The Magical Reality of Nadia

Nadia loves fun facts. Here are a few facts about her: 

  • She collects bobbleheads — she has 77 so far.
  • She moved from Egypt to America when she was six years old.
  • The hippo amulet she wears is ancient…as in it’s literally from ancient Egypt.
  • She’s going to win the contest to design a new exhibit at the local museum. Because how cool would that be?!

Okay, so that last one isn’t a fact just yet, but Nadia has plans to make it one. But then a new kid shows up and teases Nadia about her Egyptian heritage. It’s totally unexpected and totally throws her off her game. 

Then something else happens that Nadia can’t explain: Her amulet starts glowing! She soon discovers that the hippo is holding a hilarious — and helpful — secret. Can she use it to confront the new kid and win the contest? 

Nadia often acts like a know-it-all who loves telling people interesting facts about random subjects. Despite this, Nadia is a likable protagonist who learns that “being a leader didn’t mean telling people what to do or doing it all yourself. It was about guiding everyone else to come to a solution together.” Nadia’s quirky personality will draw readers into the story, but it is Titi who is the star of the story.  

While living in Ancient Egypt, a magician curses Titi by sending him into a hippo amulet. When Nadia purchases the amulet, she discovers the secret to breaking the curse—Titi can only be set free by helping Nadia six times. Titi is energetic, optimistic, and funny. And as a teacher, he has plenty of wisdom to impart. For instance, Nadia and Titi jump into the parable of “The Eloquent Peasant.” The parable comes to life in comic-style panels that educate about Egyptian history in a unique and entertaining way. While in the comic, Nadia learns a powerful lesson about how to deal with a bully. Even though Titi lived in a different time period, he is still able to help Nadia with her friendship problems.  

One of Nadia’s problems is that the new kid, Jason, is very vocal about his dislike of Nadia’s Egyptian heritage. For example, he makes fun of Nadia’s lunch because “it smells weird.” In addition, he says he only eats “American food. . . not desert people food.” However, Jason’s mean comments are not just confined to school. While at the fall fair, Jason asks the DJ to play the song “Walk Like an Egyptian.” Then, Jason “took a couple of staggering steps forward with his arms in the awkward position. He moved his head forward and back like a pigeon, too, a huge grin on his face.” In this situation, Nadia uses the parable of “The Eloquent Peasant” to find a solution, but not everything goes as she planned. 

At first, Jason’s behavior makes Nadia want to hide her Egyptian heritage, but her parents explain how they handle microaggressions. When a cashier at the local supermarket made rude comments, Nadia’s Mama began talking about things they had in common. Mama said, “It showed her that we aren’t so different after all. . . Getting to know me has allowed her view to shift.”  

The Magical Reality of Nadia uses humor to highlight the importance of finding common ground with others. Nadia points out that, “Unless you are Native American, we all have an immigrant story in our past. Each of us is here today because one of our ancestors came to America and started a life for their family.” While most of the story is in traditional text, the book includes sections of black-and-white comics as well as lively black-and-white illustrations throughout.  

While The Magical Reality of Nadia is humorous and entertaining, the story hits on topics of prejudice, friendship, and courage. Nadia’s story will help readers have empathy for people who are different from them and in the end, the lessons from The Magical Reality of Nadia will stay with readers long after they put the book down.  

Readers looking for another book about immigrating to another country should also read Other Words for Home by Jasmine Warga and Efrén Divided by Ernesto Cisneros. However, if you’d like to learn more about Ancient Egypt’s culture, check out the Kid Detective Zet Series by Scott Peters and the TombQuest Series by Michael Northrop. 

Sexual Content 

  • None 

Violence 

  • During summer vacation, one of Nadia’s friends went to London. Afterward, Nadia asks, “Did you know they used to display chopped-off heads on the original London Bridge?”  
  • Jason goes to the museum and destroys Nadia and her friends’ project. 
  • While at an ice cream shop, Jason starts making fun of Nadia’s heritage. Nadia gets upset with “her hands balling into fists. She’d never hit anyone before, but there was a first time for everything. She lunged at Jason . . . and tripped over her backpack. Jason laughed, but as Nadia fell, she knocked into him and he lost his balance falling backwards onto the table.” Jason falls onto an ice cream sundae. One of Jason’s friends says, “It looks like you pooped your pants!”  
  • Nadia’s parents left Egypt during the Arab Spring. Her mom says, “People who opposed the government were still being imprisoned, and tortured, and killed. We realized we did not want to raise you in that kind of environment.”  

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • None 

Language 

  • A teacher teases a magician. Afterwards, the magician calls the teacher a fool. 
  • Titi tells Nadia to “close your mouth. You look like Hatmehit’s hat! Hatmehit was an ancient Egyptian fish goddess.”  
  • Freakin’ and heck are both used once. 
  • After reading a parable, Nadia says one of the characters is a doofus and a fool. 
  • When Nadia tells her friend they “can’t toss a football in a museum,” her friend tells her to “Calm down, Grandma.” 
  • Jason calls one of his friends an idiot. 
  • Jason calls Nadia an “Egyptian Queen.” Then he says, “You don’t even belong here. Why don’t you just go back where you came from?!”  

Supernatural 

  • A teacher is cursed by an angry magician. “The next thing the teacher knew, there was a great wind and a loud sucking noise. Then everything turned black.” The teacher is confined to an Egyptian necklace.  
  • “Ancient Egyptians wore hippo amulets to ward off evil.” 
  • Nadia held her hippo amulet and asked for help. Then, “Nadia went over to the desk . . . There, on the college-ruled pages of what was to be her math notebook, a little animated man was jumping up and down, waving wildly at her.”  
  • At first, Nadia is confused when she discovers “a little animated man [Titi] haunting her math notebook!” But then she realizes that if she shuts the notebook, the man disappears. However, Titi and Nadia soon set boundaries that allow the two to communicate when appropriate.  

Spiritual Content  

  • One of Nadia’s fun facts revolves around the Ancient Egyptian’s beliefs about death. The Book of the Dead says “When a person died and was judged by the ancient gods, they had to swear to two things: that they had not lied, or cheated, or killed, or harmed others; and that they preserved the Nile River and kept it pure. . .” 

Saints of the Household

Max and Jay have always depended on one another for their survival. Growing up with a physically abusive father, the two Bribri (indigenous Puerto Rican) American brothers have learned that the only way to protect themselves and their mother is to stick to a schedule and keep their heads down.

But when they hear a classmate in trouble in the woods, instinct takes over and they intervene, breaking up a fight and beating their high school’s star soccer player to a pulp. This act of violence threatens the brothers’ dreams for the future and their beliefs about who they are. As the true details of that fateful afternoon unfold over the course of the novel, Max and Jay grapple with the weight of their actions, their shifting relationship as brothers, and the realization that they may be more like their father than they thought. They’ll have to reach back to their Bribri roots to find their way forward. 

Told in alternating perspectives, Saints of the Household outlines Jay’s and Max’s stress as they enter their final year of high school. Ari Tison is Bribri herself and brings Bribri stories and language into the text. She integrates these elements seamlessly. It gives insight into Bribri culture and provides a contrast to rural Minnesota. The boys’ connections with their home and their mother’s family are deeply important to the story, as it provides a sense of normalcy and peace in an environment that is otherwise uncertain. 

Jay and Max’s relationship drives the tone of the story. The brothers have different personalities, which causes conflict. Max wants to escape his home situation and often pulls away from Jay, who is always preoccupied with family and school matters. The brother’s bond fluctuates; the more Jay and Max exist in harmony, the more hopeful the story becomes. Both Jay and Max are sympathetic characters, and readers will find it easy to connect with them. 

Since Jay and Max are familiar with domestic violence, Saints of the Household includes violent scenes. In addition, when their classmate Luca physically abuses Nicole – his then-girlfriend – the brothers beat up Luca in order to protect Nicole. Some readers may find the abuse troubling as Tison’s remarkably succinct writing style makes the descriptions of these scenes short, yet powerful. Despite this, in the quiet moments, Jay and Max find solace in each other and in their Bribri traditions even though they live in the tundra of Minnesota. Jay also seeks comfort in his friend Nicole, while Max finds it in his art. 

In order to help readers distinguish between the brothers, Max’s chapters are all written in wandering verse, which is in stark contrast to Jay, who writes his thoughts in prose. The changing points of view illustrate the differences between the brothers as well as highlights how differently they understand their current situations. Another factor that affects the story is that religion plays a significant role in the story as the boys’ beliefs balance between Christianity and Bribri traditions. As with other elements of the book, these are integrated seamlessly into the story and there aren’t any strong stances taken on the topic itself. Religion is as much a part of Jay and Max’s life as Bribri culture, or their mom’s hot chocolate: it just is. 

Despite the darkness that cloaks the events in Saints of the Household, the ending is uplifting. The brothers have witnessed violence and have even stooped to physically fighting each other. Despite this, the conclusion hints that Max and Jay will make it through these difficult times through their family’s and friends’ love. Saints of the Household will appeal to readers looking for a more literary and thoughtful text rather than an action-packed adventure. The story ends on a hopeful note and shows that the characters will make it through to the next stages of their lives. It also reminds readers that life can get better. For more perspective from indigenous authors, read The Marrow Thieves by Cherie Dimaline and Powwow Summer by Nahanni Shingoose. 

Sexual Content  

  • Jay finds one of his dad’s porn magazines. The magazine has “a woman with a low-cut shirt lean[ing] forward on the cover.”  
  • Nicole used to date Aaron, but she “think[s] Aaron was hooking up with someone else right after we broke up because of something I saw online. They were flirting in the comments somewhere.”  
  • Max and his girlfriend, Melody, kiss. Max describes, “She leans over and kisses me./ We kiss hard, and I cry.” 
  • Max mentions that he says “no to [Melody] when she asks about sex” because he’s worried he’ll hurt her. 
  • At a school dance, Max and Melody kiss. Max describes, “Before we get to the hall,/ she turns off the lights,/ and then I kiss her, and we kiss, and we kiss,/ by the dark door.” 
  • Max and Melody “mess around, pulling clothes;/ she’s musk, honey, stomach,/ ochre colors filling my mind/ with every kiss and touch/ we unfurl on the bed,/ until she’s over me.” Max stops before things can go any further. 
  • After an absence, Nicole sees Aaron again. “Before Aaron can say anything, they hug each other, and hug and hug. She kisses him on the cheek. He kisses her back, and they start really kissing.”  

Violence  

  • The narrator asks God for forgiveness for “kicking the neighbor’s dog, for shouting at the sky, for beating up that boy.” The event where the boy, Luca, is beaten up is explained later in the book as the book’s plot follows the aftermath. 
  • After they beat up Luca, Jay and Max see a counselor. The counselor asks, “Why didn’t you stop? Why did you kick him in the face? You broke his nose…His face is severely injured.” 
  • Jay explains what happened the day they beat up Luca. Jay says, “Luca was pulling at [Nicole’s] jacket, and she pushed his hands away. Then Luca’s hands were on her shoulders while she swore at him. . . She pushed him off, then he grabbed her hand and yanked it down and then leaned forward to say something in her ear. And we snapped. We were on him, pulling him away from Nicole, and he swore at us. He shoved Max, and I shoved him back, then he shoved me back, and then we beat the heck out of him.” This description lasts for one page. 
  • Jay describes the first time his dad hit him. Jay says, “Dad opened the door and caught me listening. I saw his usual hard anger turned hot, but hotter this time. I can still feel it. That first time he swung. My body crumpled onto the wooden floor.” The description ends after a page, but it is established that this happens regularly. 
  • Jay explains his father’s domestic violence further. Jay says, “After Max’s fourteenth birthday, he took to hitting me whenever I did anything that upset him…Then he started on Max. He made us swear never to tell Mom, because she wouldn’t understand that it was what we deserved for acting like fools, for not doing what he asked, for looking at him the wrong way and how it showed him disrespect. That didn’t last long, because his anger turned to her soon.”  
  • The brother’s mom tells a story about two young men who have to stop mystical eagles from stealing children from a tribe. They lull the eagles to sleep and, while they slept, the two men “swiftly took a knife to [the eagle’s] throat and cut [them] to pieces.”  
  • Max and Jay come home and see their mom crying and holding her shoulder. Their dad is yelling. Jay reacts: “With two long strides, I am right up to him, him and his sour breath. I send my fist right to his face.” Their dad ends up leaving the house without taking a swing at Jay.  
  • Jay’s dad tries to be nice to Jay’s mom, but then Jay says, “I lay him out when he drinks too much and goes after Mom again.” It is insinuated later that his dad hit his mom in the face. 
  • After an absence, Jay and Max’s dad comes home. Jay details: “Late at night, I hear a loud bang at the back door. Mom opens it, like she does. And I hear it, the lick of fist to skin. I see Dad’s hands go hard to her neck. Max jumps on Dad.” Their dad is arrested. 
  • Jay has dreams about his dad physically abusing him. He has “dreams where Dad’s hands hit me across the face, harder for calling the authorities on him…I see the time he decked me for taking it out and how he marched me out to the alley and pushed my face into the can so hard the plastic edge cut into my skin.” His descriptions last for a page. 
  • Jay’s grandpa, Grandpa Fernando, talks to Jay about depression. He says, “I used to get sad, too. You know your great-uncle? It was so much he took his own life. I don’t want that for you.”  
  • Max and Jay fight. Max says, “I go for you first./ I go for your ankles,/ and your back cracks/ against the wood./ I’m on you,/ swinging and swearing.” The fight ends when Grandpa Fernando hits Max over the head with “a big book in his hands.” The description of the fight lasts for a few pages. Jay sustains bruises on his face, but both brothers are otherwise fine. 

Drugs and Alcohol  

  • The brother’s dad physically abuses his family, “especially when he drinks.” Jay elaborates that his dad “likes rum and Coke.” 
  • Max paints Melody’s portrait at a park next to a trailer park. Max notes, “there, a smoking empty bean can/ with cigarette butts on the steps.” 

Language  

  • Profanity is used somewhat infrequently. Profanity includes: shitty, asshole, damn, hell, jackass, and fuck. 

Supernatural 

  • None 

Spiritual Content  

  • The book opens with a passage about communion and Christian church service. An unnamed narrator says, “I keep crying at the time of the reflection, asking God for forgiveness. I can’t stop thinking about it —  before I am told to eat the cracker and drink the two-inch cup of black-red wine.” The passage lasts for half a page, and God’s name is invoked frequently throughout the book. Jay and Max’s family does attend church. 
  • Max and Jay are indigenous Costa Rican, and Jay notes that the ocean is traditionally sacred and revered. He says that they’d “have to pray to even get close” to the ocean. 
  • Grandpa Fernando would tell Max and Jay stories about their ancestors, who were the first indigenous peoples of Costa Rica – the Bribri. He would tell them “of tricksters, the Creator Sibö, and men who were cursed after selfishness.” There are short chapters dedicated to various Bribri stories, and they each last for a couple of pages. One story is about the birth of Creator Sibö. 
  • Jay references an Old Testament story where “Jonathan risks his life for King David, and a verse says that David loved Jonathan with more love than a man had for a woman — and Max and I are like that. Brothers born eleven months apart.” 
  • Max and Jay’s mom tells them a story about mystical eagles. She explains that “the mystical eagles were the dragons of Talamanca…They’d come down from the mountains, tearing children from their mothers’ arms, snatching those who went out in the day from the pathways.” The story lasts for a page. 
  • Max says that he remembers him and Jay “laughing at the sex-garden references in the Bible—Eden, then the gardens in the Song of Solomon.” 

Classified: The Secret Career of Mary Golda Ross, Cherokee Aerospace Engineer

Mary Golda Ross designed classified airplanes and spacecrafts as Lockheed Aircraft Corporation’s first female engineer. Find out how her passion for math and the Cherokee values she was raised with shaped her life and work.

Cherokee author Traci Sorell and Métis illustrator Natasha Donovan trace Ross’s journey from being the only girl in a high school math class to becoming a teacher to pursuing an engineering degree, joining the top-secret Skunk Works division of Lockheed, and being a mentor for Native Americans and young women interested in engineering. 

Mary Golda Ross’s amazing life will encourage readers of all ages to pursue their passions by working hard. When Mary attended a state teacher’s college, the boys refused to work with her which motivated Mary to “get better grades than they did.” In her early career, Mary shared her love of math as a teacher. However, when World War II started, Mary went to work at the Lockheed Aircraft Corporation, where she helped design fast-flying planes. Later, she worked on spacecrafts that “helped the Apollo space program send astronauts to the moon!” Even though Mary never received public acclaim, that didn’t bother her. Throughout her life, Mary continued to work hard and encourage young women to study math and science.

As the first female engineer for Lockheed Aircraft Corporation, Mary “modeled the Cherokee value of working together in mind and heart.” Mary also wasn’t afraid to ask questions. Even though Mary was the only female, she proved herself a capable engineer. “Her male colleagues respected her intellect, her drive to solve problems, and how she worked in the team.” These qualities allowed Mary to make a positive impact in the world. 

