Dating Makes Perfect

The Tech sisters don’t date in high school. Not because they’re not asked. Not because they’re not interested. Not even because no one can pronounce their long, Thai last name—hence the shortened, awkward moniker. But simply because they’re not allowed.

Until now.

In a move that other Asian American girls know all too well, six months after the older Tech twins got to college, their parents asked, “Why aren’t you engaged yet?” The sisters retaliated by vowing that they won’t marry for ten (maybe even twenty!) years, not until they’ve had lots of the dating practice that they didn’t get in high school.

In a shocking war on the status quo, her parents now insist that their youngest daughter, Orrawin (aka “Winnie”), must practice fake dating in high school. Under their watchful eyes, of course—and organized based on their favorite rom-coms. Because that won’t end in disaster…

The first candidate? The son of their longtime friends, Mat Songsomboon—arrogant, infuriating, and way too good-looking. Winnie’s known him since they were toddlers throwing sticky rice balls at each other. And her parents love him. If only he weren’t her sworn enemy.

Winnie is tying to figure out family difficulties, first kisses, and who she is, all while trying to be an obedient daughter. But following her parents’ rules isn’t easy, especially when it means putting her own dreams aside. Winnie is an adorably cute and relatable character who deals with typical teen problems. While the story’s conclusion is predictable, Winnie’s journey through dating her sworn enemy is full of fun misunderstandings, near disasters, and inner turmoil. However, Winnie’s life isn’t just about romance, it’s also a sweet story about family, love, and acceptance.

Throughout her journey, Winnie must learn to trust herself as well as take risks when it comes to sharing her feelings. In the end, Winnie realizes that her parents’ love isn’t determined by her obedience. Instead of trying to fit their mold, Winnie finally discusses her true feelings. To complicate matters, Winnie’s confession is mixed in with her sister’s announcement that she is bisexual. The ending is a bit unrealistic because her parents readily accept the idea of her sister having a girlfriend, and they have more difficulty accepting the fact that Winnie wants to date Mat “for real.”

Dating Makes Perfect is the perfect book for readers who want a fun romance that revisits American rom-coms. The cute story is entertaining and has plenty of swoon-worthy moments that will make readers’ hearts sing. Plus, Dating Makes Perfect has a positive message about being brave enough to give voice to your dreams. In the end, Winnie gets the guy, and learns that “words do count. They can hurt, and they can heal. . . Maybe it’s neither words nor actions alone that have an impact. Maybe we need both.” Readers who enjoy Dating Makes Perfect should step into the world of two teens from feuding families by reading A Pho Love Story by Loan Le.

Sexual Content

  • Several times, Winnie thinks about kissing Mat. For example, when Mat is being snarky, Winnie is surprised by her reaction. “For one ridiculous second, an image of us, intertwined, flashes through my mine.” Later she is upset when she has a kiss dream about Mat.
  • Mat tells a boy that he has seen Winnie naked. He leaves out that they were babies at the time.
  • Winnie’s sisters are decorating for a bridal party and they make a game of pin the penis on the groom. Winnie thinks, “my sisters are preoccupied with penises. Gummy ones, cardboard ones. Penises that may or may not be an accurate representation of the real ones.”
  • Mat tells Winnie that he can be attracted to her, even though she is his enemy. Winnie trails her “fingers up his neck, and he sucks in a breath. He settles his hands hesitantly over my hip. . . I move forward backing him up until he’s against the chair in the corner. . . I want to kiss him. This guy. My sworn enemy.” Before Winnie can kiss him, they are interrupted.
  • While at a frozen yogurt shop, Winnie sees a couple who “have given up all pretense of cheesy coupledom and just attack each other’s lips.”
  • Winnie’s best friend tells here that, “First kisses pretty much suck—and not in a good way. Too much slobbering. Too much thrust.”
  • Winnie asks her sister, “How do you make someone fall for you?” Her sister’s advice is to “send nude pictures.” Instead, she takes a picture of a crumpled-up dress and sends it to Mat.
  • Winnie asks her sisters for advice because “they’ve been in college seven whole months, without parental supervision. . . I know of at least four kissing sessions—and those are the ones they bothered to share with me.”
  • While talking about a rom-com, Winnie’s friend asks, “Isn’t that the scene where she tells him that she has insane, freaky sex with Keanu Reeves?”
  • Winnie tells her mother that she hasn’t kissed a boy “yet.” Her mother asks, “Do you need any contraceptives?”
  • While at a party, a drunk boy goes to kiss Winnie. “One hand cradles my neck, while the other one is splayed on my hip. My hands are still hanging by my sides.” When Winnie smells alcohol, she pushes him away.
  • Once Winnie and Mat decide to date for real, they kiss a lot. The first time Winnie wonders, “I’ve kissed exactly nobody in my life and he’s tongue-wrestled with how many? Twenty? What if he thinks I suck? Or worse yet, don’t suck. Are you supposed to do that in a first kiss?”
  • Winnie and Mat skip class and make out. Mat “scoops me up and lays me across his lap. My skirt hikes up a few inches. He glances at my bare legs and seems to stop breathing. . . Wow. Okay. This is a kiss. Lips moving. Slowly. Sweetly. So hot, this give-and-take. A hint of teeth. Oh, hello, tongue. I could do this all day.” A student finally interrupts them. The scene is described over four pages.
  • Mat sends Winnie a picture of him without a shirt. When she doesn’t reply, he asks, “Have you fainted from all my hotness?”
  • Winnie and her mother have a short conversation about When Harry Met Sally. Winnie tells her, “Meg Ryan—well, she was faking an orgasm.”
  • After a date, Winnie and Mat kissed “walking to the car. Up against the car. Inside the car. Once I gave in to temptation, it was impossible to resist him.”

Violence

  • None

 Drugs and Alcohol

  • Winnie attends a party where the teens are “drinking spiked punch and some guys are downing Jell-O shots.”
  • One of Winnie’s friends gets drunk at a party. Afterward, he tells her, “I stumbled into the bathroom and went to sleep. . . My first party at Lakewood, and not only did I get trashed, but I wasn’t even awake long enough to enjoy it.”

Language

  • Profanity is used often. Profanity includes ass, damn, crap, freaking, and hell.
  • Winnie thinks Mat is a “dirty, rotten rat bastard.”

Supernatural

  • None

Spiritual Content

  • In an embarrassing situation, Winnie thinks, “now would be the perfect time for the gods to conjure up a conch shell for me to hide inside.”
  • Winnie thinks that Mat is probably “a preta, which is a spirit cursed by karma and returned to the world of the living, with an unquenchable hunger for human waste.”
  • Winnie and her friend go to the wat. “We slip off our shoes . . . Seven Buddha images line the hallway, one representing the god for each day of the week. . . After a quick prayer over clasped hands, I pick up the ladle and pour water on the Buddha’s forehead.”
  • Winnie’s father tells her about immigrating to America. He says, “You know, when we first came to this country, I stood on the steps of Widener Library and prayed that one day my children would attend school there.”
  • Several times Winnie prays to the pra Buddha cho. For example, when asking Mat for help, Winnie says he should help because “you like me.” Then she prayed “to the pra Buddha cho that I’m right.”

 Ghost Squad

The supernatural has always been a part of Lucely Luna’s life. Her father runs a ghost tour, and her hometown of St. Augustine is known for being the home of Las Brujas Moradas, aka the Purple Coven. And Lucely can see and converse with spirits, notably the spirits of her dead relatives. When her deceased family members aren’t in their human forms, they inhabit the old willow tree in the backyard as firefly spirits. However, her firefly family members recently flickered in and out of view, and then the fireflies began to fade.

Lucely and her friend, Syd, investigate how to revive her deceased family members. After learning more about Las Brujas Moradas, they visit Syd’s grandmother’s shop and steal a spell book that they need to revive Lucely’s family members. But when the two girls recite the spell, they accidentally awaken malicious spirits. The girls fight the ghosts, but all their efforts are for naught. They ask Babette, Sydney’s grandmother, for her help in fighting against the evil ghosts and reversing the curse to save the town and Lucely’s firefly spirits.

The narrative focuses squarely on Lucely’s perspective. This close view allows the reader to understand the ghosts, magic, and Lucely’s personal life. The narrative’s linear structure, mixed with Babette’s conversations and the occasional inclusion of the school setting, makes the explanations about St. Augustine, the magic, and the Luna family history easy to understand. In addition, the Latino culture is on full display throughout the story, mainly through the mannerisms and the Spanish phrases that Lucely’s family members say to each other. Readers will relate to Lucely and Syd’s friendship and empathize with Lucely as she frets over her family members’ safety.

Lucely also learns about responsibility while getting rid of the evil ghosts. She is responsible for awakening the evil spirits, so she fixes her mistake and takes on more accountability for protecting the town. According to Lucely’s grandmother, their family has been “charged with keeping [St. Augustine] and its inhabitants safe.” By the end of the story, Lucely is assured of her identity and purpose in her community, which is an important lesson for younger readers.

Ghost Squad is a story that focuses on family, friendship, and culture. The story has a few slow moments, mostly spent establishing the town and the Dominican Republic and the Latino aspects of the Luna family. St. Augustine has many interesting characters, such as Syd, Babette, and the firefly spirits. Like the firefly spirits, Las Brujas Moradas and the human spirits are some of the many supernatural elements that add interest to St. Augustine. The story is also chock full of pop culture references, such as Harry Potter and the Ghostbusters, which adds a lot of humor. Readers of all ages will enjoy the story for its lessons on responsibility and friendship. Readers who like Ghost Squad by Claribel A. Ortega will also enjoy The Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill and Anya’s Ghost by Vera Brosgol.

Sexual Content

  • None

Violence

  • The mist monster attacks the family tree. but the monster is injured when it claws the tree. “It clawed at the bark and howled, bringing its hand back against its chest as if it were burned.” The monster ran around the tree, growing in size until it became as big as a hurricane. The cocuyos repelled the mist monster with a spell. The monster was thrown back into the brush, but attacks the ghosts with fire: the fire misses, “the fire seemed to extinguish itself as soon as it reached her abuela.” The fight is described over two pages.
  • Babette fights a dragon to distract it from Lucely and Syd. The dragon attacked with a rain of fire, but Babette points her wand at the dragon and says a spell— “Reverse, rearward from whence you came! Back, back! Into the flames!” Violet fire shoots from the wand and hits the dragon in the eye. “It let out one final, bloodcurdling shriek, and then began to burn.” The fight lasts for one page.
  • Lucely and Syd use the Razzle-Dazzlers, which are enchanted flashlights, on the mist monster, causing the mist monster to vanish “in a shriek of pain.”

Drugs and Alcohol

  • None

Language

  • Lucely uses the phrase “God forbid.”
  • Lucely uses the word “God” twice.

Supernatural

  • Ghosts, as in the spirits of humans, take the form of what they looked like when they died. Most ghosts are peaceful and hang around the graveyard or haunt the places where they died. There are also vengeful spirits of the dead that can possess the living.
  • Lucely’s deceased relatives have two forms as spirits; their human forms, and they take the shape of a firefly, dubbed “firefly spirits.”
  • One of Lucely’s deceased cousins floats up to the ceiling and relives his death. Lucely “could almost smell the rubber wafting around her cousin, like a strange and deadly aura.” When he wakes up, the cousin comes back to his senses.
  • The family uses a spell to get rid of the mist monster: “Away, away/We shall not fear/Away, foul beast,/And far away from here!”
  • In order to reanimate the family spirits, Lucely and Syd recite a spell from a scroll. They say, “Lavender, lilies, blossom and bloom,/ I call on the spirits to enter this room…/Rotten and putrid/Beneath the trees,/ I call on the spirits and let them roam free . . . ” Instead, they accidentally unleashed the undead, vengeful ghosts.
  • Syd makes a circle with salt in order to keep the evil spirits away. “The creature crashed into the salt circle and cried out in pain.”
  • Babette says a protection spell over the willow tree.
  • Babette and Lucely attack a storm of spirits using the energy of the spirits of the Las Brujas Moradas and the family spirits respectively. Babette says, “Las Brujas Moradas, hear us tonight./No longer in hiding, no longer in fright./Las Brujas Moradas, come to our call./No longer afraid, to tumble and fall./Las Brujas, Las Brujas, answer our plea./ Come to us now, from land and from sea./Take this demon away, tonight,/ Las Brujas Moradas./Take this demon from sight!” And Lucely says, “A sprinkle of sun,/ A shimmer of light/Turn back the darkness,/ Turn back the fright…I call on the power/of my ancestor’s ghosts/And speak three names, I love most…/Simon Luna, Teresa Luna, and Syd Faires!” A massive gateway forms in the sky and sucks all the bad ghosts into the void.

