingly pulled spring magic from Sang to create a birch tree. When Clara uses her magic, “The earth shifts as a birch tree shoves through the ground and grows right next to us, tall and white and real. Spring magic heightened to its full strength in the dead of winter.”
  • When Mr. Burrows takes Clara to a field test, she is trapped with a family of shaders. They are stuck in a field surrounded by a wall of rocks and a sunbar, a concentrated wall of sunlight, and triple-digit temperatures. To help the family survive, Clara creates hailstones to keep them cool. Clara is “in a free fall of magic, power bursting from my fingers and into the air, tossing the hail higher and higher as if it’s weightless. I create as much hail as possible, stones dropping out of the sky in rapid succession.”
  • During the Eclipse of the Heart Music Festival, a huge storm breaks and threatens to flood the river. Clara must stop the storm and the river before thousands are flooded. As she tries to stop the storm, she “throw[s] my magic into the storm, and all four seasons follow, tumbling into the cloudburst and taking hold. Winter magic dries out the air, lessening the humidity. Summer focuses on the updraft, pushing down as hard as it can. Spring lines the bank of the river, forcing the water to hold. And autumn cools the air so it can’t rise.”

Spiritual Content

  • None

by Brynn Jankowski

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