Mary’s experiences come to life in realistic illustrations that use muted colors. One of the best aspects of the illustrations is their ability to incorporate math and science. For example, one picture shows a series of images of teenage Mary using a microscope, helping with a science experiment, and performing another task; around these pictures are math equations. Pictures of planes and drafting pages are incorporated into many of the illustrations.

Even though The Secret Career of Mary Golda Ross, Cherokee Aerospace Engineer is a picture book, the story is intended to be read aloud to a child, rather than for the child to read it for the first time independently. Each page has one to four complex sentences that will be difficult for beginning readers to tackle on their own. In addition, the book contains some advanced vocabulary such as colleagues, orbiting satellites, concepts, and classified. Even though some readers will not understand all the book’s concepts during the first read, The Secret Career of Mary Golda Ross is still an excellent book to share with young readers.

The Secret Career of Mary Golda Ross, Cherokee Aerospace Engineer is an American Indian Library Association Youth Literature Award Honor Picture Book; this award to given to stories that represent Indigenous North American peoples in the fullness of their humanity. This picture book is a must-read not only because it introduces a woman of importance, but also because “the narrative highlights Cherokee values including education, working cooperatively, remaining humble, and helping ensure equal opportunity and education for all.” To learn more about women who made notable contributions in engineering, read Counting on Katherine: How Katherine Johnson Saved Apollo 13 by Helaine Becker and Mae Among The Stars by Roda Ahmed.

Sexual Content 

  • None

Violence 

  • None

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • None

Language 

  • None

Supernatural

  • None

Spiritual Content 

  • None

The Green Glass Sea

Young Dewey Kerrigan and Suze Gordon live in a time ravaged by World War II. When their families are moved to a secret location in the New Mexican desert called Los Alamos, the girls’ lives become filled with military personnel and top-secret information. Their parents are the nation’s finest scientists and have been enlisted to build a powerful weapon to end the war. However, with their parents on this mission, the girls are left with many questions and choices about the war, their families, and their futures. 

Dewey’s and Suze’s worlds collide when Dewey’s father goes on an important business trip and leaves Dewey in the hands of the Gordon family. Although Suze’s parents are friendly and hospitable, there’s one massive problem: Suze and Dewey are very different people and don’t like each other. As the war grows more dire and tragedy strikes the Gordon family, problems erupt between the girls that could jeopardize their present and future lives. Can Suze and Dewey settle their differences in time? 

The Green Glass Sea features two main protagonists — Dewey Kerrigan and Suze Gordon. Each chapter alternates between the two girls’ points of view which showcases their drastically different voices and personalities. For example, Dewey prefers to work on her gadgets and gizmos in solitude. On the other hand, Suze enjoys her social network and creates beautiful collages filled with old, discarded objects. The girls’ differing personalities keep each of their chapters fresh and exciting. Their realistic views and worries about the war, their family, and the future ground them as authentic, enjoyable characters. While most readers may find it difficult to relate to these girls’ experiences, they can admire the girls’ motivation, strength, and optimism during this tough period. 

Dewey and Suze are surrounded by a wonderful cast of supporting characters who emphasize the story’s lesson about family and loving one another. Dewey and Suze learn to love each other’s differences, and Dewey finds a home with the Gordons when Suze explains, “You’re coming too . . . Daddy said the whole family’s going.” Alongside this heartwarming plot and engaging characters, the story also features a realistic portrayal of history, matching the story’s scenes with the real-life events of World War II. 

The Green Glass Sea addresses the difficulty of World War II and includes sensitive topics like the Nazis, concentration camps, and the ethical usage of the atomic bomb. This information may be hard to digest for certain readers, but it only makes up a small portion of the story. Overall, The Green Glass Sea is a moving story about two girls’ worlds colliding because of World War II. With the combination of exciting characters and historical events, this book is a must-read for history buffs who appreciate the impacts that big-scale events have on normal people. Readers who want to learn more about World War II should also read Survival Tails: World War II by Katrina Charman and Lifeboat 12 by Susan Hood. 

Sexual Content 

  • Suze and Dewey sing a song about the war, where they sing, “Hitler has only got one ball. Goering has two but they are small. Himmler has something sim’lar, but poor old Goebbels has no balls at all! 

Violence 

  • Suze escapes some military police (MPs) while taking a shortcut through a restricted area.  As she climbs over a fence, she scrapes her knee, causing “a little rivulet of blood [to trickle] slowly down her dirt-covered leg . . . ” This scene is described over two pages. 
  • Suze bullies Dewey by drawing “a straight yellow line down the middle” of their room and saying, “You and your stuff stay on your side. Got it?” 
  • When Suze and Dewey go to school. Suze says, “You better not walk with me,” and, “Don’t even think about eating lunch with me.” 
  • While at school, Suze purposely hits the edge of Dewey’s radio “sending it flying,” which causes “a loud crack and a clatter like hailstones as its lid popped open and its contents scattered.” 
  • Suze and Dewey encounter a mean girl, Joyce. After Joyce insults Dewey and her, Suze “took a step forward, grabbed Joyce by the knot of her yellow Girl Scout neckerchief, and pushed her away. Hard.” Joyce lands in a muddy puddle. 
  • Dewey’s father, Jimmy Kerrigan, dies in a car accident. The accident isn’t described.   
  • Dewey angrily smashes a record that reminds her of her father’s death. Dewey “lifts the record off the turntable with both hands and smashes it with all her strength across her upraised knee.” 

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • While on a train, Dewey sees people “smoking cigarettes and drinking cocktails and talking very loud.” 
  • Dewey keeps her home-built radio inside a “wooden cigar box.” 
  • Throughout the story, Suze’s mom repeatedly smokes cigarettes in the house.  
  • Suze’s father regularly drinks beer and whiskey during and after work. While at home, “he reached up and opened the cupboard, putting two glasses and the bottle of whiskey on the counter.” 
  • Suze’s dad, Phillip, also regularly smokes his pipe. As he smokes, “the smoke blew over her head, smelling like sweetish-sour burning leaves.” 
  • Dewey’s dad, Jimmy, offers Suze’s mother, Terry, “an inch of brown liquid.” Terry exclaims, “It’s Bushmills [whiskey]. How heavenly.” 
  • Jimmy gets drunk after a couple of drinks at an after-work party. He didn’t realize that “the boys were just dumping liquor bottles willy-nilly into the bowl.” 
  • Jimmy once pulled out “a pack of Camels, and lit one.” 
  • After they had completed their gadget, many scientists “held whiskey bottles” in celebration. 

Language 

  • Mrs. Kovack, Dewey’s neighbor, yells, “For the love of Pete, will you just come inside?” 
  • The book references the black community as “negros.”   
  • Dewey’s friend, Jack, uses the word “bitch” to describe the fighting and atrocities of World War II. 
  • Throughout the story, the kids repeatedly call Dewey, “Screwy Dewey.” 
  • Suze’s mother says both “damned” and “goddamn” once. 
  • Suze’s father says “goddamn” and “oh, Jesus” once.  
  •  “Oh god” and “My god” are both used as an exclamation once. 
  • Throughout the story, kids call Suze “Truck” because she’s a “big fat pushy steamroller truck.” 
  • Suze once utters that something is “a bunch of bushwa.” 
  • Suze and Dewey repeatedly use the acronym “FUBAR,” which means “fucked up beyond all recognition.” 
  • “Hell,” “crissakes,” and “jeez Louise” are all used once. 

Supernatural 

  • None 

Spiritual Content 

  • Mrs. Kovack does “her good Christian duty by taking Dewey in.” 
  • Suze mentions that her family celebrates Hanukkah. 
  • Dewey’s father once exclaims that he hopes “to god the war doesn’t go on longer. . . ”

Other Words for Home

When 12-year-old Jude is forced to leave her home country of Syria with her pregnant mother, she loses her friends, family, and her home overnight. Suddenly, Jude has left behind the only place she’s ever known and moves to Cincinnati, Ohio to live with her uncle. 

Adapting takes time. People in America talk fast and talk in ways Jude doesn’t understand. The English Jude learned back home is not enough to keep up, causing her to struggle in school and making it difficult to make friends. Americans dress differently too, and many of them don’t understand Muslim customs. Meanwhile, the constant stress of her mother’s pregnancy and being separated from her home, father, and brother weigh heavily on Jude’s mind. Yet the hardest part about adapting to America is figuring out who she is in this new place. In America, Jude must redefine herself in ways she never imagined. She relies on the last words her brother spoke to her: “Be brave.” 

Jude dives headfirst into making her new life work. She studies hard, develops relationships with new friends, and even tries out for her school musical. Yet Jude becomes torn between her past and present identities when a terrorist attack leads to an increased amount of hate crimes against Middle Eastern people in her town. Jude doesn’t understand why innocent people should be held responsible for the crimes of a few. Jude says, “Americans expect bombs to go off in Lebanon, in Pakistan, in my beloved Syria, but not in France, Britain, Canada. . . Americans think it’s normal for there to be violence in places where people like me are from, where people like me and people who look like me live. . . That they all see people like me and think violence, sadness, war.” Jude concludes that many people are quick to make generalizations about things they don’t understand. However, instead of getting upset, Jude decides to prove them wrong. She decides to truly be “seen.” 

Things start to look up when Jude scores a role in her school play and her new baby sister is born. Plus, Jude is able to talk with her brother for the first time in nearly a year. Eventually, Jude finds where she fits in, confidently pursues her goals, and is filled with hope for the future when her family can be reunited again. The book ends with Jude standing in the spotlight on the stage, ready to be seen. 

Other Words for Home is a story about a girl who, despite having her life uprooted, remains optimistic for a future where she can thrive. It is written in free verse, but the story is still easy to understand. As a narrator, Jude is humorous and direct which makes her story entertaining and powerful. American readers will find the events shocking because they will see their culture through the eyes of someone else. While people may know the facts and physical struggles of immigrant families, they rarely get to see the true emotions behind the people who endure these trials. Even though some parts of the story may be uncomfortable to read, Other Words for Home is a must-read because the story will give readers a better understanding of the life of immigrants in America.

While the content of Other Words for Home can seem political, there is never a time when the reader doesn’t identify with Jude. She feels like an outcast who wants others to see her for who she really is – not the labels that society puts on her. This is especially relatable to middle-grade readers, but is also relatable to anyone who wishes the world wasn’t so quick to judge. One of the most powerful moments in the story is when Jude bravely declares, “I am choosing to not be afraid” in the face of society’s prejudice. 

One theme that is highlighted throughout the story is the importance of not judging people based on their race. Jude is an immigrant, a Muslim, and a foreigner. Others often make assumptions about Jude and these perceptions alter how she is able to adapt to American society. At first, Jude is unsure of how to navigate these labels, but she slowly comes to resist them and stays true to herself. In the beginning of the story, Jude is torn over which place – Syria or America – is her home, but she comes to realize that home is a feeling rather than a place. Home is among her friends and family, who support her dreams and see Jude as her true self. 

Sexual Content 

  • When Muslim girls get their first period, they come of age and cover their hair with a headscarf. Fatima, one of Jude’s friends, is the first to get her period. Jude says Fatima “is one of the first girls in our grade to cover. She has bled between her legs.”
  • Jude says she wasn’t supposed to watch the movie Practical Magic or Pretty Woman because “witches and prostitutes scare Mama.”
  • Jude and her friend, Sarah, watch a show with kissing. Jude describes how Sarah “doesn’t seem surprised by all the kissing on the show. I wonder if she has been kissed herself but I’m not brave enough to ask her.”
  • Jude gets her first period. “I look at the bloodstained spots that appeared on [the] sheets overnight. . . then I saw the slow, thick, crimson drip between my legs, and I felt the dense cramp of my stomach and I knew.” 

Violence 

  • Jude sees a picture in a newspaper of bloodied civilians. “The front page is filled with awful pictures of people who are bloodied and cowering together.”
  • Jude’s brother, Issa, is at his apartment with Jude and his roommates when police raid it. “There is shouting, glasses knocked to the ground, bodies shoved against walls, the sounds of handcuffs clicking, more shouting.” Neither of them is injured. The story doesn’t say what happens to the other people. 
  • Layla tells Jude about a terrorist attack. “And then she tells me: about the explosion, about the blood in the streets, and the horror and the death.” These are the only details given about the incident. 
  • There are three instances of hate crimes. No one is injured. In the first instance, Layla’s family’s shop is defaced when someone writes “terrorists” on the storefront. In the second, a man follows Jude and tells her to “go back to where you came from.” Lastly, a woman tells Jude to remove her hijab. 

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • None

Language 

  • Jude’s friend, Miles calls the man who told her to “go back to where [she] came from” a jerk. 

Supernatural 

  • None

Spiritual Content 

  • Jude, her family, and a few of her friends are Muslim. There are references to Muslim culture such as the Quran, mosques, and Allah (God). Occasionally Jude brings up Arabic proverbs. 
  • Jude says that there are men who “manipulate the Quran to say things that the rest of us know it does not say.” 
  • Jude mentions an Arabic myth. “I felt like the woman from the Arabic myth who can see so far into the distance that she can see the future.”
  • Jude says, “Allah would want us to have faith.” When she receives a postcard from a friend after a long time of not hearing from her, Jude says, “[This] is the type of thing that makes me believe in Allah and the grace of the universe.”
  • Jude and her family visit a mosque together.

Ghost Boys

When twelve-year-old Jerome Rogers is shot and killed by a police officer, his ghost watches his family and the world around him shake in the wake of his death. Upset and frustrated, he doesn’t understand why this had to happen–why a police officer would confuse a kid with a toy gun for a grown man, and why no one administered any medical care at the scene. Jerome is mad that this often happens to black folks like him. Then, Jerome meets another ghost boy named Emmett Till, who teaches him about the United States’ long legacy of discrimination against black people, and especially black boys.

Jewell Parker Rhodes’ Ghost Boys is a gripping story about violence, grief, and the devastation caused by systemic racism. Jerome laments about how he’ll never get to grow old, and that he has to leave his family behind. He witnesses the court proceedings deciding the fate of the police officer, and he sees his family’s reaction when the judge decides that there is not enough evidence for a trial. It is wholly unfair, and Jerome struggles with this unfairness throughout much of the novel. It is by Emmett Till’s explanation of history that Jerome learns he can still look after kids who have been wronged and that maybe we can take steps toward change.

A couple of people can see Jerome’s ghost and interact with him. His grandmother has some inkling that he’s there, but Jerome spends most of his time speaking with Sarah, the daughter of the police officer. She grapples with internalized biases, and they help each other understand that they can still create change for the better, even though their worlds are categorically messy. It is through Sarah and Emmett Till that Jerome comes to accept his death and realizes that sharing his story will hopefully help prevent events like this in the future.

Rhodes doesn’t hold back in Ghost Boys. Although this book details violence and tragedy, she does an excellent job using these details to move the plot along and help the characters grow. Her choice to include the historical case of Emmett Till is also well done, and Emmett’s inclusion in the book helps balance out Jerome’s other primary interactions as a ghost. 

Ghost Boys is an emotionally difficult book, and the target audience should be middle-grade readers and older readers who find themselves ready for this intensity. The tragedy of this book is not that it is violent, but rather that this is our unfortunate reality. The names of real-life black people killed by the police are scattered throughout the book, reminding us that this book doesn’t exist in a vacuum. For all the gravitas that Ghost Boys brings, it is an important read for understanding grief and compassion, and by the end, there is still a glimmer of hope that maybe people can change for the better.

There are many great book options for middle-grade readers who want to explore racism in more detail including  The Lions of Little Rock by Kristin Levine, A Good Kind of Trouble by Lisa Moore Ramée, From The Desk of Zoe Washington by Janae Marks, and The Parker Inheritance by Varian Johnson.

Sexual Content 

  • Jerome dreams about what it would be like for him to be able to grow up. On his list of things he would’ve done, he mentions, “Real is me having a girlfriend. (Maybe.)”