Spiritual Content

  • According to Lucely, in the Dominican Republic, there is a belief that the “spirits of your dead loved ones [live] on as fireflies.”

by Jemima Cooke

Maya and the Rising Dark #1

Maya believes herself to be an ordinary middle-schooler, until she witnesses a tear in reality. Suddenly, the stories her father tells about his travels across the world come true. Maya dreams of a man encased in shadows and is attacked by mythical creatures. In addition, her best friend Frankie discovers she has superpowers.

Maya learns that her father is an orisha, a divine spirit being. Beyond that, her community is a secret haven for orishas, meaning that she, Frankie, and their friend Eli, all have orisha powers. But, the one person Maya wishes to tell about the magic world – her Papa – disappears while repairing the veil, the magical barrier between Earth and the Dark. In his absence, Maya learns from the orisha council that her father is the guardian of the veil, which was created to separate Earth from the Dark and its master, The Lord of Shadows. This evil being with similar orisha-like powers wants to use the tears forming in reality to break through the veil once and for all.

As attacks in the human world become frequent, the orishas prioritize the community instead of sending out a rescue mission for Maya’s father. Maya, Frankie, and Eli decide to take matters into their own hands using Papa’s staff to open a magical gateway into the Dark at Comic-Con. Even though the plan is just as crazy as it sounds, Maya is able to open the barrier, and the three friends journey through the Dark. This sparse and dangerous landscape is populated with creatures of legend and beings called darkbringers, who serve the Lord of Shadows. When the group is forced to fight their way through, Maya realizes the danger that they face. She says, “I hadn’t thought through the consequences of our actions… I knew that our parents would ground us for sneaking out. But that was minor compared to the real consequences. That I might have to hurt many people to get Papa back.”

Before Maya reconnects with her father, she is tested when she is forced to part with her friends, who sacrifice themselves so she can go on. Maya says, “Every kid should be so lucky to have friends who believe in you even when you don’t believe in yourself. Friends who accept you exactly the way you are. And help you be brave when you don’t know that you can.” Maya is able to manifest her orisha powers and distract the Lord of Shadows long enough to free her father and return to the human world, where she finds that Eli and Frankie escaped alive and unharmed. But, the crisis is far from over. With the Lord of Shadows still at large, the orisha council declares that Maya will be trained by her father to be a guardian of the veil, marking the beginning of her next journey.

Maya and the Rising Dark is an action-packed fantasy story with diverse characters. The principal at Maya’s school goes by they/them pronouns and Frankie has two moms. Maya’s story is laced with themes of community and sacrifice. While constant fighting scenes can distract from the main plot, Maya is a resilient and thoughtful main character to follow throughout this adventure. There is reverence for the divine orishas, and even for the Lord of Shadows; when he is about to kill Maya’s father, she displays sympathy for his motives, showing her maturity. Maya has to grow up fast when the responsibility of saving the world falls on her shoulders, but she does so while keeping her rebellious personality and her kindness. The story blends the African heritage of the author into a modern-day tale about a girl from Chicago’s south side. Readers that enjoyed Aru Shah and the End of Time by Roshani Chokshi and stories blending cultural legend into modern adventure, should pick up this book! Amari and the Night Brothers by B.B. Alston is another amazing story that is perfect for readers who love action and adventure.

 Sexual Content

  • None

Violence

  • Maya’s father, Papa, tells her a story about elokos – mythical creatures who eat people they lure in with magical bells. Papa describes his encounter with the creatures. “I didn’t come out of my trance until they stopped ringing their bells, but by then, they had strung me up between two trees and lit a fire. They were preparing to cook me with my clothes and all. No matter how much I pleaded, they wouldn’t let me go.” He escapes them by singing, which distracts them.
  • While searching for her father, Maya encounters the Lord of Shadows, who intends to kill her. “The shadows pressed in around me and felt slick against my face. . . When I backed away, something reached out of the dark and grabbed my wrist. Cold seared into my skin. I tried to free myself, but the thing only tugged harder. Shadows like writhing snakes crawled up my arm—and I knew it was him. The man from my nightmare. Come to make good on his threat to kill me. I clawed at the shadows with my other hand, only they slithered up that arm too. I screamed, and the darkness muted my voice. When I kicked, my foot connected with air. Pain shot up my arms. My hands had gone numb. Frost started to creep across my skin. I wriggled my stiff fingers, and the ice crystals cracked and shattered. Then, with all my strength, I closed my hands around the shadows, which felt like thick ropes. I was sure they would turn me into an ice cube, but I gritted my teeth and jerked my arms back even harder. This time it worked. . .” Maya escapes the shadows.
  • Frankie and Maya are attacked by shadows. Maya “jerked back, but not fast enough. The shadow slashed against my cheek. ‘Ahhh,’ I screamed and stumbled out of reach. Frankie wasn’t so lucky. The shadow snapped around her wrist. She shrieked . . .More shadows grabbed Frankie from behind, dragging her away from me. . .” Maya hit the shadows and they “hissed, low and menacing. I kept swinging until they let go and Frankie crashed into my shoulder.”
  • While running from werehyenas, Maya and Frankie are magically protected by a barrier. Still, Frankie gets hurt. “In one quick swipe, [the werehyena] scraped his claws against the force field that separated us from certain death. The noise was sharp, and sparks shot out. Thankfully, the barrier held, but Frankie stumbled back a few steps. She folded over like he had punched her in the belly.”
  • A group of darkbringers disguise themselves as school bullies and force Maya, Eli, and Frankie into a fight. “Winston charged first, and I sprang to action. With Papa’s staff, I blocked his path. Something happened then that I didn’t expect. The staff started to glow, and a warm tingling shot up my arm. The glowing shocked the bullies too because they froze for a moment. . .Winston shoved me in the chest so hard that I almost lost my balance. I twirled the staff fast and hit him across his knuckles. He yelped and drew his hand back . . . even with Papa’s staff, I got kicked and punched more times than I cared to admit. . . I attacked again with the staff, batting away barbed tails that stung when they tore into my skin… I slammed the staff into shoulders, chests, and ribs to keep them back.” No one dies, and the fight is described over two pages.
  • A tear in the veil causes massive panic and destruction on Maya’s street. “Outside was complete chaos. People I’d known my whole life tried to free themselves from writhing shadows. My ex-babysitter, Lakesha, dodged a shadow only to have another one rope around her ankle. She fell down, and LJ, her cousin, stomped the shadow over and over until it let her go. He helped her up, and they ran away. They were the lucky ones. Some shadows wrapped people in cocoons and dragged them toward the tear in the veil—toward the Dark.”
  • During this chaos, a darkbringer attempts to hurt Maya’s mother. “Looking down at Mama, he smiled, revealing pointed teeth. His razor-sharp, barbed tail whipped around in a flash, cutting through the air, aimed straight for her. . . Before the darkbringer knew what hit him, I cracked the staff against his tail. He fell back, howling in pain. . . I barely ducked out of the way as the darkbringer’s claws swiped within striking distance of my face. Going on the offense, I angled the staff up and slammed it into his chest. A burst of light came from Papa’s staff, and the impact sent the darkbringer hurtling through the air.”
  • The Lord of Shadows invades Maya’s dreams and tries to kill her. The Lord of Shadow’s “ribbons snapped at me, and I batted them away with the staff. When the staff connected with the Lord of Shadows, magic jerked me back into the human world. . .My wrist burned where one of his ribbons had touched my arm. It happened on the crossroads, but the pain was real.”
  • Maya suspects that a gateway to the veil will open at Comic-Con, so she goes there with Frankie and Eli to open a portal and find her father. While there, they are attacked by darkbringers. Maya “dodged darkbringers left and right, sweeping the staff along my body in a wide arc. I knocked down two who tried to double-team me. . . The sound of bones breaking made my stomach flip-flop, but I kept pushing. Eli ducked under my staff and rammed his shoulder into a darkbringer. He headbutted another one, and punched a third.” As the fight continues, “Maya caught a blow on my shoulder. Sharp pain shot down my spine, and I bit the inside of my cheek until I tasted blood. My knees shook. . .Then I rammed my staff into [the darkbringers’] stomach. When he bent over, that was the end of it. I knocked him out cold.” The fight is described over four pages.
  • After entering the Dark, Maya, Frankie, and Eli find magical birds called impundulus. After they destroy their nest by accident, “the birds tucked their heads between their hunched shoulders and charged. They ran straight for us, their wings fluttering wildly and their bloody spines fanned out for maximum damage. . . We dove out of the way, and only two of the impundulu collided. . . My stomach lurched seeing the birds tangled up like that. Each impaled on the other’s spines. There was so much blood . . . The two tangled birds fell into a heap of twisted spines and feathers and blood while the other two took to the sky.”
  • During the fight, “an impundulu’s talons raked across my shoulder, and I bit back a scream as searing pain brought me to my knees. The bird shrieked, coming at me again, and I rolled out of the way. I fell on my back and slammed the staff into the impundulu’s side. The impact sent the bird tumbling into a cornstalk.” Maya and her friends knock the birds unconscious. The scene is described over two pages.
  • While in the dark, vines erupt from the ground. “Vines covered in thorns shot up from the ground and whipped around Frankie’s feet. She cried out as she hit the dirt. More vines were sprouting up everywhere, thrashing and wriggling toward us. I slammed the staff into the ground, giving it the order to burn the vines. . . fire flared to life on top of a vine writhing toward me. Before long, the fire had grown into a full raging inferno that burned across the cornfield.” Maya accidentally sends the fire towards a group of darkbringer children. The kids throw stones at them, but none of them hit, and Maya and her friends escape.
  • Maya thinks about how Frankie’s first mother died, implying that something bad happened. Frankie “once told me about her first mom—how one day she’d gone to the store for groceries and never returned. The police said that her mom had died in a car accident. Now that I thought about it, that didn’t add up, especially since she was an orisha. She was immortal—no accident could’ve killed her.”
  • Eli inadvertently kills a darkbringer who was inside a bug-like helicopter. Eli “whipped out the prods he took from the darkbringer at Comic-Con and slammed them into the glass dome. An electrical current flickered down the length of the prods, then shot through the craft. Long cracks spread across the glass. . . The pilot yanked at the controls as the wings flapped wildly. He pulled up but didn’t get very far before the craft crashed a few feet away.”
  • Nulan, the darkbringer army commander, kills one of her men for disobeying her. “Nulan reached into her black vest and removed a slim knife of her own, her eyes on Papa’s staff the whole time. She flipped her wrist so fast that the knife was a silver blur. . . Nulan had aimed the blade for the darkbringer who went against her order. He stumbled and fell to his knees with the knife lodged in his chest. She’d killed him—one of her own men.”
  • Nulan also tries to kill Frankie. “Nulan removed another slim knife from her vest and sent it flying straight for Frankie’s heart. . . Just as the knife was inches from my friend, I leaped in front of her. Everything was a blur as I raised the staff to deflect the knife, but before I could, the ground shook hard beneath our feet, then it opened up and swallowed us whole.” Maya opens a portal and saves her friends before Nulan’s knife hits Frankie.
  • After returning to the Dark, Frankie and Eli sacrifice themselves in a fight with Nulan so Maya can find her father on her “Flashes of light crackling like electricity shoot out of Frankie’s hands. . . The darkbringers broke their flight path to get out of the way. Most moved in time, but two of them got caught in her blast and spiraled out of control… Frankie sent another blast, knocking the fire-breathing darkbringers to the ground. . . But as soon as she said it, Nulan sent a knife straight through Frankie’s shoulder.” Eli stays with Frankie and tends to her while Maya leaves.
  • Later, Nulan confronts Maya as she’s trying to free her father. She tells Maya that she killed her friends and insults her father. Maya lashes out. “I knocked my staff against the gym floor, and a streak of white light shot out. It hit Nulan so hard that she slammed into the line of darkbringers standing behind her. They crumped to the floor in a heap.”
  • Nulan orders her soldiers to attack. Maya and her father then fight the darkbringers. Maya “ducked to miss a club aimed straight for my face. Before the darkbringer could swing again, I cracked the staff against her knees. When she dropped to the ground, I landed another thrash across her head, knocking her out cold. . .Three darkbringers swung their battleaxes, and I thrust out the staff to catch the blows. . . Something as slippery as a snake lashed around my waist and jerked me backwards. My staff fell and hit the floor, then the thing lifted me up high in the air. I clawed at what turned out to be a darkbringer’s tail. . . As the barb drove toward my heart, I grabbed the darkbringer’s tail, stopping it from striking. The tail slammed me into the ground, and pain shot through my body. . .” Papa kills the darkbringer.
  • The fight against the Lord of Shadows is at first a long conversation, but it comes to a climax when he grabs Papa with the ribbons that make up his being. “Some of his ribbons had grabbed Papa by the ankle and dangled him upside down like he was a child. Papa clawed at the shadows, but the color was draining from his face fast. The Lord of Shadows was absorbing him, killing him.” Maya is then attacked by him, but escapes by shining light on him, distracting him until Papa and Maya escape.