Violence 

  • The protagonist, Jerome, is shot and killed by police officers who mistook his toy gun for a real one. As a ghost watching himself outside his body, Jerome describes his body, saying, “Laid out flat, my stomach touching ground. My right knee bent and my brand-new Nikes stained with blood. I stop and stare at my face, my right cheek flattened on concrete. My eyes are wide open.”
  • Jerome’s Ma pokes him while emphasizing that she wants him to be educated. Jerome says, “Sometimes the poke hurts a bit. But I get it.”
  • Jerome is afraid of some bullies at school because they “like to dump [his] backpack. Push [him], pull [his] pants down. Hit [him] upside the head.” This is a common occurrence when Jerome describes his time at school. 
  • Jerome notes that the new kid, Carlos, is going to get a beating from the school bullies. Jerome says, “New students are beat-down magnets.”
  • The bullies attack Carlos in the school bathroom. Jerome describes, “Mike punches Carlos. He falls backwards. Then, Mike and Snap are both kicking Carlos. In the stomach. The head.” This scene continues for two pages. 
  • Jerome stands up to the bullies on behalf of Carlos, and Carlos pulls a gun on the bullies, surprising everyone. Jerome describes, “We all turn. Carlos has a gun.” It turns out later that it’s a plastic toy, and that’s how Carlos got it past school security.
  • Jerome doesn’t like seeing his mom upset. He says, “seeing Ma crying makes me want to crush, slam something into the ground.” He does not act on these impulses.
  • Jerome’s dad is upset over his son’s death at the hands of a policeman. While speaking with the rest of the family about the injustice, Jerome describes, “Pop’s fist slams the wall. The drywall cracks. I’ve never seen Pop violent.”
  • Many references are made to slavery and violence against black people in the United States. Jerome’s dad says, “Tamir Rice, 2014. He died in Cleveland. Another boy shot just because he’s black . . . No justice. No peace. Since slavery, white men been killing blacks.”
  • Sarah, the daughter of the police officer, can see Jerome’s ghost. She tells him that she’s sorry, and Jerome thinks, “If she wasn’t a girl, I’d think about hitting her.”
  • Ever since her dad killed Jerome, Sarah’s parents have been arguing. Jerome and Sarah both hear noise coming from downstairs. “A door slams. Sarah’s mom and dad are shouting. Glass breaks.”
  • Jerome becomes angry, and in his ghost form his “hand connects. Peter Pan flies across the room. The book hits the wall, drops to the floor.”
  • Emmett Till died in 1955. He was lynched by a group of men, and the scene lasts for two pages. Jerome watches Emmett’s memories, describing, “The husband fires the gun, sparks fly. Emmett’s spirit rises. With barbed wire, the men lash Emmett’s body to a large wheel. They drag, shove the wheel into the river. Watch it sink. Blood stains the riverbank.”
  • In one of the final chapters, the reader experiences Jerome’s death in first person. Jerome says, “Pain slams me. Two fire sticks are inside me. Burning, searing my right shoulder and lower back. What happened? What happened to me?” This description goes on for a couple of pages.

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • Jerome says that, “I know Ma will remind [Grandma] to take her blood pressure pill.”
  • Jerome describes a lot a few blocks away from his home. He says, “A meth lab exploded there and two houses burnt.”
  • Jerome describes some drug dealers who happen to deal two blocks away from his school. He says, “drug dealers slip powder or pill packets to customers, stuffing cash into their pockets. Pop says, ‘Not enough jobs, but still it’s wrong. Drugs kill.’”
  • After killing Jerome, Sarah’s dad “drinks, stares at the TV.”

Language 

  • Mild language is used occasionally. Terms included are stupid, dumb, and crazy.

Supernatural

  • Jerome dies and becomes a ghost, watching over his family for much of the book.
  • Jerome meets Emmett Till’s ghost, who was a real-life boy who was killed in 1955.
  • From Sarah’s window, Sarah, Emmett, and Jerome can see “a shadow. Then, another. And another. Another and another. Hundreds, thousands of ghost boys standing, ever still, looking up, through the window into our souls.” It is then clarified that these are the ghosts of thousands of black boys who have been killed.

Spiritual Content 

  • Grandma has “premonitions . . . worries about bad things happening.” She tells Jerome that she receives these premonitions in the form of bad dreams.
  • Grandma has superstitions, and Jerome states that she likes to do things in threes because it’s “Grandma’s special number.”
  • Grandma tells Jerome, “Three means All. Optimism. Joy . . . Heaven, Earth, Water. Three means you’re close to the angels.”
  • For Jerome’s funeral, Reverend Thornton makes an appearance. He says to Jerome’s family, “We should pray.” To this, Jerome’s dad says, “What for? Jerome’s not coming back.”
  • Grandma expresses her belief in spirits and the afterlife, saying, “Every black person in the South knows it’s true. Dead, living, no matter. Both worlds are close. Spirits aren’t gone.” Her words are dismissed by the reverend and by others as mere superstition. 
  • Emmett Till talks about his mother’s beliefs, saying, “‘Family and faith,’ that’s what mattered, she said.”
  • Jerome’s grandma has an altar to her late husband. Jerome describes, “Every Sunday, Grandma lights candles and talks to a picture of Grandpa in a sailor’s uniform.”
  • Carlos tells his dad that he “wants to honor Jerome” on Day of the Dead. The Day of the Dead ceremony goes on for a chapter.

Odder

Meet Odder, the Queen of Play:

Nobody has her moves.

She doesn’t just swim to the bottom,

She dive-bombs.

She doesn’t just somersault,

She triple-doughnuts.

She doesn’t just ride the waves,

She makes them.

Odder spends her days off the coast of central California, practicing her underwater acrobatics and spending time with a good friend. She’s a fearless daredevil, curious to a fault. But when Odder comes face-to-face with a hungry great white shark, her life takes a dramatic turn, one that will challenge everything she believes about herself—and the humans who hope to save her.

Humans love otters because they are adorably cute, but Odder weaves a story that gives the otters personality. Odder is an adventurous otter who readers will quickly fall in love with. Best friends Odder and Kairi are complete opposites. Cautious Kairi is always reminding Odder to be more careful, but Odder gets caught up in the excitement and often forgets.

One day, Odder is so focused on finding a tasty crab to eat that she goes too far out in the bay. A hungry shark sees the otters and takes a bite of Kairi. In order to save her friend, Odder attacks the shark. Later, humans find Odder and she’s taken to an aquarium to get medical attention. Odder is consumed with grief over the loss of her best friend. Later, she learns that Kairi survived the shark attack and she is also at the aquarium!

However, the shark attack has changed Odder, who is no longer fearless. When Odder is reunited with Kairi, she has just lost her pup and has become a surrogate mother. While Kairi has always been careful, she wants the pup to be returned to the ocean. At first, Odder thinks that keeping the pup safe is the most important job for a mother. But when Odder becomes a surrogate, she learns that “teaching and loving are different words for the same thing” and that “the world is not meant to be feared.” 

Odder is inspired by the true story of a Monterey Bay Aquarium program that pairs orphaned otter pups with surrogate mothers. Applegate uses beautiful free verse to bring Odder’s ocean world to life as well as to teach readers interesting facts about the ocean’s biodiversity and otters’ importance in keeping the ocean healthy. The survival of otters is important because they are a “keystone species. . . they are nature’s glue, holding habitats together.” Odder will give readers a deeper appreciation for the beloved otter and for the people who are helping save the species. 

From the start, Applegate weaves a beautiful story about friendship, love, and the gift of freedom. By the story’s end, readers will be able to view the world from an otter’s point of view and will have a new appreciation of ocean life. In addition, through Odder’s experiences, readers will be reminded that all wild animals should have the chance to live in their natural habitat. While Odder is an entertaining and easy-to-read story, it is a must-read because of its educational value.

Sexual Content 

  • None

Violence 

  • One day, Otter and Kairi get too close to the bay and a shark sees them. “Odder sees the terror in her friend’s eyes.” The two try to swim away, but Odder “hears a strangled cry, and turns to see the shark has nipped her friend’s tail, as the awful stench of blood blooms in the water.”
  • In order to save Kairi from the shark, Odder attacks the shark. “As [the shark] moves in for the kill, he’s met with sheer movement, flipping and twisting, an eruption of bubbles, the reek of fear.” Because of Odder, the shark can’t go after Kairi, and “so he veers and there she [Odder] is and his mouth is open wide and waiting and clamp snap gnash she is trapped in his jaws.” When the shark tastes Odder’s fur, he drops Odder.
  • After the shark lets Odder go, she swims to the shore. She has a “gaping wound on her belly” and is “drained of blood and hope.” Humans find her and take her to an aquarium to be cared for. 
  • Odder tells the story of the Fifty, when “humans were killing us for our fur.” The back of the book explains the story in more detail.

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • None

Language   

  • None

Supernatural

  • None

Spiritual Content 

  • None

Now is the Time for Running

In the poor village of Gutu in Zimbabwe, Deo and his family live in one room. The people of his village are starving and struggling. Deo doesn’t even have a proper soccer ball to play with – just a bag of leather and twine – but this village is the only place he’s called home. When government soldiers destroy Gutu for housing “dissidents” suddenly Deo has lost his family, his home, and his happiness all at once. Deo’s mentally disabled older brother, Innocent, is his only remaining relative. Deo must get Innocent to safety in South Africa, but the journey to a better life is harder than he could ever imagine.

First, Deo and Innocent leave Zimbabwe. As they travel, they see a country torn apart by the government’s purge of dissenters. They narrowly escape run-ins with soldiers and travel through dangerous wilderness to cross the border. They spend some time at a farm, but danger arises when the local workers don’t like that refugees have stolen their jobs. The promise of a better, safer life lies in the city of Johannesburg. Once again, Deo and Innocent uproot themselves and travel to the city.

However, Johannesburg doesn’t turn out to be the haven they heard about. Instead of fighting against the government, the people in South Africa are fighting each other. Groups of radicals are calling for “foreigners” – the refugees from other African nations – to go home or be eradicated. They destroy refugee-owned shops and ruin their homes. During one of these raids, Innocent is killed. 

Without his brother, Deo doesn’t know what to feel. In fact, he wants to feel nothing at all. The book resumes almost two years later with Deo addicted to drugs and living on the streets. His life changes by chance when a soccer coach sees Deo’s skill with the ball, and suddenly Deo is given a place to sleep, warm food to eat, and a reason to live: playing soccer.  

At first, his team is a far cry from a family. Deo thinks they come from too many different places to understand each other. However, Deo’s coach convinces them that their strength lies their differences. They play successfully at the Street Soccer World Cup, also known as the Homeless World Cup – a competition that brings refugees and street kids together for the chance to change their lives. The story doesn’t reveal how the final match ends, but for Deo, his new life is just beginning. 

Inspired by true events, Now is the Time for Running is a journey of displacement through the eyes of a young man. Deo tells it like it is – he doesn’t shy away from the situation in Zimbabwe despite how much pain it causes him. It’s necessary to note that this book does not shy away from the horrors of civil war, poverty, and intolerance. While this book is not for the faint of heart, the lessons and truths it brings to light are meaningful and powerful. As a narrator, Deo goes through more in a few years than many people suffer through in their whole lives, but this doesn’t make him less relatable. Deo wants to protect the people he loves and to be happy – goals that anyone can relate to.

The first lesson of this book is clear: Deo never gives up. His unrelenting goal to protect his brother and escape the disastrous situation in Zimbabwe shows that he is continuously determined to have a better life. Even after Innocent dies and Deo struggles with addiction, he gets back on his feet through the soccer program. Despite great odds, Deo shows that people can always make the choice to persevere towards their goals. 

The other main theme of the story is not as apparent, but it’s one of the reasons readers see repeated instances of violence as Deo searches for a new place to call home: The “us vs. them” mentality. While present throughout the whole book, such as when the soldiers massacre the people of Gutu or when Innocent is killed in the anti-refugee riots, this issue comes to a head in Deo’s soccer team. After fighting breaks out amongst the teams, Deo’s coach teaches them that the true strength lies in their differences. The coach says, “Each of you brings something special to this team. Zimbabwe has brought me guts and determination; from Kenya, I get lightness and speed; from Mozambique, superb ball control and agility. . . It is because we are not the same that we are stronger than any other team in this competition! All of you have learned to play soccer in different parts of Africa. Our combined playing style is like no other in the world.” Once the team listens to the stories of their fellow teammates, they understand that they all have suffered, but they can all move forward together. 

Now is the Time for Running is a powerful book that teaches that strength does not lie in forcing everyone to be the same; it comes from accepting that everyone’s differences bring something new and unique to the table. Readers who want to learn about history through the eyes of an athlete should also read The Berlin Boxing Club by Robert Sharenow.

Sexual Content 

  • The guards punish Innocent by taking his clothes away. When Deo rescues him, Innocent throws a fit about being naked, but Deo convinces Innocent to come with him by saying that the soldiers might take both their clothes. “We don’t want the soldiers to come back and take my clothes too. Then we’ll both be naked. . . Can you imagine everyone laughing at our butts and our balls bouncing around?” 
  • One of the women that Deo and Innocent stay with is a sex worker. 
  • Two of the soccer players, T-Jay and Keelan, have a short exchange. When T-Jay says Keelan has a “cute butt,” Keelan gives him the middle finger. 
  • Innocent always carried a condom. Keelan says, “Perhaps your brother knew more about sex than you think.” Deo replies, “Innocent didn’t like girls much. He saw safe-sex ads everywhere, and he thought that condoms would keep him safe from girls.”
  • During a game, Deo describes, “Keelan. . . scored her third goal and headed straight to me. I was sitting on the bench when she threw her arms around me and kissed me on the cheek.”

Violence 

  • Deo punches a kid named Pelo who calls him crazy on the soccer field. “Pelo does not have the chance to finish what he’s saying because he has to deal with my fist in his mouth. . . ” Another kid pulls Deo away before the fight continues.
  • When Deo sees soldiers carrying guns, he thinks about the damage guns can cause. “I have seen a cow cut in half from a burst from one of those guns.” 
  • Deo knows stories about the violence brought by the soldiers. The soldiers “went to Chipinge when the people were angry from hunger, so angry that some of them were killed. Auntie Aurelia told us that her niece was one of those who were hungry. She did not say how she bled to death.”
  • Commander Jesus comes to Deo’s village, Gutu, to kill dissenters of the government. Commander Jesus says, “In the back of my jeep there is a drum filled with blood. The blood came from people who voted wrongly. My life is to drink human blood. My supply is running low. I have come here to kill dissidents. . . You are going to eat eggs, after eggs hens, after hens goats, after goats cattle. . . . Then you are going to eat your children. After that you shall eat your wives. Then the men will remain, and because dissidents have guns, they will kill the men and only dissidents will remain. That’s how we will find who they are, and then we will kill them.” 
  • The soldiers and Commander Jesus hurt Grandpa Longdrop. Deo witnesses “an awful crunch and [I] see Grandpa Longdrop collapse in front of me. His eyes look dazed. He tries to get up, and I try to reach him to tell him to stay down, but then Commander Jesus kicks him. He crumples.” 
  • Deo’s mentally disabled brother, Innocent, comes to defend Grandpa Longdrop. “Innocent runs screaming toward Commander Jesus with a stick raised high above his head. He cracks it down on Commander Jesus’s outstretched hands.” The soldiers attack Innocent. “The soldiers beat Innocent with their rifle butts. What is worse than the sound of wood against the bones of your brother?. . . Innocent does not cry. He lies like a baby, curled up, his hands and arms covering his head. . . Innocent is pulled to his knees. His face is crooked, his eyes black balls. Blood trickles from his broken nose.” Innocent later recovers from these injuries.
  • Commander Jesus has the soldiers beat all the residents of Gutu. “The soldiers beat us as we lie on the ground. . . Useless hands against hard sticks. Elbows cracked. Heads smacked. Screams. Flashes of wood. Soldiers grunting. And pain. Lots of it.” 
  • After the beating, Deo assesses the townspeople’s injuries. “Grandpa Longdrop lies on the ground, his head in my [mother’s] lap. Sometimes he groans, and sometimes he is so quiet that I am afraid that he will never wake up. . . The backs of my legs hurt where the soldiers’ sticks fell, but this is nothing to what others have suffered. One of Lola’s brothers has a broken arm. Bhuku’s [mother] has a split in her head that bleeds and bleeds. Shadrack’s little sister could be dead.”
  • The soldiers pull a truck driver out of his car and kick him before letting him run away.
  • The soldiers take Innocent as punishment for hitting Commander Jesus. Deo finds him later. “A naked body is lying in the middle of the [cattle pen]. The man’s wrists are tied to pegs in the ground. His ankles are tied to the end of a log that stretches his legs wide apart. There is a sack over his head. . . I notice ants crawling all over his body. . . There is dried blood at the side of his mouth, his nose is broken, and his eyes are all puffy.” Innocent says the soldiers also peed on him.
  • The soldiers end up killing everyone in Deo’s village. “Gunshots rat-a-tat-tat across the valley. . .I crawl forward into the noise of people dying. The soldiers are shooting. People are running away. Some are falling. Now the soldiers hold their guns as if they mean business. Their guns bark, come alive in their hands, their bullets rip into the earth, the walls, trees, pots, chairs, and flesh. I watch. I am too afraid to turn away. People scream; their cries are cut in half by bullets.” 
  • Deo finds his mother (or “Amai”)  and Grandpa Longdrop among the dead villagers. “Amai is lying face down. Her arms are thrown out in front of her as if she is trying to grab something out of her reach. Her back is covered with a damp patch of blood. . . I find Grandpa Longdrop. He stares up at the sky. His mouth is open. He does not look like Grandpa Longdrop anymore. I find Shadrack. Dead. There is Lola. Blood where her face should be. Her brothers are lying not far away.” 
  • During a soccer game, Deo gets angry and kicks a boy named Aziz. “I charge [Aziz] from behind and deliberately kick his ankles. He falls, and the players on his team shout at me.. . . Aziz gets up, inspects his knee. It’s bloody.”
  • When crossing the border, two of the men in the group climb an electric fence and are electrocuted. “The two men run ahead, faster than us. They are the first to reach the fence. They start climbing. . . The wire fizzes, crackles, and the men shriek and fall to the ground as the electricity burns them.” The men are dazed but recover. 
  • An anti-refugee gang pulls a shopkeeper named Ahmed from his store and beats him. “Hands grab Ahmed and pull him onto the street. He screams as many sticks fall on him. . . Ahmed’s white robes turn red with blood.” It’s unknown whether he lives or dies.
  • Deo finds Angel, a sex worker, beaten up by one of her clients. “Angel is covered with blood, beaten. She lies on her bed, curled up in a ball. Her face is swollen. . .” Angel explains that her clients “were tired of paying a kwerekwere [a foreigner]. They wanted it for free.”
  • Deo finds Innocent’s dead body on the ground during an anti-immigrant raid. “I see the shape of a human head, lying on its side. The shape of an arm and a hand. . . I reach the body of my brother, facedown on the ground, covered with rubble.”
  • A refugee named Muhammad commits suicide by jumping into the ocean. “Muhammad had had enough of what he called a life without hope and without country. . . so he chose to run to the blue horizon. [The police] sent out a boat to fetch [Muhammad], but they never found him.”
  • While playing soccer, T-Jay and Deo get in a fight. “T-Jay lashed out at me with his elbow. The blow caught me squarely between the eyes, and for a moment I thought I was going to fall down. But instead of taking me down, it was like a switch that flicked on inside me. My fist found its way up T-Jay’s nose and my knee said hello to his balls. . . he got in quite a few good punches before my nose started bleeding. I stopped kicking T-Jay only when I heard [the] whistle bursting my eardrum.”
  • Keelan explains how she ended up in South Africa. Soldiers came to her town to punish the people who had voted wrongly. Her father, the community leader, was killed. Keelan says, “they had chopped off his arms with a machete.” 
  • T-Jay shares his story too. His father lost his foot when he stood on a landmine. T-Jay’s father “couldn’t work anymore, so he stayed at home. He beat the crap out of me until the social services took him away.” 