Drugs and Alcohol

  • After seeing many strange occurrences, Frankie suggests that they are under the effect of a hallucinogen. Frankie says, “Maybe there was some mind-altering drug in the vanilla pudding at school today. My moms say that the government performs secret experiments on people all the time.”

Language

  • Eli and a high schooler have a verbal altercation where the bully raises their middle finger.
  • There is some name-calling such as fiend, half-breeds, and beanstalk.
  • Frankie breaks a twig, giving away the group’s hiding location to the darkbringers. In response, “Eli mouthed a curse that would’ve gotten him grounded for a month had Nana been here.”
  • When the Lord of Shadows appears at the story’s climax, Maya says, “Crap.”
  • The Lord of Shadows attacks Maya, and Maya’s Papa starts to curse at him using “some words I had never heard.”

 Supernatural

  • One of the main conflicts in this story is the rift between the real world and the Dark, a different plane of existence filled with creatures called darkbringers. A veil separates these two worlds, which is frequently damaged. Maya’s father fixes these “tears” in the veil.
  • Magic exists, as well as people who can wield magic. Papa describes this world to Maya, revealing that he is the guardian of the veil. He describes the veil between the worlds. “Think of it as an invisible barrier that keeps our world safe from creatures much worse than werehyenas.”
  • Papa also tells Maya that she encountered the Lord of Shadows in a dream. He father says, “He’s as real as you or I,” Papa explained. “He’s trapped in the Dark, but he can enter our world through dreams—which are crossroads between our two worlds.”
  • Maya’s favorite comic book is about an orisha named Oya. Orishas are spirit beings that have a variety of dominions and powers. Oya has these powers too. “Oya wasn’t like most superheroes. She wasn’t from another planet, and she didn’t have fancy gadgets. She was a spirit goddess, an orisha. She controlled wind, lightning, and storms, and never lost a fight.”
  • Eli, Maya’s friend, is obsessed with ghosts and talks about them often “Did you feel a cold spot?” Eli asked. “Like when there’s a ghost around.”
  • Eli also tells facts about ghosts. “Sometimes ghosts can inhabit the bodies of the living.” Eli believes that ghosts are responsible for many of the strange things happening before he learns about the Dark.
  • Eli also suggests that people’s strange behavior is a result of possession. “Maybe they’re possessed by evil spirits,” Eli offered. “One day they’ll try to turn us into zombies, and we’ll have to spray them with ketchup to snap them out of their trance.”
  • The book deals with a variety of other mythical beings and creatures such as elokos, orishas, and darkbringers. Shadows have the ability to attack. There are also creatures such as werehyenas and giant bugs.
  • Maya talks about kishi in reference to her dad’s stories. “I told Tisha Thomas that my father fought a kishi, a creature with a human face on the front side of his head and a hyena on the back side.”
  • Maya’s father also tells her stories of impundulu, magical birds. Impundulu “were magical giant birds that had sharp spikes like fishbones on their bellies. They hardly ever flew, but when they did, their wings sounded like helicopter blades.” Later, Maya, Frankie, and Eli fight multiple impundulus.
  • Maya and Frankie are cornered by were-hyenas, humanoid hyenas similar to werewolves. “It wasn’t until they stepped out of the shadows that I realized the hyenas had grown bigger. They stood on their hind legs, and their claws looked like curled knives. Their torsos stretched into a shape that was unmistakable and impossible. These were werehyenas, like from Papa’s stories, half hyena, half man.”
  • Maya’s Papa gives her a staff that has magical powers, which she uses to defend herself.
  • Maya learns that she is a “godling,” someone that has the blood of an orisha. This enables her to use magic. Frankie and Eli have orisha blood too. Frankie’s power is to create bursts of light, while Eli’s power is to turn invisible. Maya is unsure of her power until later on in the story where she creates a portal between the Dark and Earth.
  • Maya learns that her neighbor is an orisha when the neighbor saves them from being kidnapped by darkbringers. “A giant bird made of blue light circled the edges of the vortex. It was fast—too fast, enough to make my head spin. From what I could tell, it was causing the disturbance. Some of the darkbringers tried to escape, but it was no use. . .”
  • Maya learns that many people in her community are orishas or their descendants, as it is a secret orisha community. Miss Lucille, Maya’s neighbor, explains that humans don’t know of the existence of the orishas and magical beings because they are kept secret. “The orishas decided that the magical species must keep themselves hidden from humans. Among them are the aziza, woodland fairies wary of outsiders. The elokos, who are forest-dwelling elves with an insatiable appetite. There are also the trickster kishi, with their two faces, and the adze, who are fireflies that feed on blood. And of course, the werehyenas, who, as you’ve seen, can be unpredictable. There are countless more. It’s the orishas’ job to keep magic from interfering with human development, as the universe intended.”
  • A girl in Maya’s town opens a portal by snapping her fingers.
  • Maya attends an orisha meeting that happens in outer space.
  • The commander of the darkbringer army, Nulan, is an aziza. Maya reacts to her in awe. “The commander moved like she owned the sky, and even a flock of birds got out of her way . . . She was brown . . . She was golden. It took me a minute to figure out that she was from the aziza. . . The aziza were faeries notorious for not interacting with outsiders.”
  • Maya thinks about grootslang, a creature from one of her father’s stories. Grootslang “looked like a cross between an elephant and a snake. It had leathery black skin and ivory tusks that were venomous.”

Spiritual Content

  • Orishas are both supernatural and spiritual beings. One can pray to an orisha for good luck or wealth. When Maya attends a council meeting of the orishas, she describes them in detail. “A light flashed in front of us, and high-back golden thrones shimmered into existence. The council members sat on them in their semidivine state. . .”
  • The Lord of Shadows is considered a divine being of similar class to the orishas.
  • After learning that she, Frankie, and Eli, are descendants of orishas, Maya wonders if this gives them divine status. “I thought about how the leader of the werehyenas had called us godlings and wondered what it meant. Was it like being a god, but not? Like a pretend god?”
  • Maya is shocked when she learns that her father is a full-blooded orisha named Elegguá. “My father was an orisha—a spirit god, a celestial, and not human.”
  • Maya’s neighbor, another orisha, explains how the universe began. “The universe started as a vast blank slate. It existed without space, time, mass, or depth. It was endless and boundless and void. No one can say how long it remained that way before becoming aware, but soon after, it grew restless. Once the first sparks of matter and antimatter cropped up, the universe found its purpose. It would create. The universe birthed planets, moons, comets, asteroids, black holes, and stars. The things it made hummed with energy, and in their song came the universe’s first and oldest name, Olodumare…” The story continues for a few pages, but the most important part is that Maya’s father created the veil.

by Madison Shooter

 

A Time to Dance

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

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

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

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

Sexual Content

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

Violence

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

 Drugs and Alcohol

  • None

Language

  • None

Supernatural

  • None

Spiritual Content

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

Almost American Girl

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sexual Content

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

Violence

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

Drugs and Alcohol

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

Language

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

Supernatural

  • None

Spiritual

  • None

by Elena Brown

 

Brown Boy Nowhere

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sexual Content

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

Violence

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

Drugs and Alcohol

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

 Language

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

Supernatural

  • None

Spiritual

  • None

by Emma Hua

Fauja Singh Keeps Going: The True Story of the Oldest Person to Ever Run a Marathon

Every step forward is a victory.

Fauja Singh was born determined. He was also born with legs that wouldn’t allow him to play cricket with his friends or carry him to the school that was miles from his village in Punjab. But that didn’t stop him. Working on his family’s farm, Fauja grew stronger, determined to meet his full potential.

Fauja never, ever stopped striving. At the age of 81, after a lifetime of making his body, mind, and heart stronger, Fauja decided to run his first marathon. He went on to break records all around the world and to become the first person over 100 years old to complete a marathon.

The picture book begins with a forward by Fauja Singh where he writes about his disability. Despite people teasing him, he never stopped believing in himself. Fauja says, “Doctors couldn’t figure out why I had trouble walking as a child, nor could they figure out why I was able to begin walking and, eventually, running. I think of it as a reminder that all of our bodies are different—and so are our experiences with disabilities.”

Every reader can benefit from Fauja’s story, which highlights the importance of perseverance and determination. Despite his disability, his mother continued to remind him, “You know yourself, Fauja, and you know what you’re capable of. Today is a chance to do your best.” With every small step, Fauja became stronger and eventually reached each of his goals—to walk, to farm, and to run a marathon.

Fauja’s story comes to life with fun, brightly colored illustrations. For example, when Fauja is stretching, a bird perched on his arm does the same stretch alongside him. While most of the illustrations focus on Fauja and his family, illustrations that portray more people show diverse groups. Even though Fauja Singh Keeps Going 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 2 to 7 sentences, and some sentences are complex.

If you’re looking for a motivational biography, Fauja Singh Keeps Going is the book for you. Even though Fauja faced hardship and discrimination, he focused on the positive and kept working to achieve his goals. He did not let the negative comments of others bring him down. Instead, “As he ran, Fauja thought about all the things people from his village said he would never do. . . They thought he was too old to run and yet, here he was, running 26.2 miles at the age of 100.”

Fauja Singh Keeps Going is a must-read because it shows the power of positive thinking and believing in yourself. In addition, Fauja’s story will encourage readers to “try your hardest, and always choose yes when you meet a challenge.”

Sexual Content

  • None

Violence

  • When Fauja lived in England, he “learned that some people in the United States were attacking Sikhs for how they looked.”
  • While running a marathon, “someone shouted racist and hateful words at him. Other people joined in. Fauja brushed it off. He knew he had a strong spirit.”

 Drugs and Alcohol

  • None

Language

  • None

Supernatural

  • None

Spiritual Content

  • When Fauja began to walk, “his parents were so happy, they shared prayers of thanks and distributed parshad to the entire village.”
  • At the end of the book, there is a one-page section that gives more information about Fauja and how his religion, Sikhism, affected his life. “Sikhs believe in treating everyone equally, serving others, working hard, and living with honesty and integrity.”

The Madre De Aguas of Cuba

A legendary sea serpent is missing. Can the Unicorn Rescue Society find it and end Cuba’s terrible drought?

A brand-new adventure is ready to unfold as Uchenna, Elliot, and Professor Fauna fly to Havana to search for the Madre de Aguas. Is this missing creature responsible for the drought that has ravaged the island for months? And why are the Schmoke Brothers’ goons driving around Havana, dumping pink sludge into sewers? The Unicorn Rescue Society is ready to save the day—and hopefully not get eaten in the process!

Uchenna, Elliot, Professor Fauna, and a Jersey Devil come together on a fast-paced journey through Havana, where they meet several locals. The Madre De Aguas of Cuba shows how different cultures—Taino, Africans, and Spanish—have combined their traditions. Now the Cubans are like a ceiba tree, “many roots, one tree.” The story seamlessly incorporates the idea that people can have different beliefs and still live in peace.

When Uchenna, Elliot, and Professor Fauna get to Cuba, Yoenis—a Cuban American—gives a lecture on the political situation in Cuba, including commentary on the United States embargo. The history lesson is long-winded and has nothing to do with the story’s plot. Another downside of the book is that several of the characters, including Professor Fauna, speak Spanish. Some of the Spanish passages are long and there are not always enough context clues to understand what is being said.

All the characters are quirky in different ways, which adds humor and suspense. Even though the history of Cuba is introduced, young readers will still enjoy the story because of the humorous tone and the interesting characters. Black-and-white illustrations appear every 1 to 2 pages; the illustrations add humor and help the readers visualize the characters. Most of the text is easy to read because it uses short paragraphs, simple vocabulary, and dialogue.

The Unicorn Rescue Society Series will delight readers who want to learn about mythical monsters. Uchenna, Elliot, Professor Fauna, and a Jersey Devil are loveable characters who appear in each installment, and the interplay between the characters is both humorous and endearing. Readers who enjoy The Madre De Aguas of Cuba should check out Knights vs. Dinosaurs by Matt Phelan as it also mixes humor with monsters.

Sexual Content

  • None

Violence

  • Uchenna and Elliot are told some of Cuba’s history. “When Columbus first arrived in Cuba, he said it was the most beautiful place on earth, claimed it for Spain, and then he started killing the Taino, the Native People who live here.”
  • When the Europeans came to Cuba, they “began enslaving people in Africa and bringing them across the Atlantic.”
  • The Madre de Aguas uses the pipes to travel to a golden statue that is in a hotel. “Shards of gold and steel shot in every direction, hitting the ceiling and the chandelier, causing glass and plaster to mix with gold and steel to rain down on everyone.” No one is injured.
  • From the hotel window, the Madre de Aguas sees the ocean. “Her body rippled and vibrated with strength, and she tore away from the fountain and plowed through the tables, reducing them to wood chips and tatters of white fabric. . .She burst through the huge window” and escaped.

 Drugs and Alcohol

  • The Schmokes brothers use Sure-to-Choke insecticide to poison Cuba’s water supply.

Language

  • None

Supernatural

  • None

Spiritual Content

  • An older woman explains the importance of the ceiba tree. She says, “The ceiba is sacred to the Taino, the Native People on this island.” The Spanish invaded Cuba in 1519. When they arrived, they gathered under a great ceiba tree and prayed, to give thanks for arriving safely in this land.
  • The Afro-Cubans considered the ceiba tree “the holy tree of Afro-Cubans.”
  • Cuba is suffering from a drought, and many Cubans “pray to Maria and she keeps them safe.”
  • At a gathering of people who work in agriculture, people argue over who is responsible for providing Cuba’s water. Some say, “We can all thank Oshun (daughter of the river) for all the sweet waters in Cuba.” Someone else says, “Every good Catholic knows that we get fresh water from Maria, Mother of God.” Others believe that the Madre de Aguas brings water.

Once Upon a Camel

Zada is an achy, old camel with a treasure trove of stories to tell. She’s won camel races for the ruling Pasha of Smyrna, crossed treacherous oceans to new lands, led army missions, and outsmarted a pompous mountain lion.

But these stories were before. Now, Zada wanders the desert as the last camel in Texas. But she’s not alone. Two tiny kestrel chicks nestled in the fluff of fur between her ears and a dust storm the size of a mountain take Zada on one more grand adventure – and it could lead to Zada’s most brilliant story yet.

Readers will fall in love with Zada as she protects two kestrel chicks from a windstorm. Zada’s patience is never-ending, and she uses beautiful stories to keep the chicks occupied. However, some readers may become annoyed by the chicks’ constant chirping and complaining. Despite this, the relationship between Zada and the birds is super sweet, and readers will relate to the chicks who are anxious about being separated from their parents.

The wind, which attacks Zada and her friends, is described as a living beast. For example, “As if they were waiting to grab one of the chicks, the willy-willies and the dust devils, the samiels and simoons, danced all around Zada. They swiped at her ankles, raced ahead of her, rose and fell, then rose and fell again, reminding her of ocean waves.” Through the story, readers learn about the weather, which adds depth to the story.

Once Upon a Camel is best suited for advanced readers because of the constant back and forth between present day and the past. Each chapter begins with the name of a place and the year, which will help readers know if the events are one of Zada’s stories or not. Some readers may be confused by the advanced vocabulary and the Turkish words, such as simoons, samiels, muster, escarpment, festooned, denizens, and dissipate. Detailed black and white illustrations appear every 8 to 16 pages, and a one-page glossary appears at the end of the book.

Each story Zada tells is full of magic. Zada demonstrates how stories can help us deal with an array of emotions. Zada’s love for her original country shines, and readers will catch a glimpse of Turkey’s culture through her stories. Even though Zada was born into a caravan of prized racing horses owned by a Turkish pasha, in 1857, she sails the seas and lands in Texas, where she discovers she will be a pack animal for the U.S. Army. Some readers may be disappointed with the lack of details about how the camels helped the army.

While Once Upon a Camel highlights the magic of storytelling, younger readers may struggle with the constantly shifting time period, advanced vocabulary, and Turkish words. By the end of the story, the chicks’ “tap-tap-tap-KICK, tap-tap-tap-KICK,” and “peeppeeppeeppeeppeeppeeppeepeep” becomes frustrating. However, Zada’s point of view is interesting and unique, and she isn’t afraid to jump in a potentially dangerous situation to help those in need. In the end, no matter how difficult a situation is, Zada is determined to “become the brightest star.”

Sexual Content

  • None

Violence

  • Like human siblings, the two baby chicks argue and peck at each other.
  • When the camels traveled to Texas, they upset the horses. “The combination of hollering and gamboling set the resident equines into a frenzy of bucking and snorting. They reared up onto their hind feet, kicked each other, even cracked a bunch of teeth and jawbones.”
  • Pecos de Leon, a mountain lion, would hunt for prey. “He would spot an unsuspecting pack rat from ten feet away, then boom! Four paws off the ground and no more pack rat. Even snakes weren’t safe from his stalking prowess. He liked their spicy flavor.”
  • A group of boys sees Zada and her friend. “The boys and horses surrounded the camels, and for no reason whatsoever, started pelting them with rocks. Whap, whap, whap! Ouch ouch ouch!”
  • A flock of Kestrels attacks a coyote puppy. The puppy “was trying to tuck itself underneath a mesquite bush. Its front paws were covering its eyes, and it was shaking from nose to tail. . .[the birds] swished by and scraped the coyote’s ears with their sharp little talons. The coyote kept yipping and yapping and whimpering. The kestrels kept dive-bombing.” Zada chases the birds away.
  • The birds attack the coyote puppy because it ate some kestrel eggs. “They made a quick breakfast for the hungry pup.”

 Drugs and Alcohol

  • Zada goes to the races and sees amazing things, including travelers who carried wine.

Language

  • None

Supernatural

  • None

Spiritual Content

  • When the birds get separated, the bird’s father Pard thinks his family will be at the mission. Pard “was praying that Perlita [the bird’s mother] was already there.”

Written in the Stars

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

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

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

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

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

Sexual Content

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

Violence

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

Drugs and Alcohol

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

Language

  • None

Supernatural

  • None

Spiritual Content

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

by Elena Brown

Super Fake Love Song

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sexual Content

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

 Violence

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

 Drugs and Alcohol

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

 Language

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

 Supernatural

  • None

Spiritual

  • None

by Emma Hua

The Girl Who Loved Wild Horses

The Girl Who Loves Horses is a Navajo folktale about a plains girl who loves horses. During a storm, the horses become frightened. The girl grabbed a horse’s mane and jumped on its back. The horses galloped until the storm disappeared. But when the horses stopped, the girl knew they were lost. Despite this, the girl is happy living with the horses.

After a year, some hunters see the girl and the horses. They try to catch them. When the girl’s horse stumbles, the hunters catch the girl and take her home. Both the girl and the horses are sad because they miss each other. In the end, the girl returns to live with the horses. “Once again the girl rode beside the spotted stallion. They were proud and happy together. But she did not forget her people. Each year she would come back.”

The Girl Who Loved Horses was awarded the Caldecott Medal to the artist of the most distinguished American picture book for children. The illustrations highlight the relationship between nature and the Native Americans. Goble creates beautiful images using rich, earth-toned colors. The illustrations use intricate details that include flora and fauna. Plus, the detailed pictures will help young readers understand the story and highlight the girl’s love of horses.

Even though The Girl Who Loved Horses 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 4 to 9 complex sentences. Because some of the pages are text-heavy and have advanced vocabulary, younger readers may have a hard time getting through the story.

The girl’s story reinforces the idea that humanity and nature are connected. While the story may be difficult for younger readers to understand, parents and teachers can use the story to discuss the importance of protecting the earth. The Girl Who Loved Horses would be an excellent book for readers who want to learn more about Native American culture and their love of horses.

Sexual Content

  • None

Violence

  • None

 Drugs and Alcohol

  • None

Language

  • None

Supernatural

  • When the hunters could not find the girl, they believed “the girl had surely become one of the wild horses at last.”

Spiritual Content

  • None

I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter

An ambitious and fiercely independent teenager, Julia Reyes never seemed to fit in with her family’s traditional Mexican values. Her sister, Olga, was who her mother considered a “perfect Mexican daughter.” Olga was content with living at home, helped her mother cook and clean, and never got into trouble. However, after Olga’s sudden and tragic death, Julia feels pressure to fill the gap in her family, despite not being able to live up to her mother’s expectations.

Dealing with grief and conflicting personalities, Julia and her mother “Amá” struggle to mend their relationship. Amá, who grew up in Mexico, wants an obedient and responsible daughter, while Julia, who was raised in America, wants to explore the world and dreams of being a famous writer. Eventually, the pressure from her mom becomes too much for Julia to handle. Julia struggles with her mental health and feels misunderstood by her parents and friends. To make matters worse, after exploring her sister’s room, Julia discovers that Olga may not have been a perfect daughter after all.

Julia is a very realistic and relatable protagonist. She works hard to figure out her place in the world even though she makes mistakes along the way. As the child of Mexican immigrants, Julia experiences both generational and cultural conflicts with Amá and her father “Apá” who, while physically present, is often emotionally absent from Julia’s life. Although she has her friend, Lorena, and a new attentive boyfriend, Connor, Julia realizes grief is a difficult experience and it can take a lot of time to heal.

The book has a strong theme of self-acceptance and acceptance of others. Although Amá has difficulty understanding Julia, she learns to see what makes Julia unique and different from Olga. Julia also must learn to stop comparing herself to her sister and accept who she is and what she wants to be: a writer.