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • Captain Washington, a family friend of Deo, drinks after he learns Deo’s mother is dead. Captain Washington “brings back a bottle of booze. He pours himself a drink and swallows it quickly…At least when he drinks, he is no longer crying.”
  • After his brother dies, Deo gets addicted to sniffing glue, a common addiction for street kids in South Africa. Deo says, “the glue makes everything weightless.” He also calls it the “magic tube.” Deo talks about getting high off glue and the withdrawal symptoms, which include vomiting and muscle aches. 
  • Deo notices that some of the other kids on his South African soccer team are also “glue-tube heads.”
  • T-Jay’s father was an alcoholic.
  • T-Jay says it’s too late for him to go back to school because he got into drugs.

Language   

  • The story contains some profanity. Shit is used a few times; damn is used three times.
  • Deo says fear smells worse than “dog crap.”
  • A rude man calls Mai Maria, a woman who helps Deo and Innocent cross the border, a “filthy Rasta woman.”
  • Angel calls someone a “bitch.”
  • The slur kwerekwere is used occasionally. It is a derogatory term for foreigners or outsiders. It is used by gangs of people who want to expel the refugees from their country.
  • The guy who sells Deo glue says, “get your ass down here.”

Supernatural 

  • There is a rumor that Mai Maria is a witch who eats children. 

Spiritual Content 

  • The Methodist Church is mentioned throughout the story because they sometimes provide food and shelter for refugees or struggling communities. Once, Deo stays in a shelter set up by the Methodist Church. 
  • Deo talks about Spirits. “Grandpa Longdrop says that there are two kinds of people, those who believe in the Spirits and those who don’t. . . I understand the Spirits of the Wind, the Spirits of the Rocks, and the Spirits of the Trees are all those who have died and live on in other ways. I understand that they watch over us, that they can sometimes be angry because we forget them. And it is said that when they are angry, they can sometimes punish us. But this thing of the beating [by the soldiers] is too big to blame on the Spirits. They would not allow such a painful thing to happen. If I believe in Spirits, why would I believe in something that causes such pain? Surely the Spirits had nothing to do with what has happened in our village.”
  • Deo sings an ancient Spirit song passed down by his family to prompt Innocent into a fit so they can distract a group of soldiers. “It is always terrible to see Innocent when he has one of his fits. . . People are afraid of Innocent when he becomes like this. They think he is possessed. They think that the Spirits have taken over his body.” The lyrics of the song are not included in the story.
  • One of the items that Innocent carried with him was a pocket Bible with a note inside from their father. The note reads: “To Innocent and Deo, This is not a book of laws but a book of love. It will always be your salvation.” 
  • The soccer team from the Philippines at the Homeless World Cup chants, “For God and for country!” 
  • Bishop Desmond Tutu, who has come to oversee the Homeless World Cup, thanks God and says to the players, “God bless you all!” 

The Wolves are Waiting

When fifteen-year-old Nora Melchionda wakes up, dizzy and disoriented, half-naked on the town’s golf course, with her underwear hanging from a flagstick, she doesn’t remember a thing. She was drinking a root beer, enjoying the Frat Fair, an annual fundraiser held by the local school fraternities, and the next thing Nora remembers is waking up next to her best friend, Cam, on the putting green. During the time that Nora doesn’t remember, “anything could have happened. Anything.

Before that night, Nora’s life seemed perfect. She had good grades, she was a star player on the field hockey team, and she had a great circle of friends and a supportive family. Most importantly, Nora always had her father, Rhett Melchionda. Nora’s father was her personal hero and the athletic director of Faber University. He always said his job was to protect her. 

But after that night, Nora’s world comes crashing down. What Nora thought was true about the town she grew up in, the university, her father, and her family is all turned upside down. Through searching for the truth of what happened, her friends Cam and Adam Xu and her older brother Asher, uncover the larger truth about the town and university. The teens realize the attempted sexual assault of Nora was not an isolated incident, but part of a decades-long rampage of sexual violence tied to fraternities. To make matters worse, the violence has been swept under the rug.

While this story deals with the difficult topics of sexual assault and harassment, The Wolves are Waiting beautifully tackles this theme from different angles, from examining the prevalence of rape culture to highlighting the experience of survivors of sexual assault and harassment. This book raises important questions about societal beliefs surrounding sexual assault, including the trivialization of sexual assault. It questions why those in power often implicitly trust the word of assailants over victims. For example, when Nora confronts her dad about stories of college athletes sexually assaulting women, he dismisses her, saying “Events can be misinterpreted in the light of day.” 

The Wolves are Waiting also raises questions about the culture of victim blaming. Nora and others are continuously asked what they were wearing or what they were drinking or what they said, rather than simply being believed. When repeatedly asked if she had been drinking the night she was assaulted, Nora “flare[s] up with anger.” Nora explains “What difference did it make if she was drunk, or high, or roofied, or sober, or wearing a prairie dress, or a thong, or if she knew the guys, or if she’d never seen them before in her life? . . . Why should she thank [Adam] for believing her? She was telling the truth.” While some of this questioning is highly pointed in the attempt to discredit victims like Nora, The Wolves are Waiting shows how seemingly innocent questions or comments with good intent can actually help perpetuate these problematic social issues. As these questions are raised throughout the novel, it asks both the characters and the audience to reexamine their beliefs surrounding sexual assault and the harmful, yet prevalent stereotypes in society about sexual assault and survivors.

In The Wolves are Waiting, Natasha Friend examines the experience of survivors of sexual assault and their process of healing after trauma. At first, Nora is in disbelief and doesn’t want to talk about what happened that night. “I’m fineI’m fine. I’m fine,” she keeps telling herself, hoping for it to be true. She also begins to push away her family and her friend Cam, who is hell-bent on finding the perpetrators of Nora’s attack and bringing them to justice. In reality, Nora feels alone, scared, and traumatized by her experience. But with the support of friends and family, she realizes she is not alone in her experience. After realizing her own silence will only perpetuate the problems in her town, Nora speaks out ferociously, “tell[ing] her story . . . own[ing] every word of it . . . set[ting] herself free.”

The Wolves are Waiting is a must-read because it tackles serious societal issues and misconceptions surrounding sexual assault. It considers not only the perspective of survivors of assault but also bystanders, showing how not speaking up makes one complicit in larger systems of abuse. Nora is an incredibly compelling character. She is strong and independent, yet also flawed. She is forced to re-evaluate the world around her. The Wolves are Waiting breaks down harmful stereotypes and misconceptions about sexual assault while also teaching readers the importance of questioning societal beliefs, even ones you hold to be the truth.

Sexual Content 

  • At a party, Cam sees Nora’s brother, Asher. Cam and Asher begin to talk. She tells him that he is not wasting his time pursuing art. “He looked so quintessentially Asher that Cam was overwhelmed by a sudden desire to hug him . . . It was a little awkward. Her nose rammed into his shoulder. She stepped away almost as quickly as she’d stepped toward him. But then. Then. Cam felt something warm on her face. It was . . . Asher’s hand, cupping her cheek . . . He bent down and pressed his lips to hers. Cam was 100 percent sober, but Asher’s kiss was like three slugs of Manischewitz straight from the bottle. When she came up for air, she felt warm and dizzy. ‘Was that okay?’ he said. And she said, ‘Definitely.’ They kissed again. And again.”
  • Cam and Nora promised “each other, back in sixth grade . . . They had vowed to share every boy-related detail, which was how Cam knew that Nora had tongue-kissed a Jersey boy named Evan Fendelbaum at Becca Bomberg’s bat mitzvah, and Nora knew that Cam had seen Kyle Tenhope’s erection through his swim trunks at the track team’s end-of-season pool party freshman year.”
  • Nora compares herself to other girls her age. “Nora knew there were girls her age . . . who were already having sex – not just making out with someone in the back row of the movie theater – legit sex. Nora also knew how guys talked. . . Nora never wanted guys to talk about her that way, which was why she never let Adam get very far. There had been kissing, yes. There had been up-the-shirt action, yes. But Nora always drew the line there.”
  • When Nora’s dad comes home from a game, he grabs Nora’s mother “around the waist and dipped her so low, her hair touched the floor.” Her father and mother kiss. “Nora didn’t love watching her parents make out in the middle of the kitchen, either. It was awkward.”
  • Outside the gym one day, Adam, Nora’s “kind-of boyfriend,” and Nora see each other. Adam “kissed her, for the first time, by the flagpole in front of the school – and another twenty times after that.” That morning, the two sit together. Adam “leaned in, kissing her lightly on the lips. She pulled away,” feeling uncomfortable. Normally, Adam was irresistible to Nora. “Every time he kissed her, he made her feel all melty inside. But now . . . how to explain? Thinking about his tongue darting inside her mouth made Nora think about other tongues darting inside her mouth, other hands touching her body.”
  • At school, Adam walks by and “whistle[s] through his teeth” at Nora. Nora explains the boys “made jokes behind her back about what kind of sauce she would taste like . . . and how they’d like to spread her on a sandwich.”
  • A few days after her assault, a picture of Nora circulates on the internet. “Her back was to the camera, and her head was resting on someone’s shoulder – a big blond guy in a gray hoodie. His arm was wrapped around her waist. A dark-haired guy in a red shirt was on the other side of her, laughing. His hand was on her butt, lifting her skirt.”
  • Standing outside Nora’s room, Cam and Asher look at each other. Cam imagines what could happen: “One step closer, and his breath would be on her face. One tip of the chin, and his mouth would be on hers. His hands, gripping the back of her head. His lips, his tongue. It took Cam a few seconds to come to her senses.”
  • After gym class, a group of guys were in the locker room when, “Kevin stood on a bench, held up his phone, and said, ‘Who wants to see some prime FU titties?’ . . . because Kevin had the newest iPhone with the biggest, brightest screen, the photo was right there in HD for everyone to gawk at. A pair of breasts barely contained by a lace white bra, with something black scrawled between them.”
  • When Cam goes to a fraternity party to do recognizance for Nora’s case, she meets a frat boy. He asks to kiss her. Cam “thought for a moment. She was sober. And he was asking. And maybe kissing him was the way to extract the information she needed. Also, if she was being completely honest with herself, she was curious. She’d only made out with high school guys. There wasn’t anything wrong with a little experiment, was there? A little compare and contrast in the name of science? It’s not like she was planning to have sex with him. The next thing Cam knew, they were kissing . . . Intellectually, she wanted to stop – she did – but her hormones had suddenly taken the wheel, and Malik was a great kisser . . . Malik had definitely more experience. The circles he was making with his tongue. The way his hands were holding her hips, lifting her up to meet him . . . And then he pulled away, breathless.”
  • After going out for ice cream, Cam and Asher talk outside of Asher’s house about everything that has conspired in the last few days including her going to a frat party and kissing a college boy. While upset, Asher agrees to move past the incident and asks her to the homecoming dance. The two kiss. As Cam walked home “her face was raw from kissing, but she didn’t care. The fact of the matter was, she could have kissed Asher all night.”  

Violence 

  • This story surrounds Nora’s attempted sexual assault and rape by three fraternity boys. Adam Xu stumbled across the assault, “one of the figures was holding something in the air. A phone? Another was bent over on the ground.” He heard one of them say, “Dude, she’s completely out” and another was “taking off his pants.” When he scared the three boys off, he found Nora passed out on the ground and texted her best friend Cam to come help her. 
  • Cam found Nora “lying on the ground, spread eagle.” Nora’s underwear was hanging off the flagstick on the golf course. Later at Cam’s house, Cam encourages Nora to inspect her pubic area for “bruises or scratches.” Nora is hesitant, but when she does eventually look, she sees something. “What she had seen up in Cam’s bathroom was a mark, maybe half an inch long, on the skin of her bikini area. Not purple like a bruise. Not red like a cut. Black. . . Up close it was pretty obvious. The black mark wasn’t a birthmark or a scab or an engorged dog tick clinging to her skin. It was the number 9.” The number marked that Nora was the ninth girl to be targeted by her assaulters; as part of the initiation into one of the local frats, new members have to sleep with 18 girls. 
  • Nora and her friends had always heard stories about sexual assault on campus and sayings like “don’t walk by Greek Row alone at night.” There “was a story about a girl who’d graduated from FCS years ago . . . One night after an orchestra concert, she had been walking past the frats on her way home. Some of her brothers from Alpha Psi had been sitting outside on lawn chairs. They’d called her over. The next thing she knew, she woke up on the quad in a Faber football jersey with a Blue Devil tattoo on her boob.” There were other versions of this story, whether it was a toga or a football jersey, or what type of tattoo it was. But nevertheless, it was heavily insinuated she was drugged, assaulted, and branded.
  • Asher tells Nora and Cam about other instances of sexual violence from frat members and her father’s involvement in the cases. There was a quarterback: “A girl said he raped her behind the Iron Jug. He said it was consensual. Dad helped get him off.” A hockey player, Peyton Mallory, “sexually assaulted a sorority girl at a frat party . . . She filed a report with the university saying he did . . . The guy got off. He was never expelled. He was never even suspended from the team.”
  • After Nora’s mother finds out about the attempted assault, Nora’s mother tells her about her first college roommate, who had been raped at a frat party. The theme of the party was “King Tuts and Egyptian Sluts . . . They were handing out shots of Goldschlager, with ‘flecks of real gold,’ they told us. Amy and I had one drink. That was our rule: one drink . . . Our other rule was to stick together . . . but at some point I had to go to the bathroom, and Amy was talking to one of the frat brothers about books.” 
  • When Nora’s mother got back from the bathroom, she “looked and looked,” but explained, “I couldn’t find [my roommate] . . . I figured she and the guy she’d been talking to had hit it off. So I went back to the dorm. . . she’d been raped at the party by two of the frat’s brothers. She had no idea who they were because they looked like every other King Tut.” 
  • When they told someone from the sorority, they were dismissed and told “Don’t worry about it.” Nora’s mother took her roommate to the dean. “She told him she had been raped, and he said that was a serious accusation. He asked if she had made a police report. He asked how many drinks she’d had. What was she wearing? Who entered the room first? Did she say no? He asked if she could identify the two guys. When she said she wasn’t sure, all the King Tuts looked the same, he said, ‘Well, if you don’t know who they are, I can’t help you.’”