I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter tackles mature themes of death, suicide, abortion, and rape. The novel also contains Spanish words which are used naturally in the dialogue to better represent Julia’s culture, and most words and phrases are understandable within the context of the scene.  If you want to explore another book with these themes, Loveboat, Taipei by Abigail Hing Wen should be on your reading list.

Overall, the poignant story explores the challenges of youth, especially the cultural and generational boundaries between first-generation immigrants and their children. Eventually, Julia and her mother must learn to see things from each other’s perspectives. Julia also begins to understand a lot about her mental health and how to heal from painful situations to become a stronger and more balanced young woman.

Sexual Content

  • After searching through Olga’s bedroom, Julia finds “five pairs of silk-and-lace thongs. Sexy lady underwear I imagine a very expensive hooker might buy.”
  • Julia describes a time Olga’s friend Angie came over and Julia “walked in on her touching Olga’s boobs.”
  • Julia feels uncomfortable around her friend Lorena’s stepdad. “Every time I know he’s going to be home, I wear my baggiest shirts and sweaters so he can’t gawk at my boobs. Sometimes it feels like he’s undressing us with his eyes.”
  • Julia falls asleep at Lorena’s house. When she wakes up, she sees Lorena’s stepdad, José Luis, crouched in front of her. “He looks like he’s doing something with his phone, but I’m not sure.” Julia is too exhausted to process what is happening. It is unclear what José Luis’ exact intentions were.
  • Julia and Lorena visit the lake with two boys. Julia wonders where Lorena has gone and assumes she and Carlos are “probably fucking somewhere, even in this cold, and most likely without a condom.”
  • Ramiro, a boy Lorena sets Julia up with, kisses Julia, but she doesn’t really enjoy it. “At first the kisses are soft and feel all right, but after a while, he spirals his tongue against mine.” Julia and Ramiro soon stop kissing. She feels uncomfortable kissing someone she barely knows.
  • Julia states that her tío Cayetano “used to stick his finger in my [Julia’s] mouth when no one was looking.”
  • During a party, Julia notices people “dancing so close they’re practically dry-humping.”
  • Julia watches a couple make out in public. “Their kisses are wet and sloppy, and you can see their tongues going in and out of each other’s mouths.”
  • Lorena’s friend, Juanga, starts to describe different penis shapes he has seen. “The craziest one, he says, was long and pointy.”
  • A man harassing Julia on the street says he has something to show her “’cause you have nice tits.” When an adult helps Julia, the harassers eventually drive away.
  • After her first kiss with Connor, her first boyfriend, Julia describes how “Connor is gentle with his tongue, and something about the way he touches me makes me feel so wanted.”
  • Lorena tells Julia she’ll have to “shave [her] pussy” before having sex with Connor.
  • Julia and Connor have sex. Julia looks away while Connor puts a condom on. She states, “it hurts more than I imagined, but I pretend it doesn’t.” This is all that is described.
  • Julia discovers Olga was “having sex with an old married dude, hoping he would one day leave his wife.”
  • After taking a pregnancy test with fuzzy results, Lorena believes she might be pregnant.

Violence

  • Julia describes the appearance of her dead sister at the funeral stating, “the top half of her face is angry—like she’s ready to stab someone—and the bottom half is almost smug.”
  • Julia explains how Olga was “hit by a semi. Not just hit, though—smashed.”
  • It is implied that Julia tried to kill herself by cutting. The scene is not described.
  • In a support group, Julia meets a boy who is “here because his stepdad beat him with cords and hangers when he was a kid.”
  • On the journey to America, it is implied El Coyote raped Amá and “held [Apá] down with a gun.”
  • While visiting Mexico, Julia hears gunshots in the street and sees “two dead bodies are lying in the middle of the street.”

Drugs and Alcohol

  • Julia’s uncle once teased Olga’s boyfriend, Pedro, for being innocent. Julia remembers “tío Cayetano trying to give him a shot of tequila once, and Pedro just shaking his head no.”
  • Lorena and Julia smoke weed at Lorena’s house. Julia explains she has smoked weed “a total of five times now.”
  • At a birthday party, Julia’s father, and her uncles drink tequila.
  • At a party, Lorena and Juanga take shots while Julia opens a beer, “which [Julia] regret[s] immediately.”
  • At another party, “the girls all choose Malibu rum,” while Julia drinks “Hennessy and Coke.”

Language

  • Profanity is used in the extreme. Profanity includes ass, crap, fuck, hell, shit, and bitch. For example, after Olga’s death, Julia’s mom was screaming and “telling the driver and God to fuck their mothers and themselves.”
  • Lorena calls Julia a “bitch” for underestimating her intelligence. When Julia is on a bus after skipping school, she believes “the school has already called [her] parents and [she’s] in some deep shit again.”
  • Lorena tells Julia to give papers about a college tour to her “crazy-ass mom.”
  • Pissed is used often. At Olga’s funeral, Julia decides “it’s easier to be pissed,” rather than sentimental.

Supernatural

  • None

Spiritual Content

  • Julia shares that she and her mom argue about religion often. Julia “told her that the Catholic church hates women because it wants us to be weak and ignorant. It was right after the time our priest said—I swear to God—that women should obey their husbands.”
  • Amá forces Julia to attend church meetings. Julia wonders “who in the world would want to spend their Saturday night talking about God?”

by Elena Brown

The Marrow Thieves

The world has been ruined by global warming. In the destitute landscape of North America, the Indigenous people are being hunted by Recruiters, truancy agents who bring any person of Indigenous descent to the schools where their marrow is extracted at the cost of their lives. Why are they being hunted? Because people of Indigenous descent still have the ability to dream when the rest of the population has lost it. To survive, people have begun to move periodically, to prevent themselves from being sent to the schools where their bone marrow is to be extracted in exchange for their dreams. However, some have taken up the opportunity to betray their own people and turn them in to the Recruiters in order to receive a large sum of money for survival.

Frenchie has escaped from Recruiters after they kidnapped his brother. His father and mother were also taken by Recruiters, thus leaving him as the only one left in his family. In the woods, he is saved by a group of fellow Indigenous survivors. Among them are Miigwans, an older gay man who has escaped from the schools, Minerva, a woman elder who teaches the kids her native Indigenous tongue, Rose, a Black-Indigenous girl who becomes Frenchie’s girlfriend, Wab, a girl with a large scar on her face, and RiRi, a young Indigenous girl whose mother was kidnapped by Recruiters. Each member of the group carries their own story of trauma tied to their Indigenous identity. However, as the years progress and the losses continue to pile up, Frenchie learns that there may be a way to stop the marrow thieves and end this genocide.

The Marrow Thieves is told in a prose narrative style written in the first person. Much of the novel is told from the perspective of Frenchie, an Indigenous boy. This allows for readers to empathize with his emotions of loss and anger as well as demonstrate the horror of Indigenous genocide through the lens of an Indigenous protagonist. Some chapters shift in perspective to provide backstory of certain characters, such as Miigwans and how he lost his husband, or Wab telling the group about her violent backstory. This shift in the narrative style gives the reader the illusion of the character telling the entire group their backstory.

The novel heavily deals with themes about Indigenous genocide and the trauma Indigenous people continue to endure. The story makes many references to past genocides, such as the residential schools run by the Roman Catholic Church whose goal was “to kill the Indian, save the man.” These residential schools killed thousands of Indigenous children during their operations and traumatized millions more when the Church stole their children. While telling the story of how the marrow thieves came about, Miigwans says, “Soon, they needed too many bodies, and they turned to history to show them how to best keep us warehoused, how to best position the culling. That’s when the new residential schools started growing up from the dirt like poisonous brick mushrooms.” The characters in the novel even call the institutions where Indigenous marrow is extracted, the “new residential schools,” following the theme of the cycle of genocide and intergenerational trauma that Indigenous people go through, proving that history is constantly repeating itself.

The Marrow Thieves is a novel with which teenage audiences will empathize. For Indigenous readers, it provides well needed representation with a variety of characters who have unique personalities and identities and validates the trauma they feel. For non-Indigenous readers, it exposes the part of history that is often left out in many countries, particularly in America and Canada. The novel teaches non-Indigenous readers about the genocides Indigenous people have faced and, despite what the school curriculum makes it seem like, they are still facing. They survived.

Some readers may struggle with the flow of the plot as it jumps around between the past and the present, such as the story shifting from Miigwans’s backstory to a chapter jumping forward about 3 years. However, it should be known that many Indigenous writers tell stories in a way that doesn’t fit into the typical Western/European formula most books are written in. The ending of the novel is heartwarming and provides a sense of hope and catharsis for its characters and its Indigenous readers. In its entirety, it validates the feelings of its Indigenous characters and its Indigenous audience, who have, historically, constantly faced invalidation. Non-Indigenous readers who want to learn more about Indigenous history and start diversifying their library, as well as readers who like science fiction, should read The Marrow Thieves.

Sexual Content

  • Frenchie and Rose kiss for the first time after he asks Rose how she knows an Indigenous language when he doesn’t. “She pushed her face into mine, and for the first time I didn’t think about kissing her.”
  • While sleeping in a bed together, Frenchie and Rose kiss before being interrupted by RiRi. Rose “moved her face forward, just a few centimeters and I took her lip between mine. She slid a knee over my thighs and pressed close.”
  • Upon realizing that Frenchie loves Rose, he kisses her. “And I kissed her and I kissed her and I didn’t stop.”
  • Frenchie expresses that he “wanted so badly to kiss [Rose] again.” On the next page, he proceeds to kiss Rose.
  • Before Rose throws Frenchie’s cut hair into the fire, she kisses him. Rose “kissed me when she was finished, tossing the rough edges of my cut hair into the fire.”

Violence

  • The entirety of The Marrow Thieves covers the multiple genocides Indigenous peoples have faced throughout history. There are references to residential schools and colonial expansion when Europeans discovered the New World. Kidnappings, that are implied to be violent, are common as it’s how real-world genocides operated. For example, Frenchie’s brother, Mitch, is kidnapped by Recruiters and taken to the schools. “Mitch was carrying on like a madman in the tree house. Yelling while they dragged him down the ladder and onto the grass. I heard a bone snap like a young branch. He yelled around the house, into the front yard, and into the van, covering all sounds of a small escape in the trees.”
  • When recalling why she ran away, Wab discloses that some men her mother brought home would sexually assault her. “Sometimes they came after me, waking me up from my sleep when they tried to jam their rough hands in my pajamas. Sometimes they got more than just a feel before I could fend them off and lock myself in the bathroom.”
  • In Wab’s backstory, a man slices her face and it is heavily implied he also raped her. “He moved fast, too quickly for me to do anything but close my eyes again. I didn’t feel the slice. Just the wet on my cheek, and neck, and chest. Then he was pulling off my pants. Then I stopped feeling all together.” The scene lasts for a page.
  • Miig, the leader of the group, tells Frenchie about Minerva’s backstory. “‘Minerva was feeding her new grandson when the Recruiters burst into her home. They took the baby, raped her, and left her for dead. They answered to no one but the Pope himself, back then.’”
  • In the same chapter, Miig also tells Frenchie about twins, Tree and Zheegwon’s, backstory in which they were tortured by a colony of townspeople who wanted to extract their dreams. “‘We found them tied up in a barn, dangling like scarecrows from a rope thrown over a beam.’ He sighed, paused for another breath. ‘They were full of holes that’d been stitched up with rough thread, all up and down their sides. And with a pinky missing on each hand. They were seven then.’”
  • Frenchie wakes up to a traitor Indigenous person named Lincoln choking RiRi. “But then he turned and I saw RiRi, her throat grasped under [Lincoln’s] thick arm, legs kicking the air. She was grabbing at his forearm with her little hands, her face bright red.”
  • The group fights back against the traitors and then Lincoln runs off into the woods holding RiRi hostage. “[Chi-Boy] jumped from his crouch on the group, the knife out of his arm and back into his hand. He lunged at Travis, driving the blade into the man’s leg, just above the knee.” The scene lasts for two pages.
  • After Lincoln kills RiRi, Frenchie, infuriated and grieving, kills Travis. Frenchie thinks, “I heard him whine a little at the end of his plea. But then, maybe, it was just the wind. I pulled the trigger and the wind stopped blowing.”
  • When attempting to save Minerva, an Indigenous soldier named Derrick shoots the van driver transporting Minerva. “The driver was hit. I looked up in time to see Derrick lower his gun.”

Drugs and Alcohol

  • In Wab’s backstory, she tells the group that her mother was an alcoholic and eventually became addicted to drugs. “My mom traded favors for booze since food wasn’t really her priority . . . She’d started smoking crack, which was plentiful, to replace the booze, which was scarce.”
  • When Frenchie’s listening to his dad talk about the relationship between him and Frenchie’s mom, he recounts the following: “‘Your mom, she was always smarter than me. One day she found me drinking bootleg with a couple of the boys in Chinatown.’”

Language

  • The words “shit” and “assholes” are used throughout the novel along with their variations.
  • Upon learning that Rose knows more about the Indigenous language than Frenchie, he exclaims, “Bullshit!”
  • During Wab’s backstory, she says, “fuck” when she realizes she’s been tricked into a trap with a man who wants to hurt her.
  • Wab calls the man who lured her into the trap a “dick.”
  • Travis says, “Lincoln, for fucksakes, put [RiRi] down!” as an attempt to reason with Lincoln to stop him from killing RiRi.

Supernatural

  • None

Spiritual Content

  • Minerva performs a prayer that the campers perform later in the book too. “Minerva made her hands into shallow cups and pulled the air over her head and face, making prayers out of ashes and smoke. Real old-timey, that Minerva.”
  • Because hair is sacred in most Indigenous religions and is kept long, many of the characters wear their hair in braids. There are multiple scenes in the book where a character braids another character’s hair as an act of intimacy.
  • After Minerva dies, Rose and Frenchie perform a ritual for mourning the loss of a loved one. This involves cutting their hair, which is extremely important as hair is sacred in most Indigenous religions. “We buried Minerva the day after, the Council holding ceremony and prayer, even in the midst of our escape. Before I could stop her, Rose took scissors to her curls . . . I picked up the scissors when she put them down and cut my own braid off to send with Minerva.”

by Emma Hua

Somewhere Among

Ema is used to spending her summers in California with Bob and Nana, her mother’s parents. But this year, she and her mother are staying with her father’s parents in Japan, as they expect the arrival of a baby. Her mother’s pregnancy has been shaky, making everyone anxious for her health. Despite her mother’s physical wellbeing, Ema is happy because, finally, there will be someone in her immediate family who understands what it is like to fit in and not fit in at the same time.

Ema’s happiness is dashed when Obaachan, her Japanese grandmother, scolds her for the smallest mistakes. When she and her mother must stay in Japan longer than anticipated, and Ema has to attend a new school, her concerns about not fitting in become bigger. And when the tragedy of 9/11 strikes the United States, Ema and her parents watch the Twin Towers fall and the aftermath of the attack.

Her mother grieves for the United States, her home country. Ema also worries about her mother’s health, which threatens the safety of the baby. Alongside the grief, Jiichan gets ill, which worries Ema. Ema feels lonely, but then Obaachan shows a kinder side of herself and reveals the reason for her sternness—she had done so to prepare for her family for the worst.

As a whole, the story occurs from June 2001 to December 2001. Each month has an illustration relevant to a seasonal theme. Each chapter is told from Ema’s perspective, which helps the reader understand her solitude and the Japanese culture from her point of view. The story is written in free verse and portrays a detailed and orderly environment, with the descriptions grounding the reader in Ema’s headspace and forestalling confusion about Japanese folklore, language, and cultural norms. Though Ema is lonely, she is a happy and optimistic child, always taking part in traditional holidays or outings with her parents.

Since Ema lives with a lot of adults, the story details a lot of current events and the repercussions of historical events. Somewhere Among portrays the Japanese perspective on domestic tragedies, such as the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the observance of abroad tragedies, such as the attack on Pearl Harbor. However, the incidents are a backdrop in Ema’s life and the weight of the tragedy is with the adults in the room. Through these incidences, the story reinforces the importance of having “peace among nations/ peace among peoples/ peace in the heart.”

The story also hits on Ema’s identity as a “hafu,” or a person who is half-Japanese. Middle grade readers will relate to Ema, who is struggling to exist in a foreign country. For example, Ema’s classmates scrutinize her because of her mixed heritage. They make fun of her facial features and her name, and ignore it when Masa, a boy in her class, bullies her. In the end, Ema stands up for herself and feels like she has a place in Japan. The story ends on a light note and shows Ema’s family after the end of their struggles. Readers who would like to read more about historical events in Japan would enjoy reading Somewhere Among.

 Sexual Content

  • None

Violence

  • When Obaachan insists Ema’s mother should bathe in warm water, Ema’s mother, tells Ema’s father that “Obaachan is trying to kill us [her and the baby].”
  • Throughout most of the novel, Maribeth “vomits” frequently due to her pregnancy.
  • Updates about the Ehime Maru, “a Japanese fishing ship/ struck and sunk/ by an American submarine” are shown throughout the novel. In July, “its mast will be dynamited/ girded/ and lifted/ from the sea.” Later, US Navy officials explained their “plans to bring/ nine boys and men. . . up from the sea.” After searching for the sunken fishing ship and failing to rescue the crew members, “one hundred and twenty boxes/ of personal items/recovered from victims…are given to their families…to the principal [of Uwajima Fisheries High School]/ the school flag from the ship/ to the captain/ a bell from the steering room.”
  • Five people die from “mudslides/in Japan” after two typhoons go through Japan.
  • Masa, one of Ema’s classmates, “rams [her] thigh with his broom.” At first, her grandparents do nothing, but then Obaachan calls the teacher. Her teacher apologizes for Masa’s behavior but says asking Masa’s mother for an apology “is not possible. . . it cannot be helped.”
  • When they are in the classroom, Masa bullies Ema aggressively. He asks Ema if she “knows how to use a futon” as if she was a baby. Later, he “grabs, crumples and tosses my math homework.” Masa’s bullying occurs six more times throughout the book.
  • On September 11, 2001, Ema and her family watch the attack on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon. “We watch the towers go down/ over and over and over…a plane went down in Pennsylvania/ and/ the war department of the United/ States of America/ in Washington, DC is in flames.” Ema’s mother would not believe the attack happened “until the TV is turned on.” The aftermath and the rescue efforts continue for four pages.
  • After 9/11, Nana and Grandpa Bob were scared when they considered traveling to Japan from the United States. “Nana and Grandpa Bob are worried/ about flying./ They don’t say so/ but I know so./ Everyone is/ after seeing planes go through/ buildings/ and down in a field/ on September 11.”
  • Ema’s father mentions that George Harrison, a member of the Beatles, a British rock band, has died. “’He was a man of peace,’ Papa/ says./ ‘He knew how to treat people.’”

Drugs and Alcohol

  • None

Language

  • When Ema’s mother began speaking Japanese, she thought she was saying “Great-Grandfather” to Obaachan’s father, but she was saying “honorable old fart,” because she made a mistake with a vowel.
  • Ema’s classmates say she “looks weird” because of her “upside-down crescent-moon eyes” and her skin color, as Ema is half-white and half-Japanese.
  • Masa teases Ema with a common mispronunciation of her name. Her name, pronounced Eh-ma, sounds like the word “for wishes and prayers” in Japanese, but most foreigners miscall her as Em-ma, which means “God of Hell.”

Supernatural

  • None

Spiritual Content

  • Ema’s name “sounds like the name for shrine prayers”
  • “Tanabata” is a Japanese holiday on July 7, a day that celebrates the meeting of the deities Orihime and Hikoboshi. The traditions for this holiday are described over eight pages.
  • Ema describes her mother as “calm as Buddha.”
  • Obaachan goes to a shrine to “pray for Little Sister and Mom.”
  • On December 7th, the anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor, “Prayers are said/ on all shores.”
  • Maribeth goes to a church with Ema, who has “never been in a church,” to light a candle for the lost lives on 9/11. Jiichan prays for “the dead and the living without incense.”
  • Obaachan and Ema go to a shrine gate. Obaasan shows her the proper way to pray at a gate. “She bows twice, throws a coin,/ pulls the thick rope with two hands,/ claps twice/…bows once.”
  • Ema states that the Americans use the “jack-o’-lanterns/ from pumpkins/ to scare away spirits” during Halloween.

by Jemima Cooke

The Forest of Stolen Girls

1426, Joseon (Korea). Hwani’s family has never been the same since she and her younger sister Maewol went missing and were later found unconscious in the forest near a gruesome crime scene.

After five years, Hwani reunites with Maewol on Jeju island. Hwani has crossed the sea to find her father, Detective Jeewoo Min, after he has disappeared while investigating the disappearance of thirteen other girls. She is the older sister whose life plans—to get married and bear children—have come to a halt.

Maewol was called to be a shaman and train under Shaman Nokyung. Unlike Hwani, Maewol despises their father and does not wish for him to be found. When the body of one of the girls is discovered, Maewol and Hwani get sucked into the mystery of the disappearance of the young girls. The sisters realize there’s a possible correlation between the disappearances and their own Forest Incident, an event that left Hwani and Maewol completely changed. As Hwani and Maewol investigate further into the disappearances of the missing girls, they encounter a formidable enemy, the Mask, and the sisters learn that evil comes in different forms.

The entire story of The Forest of Stolen Girls is told in a prose narrative style, in the first person point of view. The story follows Hwani and her turbulent investigation into her father’s disappearance and, into the disappearance of thirteen young girls between the ages of eleven and eighteen. As the reader follows Hwani’s investigation, they will feel what Hwani feels and suspect who Hwani suspects.

The story displays a realistic sisterly relationship. The two sisters they, but are also kind to one another. A majority of the story is spent on the obstacles Hwani and Maewol face as sisters. Hwani is more logical and calculated while Maewol is impulsive and acts upon instinct. Maewol despises her father while Hwani idolizes him; this creates the central conflict. Hwani discovers her father is not as good as he seems and learns to be there for Maewol. Maewol, in turn, learns to forgive her sister even when Hwani has wronged her. At the end of the story, their sisterly bond is what saves Maewol and Hwani.

The Forest of Stolen Girls deals with the brutal history of China’s imperialism over the Korean peninsula. The core of the story relies on the historical fact that in Joseon, Korea, over 2,000 girls were kidnapped from their homes and sent to China as “tribute girls.” The story deals with this intergenerational trauma gracefully and brings to light atrocities committed by both Chinese and Joseon officials alike. The taking of tribute girls results in characters committing heinous actions for the sake of their own daughters. In order to prevent Gahee from being taken as a tribute girl, her father sliced up her face. Though her father did it to protect her, this actions permanently disfigured her and made her an outcast among her own people.

The Forest of Stolen Girls shows class strife and how it correlates with the missing girls. Rich officials of the Joseon government use bribes to keep their daughters from becoming tribute girls. But because the officials need new girls to take the place of their spared daughters, they kidnap girls from poverty.

The story shows the desperation of the poor, such as Convict Baek aiding in the kidnapping of girls in order to feed his daughter. The Forest of Stolen Girls shows readers that no one is truly bad and no one is truly good. It is the system in place that pressures people into continuing this cycle of grief and trauma.