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • After Cam finds Nora on the night she is assaulted, Cam asks Nora, “What did you drink? Rum? Vodka? . . . Tequila?” Nora replies adamantly, “‘No, Camille.’ Cam knew she didn’t drink alcohol. Ever since that sleepover at Becca Bomberg’s house the last day of ninth grade, when the three of them drank an entire bottle of Manischewitz and Nora projectile-vomited into a potted plant on Becca’s porch.”
  • Since Nora was found passed out, Cam believes something was put in Nora’s drink. While originally the two think it’s roofies or Rohypnol, Cam has Nora’s hair sample tested and it shows that Nora was in fact drugged with “GHA. Gamma hydroxybutyric acid, otherwise known as liquid ecstasy.”
  • At a party, “one of the guys would bring out a bottle – whatever they could find in their parent’s liquor cabinets – pass it around. To avoid drawing attention to himself, Adam would take a few sips. Fifteen minutes later- bam. His face would heat up and start to tingle. His eyes would go bloodshot . . . He hated when that happened. . . . The reaction in Adam’s body was the result of an accumulation of acetaldehyde, a metabolic by-product of the catabolic metabolism of alcohol.”
  • The night Nora was assaulted, Cam was at Kyle Tenhope’s party, “on the Tenhopes’ front stoop, holding a beer and scrolling through her phone . . . everyone inside the house had been well on their way, but Cam had only had two sips of warm keg beer.” 
  • At the party a boy was wearing a yellow construction hat attached to two beer cans and was drinking through a tube. . . They found Kyle in the far corner of the kitchen, pumping beer from a keg.”
  • After a game one night, Nora’s father comes home after a few “victory beers.”
  • At a soccer game, the stands are “packed. Nora was aware of all the bodies pressed in around her. At one point, a guy tried to push past her to get to an empty spot. Nora could smell him. Beer. Sweat. For a second, she panicked.”
  • When Cam goes to a fraternity party to do recognizance, everyone is drunk. She is approached by some guy, who “lifted the cup in his hand, taking a sip of neon green – what? Toxic waste? Battery acid?”
  • As Adam tries to get access to a private Instagram account, he messages a fraternity member. After a while the fraternity member messages, “I am just drunk enough to give you 10 min” and he allows Adam access.

Language                                         

  • Profanity is used often. This profanity includes shit, fucking, slut, bitch, and bullshit.
  • Some of the profanity in the book is only implied, such as the use of “eff’s” or “effing.”

Supernatural 

  • None

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.” 

A Walk in the Words

When Hudson Talbott was a little boy, he loved drawing, and it came naturally to him. But reading? No way! One at a time, words weren’t a problem, but long sentences were a struggle. As his friends moved on to thicker books, he kept his slow reading a secret. But that got harder every year. He felt alone, lost, and afraid in a world of too many words.

Fortunately, his love of stories wouldn’t let him give up. He started giving himself permission to read at his own pace, using the words he knew as stepping-stones to help draw him into a story. And he found he wasn’t so alone—in fact, lots of brilliant people were slow readers, too. Learning to accept the fact that everyone does things in their own unique way and that is okay, freed him up and ultimately helped Hudson thrive and become the fabulous storyteller he is today.

A Walk in the Words is a must read for any child who struggles with understanding words. Hudson shows how learning new words can be a little scary. When he first started reading books with more text, “It was a reign of terror. My drawing pad was my safe place.” The accompanying illustrations show Hudson hiding underneath a notebook while words rain from the sky. Hudson worried that others would realize he couldn’t read as quickly as them, which caused him to feel shame. However, Hudson learns that he’s not the only person who struggles with words. To reinforce this, he includes a list of famous people—William Shakespeare, Albert Einstein, and Babe Ruth—who were all slow readers. 

Even though reading was difficult for Hudson, he didn’t give up. Hudson gives advice on how to make reading easier such as, “I took time to look for words that I knew. There they were! Like stepping-stones leading me onward.” Hudson also explains how he used drawing to cope with his difficulties. Throughout the story, Hudson uses his own experiences to encourage others to keep reading—at their own pace.

Besides the message, the book beautifully uses illustrations to help bring the story and words alive. For example, one picture shows Hudson in a dark, foreboding forest; white words are written on the tree trunks and limbs. The words include equipoise, aspiration, and trepidation. In another scene, a group of books greets Hudson and one book says, “We come in peace.” Each page has two to five sentences, but because of the story’s difficult vocabulary, the story will need to be read aloud to a child, rather than the child reading it themselves independently.

A Walk in the Words encourages struggling readers to keep trying. The story shows that many people are slow readers and that if you keep trying, you will become a better reader. Young readers will love the inspiring message as well as the amazing illustrations that have many fun elements. To introduce more ways that words can be fun, check out The Word Collector by Peter H. Reynolds and Stacey’s Extraordinary Words by Stacey Abrams.

Sexual Content 

  • None

Violence 

  • None

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • None

Language   

  • None

Supernatural

  • None

Spiritual Content 

  • None

Piecing Me Together

Jade Butler, a black teenager in Portland, loves making art and collages. She constantly finds beauty in the mundane, everyday things that surround her. 

Jade is an ambitious, intelligent, and determined young woman striving for success. But, too often, Jade feels that in order to find success and “make something of this life, [she has] to leave home, [her] neighborhood, [her] friends.” Jade simply wants to be able to create, expressing her joys and pains, without feeling like she needs to completely change who she is. But it seems like her school, the programs she’s in, and even the world is trying to “fix” her. They want to tear her apart and make a “better” version of her. 

At school, Jade often feels like an outsider. It’s not only “because I’m black and almost everyone else is white,” Jade explains, “But because their mothers are the kind of people who hire housekeepers, and my mother is the kind of person who works as one.” Since Jade has grown up in a poor, single-parent household, her perspective on life is wildly different from her peers, which makes it difficult for her to connect with them. Moreover, Jade feels like she has been labeled the poor black girl, making her everyone’s charity case. While she is happy to accept the opportunities that come her way, Jade wishes she could be treated like the rest of the smart, successful students. She doesn’t want to be part of the mentorship program, where she was chosen because the school wants “to be as proactive as possible, and you know, well, statistics tell us that young people with your set of circumstances, are well, at risk for certain things.”  

When Jade meets her mentor, Maxine, she is again disappointed and discouraged. While Maxine is also black, she grew up in a middle-class neighborhood, with successful parents. At times Jade feels that Maxine understands her, and their friendship seems easy. But then Jade thinks, “how quick it is that Maxine reminds me that I am a girl who needs saving. She knows I want out and she has come with a lifeboat. Except I just don’t know if I can trust her hand.” Again, Jade feels like she is not being recognized fully for her successes and talents. 

In the end, Jade realizes that her situation will never change if she does not express her thoughts and feelings. “I need to speak up for myself,” Jade explains. “For what I need, for what I want.” If she wants to go on the study abroad trip to Costa Rica, she needs to advocate for her wants. If the mentorship program is upsetting her, she needs to say something about it. Jade confronts Maxine, and they talk about how they both can do better. Jade realizes even “imperfect people have things to teach you.” Furthermore, Jade realizes that she needs to take her future into her own hands and that the power of advocacy goes beyond just helping herself. 

Piecing Me Together explores racism, microaggressions, and social issues like police brutality. Throughout the novel, Jade encounters various instances of racially charged microaggressions. For example, when shopping in a store, Jade is singled out and asked to leave because she is “stand[ing] idle.” Afterward, Jade’s friend, who is white, does not understand why Jade is upset. Jade thinks “I don’t know what’s worse. Being mistreated because of the color of your skin, your size, or having to prove that it really happened.” In another instance, when Jade is taken to the opera, the volunteer leading their tour group says, “you know, some folks don’t think they can relate to this kind of music. But let me tell you, all kinds of people have been lovers of the symphony.” After Jade hears this, her “emotions are all mixed up and jumbled inside.” Jade thinks, the tour guide simply “thought we were the kind of kids who wouldn’t appreciate classical music . . . mak[ing] me feel like no matter how dressed up we are, no matter how respectful we are, some people will only see what they want to see.” 

Jade is also hyperaware of how other black people are treated. When Natasha Ramsey, a fifteen-year-old black girl, is beaten by the police, Jade cannot stop thinking about what has happened. Jade cannot help but think that Natasha “looks familiar. Like a girl [she] would be friends with.” While Jade hears about “this stuff all the time,” this time it feels personal like it could have been her. Piecing Me Together does not shy away from the realities of racism and police brutality, but it also shows the power of advocacy and community activism. Jade and her friends help organize an art event that creates an outlet for people of color to express their feelings. 

Piecing Me Together is a great book and a must-read. Jade is a strong, confident teenager, who is learning to live in the world as a black woman. She also is “discovering what [she is] really capable of.” Though this book contains serious discussions about what it means to be a person of color in America, it is also an exploration of learning how to stand up for yourself. Moreover, it is a story about the power of friends and family, who are the scaffolding that help support Jade through her journey in a world that too often is trying to tear her apart.  

Sexual Content 

  • As Jade is waiting for the bus, a drunk man approaches her. At one point “he leans in as if he’s going to kiss me.” Jade steps back, “tell[s] him to stop” and “walk[s] a few blocks to the next [bus] stop.” 
  • On the bus, a woman walks on with her “shirt [hanging] so low and is so thin, you can see her braless breasts.” 
  • Maxine and her friends tell Jade about a play entitled The Vagina Monologues. They explain “it’s a play that features stories about women . . . and rape, sex, getting your period.” 

Violence 

  • Jade’s uncle, E.J., “and his friends had been shot. E.J. was okay, barely grazed on his arm. Nate was wounded badly, and Alan died at the scene.” 
  • Jade thinks about what it means to grow up and go “out into the world.” She cannot help but “watch the news and see unarmed black men and women shot dead over and over.” She then explains “it’s kind of hard to believe this world is mine.” 
  • An incident in a town near Portland catches Jade’s attention, upsetting her. Police “were called to a house party because neighbors complained about loud music.” A fifteen-year-old girl, Natasha Ramsey, was “manhandle[d]” by the police. While the police claimed she was “being insubordinate,” they “beat her bad, she’s in critical condition . . . [with] fractured ribs and a broken jaw.” 
  • In a poem, Jade’s best friend, Lee Lee, wrote, she says “this black girl tapestry, this black body / that gets dragged out of school desks slammed onto linoleum floor, / tossed about at pool side, pulled over and pushed onto grass, / arrested never to return home, / shot on doorsteps, on sofas while sleeping / and dreaming of our next day.” 

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • Maxine’s ex-boyfriend “got fired because he kept showing up high and late.” 
  • During dinner at Maxine’s parent’s house, a few of the adults are drinking wine. 
  • Jade attends the annual fundraiser for the Woman to Woman organization. Maxine says it will be a cocktail party, but explains to Jade “of course, you won’t be drinking.” 

Language   

  • There is very limited profanity in this book. The word “ass” is used once. However, profanity at points is implied. For instance, at a restaurant, a teenage boy called Jade “every derogatory name a girl could ever be called.”  

Supernatural 

  • None 

Spiritual Content 

  • At a Woman to Woman meeting, the group talks about relationships and dating. Jade notes one of the girls in the group seems like she is an “‘I’m Saving Myself for Marriage’ girl. Right now, Jesus is her boyfriend.” 
  • Jade’s mom explains, “Thanksgiving has always been a day for getting together with family, a day to thank God for my personal blessings.” 
  • Jade encounters a woman on the bus who continuously says, “Jesus loves you. Jesus loves you.” 
  • Jade suggests she and her family pray for Natasha Ramsey, the black teenager beaten by the police. E.J., her uncle, responds by saying “what is prayer going to do… prayer ain’t nothing but the poor man’s drug.” E.J. continues saying “poor people are the ones who pray. People who don’t have what they need, who can’t pay their rent, who can’t buy healthy food, who can’t save any of their paycheck because every dollar is already accounted for. Those are the people who pray. They pray for miracles, they pray for signs, they pray for good health. Rich people don’t do that . . . plus, God isn’t the one we need to be talking to. We need to talk to the chief of police, the mayor, and the governor. They’re the ones with the power to make change.” 

Open Mic Night at Westminster Cemetery

When sixteen-year-old Lacy Brink finds herself in the Westminster Cemetery late one night, she is dazed and confused. For, according to the strangers she meets, Lacy is dead. 

At first, Lacy is convinced this must be an elaborate prank or one of those game shows, and that the ghosts around her simply are committed actors. But Lacy soon realizes she truly is dead and is stuck in this cemetery with a bunch of constrictive rules: no cussing, return to your grave before daybreak, perform your “job without complaint,” only smile if “you have remarkably fine teeth,” and many, many more. There are over 250 rules that every resident of Westminster Cemetery must follow. If Lacy breaks three rules and earns three strikes, she will be suppressed—that means she will be unable to come aboveground and will be stuck in her grave “every single night and do nothing but listen to the goings-on above.” 

While trying to fit into her new surroundings and carefully trying not to gain three strikes, Lacy is also curious why she is here, what happened, and why she is even dead in the first place. 

In Westminster Cemetery, famous for being the resting place of the poet Edgar Allan Poe, Lacy meets a funny and interesting cast of characters who help guide her on her journey. This includes Sam, a lonely poet who is constantly looking for company, but “the sad truth is that there is no one in the cemetery [he] would call a friend.” Sam embraces Lacy and finds hope and friendship in her presence.  

There’s also Mrs. Steele, a stringent rule follower, who is the pseudo-leader in the cemetery and makes sure everyone is in line with the guidelines. Mrs. Steele sees Lacy as a nuance and a problem that is ruining the cemetery’s order. There are also a pair of star-crossed lovers “suffering from forbidden love,” as one of them is suppressed and the other is in charge of suppressing residents of the cemetery. There’s a doctor who is “dying for stimulation and misses teaching.” Lacy also meets Edgar Allan Poe, his wife Virginia, and his mother-in-law Mrs. Clemm. Lacy even meets the Raven who inspired Poe’s famous poem. 

While the residents help Lacy come to terms with her death, she helps them realize the potential of the afterlife. Through hosting an open mic night, Lacy creates a space for the residents of the Westminster Cemetery to express themselves and speak about their wants, their regrets, and their hopes. Together the group confronts Mrs. Steele and the strict rules governing them. Lacy, through her constant resistance, inspires the rest of the residents to stand up for themselves and to live their afterlife freely. While the cemetery’s rules try to apply perfection and order amongst the Dead, Lacy and the others realize “we’re all flawed.” The residents would rather embrace these flaws than continue to pretend they are perfect. 

Mary Amato has uniquely crafted Open Mic Night at Westminster Cemetery, blending prose, plays, and poems together. In the introduction, the book is presented as “no ordinary novel,” for it is a “stage play” full of “oddities.” Furthermore, there is an omniscient narrator who often, hilariously, and sarcastically, breaks the fourth wall, talking directly to the audience. For example, during the play’s intermission, the narrator suggests the reader “ponder what you think might happen next or which character you identify with most.” The narrator continues by saying that “you could even discuss the philosophical questions that the work raises thus far with numerous friends and acquaintances and encourage them to purchase copies of their own.” 

Open Mic Night at Westminster Cemetery is a great book and a must-read. Lacy and the other residents highlight the importance of embracing ones flaws and not following constrictive, oppressive rules. Furthermore, they show the importance of found family. While Lacy loses her mother and sister through death, she gains a loving, caring family in the residents of the Westminster Cemetery. With its great messages about found family and embracing one’s flaws, its fantastical worldbuilding and its incredibly unique structure, this book is a must-read.  

Sexual Content 

  • Two of the residents of the cemetery, Owen and Clarissa, love each other and have been separated because of the cemetery’s rules. When given the opportunity to bend these rules, “Owen tiptoes to Clarissa’s grave. She steps out before he can knock . . . Starry-eyed, they kiss.” Virginia, the wife of Edgar Allan Poe, explains in the afterlife “everything I long for is forbidden.” She further says, “I want to laugh too loud and dance too long and make love until inhibition is gone.” Addressing her husband, Virginia says, “I had admired you. But I had never felt that kind of desire for you.” 

Violence 

  • In a dramatic fashion, frustrated about his poetry, Sam “puts his journal back into his satchel, pulls out a knife, and stabs himself in the heart. He staggers around dramatically and then finally falls to the ground near [Edgar Allan Poe’s] monument with a thud.” Because Sam is dead and a ghost “the laws of physics . . . work differently among the Dead,” and stabbing himself did not hurt him in anyway but is rather for dramatic show.  
  • To prove to Lacy that she is really dead, Dr. Hosler “pulls a long surgical knife out of his bag and plunges it into her heart.” Lacy is “shocked, the knife sticking out of her chest, realizing that she feels no pain.” Lacy “removes the knife, feeling nothing. She examines her chest for blood but there is none. She checks to see if the blade is designed to collapse or play a trick.” But it is not. “Lacy hesitates and Dr. Hosler takes her hand with the knife and plunges it into his own chest.” Again Dr. Hosler is trying to prove to Lacy that she really is dead, and this is not a game. 
  • Lacy reminisces about the independence she had in middle school, such as being able to “ride city buses by herself.” With this independence, Lacy explains, she was exposed to “challenging moments” of life, like seeing “creepy guys who would unzip their pants, and once even the stabbing of a man by a woman impaired by opiate consumption.” 
  • In annoyance at the fact that she is dead, Lacy “knocks her head against the marble base. Once. Twice. Three times. LACY: It doesn’t even hurt. She does it again. Once. Twice. Three times.” 
  • Lacy explains to Edgar the theories surrounding his death. Edgar was found “delirious and destitute, wandering around in someone else’s clothing. Lacy says, ‘Some say you were drunk, others say you had been robbed and suffered a beating!’ Lacy continues, “Another theory is that you were kidnapped by a gang to be used as a straw voter in a local election.’” Lacy goes on to explain that Edgar was “taken to the hospital, where you lapsed in and out of consciousness” and later died.
  • Peter, one of the residents of Westminster Cemetery, reveals he killed himself. Peter says, “I died by my own hand, a knife to my wrist.” To have him buried in the cemetery, his mother lied and said Peter “died by accident while [he was] cleaning fish.” 
  • Henry Steele, Sam’s father, explains his faults and wrongs during the open mic night. Henry says as he “got deeper into debt and deeper into drink . . . it made me do things I didn’t want to do. I beat [my wife, Gertrude] and I beat [my sons].” When Sam was four, Henry explains, “Sam was scared to go to bed, and I wanted him to shut up, so I took him out back with a leather strap. He was like a little fawn, he was so small. Gertrude begged me to stop and I hit her harder than I ever had and told her to shut up . . . I was going to kill him. She could tell. So she did what she had to do. As soon as I felt the blow on the back of my head, I knew.” Mrs. Steele killed her husband, afraid for her son’s life and for her own.  
  • Lacy died in a car crash. “The light was turning red and a blue pick-up truck gunned into the intersection just as a black car turned from the left . . . The truck hit the car . . . and then the car spun and started rushing toward [me].” Lacy explains “at first I had this false sense of security because I wasn’t standing in the street, you know, I was standing on the sidewalk, pretty far from the curb. But then the car jumped the curb, and in that second before impact, I knew I was going to die.” 

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • Sarah, a resident of the cemetery and the President of the Food and Drink Committee, explains, “Mrs. Steele doesn’t allow alcohol.” To which Dr. Hosler points out “is ridiculous since it has no effect on us.” 
  • Olivia, Lacy’s sister, visits Lacy’s grave and shows up “drunk” many times. One night when Olivia comes, she was drunk and had taken a painkiller “she stole out of the medicine cabinet at Zane’s dad’s house.” Olivia explains, “she knows that neither the drug nor the booze will be able to soften the cold, hard shell that now defines her.”  
  • Another night, Olivia arrives with “a bottle in her left hand—not even bothering to hide it—and her right hand is wrapped in a makeshift bandage . . . Half an hour ago she took a second painkiller too close to the first and washed it down with vodka that she sweet-talked an old man into buying for her.” After a while, Olivia’s mom comes to pick her up and takes her home.  
  • Lacy explains to the other residents at Westminster Cemetery that often at an open mic, “tea and coffee or beer and wine” is served.  
  • Edgar Allan Poe is regarded as someone who “drank and gambled.” During the open mic night, Edgar says, “So the drunk keeps drinking / though he wants to be sober. / And the lover keeps cheating / though insisting that it’s over. / And the gambler who has guilt / runs to place another bet / while his family tries to live on / cold soup and regret.” 

Language   

  • Profanity is used often. This includes fuck and ass.  

Supernatural 

  • The premises of this novel is based on the existence of ghosts. The story is set in Westminster Cemetery in Baltimore, where Edgar Allan Poe is buried. At night, many of the residents rise and socialize with each other, “enjoy[ing] appropriate recreation.”  
  • The Dead cannot feel pain and are not affected by mortal needs like eating or sleep. Furthermore, those who are alive cannot see, hear, or feel the ghosts, “so all those ghost stories about spirits knocking on walls and creaking about in attics and blowing curtains and extinguishing lights . . . those aren’t true.” 

Spiritual Content 

  • Sarah, one of the residents of Westminster Cemetery, exclaims, “who says God loves being silent?” 

by Mikaela Querido 

Best Wishes

Becca Singer is having the worst day ever. Her best friend, Harper, dumped her, and Becca is totally friendless and alone. Then a box arrives in the mail. 

Inside the box? One bracelet, plus a mysterious note telling Becca to make a wish. So Becca puts on the bracelet—why not, right?—and wishes to have friends. Lots of friends. So many friends. 

And just like that, the magic works. Suddenly, EVERYONE wants to be Becca’s BFF, from all the kids at school, to the teachers, to her own mom. As things spin out of control, Becca starts to wonder: Is this wish really a curse? 

Best Wishes’ super cute cover will cause readers to pick up the book, while the engaging story will keep them entertained until the very end. Readers will relate to Becca’s conflicts—growing apart from a best friend, uncertainty about how to make friends, and the desire to fit in. When Becca’s wish comes true, she takes advantage of the situation in order to get a cell phone, a manicure, and eat pizza. At first, Becca is thrilled to have so much attention and to always have people tell her yes, but soon she realizes that “all the attention and nice things people were saying felt kind of . . . empty.”  

The theme of friendship runs throughout the story and will leave readers with many questions to ponder: Is having a lot of friends important? How can you be surrounded by friends and still be lonely? What makes someone a true friend? Through Becca’s experiences, she comes to the realization that “the most important part of friendship was showing you cared.”   

Suspense is added when a mysterious woman tries to get Becca to sell the magical bracelet to her. Even though Becca refuses, the woman keeps appearing. Once Becca realizes that her wish is more like a curse, she tries to take off the bracelet, but can’t—even with the help of this mysterious woman. Eventually, the woman attempts to steal the bracelet from Becca and a surprising hero jumps in to rescue the bracelet from the woman’s grasp. 

Not only is Best Wishes an engaging story with a positive message, but it is also a story that will appeal to many readers. The story uses simple vocabulary and short paragraphs which makes the text easy to read. There are also adorable black and white illustrations every two to ten pages. The illustrations will help readers understand the plot and Becca’s emotions. For example, while at school Becca has an embarrassing moment and the illustration shows her trying to hide in her pencil box. Since one of the characters talks about the Dork Diaries Series, this may spark readers’ desire to read even more.  

Best Wishes should be on every child’s reading list, not only because it’s an engaging book but also because it teaches the reader about friendship. The story portrayed Becca’s family in a positive manner even though they are not perfect. In the end, Becca learns the true meaning of friendship and grows as a person. Strong readers interested in reading another beautiful book about friendship should add Firefly Hollow by Alison McGhee and Wish by Barbara O’Connor to their must-read list.  

Sexual Content 

  • None 

Violence 

  • None 

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • None 

Language   

  • OMG is used frequently. 
  • Omigod is used once. 
  • At one point, Becca wonders why her brother has so many friends. She thinks, “If making friends was so easy for my brother, why was he usually such a jerk to me?” 

Supernatural 

  • Becca receives a magical bracelet with instructions to make a wish. Becca wishes that “everyone wanted to be my friend.” After she makes the wish, “The bracelet tightened around my wrist. The lights in the classroom flickered, and a rush of air hit my skin. Suddenly, my whole body felt like it was glimmering. Sparkling.” Becca’s wish is granted.  

Spiritual Content 

  • Becca and her family are Jewish. They are “not very religious but they try to stay kosher.”  
  • Becca’s family observes the Sabbat, and they have a traditional Sabbat which includes lighting candles, a Hebrew prayer, and eating a “special braided bread loaf.”  

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

Stacey’s Extraordinary Words

Stacey is a little girl who loves words more than anything. She loves reading them, sounding them out, and finding comfort in them when things are hard.   

But when her teacher chooses her to compete in the local spelling bee, she isn’t as excited as she thought she’d be. What if she messes up? Or worse, if she can’t bring herself to speak up, like sometimes happens when facing bullies at school?  

Stacey will learn that win or lose . . . her words are powerful, and sometimes perseverance is the most important word of all.  

Stacey’s Extraordinary Words is a fabulous story that introduces readers to new words by showing a protagonist who loves words. Stacey “adored fun words, long words, unusual words. Words with histories and weird combinations.” When Stacey encounters a new word, the definition of the word is included. However, because of the many words that Stacey loves, young readers will need an adult’s help pronouncing difficult words such as ptarmigan, onomatopoeia, persnickety, and perseverance.  

Unlike most books, Stacey’s Extraordinary Words doesn’t end with Stacey winning the spelling bee. Instead, the mean boy wins, and he makes fun of Stacey for misspelling a word. Despite the boy’s mean behavior, Stacey “stayed onstage like a good sport as Jake got his trophy and she received her second-place ribbon. Everyone congratulated Jake and so did she.” Through Stacey’s experiences, the reader learns the importance of being a good sport and the importance of perseverance.  

While Stacey’s story doesn’t have a happily ever after ending, Stacey learns that “words shouldn’t be used to hurt people.” But the most important part of all is that Stacey learns “new ways to speak up and help others.” The author’s note at the back of the book explains how the story was based on the author’s life experiences.  

Stacey’s Extraordinary Words tells an engaging story which is enhanced by the colorful full-page illustrations. When Stacey reads, many of her thoughts appear in the background, allowing readers to understand Staceey’s thought process. Many of the words that Stacy loves appear in large text and use fun fonts. Plus, when Stacey is at school, her classmates are a diverse group of students. In addition, her mother appears in several pages and is always encouraging and loving. Even though the story is a picture book, the pages are text heavy and the pages have as many as seven complex sentences.   

The educational and entertainment value of Stacey’s Extraordinary Words makes it a must-read book. Not only will readers learn important life lessons, but they will also enjoy the story and illustrations. The Word Collector by Peter H. Reynolds is another must-read picture book that features a protagonist who loves words.  

Sexual Content 

  • None 

Violence 

  • None 

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • None 

Language   

  • None 

Supernatural 

  • None 

Spiritual Content 

  • None 

Thanks for the Trouble

Parker Sante has not said a single word in 12 years; not since he witnessed his father die in a fatal car accident. Instead, he writes out his thoughts in a journal and watches other people interact; studying their movements and actions until it is the perfect moment to steal something that others would never know is gone. That’s exactly what he is doing when he locks eyes with Zelda. The striking, silver-haired vixen who seems to entrap him with just one look. Suddenly, not only does he want to steal from her, but he wants to get to know her. To talk to her.  

However, Parker quickly realizes that Zelda isn’t everything he thought she would be. She’s a dream, but one that may be coming to an end very soon. When Zelda receives a mysterious phone call, she makes it clear she plans to end her life. While she won’t tell him the details, Parker knows he must change her mind. So, the pair spend the next few days doing everything that Parker hopes will make Zelda fall in love with life again. It includes one wild night at a Halloween party (a scene that is very unlike Parker), becoming the middleman in a very public breakup at the movies, and even letting Zelda convince him to apply for college. However, as time passes, Parker falls more in love with Zelda and is increasingly frustrated because he knows nothing about her.  

Zelda remains an enigma to Parker until he demands she tell him who she is and why she is going to jump off the Golden Gate Bridge. But the story that Zelda begins to tell Parker is one he never saw coming. Instead, it is filled with unbelievable lies that Zelda insists are her reality; a reality that causes her to remain young forever. But Parker isn’t buying it. People didn’t just stop aging and live forever…or did they?  

As Parker races against time, trying to change Zelda’s mind, he realizes that maybe she isn’t the only one who needs saving. After all, Parker was living his life at half volume until Zelda came along, and now that she’s here, he doesn’t want to let his life slip away again. He just may have to figure out how to live life to the fullest on his own. 

The odd, yet endearing friendship between Zelda and Parker adds a vibrancy to the novel that immediately draws in the reader. Considering all the challenges Parker faces, witnessing his social progression throughout the story will leave the reader with a sense of pride. For example, by the end of the novel Parker begins to make real friends at school and starts to form the connections that he always wanted but never had. While Zelda shows some signs of vulnerability, an air of mysteriousness remains around her. There are moments where even the reader will question if what Zelda is saying is true or just another made-up story to help her conceal her identity. Because of this, the reader may find themselves frustrated by Zelda’s consistent games, but they will simultaneously be entranced by her.  

While Thanks for the Trouble contains a great plot line and immense character development, there is a heavy presence of suicidal thoughts. Multiple times, Zelda mentions that she intends to jump off the Golden Gate Bridge, and she eventually carries through with the action. While Zelda discloses to Parker that she cannot age and that is why she intends to commit suicide, the reader is still left with a feeling of uncertainty around that reasoning. Therefore, it never feels like we get a complete reason as to why Zelda wants to commit suicide, which makes the novel heartbreaking. While Parker consistently attempts to get Zelda to rethink her decision to commit suicide, that is the only form of suicide prevention that is present within the novel. The novel does not discourage suicide, and it does not discuss methods of intervention.  

Aside from the heavy topic of suicide, the plot will keep readers on their toes and the mystery never lets up. Readers never know what will happen next, which makes Thanks for the Trouble a must-read. The story is heartbreaking and honest in a way that many novels for young adult readers are not. The novel plays on the impulsiveness of teenage feelings when it comes to love and relationships, creating a sense of understanding between the reader and the characters. Parker’s devotion to Zelda reminds the reader that love is the greatest kindness you can show someone. Once more, Zelda’s journey through the novel and her eventual death brings light to the idea that life is fragile in every form, and that we may never know how much time is left. All in all, the novel makes resounding commentary on how love, life, and death are the three sole things that can never be stopped, even if we wish they could be.    

Sexual Content 

  • Zelda guesses what Parker does in his free time. “Seventeen? What a horrible age. I bet you spend most of your free time playing computer games and watching pornography on the Internet.”  
  • Parker recalls his first kiss when he was in seventh grade. He was playing spin the bottle with a friend and “the bottle had landed on her first, then on me, then blam! I was kissed. Kisses are weird that way. They’re supposed to be performed by two people simultaneously, but they don’t have to be. We even have a term for it- a stolen kiss– which is really just a euphemism for full-on-oral assault. I can remember looking up from the open mouth of the bottle only to find another open mouth rushing at me. A crush of lip and tongue and saliva and the chorus of yowls from the onlookers.” 
  • Someone tells Zelda what a cougar is. “A cougar’s an older woman who gets it on with young men.”  
  • Zelda lies about Parker and her being lovers. A boy at the Halloween party “asked me if you were my community service project. I told him we’d been lovers for months. That you’d made me feel things I’d never felt before.”  
  • Zelda and Parker kiss at a Halloween Party. “I turned to smile at Zelda and she kissed me, right on the mouth this time, and I kissed her back.”  
  • As Parker walks around a museum with Zelda, he says, “Usually, the only thing that keeps me awake is all the nudity. Though not nearly as common as bowls of fruit, naked ladies tend to feature very prominently in your average museum.”  
  • Parker and Zelda passionately kiss in the Shakespeare Garden. “I moved across the dark distance between us and put my arms around her waist, pulling her into a kiss. I felt the cluck of her phone dropping to the grass. A moment later we were on the ground too. She rolled on top of me, pinning my arms behind my head, pushing against me in a way that made me forget every single problem I ever had or probably ever would have.”  
  • Parker’s mother gives him sex advice. His mom says, ” Try to do it mostly with people you love. Use protection. Don’t be an asshole.”  
  • Parker and Zelda have sex. “We finished undressing each other and got into bed. The house was just cold enough that it felt really good under the covers, skin to skin. And then we were kissing, and then it was happening, and I’ll leave the gory details to your imagination if that’s okay by you.”  

Violence 

  • Parker steals from a woman’s purse at the hotel. “I glanced around the room, and when I was sure no one was looking, I reached over and undid the clasp of the silver-haired girl’s little blue handbag. I pushed through a cloud of Kleenex and deep-sea dove into the mysterious mire of femininity until my fingers found the wad.”  
  • Parker describes his version of the sleeping beauty storyline. “He’s actually a douche-bag king—one who already has a queen by the way—and he rapes her. She wakes up pregnant, so the king’s wife tries to kill her, bake her into a pie, and feed her to the king. The happy ending? The king decides to have his wife burned to death so he can raise a family with Sleeping Beauty.”  
  • Parker writes a fairytale and describes one of the characters abusing his wife. “As a punishment, he beat his wife around the belly with a bent piece of barrel wood.”  
  • Zelda tells Parker about her plans of committing suicide. “I am waiting for a phone call. And when it comes, I’m going to give this money to the first needy person I see. Then I’ll take the trolley to the Golden Gate Bridge and jump off of it.”  
  • Parker describes the car accident that killed his father. His father caught the back bumper of another car when he was switching lanes and “we were flipped over in the middle of the highway and my dad was dripping onto the fucking roof, you know.”  
  • Parker recounts a character in one of his stories being hit by his mother. “His mother slapped him upside the head again. Go back to bed child!”  
  • Parker tells Zelda about how he got charged with assault in eighth grade from pushing his bully. “I pushed him back one time, and I wasn’t paying…this one car was driving way too close to the sidewalk, and so yeah, he ended up getting hit. Trevor’s parents pressed charges, and maybe because he was white and I wasn’t, I got this minor version of assault put on my record.”  
  • When Zelda finds out Parker declined the phone call she had been waiting for, Zelda slaps Parker. “Finally, I grabbed her shoulder, and she spun and delivered a stinging slap right to my bruised cheek. I was blind with pain for a few seconds, and by the time I recovered, she was gone.”  
  • Parker finds Zelda about to jump off the bridge. “Now, you might think it doesn’t really matter one way or the other—if a person wants to kill herself, she’ll just find some other way to do it, right? Wrong. It turns out that most people make these decisions pretty lightly, on the spur of the moment when the thought occurs, they often don’t do it at all.”  
  • Parker describes how Zelda looks before she jumps off the bridge. “Imperfect sadness maybe, which was another way of saying there was a little splinter of happiness in there too. I’d given her that at least. And then she jumped.”  