The Forest of Stolen Girls is a beautiful novel that centers around a story of Asian women and the trauma they’ve endured for centuries. The mystery is beautifully woven, with every event, fight and conversation is meant to either aid the investigation, provide a red flag, or add to the characters’ stakes in the mystery. The twist is pulled off excellently and shows realistic motives that reveal the monster in people. The Forest of Stolen Girls is for readers who like murder mysteries, historical fiction, or would like to learn more about East Asian history.

Sexual Content

  • None

Violence

  • After discovering the body of one of the missing girls, Hwani asks the victim’s older sister, Iseul, some questions. Iseul implies that Hyunok was not raped while captured. Iseul says, “The midwife is my aunt. We knew Magistrate Hong would have her buried without an examination; he is like that. We examined Hyunok, and my aunt concluded that my sister hadn’t been harmed in…that
  • While exploring the forest, Hwani is chased by a man in a white. “The blade flashed as he swung the sword, and I squeezed my eyes, waiting for the slash of pain.” Maewol saves her.
  • While treating her wounds, Hwani recounts how her aunt used to beat her with a stick, thus leaving thin scars on her legs. Her aunt uses corporal punishment as a form of discipline. Her wounds “stung, yet the pain was a mere inch compared to Aunt Min’s beatings. When she was upset, she would wait for Father to leave before striking my calves with a thin stick, and the humiliation of it had made the cuts all the more excruciating.”
  • Maewol tells Hwani that one of their possible suspects, Convict Baek, “ sliced up his daughter’s face when she was only twelve, and no one knows why.”
  • Hwani confronts Convict Baek. Convict Baek shoves Hwani, causing her to fall and hit her head against a low-legged table, hard enough to draw blood. “He took another step and with his large hand he shoved at my shoulder with such strength that I went toppling. My head hit the corner of the low-legged table, my hair coming undone and falling over my face.”
  • After Hwani finds her father, Inspector Yu tells her his cause of death was not poison. “He was stabbed.”
  • Seohyun wants to kill the person who forced her to become a tribute girl. “There was murder in my daughter’s eyes. She told me in riddles what had happened. She and many other girls had been given to Emperor Xuande for her imperial harem. She also told me she was going to kill the person responsible, that she’d found out who it was but she wouldn’t give me a name.”
  • Hwani fights Village Elder Moon in a cave where he was keeping all of the stolen girls. The scene lasts for about three pages. “With all my strength, I continued to cling to the village elder’s robe as we thrashed in a blackness that seemed to leak through my eyes, surging fear into my soul. The village elder’s hands, too, turned desperate. Fingers grappling for anything, grabbing strands of my hair, wrapping tight around my throat as I struggled to hold on. My limbs felt numb and frozen, about to shatter as the cold deepened.”
  • Convict Baek and Village Elder Moon are sentenced to be executed. “Weeks later, when the verdict was made in accordance to the Great Ming Code, Village Elder Moon accepted his fate with a stare as blank as that of the dead. He was to be decapitated for having committed murder. Convict Baek, his accomplice, was to be punished by strangulation.”

 Drugs and Alcohol

  • There are multiple mentions of poison, as well as incidents of poisoning. Poisoning was a common method of execution in Joseon, Korea.
  • Hwani gets poisoned twice, once with a poison called kyeong-po buja that Hwani ingested herself, and the second time with arsenic from Village Elder Moon.
  • Hwani’s father is revealed to have been poisoned with arsenic as well. The poison did not kill him.
  • Village Elder Moon’s daughter, Chaewon, commits suicide by poisoning herself because she cannot live with her father’s actions.
  • Hwani pours a bowl full of rice wine onto her father’s grave.

 Language

  • None

 Supernatural

  • None

 

Spiritual

  • There are multiple mentions of spirits and the spirit world. For instance, Maewol describes what she sees when Hwani asks her if she can really communicate with the spirits from the spirit world. “I can’t hear what they say…I can’t really see or hear anything clearly. It’s like seeing shadows through the fog. A very thick
  • Maewol is a shaman, someone who communicates with the spirits.
  • Hwani and Maewol say “gods” rather than God because their religion is polytheistic.
  • There’s a brief mention of witchcraft when the body of Detective Min was discovered in a pristine condition. Village Elder Moon said, “No corpse could be in such a condition, not with the humidity of Jeju. It has to be witchcraft.”

by Emma Hua

 

Annie John

Annie John is a young, genius schoolgirl who wants to grow up to be just like her mother. Annie finds her mother beautiful – physically and internally – and her greatest wish is to stay forever with her, in their matching dresses, repeating their familiar daily routine of preparing dinner and washing clothes. They even share the same name: Annie. However, as young Annie starts to come of age, she is hit with the realization that she and her mother are not so similar after all.  When Annie points out a fabric to make a pair of dresses for them both, her mother replies, “You are getting too old for that . . . You just cannot go around the rest of your life looking like a little me.”

Annie’s world crumbles. As she advances to a new school, the differences between Annie and her mother become more apparent. Annie likes girls – especially those who don’t have to bathe and comb their hair every day like Annie is forced to. She likes to play marbles – even though her mother forbids it, since it isn’t ladylike. And Annie steals. To have what she wants, Annie is forced to steal things like trinkets, money, and marbles. She begins to resent her mother’s strict ways and desires her own, free existence.

When Annie falls ill for a long time, she is nursed back to health by her mother. After which, she leaves her family in Antigua behind to go to England to become a nurse, since she “would have chosen going off to live in a cavern and keeping house for seven unruly men rather than go on with [her] life as it stood.”

While Annie’s young teenage rebelliousness sounds familiar to many, she struggles deeply with the divide between the life she wants and the life her mother wants for her. Annie says, “In the year I turned fifteen, I felt more unhappy than I had ever imagined anyone could be. My unhappiness was something deep inside me, and when I closed my eyes, I could even see it . . . It took the shape of a small black ball, all wrapped up in cobwebs. I would look at it and look at it until I had burned the cobwebs away, and then I would see the ball was no bigger than a thimble, even though it weighed worlds.”

Annie John is not a difficult story to read in terms of language or length, but as a story it is tough to swallow since it is about growing up, which comes with the heavy realization that you must become your own being. Mostly, the story focuses on events from Annie’s life that are narrated rather than her depression and related illness. These topics are not discussed in detail, rather left open for the reader to think about.

Annie John is not told chronologically, which can be confusing at times. This story is historical fiction and showcases some of the culture of Antigua, an island in the Caribbean, whose native population has been impacted by colonization. This is most apparent in the strict gender norms emphasized by Annie’s mother and the teachings in Annie’s school. This story is wonderfully crafted. While these issues seem like major ones, they are carefully blended into Annie’s life so subtly that the reader can fully understand what it’s like to live as Annie John. The events of the story are personal to Annie’s life, however, the sadness that comes with growing older is universal. Because of that, this story is timeless and a must-read for those who seek to understand a genuine, flawed character, as she escapes from her restrictive past and sails to a new future.

Sexual Content

  • The schoolgirls wonder when their breasts will grow larger. Annie tells the reader, “On our minds every day were our breasts and their refusal to budge out of our chests. On hearing somewhere that if a boy rubbed your breasts they would quickly swell up, I passed along this news. Since in the world we occupied and hoped to forever occupy boys were banished, we had to make do with ourselves.”
  • Later, Annie thinks about spending time with her friend, Gwen, who she is in love with: “Oh, how it would have pleased us to press and rub our knees together as we sat in our pew . . . and how it would have pleased us even more to walk home together, alone in the early dusk. . . stopping where there was a full moon, to lie down in a pasture and expose our bosoms in the moonlight. We had heard that full moonlight would make our breasts grow to a size we would like.”
  • The Red Girl, one of Annie’s crushes, pinches her, then kisses her. “She pinched hard, picking up pieces of my flesh and twisting it around. At first, I vowed not to cry, but it went on for so long that tears I could not control streamed down my face. I cried so much that my chest began to heave, and then, as if my heaving chest caused her to have some pity on me, she stopped pinching and began to kiss me on the same spots where shortly before I had felt the pain of her pinch. Oh, the sensation was delicious – the combination of pinches and kisses. And so wonderful we found it that, almost every time we met, pinches by her, followed by tears from me, followed by kisses from her, were the order of the day.”

Violence

  • Annie torments a girl she likes. “I loved very much – and used to torment until she cried – a girl named Sonia . . . I would pull at the hair on her arms and legs – gently at first, and then awfully hard, holding it up taut with the tips of my fingers until she cried out.”
  • Annie recounts an incident with one of her friends. “In a game we were making up on the spot, I took off all my clothes and he led me to a spot under a tree, where I was to sit until he told me what to do next. It was long before I realized that the spot he had picked out was a red ants’ nest. Soon the angry ants were all over me, stinging me in my private parts, and as I cried and scratched, trying to get the ants off me, he fell down on the ground laughing, his feet kicking the air with happiness.”

Drugs and Alcohol

  • None

Language

  • After Annie’s mother sees her talking to boys, she calls Annie a slut. Annie narrates the event like this: “My mother said it had pained her to see me behave in the manner of a slut in the street and that just to see me had caused her to feel shame. The word ‘slut’ was repeated over and over until suddenly I felt as if I were drowning in a well but instead of the well being filled with water it was filled with the word ‘slut,’ and it was pouring in through my eyes, my ears, my nostrils, my mouth. As if to save myself, I turned to her and said, ‘Well like father like son, like mother like daughter.’”

Supernatural

  • None

Spiritual Content

  • The kids sometimes go to choir and church on Sunday, and carry bibles, but this is rarely described, only referenced. For example, Annie’s mother “checked my bag to make sure that I had my passport, the money she had given me, and a sheet of paper placed between some pages in my Bible on which were written the names of the relatives with whom I would live in England.” Annie does not discuss God or her beliefs.
  • When Annie is sick, an obeah woman from her family tries to help her by giving her herbs and using other remedies, although Annie is too sick to note them.
  • The obeah women of Annie’s town believe that Annie falls ill because of a “scorned woman” from her father’s past. There is no further elaboration on this topic.

by Madison Shooter

 

The Sun is Also a Star

Natasha Kingsley, a lover of science, believes in facts and evidence. According to Natasha, nothing lasts forever. There is no “meant to be,” and there is no such thing as love.

Daniel Jae Ho Bae, a poet, believes in love and destiny. He trusts that the specific amount of circumstances required to bring two strangers together has meaning, even if it can’t be scientifically explained. On his way to a Yale interview, Daniel sees a beautiful girl with large pink headphones walk into a record store. Obeying what he believes are signs from the Universe, Daniel follows her and finds his world colliding with Natasha’s.

Compelled by the inexplicable feeling that they are meant to be, Daniel postpones his interview in order to prove that love is real by making Natasha fall in love with him in one day. Natasha reluctantly agrees to this plan. However, Natasha is almost certain they are not meant to be a couple because it is likely her last day in America. Natasha and her family, who are Jamaican immigrants, have been asked to leave the country and return to Jamaica following her father’s DUI.

Despite the impending threat to her life in America and her aversion to love, Natasha finds herself falling for Daniel. Eventually, the secret of Natasha’s deportation is revealed and the two vow to make the most of their time together by condensing a whole relationship into one day. Despite their respective responsibilities for the day, they always find their way back to one another, proving their destiny is to be in each other’s lives.

However, in the end, Natasha cannot change her fate and must return to Jamaica with her family, while Daniel remains in America to pursue his dreams of becoming a poet. Due to the distance, Natasha and Daniel grow apart. But chance brings them together years later, making the readers wonder if they are meant to be after all.

The novel mainly switches between Daniel and Natasha’s perspectives, with brief interruptions to feature the perspective of supporting characters or to explain scientific concepts relevant to the story. Other chapters also provide historical context for relationships between racial groups in America. For example, the historical connection between Korean immigrants and the black-hair care industry.