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • Zelda pours rum into her drink. “She took a small leather flask out of her purse and poured some of it into her soda.”  
  • Parker goes to see his mom and she is drinking. “The eviscerated remains of a TV dinner were still in my mom’s lap, and she was holding a mostly empty glass of red wine.”  
  • Parker gets home and notices his mom is drunk. “My mom was clearly a little bit tipsy. . . ”  
  • Parker describes his idea of high school parties. According to Parker, high school parties are “a bunch of people getting together to be drunk, loud assholes, with a special emphasis on the loud. And another emphasis on the drunk. And a third emphasis on assholes, while we’re at it.”  
  • After being left alone at the party, Parker gets drunk. “I’ve never seen the appeal in getting hammered every time there’s alcohol on offer. But here I was at a party made up entirely of people I either didn’t know or didn’t like, so what else was I supposed to do?”  
  • Parker sees others at the party drinking. “Jamie Schmid, the host of the party, came running from the other end of the yard, a bottle of Budweiser gripped tightly in each fist.”  
  • Parker describes his mother’s bedside table. “Her drugs were on the bedside table – Prozac and Tylenol PM – alongside an empty bottle of wine.” 
  • Zelda confronts Parker’s mother about her alcohol use. Zelda says, “But you cannot expect your son to stand here and be lectured about self-control by an alcoholic.” 

Language   

  • Explicit language such as fuck, shit, and ass are used frequently. 
  • Parker says others describe him as “a thug.”  
  • A friend of Parker’s argues with him over who should go first in chess. “You’re Latino is what you are, son. And that whole white-goes-first bullshit is straight-up racist.”  

Supernatural 

  • None 

Spiritual Content 

  • Parker describes some of the artwork in the museum: “All those haloed saints and weeping Marys and bleeding Jeses (that’s the plural of Jesus, right?) and yawn-inducing landscapes and dead chickens.” 
  • Parker, Zelda, and his new friends discuss God. The friend said, “God and science are not incompatible. And Zelda just said herself. Nothing adds up unless you consider God.”  
  • Parker expresses his thoughts on the Bible. “That’s the problem with the Bible—or one of them, anyway—it doesn’t just tell you what to do, it tells you what to want. That’s too much to ask, IMHO.”  

Remember Me

The day before her seventeenth birthday, Blue Owens wakes up feeling like something is wrong. Her memories are hazy, and everything seems vaguely familiar, yet so foreign. Her friends and family are acting weird and suspicious, tiptoeing around her, as if she will fall and break at any minute. Blue explains, “You ever get the feeling something’s going on and you don’t know what it is?”  

In the back of her closet, she finds a strange note that reads: meet me on the little blue bus at 7:45. Blue has no idea who wrote the note or any idea why someone would want to meet her. But she only has one day to decide what she’s going to do. 

Following her gut, Blue gets on the little blue bus at 7:45 and meets Adam, who seems like a stranger. But as they talk and connect, she is flooded with familiarity; it is as if they have always known each other. Because they have. Adam hesitantly explains that they have dated since the tenth grade. “In fact,” he says, they’ve “done everything together for two years.” Blue discovers that she “canceled” Adam, and chose to erase him from her memory. 

Realizing what she has done, Blue sets out to recover her memories and figure out why she “canceled” them. As she explores deeper into her past, she is faced with painful memories. Should Blue leave her forgotten memories in the past? Should she bring her memories back and experience her grief all over again?  

Set ten years in the future, Remember Me mixes sci-fi and mystery elements with a story about grief and finding yourself. While Blue is a determined, independent, and brave young woman, she is also broken and imperfect, as she is dealing with great tragedies. After Blue’s sister’s tragic death, Blue spirals into a deep depression, waking up “most days [wishing she was] dead.” Blue’s friends and family begin to worry, as she becomes detached, irritable, and overly spontaneous. Blue must decide if she wants to erase all memories of her sister, finding a supposed cure to her pain, or spiral further, hoping one day she will wake up “and be [the] kind of person who glows and has goals and a self that doesn’t torture them.”  

In the end, rather than truly canceling her past, Blue learns to live with her grief. Although “it still hurt[s] whenever” she thinks of her sister, as these memories can “break [her] apart,” Blue is able to “come back together” and be whole. She comes to terms with her past and realizes that memories of her sister, for better or for worse, are still a part of her and make her who she is. 

Remember Me is best for mature readers, as it deals with topics like depression, suicide, death, and grief. It also delves into the effects of divorce on children. Furthermore, it has an explicit sex scene and substantial use of profanity. Overall, Remember Me, is a must-read, with a diverse cast of characters, a strong female lead, and an interesting plot. The story discusses the difficulties of grieving and losing someone you love. Plus, it highlights the importance of learning to live with the painful events of your past and accepting them as a part of who you are. 

Sexual Content 

  • Blue’s friends, Turtle and Jack, are dating and “in love.” They often act intimate with each other in front of others. 
  • Turtle is practicing for a play and has to make out with Kevin, a boy who is gay and uncomfortable kissing a girl. While practicing for the show the two struggle to connect. The teacher who is directing their practice has Turtle and her partner Jack (who is also in show choir) kiss to show them how it’s done. “Kevin is watching, uncomfortably, from the side. Jack leans forward slowly, pulling Turtle flush against their own body, and they melt into a deep kiss.” 
  • In eighth grade, Blue kissed Jacobo Mancini. Blue “let him put his hands in my bikini bottoms. I remember playing a game where I was supposed to be in the closet with Calvin Locus and we were supposed to spend six minutes in there and we didn’t come out for a much longer time.”  
  • While riding the bus with Adam, Blue thinks that she does not “remember kissing [him]. . .  my body does. My body positively writhes with knowing.” 
  • After reuniting, Blue and Adam kiss. “Our lips touch and he presses the middle of my back toward him. I feel like an elevator falling up.” Later, their families pull them apart, Blue thinks “out of nowhere I’m back in that kiss, in the breathlessness that took me over.” 
  • Blue thinks about sex. She thinks, “I’m not so much thinking about sex per se, like me having it but I am thinking about the idea of sex, or why people want to have it.” She then imagines her and Adam together. “And it’s not like I want to have sex with him right away or something. . . But I would like to kiss him. Very much I would like that. I wouldn’t mind running my hands over the skin under his shirt, feeling his breath on my neck, his fingertips on my belly.” 
  • Blue notes that her friend lives in the older part of town, in a crumbling building where you “can hear their neighbors having sex when they’re trying to go to sleep.” 
  • When Blue and Adam first began to date, they spent “hours and hours on end” kissing. Then “the shirts came off. We spent about a month like that . . . then pants got inched down and finally off.” The two become sexually intimate with each other. Blue recounts a moment when Adam had “his head between my legs” for the first time.  
  • Before she cancels him, Blue visits Adam for what is supposed to be the last time. The two kiss. Adam “opens his mouth and it’s hot when he nips at my lips. It’s not a sexy kiss so much as a communication . . . an apology.” 

Violence 

  • Ten years into the future, there is an “international epidemic” of suicide, especially among young people.  
  • There is a bridge in Blue’s town that “people throw themselves off… all the time, and it’s been getting worse.” One instance causes the whole community to come together, when “Taylor Strong chucked himself off the edge”of the bridge. 
  • When Blue arrives at the beach, she sees Adam and explains “my throat drops into my toes… He has V draped across his arm and is swimming ferociously toward the shore. She is limp, head hanging backward, neck tilted back and exposed like she’s offering herself up to the sky.” She imagines V swam “straight to the spot where Dad told us not to go, swims out there vowing to prove that we all underestimate her. She swims straight into a riptide, gets pulled under, flails and kicks but the riptide is too strong for her. She’s carried away screaming when she reaches the surface, until she can’t fight anymore…. By the time the ambulance comes, I am as gone as V…  My sister is dead.” 
  • After her sister dies, Blue explains “most days when I wake up I wish I were dead.” 

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • On her fifteenth birthday, Blue gets drunk. She explains that she “didn’t mean to get drunk but [she’s] such a lightweight that even though [she] only took a couple of sips” she was drunk. 
  • Blue attends a party with her friends and drinks.  
  • Blue observes the “worst my parents do is smoke joints out back after they think I’m asleep.” 
  • After her parents’ divorce Blue wonders if her father is hooking up with “one of those rafting girls he works with, sturdy, beer-drinking, tan, young.” 
  • Blue’s father explains to Blue before she was born, he “drank too much beer and cursed.” 

Language   

  • Profanity is used often. Profanity includes shit, fuck, bitch, ass, and pussy. 

 Supernatural 

  • None 

 Spiritual Content 

  • Blue and her grandmother attend a funeral. As they walk into the church, Gran “makes the sign of the cross twice, once as we pass the Lady of Guadalupe statue in the courtyard and again when we stumble over the threshold into the actual church.” 
  • Blue describes the funeral service. “A priest says some things about Jesus. . .  I just listen[ed] to the prayers, the talk of God having a place in heaven for Arturo, the God will look over his wife and his children, that Arturo is free now.” 

The Wolf, the Duck, & the Mouse

 

Early one morning, a mouse is swallowed whole by a wolf. The mouse believes this is the end until he is greeted by a voice. This voice belongs to a duck, who was swallowed by the wolf some time ago. Since then, the duck has made a comfortable home out of the beast’s belly. He teaches the mouse that their situation is not as hopeless as it seems. In fact, it may even be better than the lives they had before being eaten. Inside the wolf’s stomach, they never have to search for food, since they can feast on whatever the wolf swallows. Best of all, they never have to worry about being eaten by another wolf!

The mouse forms a fast friendship with his new roommate, and the two enjoy the safety of their new home. However, all is threatened when the wolf is discovered by a hunter. The mouse and the duck must decide whether to stay in the safety of the wolf’s stomach or act against the new threat.

 With its witty sense of humor and its twists on familiar fables, The Wolf, the Duck, & the Mouse will entertain readers of all ages. Its simple illustrations add to the hilarity of the plot. The characters are drawn with blank expressions that contrast their outgoing personalities and the ridiculousness of their situations. Readers will also laugh at the variety of outfits that the mouse and the duck wear throughout the story. They wear silly outfits from chef’s uniforms to tuxedos, as well as the random items found in the wolf’s stomach, from sports equipment to an entire kitchen. Each page has six to ten short sentences that are easy to follow. However, young readers may need help understanding some more advanced words, including “remedy,” “grant,” and “intention.”

Readers will appreciate the optimism and creativity of the duck and his ability to make the best out of any bad situation. The Wolf, the Duck, & the Mouse is a must-read because it teaches readers that their greatest challenges are also their greatest opportunities and that the presence of friends and creative thinking can brighten almost any situation.

Sexual Content

  • None

Violence

  • The mouse is “quickly gobbled up” by the wolf, but the mouse survives unscathed.
  • A hunter carrying a rifle follows the wolf. At one point he “fires a shot” at the wolf. The illustration shows the hunter firing the rifle, but the hunter misses.

Drugs and Alcohol

  • When convincing the wolf to consume items, the duck includes “a flagon of wine!”
  • The mouse and the duck are shown in tuxedos at a fancy dinner table, holding glasses of wine.

Language

  • When the duck and the mouse pursue the hunter, he exclaims, “Oh death!”

Supernatural

  • The hunter mistakes the duck and mouse for “wraiths.”

Spiritual Content

  • None

by Luke McClain

 

The Storyteller

Long ago, cool water from fountains and engaging tales from storytellers sustained the kingdom of Morocco despite the conditions of the surrounding desert. However, as the peoples’ fear of the desert faded, so did their memory of these stories. Storytellers began to disappear. Soon after, the fountains dried up, leaving the kingdom in a severe drought. Many years later, a young boy’s encounter with a remaining storyteller might be the only hope the kingdom has to save them from division, thirst, and a coming sandstorm.  

The Storyteller is set in a fictionalized Morocco where storytelling and weaving are significant artforms of the kingdom’s cultural history. The narrative teaches readers that well-made art has the power to preserve culture and give its listener a clearer understanding of themselves and of others. In the book, artists can literally create and sustain life, whether that be through stories that give water to its listener, or through magical threads that weave kingdoms.  

The Storyteller is distinguished by its abstract illustrations. Often spread across both pages, the story’s illustrations help the reader to believe the sheer scope of the kingdom, the allure of the glistening blue water and gold threads, and the looming threat of the massive sandstorm. Blending hurriedly pencil-drawn characters reminiscent of cave drawings with multi-layered, watercolor backgrounds and figures, the art of The Storyteller strengthens its narrative’s stance as an ode to storytelling old and new. 

Even though The Storyteller is a picture book, the story is intended to be read aloud to a child, rather than for the child to read it for the first time independently.  Each page ranges from 1 to 13 sentences and younger readers may need help understanding some of the book’s vocabulary, including “spindle,” “buoyant,” and “sapphire.” The Storyteller becomes a story within a story with each new tale the title character weaves. While the book uses different colored fonts to separate the stories, parental assistance will be needed to help younger readers follow the layered narrative.  

The Storyteller is sure to engage readers by introducing them to the world of its several tales. While the nameless protagonist of the book might lack significant personality, readers will nonetheless identify with his fascination with stories, his bravery, and his lesson of a well-told story’s power. Plus, its lesson on the importance of storytelling makes it a must-read for any reader learning storytelling and artmaking. If you’d like to read another fun book that shows the importance of storytelling, check out Octopus Stew by Eric Velasquez; it is sure to make young readers smile.   

 Sexual Content 

  • None 

 Violence 

  • The sandstorm repeatedly threatens to “destroy” the city. 

 Drugs and Alcohol 

  • None 

 Language 

  • None 

 Supernatural 

  • Stories and weaving literally create what their listeners and makers need. 
  • After being weaved, a carpet becomes “a beautiful clear pool.” 
  • In her story, the old woman says that through weaving she “birthed an entire kingdom.” In another instance, “a glorious bird awakened and emerged from the loom.” 
  • The sandstorm is personified as a “djinn.” 

 Spiritual Content 

  • None 

Curse of the Phoenix

Fraternal twins Zac and Lu live rather estranged lives despite living in the same household. Zac is always indoors due to his asthma and severe allergies. Lu can go outside and hang out with her friends, yet feels burdened by her brother’s medical emergencies. The only thing they have in common is that they both grew up listening to their mother’s stories about the Wildewoods, an imaginary land where mythical beasts roam free. These creatures fill up the pages of Zac’s sketchbooks and inspire Lu’s love of animals.  

When their mother dies, the twins are sent to England to spend the summer with relatives they’ve never met: their aunts Merle and Rowena, their uncle Conrad, and their cousins Penelope and Oliver. It doesn’t take long for the twins to discover the incredible secret hidden in the forest of their ancestral home. Their mother’s stories about centaurs, unicorns, and dragons were not made-up after all. Their family is the keepers of the Wildewoods, the last place on earth where mythical creatures can live safely away from human harm.  

There are many dangers that lie in these lands—and a terrible curse. When Zac and Lu become victims of the curse, their only hope is tracking down the last living phoenix. On their search, they discover family secrets, learn about the magical creatures, and come to terms with their mother’s death.

The chapters alternate between Lu’s and Zac’s perspectives which gives insight into each twin’s point of view. Because Lu is more cautious than her brother, Lu’s perspective focuses on the danger of the Wildewoods and helps the reader understand the lay of the land as well as how the family cares for the creatures. On the other hand, Zac sees the mystique of the magical creatures and is less mindful of their inherent danger to humans. Some readers will relate to the responsibility of an older sibling, and other readers will relate to the joy of discovering and exploring a new place.  

Zac and Lu stumble into danger whenever they venture into the lands and their relatives get hurt while fending off the mythical beasts that the twins stumble upon. For instance, their cousin Penelope fights a manticore to protect the twins but gets a lethal dose of the manticore’s venom, which incapacitates her for the rest of the summer. While the Wildewoods are scary and dangerous, they are portrayed as a traversable place for the family members to explore.  

The Curse of the Phoenix is a fun, magical story that captures the magnificence of magical creatures and depicts the weight of the consequences of one’s actions. This novel has a quick pace, and it seamlessly integrates the Wildewoods into Zac and Lu’s new lives. Questions about the curse are answered early on, giving more chances for the main characters to explore the vast parts of the Wilde, the family’s estate. Throughout the story, the relatives allude to past events, giving the story a sense of mystery. Readers will eagerly flip pages to see if their predictions were correct. This is a must-read book for its unique perspective on humans and their relationships with magical creatures. Readers who like exciting adventures with intriguing mysteries will enjoy Aimée Carter’s Simon Thorn Series as well as Fablehaven by Brandon Mull. 

Sexual Content 

  • None 

Violence 

  • On their first visit to the Wildewoods, Zac and Lu come across a dragon. The twins try to escape, but Lu accidently steps on a twig, grabbing the dragon’s attention. Lu tackles Zac into a heap of dirt right as the dragon attacks them with fire. “A plume of fire exploded from the dragon’s snout, missing them by inches.” A bright flash distracts the dragon, but it eventually refocuses on the twins. The dragon tries to attack with fire, but the twins’ Aunt Rowena protects them with a shield.  Then, she drives “the dragon into the trees with a massive shield.” Despite her protective equipment, “she was limping as she moved forward.” The encounter with the dragon lasts for two pages.  
  • Zac goes out to the Wildewoods to find the phoenix with Lu and Penelope in tow. They encounter the manticore. Zac draws its attention by throwing a stick at it. Zac “hurled his stick straight for its hindquarters. And as it made contact with a loud thwack, the monster roared again and whirled around, launching itself directly toward Zac instead.”  
  • To save Zac, Penelope jumps on the manticore’s back, and tries to cut the manticore’s flesh. “Penelope held on, clutching its stunted mane and continuing to press the knife into the manticore’s flesh, but it was too strong.” Penelope’s grip begins to slip, but their cousin Oliver cracks a whip at the manticore to distract it from her. However, the manticore had already stung Penelope and “she was unconscious and deathly pale.” Zac and Lu are uninjured, but Penelope remains bedridden for most of the story. The encounter with the manticore lasts for two pages.  
  • Oliver, using a bow and arrow, tries to shoot the phoenix so he can weaken it and capture it. The phoenix warned Zac about Oliver’s attempt. “That was when [Lu] heard it—a faint whistling sound. In that same instant, as her brother crashed into her, the whistling was punctuated by a loud rip, and Zac’s agonizing cry.” Lu stumbled backward, fighting to hold him up. “To her horror, blood began to stain his sleeve.” The arrow nicked Zac in the arm. 

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • Zac takes Benadryl to stop his allergic reactions and an inhaler to relieve his asthma symptoms. 

Language   

  • One of the twins’ aunts uses the word “bloody” multiple times. “Bloody” is a British slang word that means “very,” but it is considered a swear word in other regions. 
  • Zac thinks of the word “crap” when he tries to hide from Oliver, but accidentally gets Oliver’s attention.  

Supernatural 

  • The phoenix cursed the Wilde family as punishment for their ancestor’s cruel actions against magical creatures. Those born into the Wilde family are forced to stay near the Wildewoods estate. At the age of thirteen or upon entering the Wildewoods before turning thirteen years old, each blood-related family member receives a W-shaped mark on the palm of one of their hands. The marked family members cannot travel too far from the estate or else they will die.  
  • Zac gets occasional visions about the past due to his bond with the phoenix.  
  • The phoenix blood is a powerful healing agent that can heal any injury and cure any illness.  
  • The phoenix willingly gives Zac a drop of phoenix blood so he can heal Lu from an injury. When she drank the blood, “the arrow began to work itself out of her body . . . he wound in her stomach magically [closed] on its own.”  

Spiritual Content 

  • None

The Oracle Code

After an accident renders her disabled, teenager Barbara Gordon is sent to the Arkham Center for Independence (A.C.I). She learns to cope with her newfound disability, makes new friends, and processes her trauma. However, there seems to be something more sinister occurring within the rehabilitation center; kids are disappearing, and the doctors are hiding something. Can Barbara solve the mystery behind the facility before she too falls victim to it?  

The graphic novel, The Oracle Code is told from Barbara’s point of view, which helps the reader see her character growth and understand the overarching themes of resilience, the importance of friendship, and embracing who you are. The story shows the difficulties of living with a disability, while still emphasizing that having a disability does not make your life less valuable. Barbara’s friend Issy reinforces this theme when she says, “The truth is, no matter what anyone led you to believe, life on wheels isn’t any worse or better than life on both feet, or one foot, or crutches. It’s what you make of it.”  

Barbara also learns the importance of letting others help during hard times. While she tries to be as independent as possible, eventually Barbara accepts that it is okay to rely on others and ask for assistance when needed. As she tries to solve the mysteries behind the A.C.I, Barbara calls upon her friends and family, and it is through their teamwork that the puzzle is eventually cracked.  

The secret behind the facility is incredibly dark and may be difficult and upsetting to read. The head physical therapist and head psychiatric therapist experiment on the A.C.I patients in order to find more effective treatments and cures. This is done by kidnapping the children whose parents have seemingly abandoned them and erasing any trace of their existence. The therapists then perform torturous experiments in order to “fix” them. The physical therapist even refers to the children he experiments on as “collateral damage.” In the end, Barbara and the rest of the patients within the A.C.I. prove that they don’t need to be “fixed.”  

Preitano’s illustrations highlight the emotionally powerful moments with dynamic page compositions and incredible character expressions. The color schemes also help differentiate between flashbacks and the present day. Flashback sequences are illustrated in stark reds, oranges, and yellows. This contrasts the muted colors used in the rest of the graphic novel. Preitano’s use of intense shading also helps intensify the looming dreadful atmosphere of the A.C.I. Despite the excellent illustrations, the dialogue between the characters and Barbara’s internal monologue is still central to the story and ensures each idea is conveyed clearly. In addition, the text is easy to read because it uses simple vocabulary. 

The Oracle Code is highly recommended for anyone struggling to come to terms with a disability. Barbara and her friends are excellent role models because they persevere through difficult circumstances and display selflessness by helping each other despite the dangers. In addition, their incredible vulnerability will encourage teens to be more open with their emotions. Plus, the well-written mystery and relatable characters make for an incredibly engaging read.   Overall, The Oracle Code is an excellent graphic novel and a must-read for anyone who loves DC comics or a good mystery.  Fans of DC comics should also read Wonder Woman: Tempest Tossed by Laurie Halse Anderson.  

Sexual Content  

  • None

Violence  

  • Barbara gets shot “trying to help someone.” During flashback scenes, guns and bullets are consistently present in the illustrations.  
  • The hospitalized kids retaliate against the doctor who experimented on them. The doctor is hit several times with mobility aids and then tied up with a jump rope. Onomatopoeias like “crunch” and “smack” are used during this segment. 
  • The A.C.I. experiment on a patient, who later said they were “test subjects.” 
  • One of the doctors conducting genetic experiments also threatens Barbara and her friends with a gun.  

Drugs and Alcohol  

  • None 

 Language   

  • None 

Supernatural  

  • None 

Spiritual Content  

  • None

Girl in the Blue Coat

Hanneke Bakker is struggling to find her place during World War II. Without her parent’s knowledge, Hanneke has been obtaining and selling black market goods. However, her life gets turned upside down when Mrs. Janssen, one of her usual customers, asks her to find Mirjam Roodveldt, a young Jewish girl that Janssen had been hiding in Mrs. Jansesen’s home.  

At first, Hanneke refuses to help find Mirjam. However, when she agrees to search for her, Hanneke quickly becomes exposed to the brutal realities of war. When Hanneke meets a group dedicated to hiding and rescuing Jewish citizens who are under threat from the Nazis, it causes Hanneke to question how beneficial her efforts have been. With blonde hair and light eyes, Hanneke identifies herself as the “Nazi’s poster child,” making her feel guilty about her negligence to the war.  Hanneke is eventually drawn further into the mystery of the missing girl and her search leads her to stunning revelations about the war and the people involved. 

Teens will relate to Hanneke because she falls deals with many of the same struggles that normal teens experience, such as young love and conflicts with parents. The story is told from Hanneke’s point of view in a very raw and honest way. Throughout the book, Hanneke must cope with the death of her boyfriend, Bas, as well as the loss of her normal life during wartime. She also deals with losing her best friend, Elsbeth, whose morals become questionable after marrying a Nazi soldier. The story teaches readers that grief is not a one-way street and that there are multiple coping mechanisms that help someone deal with loss.  

Since the story is written from Hanneke’s point of view, other characters are not well developed. While everyone is dealing with their own form of grief, describing the lives of other characters more in-depth would have made the novel more impactful. For example, Ollie copes with the loss of his brother who died in battle. When talking to Hanneke, Ollie reminisces on his brother’s life saying, “. . . I talk about him all the time. Him and his obnoxious jokes, his laugh, what he would have become.” Unfortunately, readers are given limited knowledge on Ollie’s personality and perspective. This leads readers to have a one-sided view of the conflicts in the story. 

Even though Hanneke is the protagonist, she is not always likable. However, she has several positive attributes including courage and determination. Her naivety comes out frequently, which makes her seem self-centered. For example, when Mrs. Janssen asks Hanneke to find Mirjam, Hanneke focuses on whether or not it would benefit herself. At times, she lacks conviction and she frequently questions her actions, which may frustrate readers. She asks people involved in the war resistance dumb questions too, then becomes angry with herself because she had previously shielded herself from the horrors of the war. 

Despite taking place in 1942, teens will be inspired by Hanneke and the positive messages she carries. Hanneke’s life would have been simpler had she not agreed to search for Mirjam; however, she knows it is what must be done for the sake of Mrs. Janssen, who is worrying herself sick over Mirjam’s disappearance. Despite making mistakes, Hanneke continues her journey. Ultimately, Hanneke’s compassion for Mrs. Janssen and for everyone who has lost people to the horrors of war is comes to drive her.  

While the characters are fictional, many of the events are historically accurate and the war within the Netherlands was extremely well-researched by the author. However, at times the plot felt like it went too slow, while other times it went too fast. Plus, the conclusion was rushed and confusing. Nonetheless, those who are interested in the history of WWII would find this an interesting read, especially those who wish to learn more about the German occupation of the Netherlands. For readers interested in learning more about the World War II resistance, Resistance by Jennifer A. Nielsen is a must-read. 

Sexual Content  

  • Hanneke and Ollie, the brother of Hanneke’s dead boyfriend, briefly kiss whilst pretending to be a couple in front of German soldiers. “Ollie cups my face in his hands and kisses me. His mouth is soft and full, his eyelashes brush against my cheek, and only he and I know that our lips are shivering in fear.” 
  • Hanneke occasionally flirts with German soldiers to avoid suspicion. “With the way I’m standing, my dress has risen above my knee, and the soldier notices . . . I shift my weight a little so the hemline rides even higher, now halfway up my goose-bumped thigh.” 
  • Hanneke frequently recalls previous romantic encounters she had with her boyfriend. In one instance, she recalls her first kiss with him. “When he kissed me, he dropped his bicycle and it clattered to the ground, and we both laughed.” 
  • Ollie confesses his love for Willem, saying, “Jews aren’t the only ones who suffer because of the Nazis. I don’t love Judith. I love Willem.” 

Violence  

  • At the beginning of the war in the Netherlands, “two thousand Dutch servicemen were killed when they tried but failed to protect our borders as the country fell” and “German planes bombed Rotterdam, killing nine hundred civilians.” 
  • Hanneke is shocked when Mrs. Janssen says, “I’ve heard of people imprisoned, taken away and never returned. But four people, including a woman and a child, shot dead in cold blood?” 
  • Mrs. Janssen recalls the death of her family at the hands of the Nazis. This took place at the Janssen family shop, where the Janssens were hiding their Jewish neighbors. Someone had tipped off the Nazis that these individuals were being hidden, leading to a massacre. “When the shooting was done, Hendrik was dead, and David, and Rose, and Lea. Only Mirjam managed to escape.” 
  • The Nazis capture and beat a man, causing “bleeding from the nose, his right eye split and swollen.” 
  • Hanneke talks about protests that have “left dead bodies in the streets.” 
  • A fight breaks out between two shop customers. Nazi soldiers come to disperse the fight. “A fight broke out in the shop, which led to the earliest major roundup and hundreds dead.” 
  • Hanneke talks about how resistance workers “could be shot” for their work. 
  • During a round up, a girl tries to escape, but she is shot and killed by a Nazi soldier. “They shoot her. In the middle of the bridge, in the back of the neck so that blood bursts from her throat, slick and shining in the moonlight.”  

Drugs and Alcohol  

  • Hanneke smuggles items through the black market, including “cigarettes and alcohol.” 

Language                                                                                                                                               

  • Profanity is used rarely. Profanity includes damn in both English and italicized Dutch. 
  • Mrs. Janssen goes to show Hanneke the cupboard where she hid Mirjam. When she sees it, Hanneke thinks, “Verdorie. Damn it, she’s crazier than I thought.” 

Supernatural  

  • None 

Spiritual Content  

  • Several of the characters are of Jewish faith, which is a big source of conflict within the story as it takes place during World War II.  
  • The Nazi soldiers sympathize with the Christian characters. A soldier says, “I feel bad punishing a good Christian woman who is too stupid to know where her husband was.” 

From The Desk of Zoe Washington

Zoe Washington is a normal 12-year-old who is refusing to speak with her long-time best friend, Trevor. Her spiraling friendship with Trevor seems to be the most of her worries . . . until she checks the mail and sees a strange letter from the county prison. Could this be what she thinks it is? Is her long-lost father finally reaching out after all these years? 

All Zoe knows about her birth father, Marcus, is that he is in prison after being convicted of murder. Zoe’s mother refuses to speak about Marcus and brushes off all of Zoe’s questions. After all, Zoe has a wonderful stepfather that has taken care of her since she was born, so what need is there for Marcus? But there is a need. Zoe wonders about Marcus. Does he like Hawaiian pizza too? Why did he refer to her as “Little Tomato?” Why is he telling her he is innocent? Innocent people didn’t go to prison . . . or did they? 

For Zoe, Marcus’s letter brings up so many unanswered questions. Questions about who he is and what he did to end up in prison. But more than anything she can’t stop thinking, what if he is innocent? With each new letter and phone call, Zoe begins to piece together the clues of the crime that Marcus supposedly committed. The only problem is that nothing is adding up. Suddenly the answer seems so clear to Zoe; she needs to track down a mysterious witness to help prove Marcus’s alibi.   

But tracking down the witness is harder than Zoe anticipated . . . especially when she must keep it a secret. So, Zoe enlists the help of none other than her ex-best friend, Trevor, to travel to Harvard University to find the witness. However, the day trip turns out worse than anticipated and Zoe ends up in big trouble. Worst of all, now that she is grounded, Marcus has no one searching for the woman who may be the answer to his freedom. 

From the Desk of Zoe Washington is an inspiring story that showcases Zoe’s bravery. The plot emphasizes that even when life seems uncomplicated, it usually is anything but. The overlap between Zoe’s summer activities and her mission to prove her father’s innocence provides a delicious complexity to the storyline. The story takes a deep dive into Marcus’s conviction and the racial inequality of the justice system. The plot successfully educates the reader on wrongful convictions and racism, while maintaining a lighthearted nature that cuts the heavy feelings that can arise from such deeply serious topics. Even though the book delves into mature topics, it is not overwhelming. Instead, readers will find the story easy to understand.   

Zoe is a likable and well-written character who matures throughout the novel. Her character development reinforces that it is not the amount of time you spend with someone that matters, but instead how you spend it with them. Zoe reminisces on this towards the end of the novel when she visits Marcus in prison. “I had no idea what would happen next, but I hoped with all of my heart that The Innocence Project would set Marcus free. In the meantime, I was so thankful I found his letter on my twelfth birthday, and that he was in my life now, where he belonged.”  

Readers will sympathize with Zoe and understand her confusion when it comes to topics such as The Innocence Project and wrongful convictions – concepts that are hard to understand in the mind of a 12-year-old. Serious topics such as racism and wrongful convictions are discussed throughout the novel, but nothing of a graphic nature is present.  

While the story is intended for a younger audience, it still evokes a sense of realness within the plot and the characters. The roller coaster of emotions that Zoe goes through during her journey is easy for the reader to understand and admire. There are so many moments where the reader’s heart will reach out for Zoe. From The Desk of Zoe Washington focuses on themes such as having an unconventional family, social justice, and prison reform. The seamless, yet informative inclusion of social justice issues complements the kid-friendly nature of the novel, making it a must-read for those wanting to be gradually introduced to these topics. Middle-grade readers who want to explore other books about racial injustice should read A Good Kind of Trouble by Lisa Moore Ramé and I Am Alfonso Jones by Tony Medina. 

Sexual Content 

  • None 

Violence 

  • Zoe discusses the Black Lives Matter movement. “I knew about the Black Lives Matter movement, how Black people all over the country were getting shot by police for no good reason. If those police officers weren’t going to jail, then it made sense that the whole prison system was messed up. I never thought about whether prisons had the wrong people before. I assumed that if you committed a crime, you got the punishment you deserved, and innocent people would always be proven innocent. Apparently not.”  

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • None 

Language   

  • Zoe’s grandmother recalls a fight that Marcus got into when he was younger with another basketball player. “Marcus said that the other player, who was white, called him the N-word while they were playing. Under his breath, when nobody else could hear him.”  

Supernatural 

  • None 

Spiritual Content 

  • None 

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