The novel also depicts the experiences of young first and second-generation immigrants. Although Daniel was born in America, his parents view American culture as a threat to their Korean values. On the other hand, Natasha was not born in the United States but still views America as her home. Despite the history of racial tension between their cultures, Daniel and Natasha bond over their shared identity as Americans.

Overall, The Sun is Also a Star is an irresistible love story that explores the connection between art and science. Through beautiful metaphors and complex characters, Nicola Yoon exposes the poetic nature of science, which ultimately brings people together.

 Sexual Content

  • Natasha finds herself attracted to Daniel and assumes his “sexy ponytail may be addling my [Natasha’s] brain.”
  • The science behind love and attraction is explained. “Oxytocin is released during orgasm and makes you feel closer to the person you’ve had sex with.”
  • When Natasha says, “I like it big” in reference to her hair, Daniel’s brother makes a crude joke that she “better get a different boyfriend.”
  • Daniel gets a glimpse of Natasha’s thighs when her dress shifts. “They have little crease marks from the couch. I want to wrap my hand around them and smooth the marks with my thumb.”
  • Daniel and Natasha start kissing in the norebang, a Korean karaoke place. “We start out chaste, just lips touching, tasting, but soon we can’t get enough…She’s making little moaning sounds that make me want to kiss her even more.” Daniel and Natasha move to the couch and continue to kiss passionately. Eventually, they stop; there is no sex or nudity.
  • Daniel stares at Natasha “because I’m picturing her in a candy striper outfit and then picturing her out of it.”

Violence

  • Daniel and his brother, Charlie, get into a fight over Charlie’s racist and sexist comments regarding Natasha. Daniel’s “fist catches him [Charlie] around the eye socket area, so my knuckles hit mostly bone.”

 Drugs and Alcohol

  • Natasha’s father gets a DUI.

Language

  • Ass/asshole is used numerous times by Daniel. For example, Daniel calls his brother an “overachieving asshole.”
  • Pissed is used three times. For example, Daniel states his brother “was so pissed that his voice cracked a little.”
  • Shit is used repeatedly.
  • Daniel explains his brother’s anger after his mother’s disapproval of him. Daniel’s mom “could’ve called him an epic douche bag, an animatronic dick complete with ball sac, and it would’ve been better than telling me not to be like him.”
  • Goddamn is used five times. For example, Daniel’s parents believe America has made him soft and Daniel thinks, “If I had a brain cell for every time I heard this, I’d be a goddamn genius.”
  • Profanity is used in the extreme. Profanity includes fuck, dick, shit, ass, pissed, damn, bastard, and douche-bag. For example, a passenger on Daniel’s train tells the conductor to “shut the fuck up and drive the train.” Also, after a fight, Daniel explains his lip “split open on the outside because the bastard [Charlie] hit me while wearing some giant-ass secret society ring.”

 Supernatural

  • None

 Spiritual Content

  • Charlie hears a hurtful comment from his mother “because of God or Fate or Sheer Rotten Luck.”
  • Natasha’s father believes their deportation is part of God’s plan, but Natasha thinks “he shouldn’t leave everything up to God.”
  • On the train, Daniel hears the conductor give his testimony. “God HIMself came down from HEAven and he saved me.”
  • Daniel believes when people are born, “they (God or little aliens or whoever) should send you into the world with a bunch of free passes.”
  • Natasha’s father is sure “God wouldn’t have gifted him with all this talent with no place to display it.”
  • While entering the subway, Daniel decides to “say a prayer to the subway gods (yes, multiple gods).”
  • Daniel explains if he could invite anyone for dinner, it would be God.

by Elena Brown

American Panda

Mei Lu is a 17-year old freshman at MIT and a first-generation Taiwanese-American. She skipped fourth grade because of her parents’ master plan for her: Go to a prestigious school. Get into med school and become a doctor. Marry a parent-approved Taiwanese man. Have children with said man, and be the obedient, submissive wife she was always meant to be. Mei, however, has a secret. Well, multiple secrets: She can’t stand germs. She’s falling asleep during her biology lectures. She loves dance, and she develops a crush on a Japanese peer named Darren Takahashi. Because her mother tends to be overbearing and her father is stuck to the traditional Chinese customs, Mei feels suffocated. She doesn’t know how to cope with her parents and the traditions that keep her chained down.

Despite her challenges, Mei decides to take a leap of faith and teach dance classes. Plus, she gets into a relationship with Darren, and reunites with her estranged brother Xing, who was disowned because he dated a woman his parents did not approve of. Mei begins a web of lies to keep up the facade of medical school, but ultimately she learns that there is no one way to be an Asian-American. She defies her parents’ expectations and strays from their planned path. Mei also brings her mother along in the journey, helping her learn to break free from the traditions that bind both of them.

American Panda is written from the perspective of Mei, who takes the readers through the ups and downs of being a freshman college student. Every chapter ends with a voice mail, usually from Mei’s mother, or a text message thread with Darren, which allows the reader to hear Mei’s inner monologue and listen to her thoughts on being a doctor, her distaste for germs, and her crush on Darren. This allows the reader to feel more empathy for her when her parents eventually disown her. The story unlocks a new perspective through Mei and teaches about Chinese culture. For example, a Chinese tradition is to eat with the family and order large dishes for the family to share. “We ordered so much another table had to be dragged over. After dishing food to Nǎinai, Yilong stacked her plate five layers high. A few bāos and pork balls tumbled off and she hurried to scoop them back on top.”

American Panda also exposes the American audience to the Chinese-American experience, such as Mei knowing specific proverbs and words in Chinese. Mei does not speak Chinese fluently but some objects come to her in Chinese. For insance, instead of calling her mom her mother, she calls her mǔqīn. The dialect is also very specific, as the author states she based it on her family’s own dialect. Mei calls her paternal grandparents Nǎinai (grandma) and Yéye (grandpa), her mother is called mǔqīn. The book even features Mei creating her own Chinglish (Chinese and English) words, something many Chinese-Americans may have done in their youth. “For the first eight years of my life, I was not Mei, only bǎobèi to my father, his treasure. And for those same years, he was my bábǐ, the Chinglish word I made up for ‘daddy.’”

American Panda tackles the challenge of keeping traditions alive while also attempting to follow your dreams and passions. Mei struggles to appease both herself, a first-gen Taiwanese-American, and her parents, who are both immigrants. American Panda gives Mei the space to explore her creativity and love for the arts, and to break away from the harmful Model Minority Myth that often stereotypes Asians into being emotionless, backwards thinking, and only into STEM. The story shows a diverse cast of Asian characters. Darren, for example, is in STEM but expresses a desire to go into research or academia. Ying-Na, the cautionary tale of Mei’s local Chinese community, becomes a comedian. Nicolette, her roommate, is sexually active and confident in her sexuality but isn’t submissive like the Lotus Flower stereotype.

While American Panda allows for diversity within the Asian culture, it does not accurately capture the Chinese-American experience. It leaves out the reality of being in a country that has a history of anti-Asian racism and also focuses solely on East Asians. Despite this, the story validates Mei’s feelings of suffocation by her culture and ultimately gives her an ending where she can meet in the middle while getting everything she wants. Readers who want a cute love story, a story about college antics, and/or want to learn more about the Chinese-American experience should read American Panda.

Sexual Content

  • Reproductive health is mentioned many times, such as Mei’s sister-in-law suffering from endometriosis, Mei’s bully getting chlamydia, and Mei getting herpes from her unwashed jeans. One of the characters, Dr. Tina Chang, is also a gynecologist and Mei shadows her. There is also a large emphasis on women’s reproductive health due to Chinese traditions emphasizing on bearing a son to pass on the family name.
  • Mei refers to Darren as being yummy because he’s attractive. “Being at MIT Medical post-rash-investigation was the one situation in which I didn’t want to see the spiky outline I was constantly searching for. . . so of course there he was, in all his six-foot-something glory. And when I say glory, I mean yumminess.”
  • Mei sees one of Darren’s dimples and says, “I wanted to touch it. Kiss it. Memorize it.”
  • On the way back from her date with Darren, Mei says “we had held hands the entire way [back to the dorm].”
  • Mei and Darren make out. After their make out session, Darren kisses Mei again. “His hands pressed the small of my back, pulling my lips to his.” This scene lasts for two pages.
  • On their way to a wedding, Mei and Darren kiss. “He gently lifted my chin with his finger, then closed the distance between us and kissed me where the whipped cream had been.”
  • Mei says she wants to kiss Darren’s pouted lips. “I wanted to kiss it so bad.”
  • Before meeting with Mei’s mother, her and Darren kiss. “He wrapped his hand around the small of my back and pulled me to his lips. . . And then it was just us. I sank into him. Melted into his kiss.”

 Violence

  • After meeting Darren for the first time, Mei’s mom comments on the fact that he is Japanese. “He’s Japanese, Mei. . . They murdered our family. Orphaned my mother.” This is a direct reference to the Japanese occupation of China, which resulted in thousands of deaths.
  • When Mei meets her roommate Nicolette, who is also Taiwanese, Nicolette says, “Your family came to Taiwan in 1949, during the Communist Revolution. Your family killed my family.” There were already Chinese people who fled to Taiwan in the 1800s, before the Communist Revolution.

 Drugs and Alcohol

  • In many of Ying-Na’s rumors, it’s mentioned that she “had one sip of alcohol and flunked out of college.” This rumor is later proven to be false. At Ying-Na’s stand-up comedy show, she says she tried alcohol one time.
  • Ying-Na makes jokes about the rumors she’s heard about her being a failure. “Did you know that I was giving head in the public-school bathroom yesterday at the same time I was peddling heroin on the other side of town?”

Language

  • Fuck, and all of its variations, are used frequently. For example, Mei screams, “No fucking way!” when asked if she wants to look through the leg muscles of a cadaver. In addition, Nicolette told Mei, “You look hot as fuck.”
  • Shit is also used multiple times. For example, when Mei uses Nicolette’s soap, Nicolette says, “That shit’s expensive!”
  • When Mei learns about someone’s coming out story and the negative reception she got from her family. Mei says, “That’s bullshit.”
  • During a movie screening, someone says, “C’mon projector guy! Get your shit together.” According to Darren, it’s part of tradition though.
  • Nicolette calls a guy she hooked up with an asshole. “What the fuck Arthur! You made my roommate hit her head. You’re such an asshole!” The guy, Arthur, responds by saying, “You’re the asshole!”
  • During her stand-up show, Ying-Na makes a joke about the Chinese Farmer’s Calendar and wishing it would tell her “when [her] period would actually come, and which cycles would be an uber-bitch.”
  • Ying-Na jokes about how she became the Chinese community’s cautionary tale. “I turned into the local Chinese community’s cautionary tale: whore, spinster, homeless, whatever Asian parent’s biggest fear was.”

 Supernatural

  • None

Spiritual

  • Mei and her family are Buddhist and Mei refers to many Buddhist traditions, such as making an altar for her family’s deceased members, praying at the altar, and letting the door open so her Nainai’s spirit can come into the funeral parlor.
  • Mei’s brother, Xing, and his fiancée Esther have a Christian wedding.

by Emma Hua

Don’t Call the Wolf

Lukasz has lived the life of a nomad ever since he and his nine older brothers were forced from their mountain homes. As the last of the famous Wolf-Lords, a group of dragon slayers, they’ve roamed the country hunting dragons, falling in love and being put on display as a distinct race. But one by one, Lukasz’s brothers are called back to their mountain home to slay the beast that forced them out in the first place: the Golden Dragon. Now, two decades later, Lukasz finds himself following the same path, searching for his brother, Franciszek. But when Lukasz starts his journey he encounters a girl that will change everything for him.

That girl is Ren, the queen of the forest. Ren is a shapeshifter, who is able to change into a lynx whenever she needs to. Since monsters have begun to spread throughout the woods, Ren has offered safe haven to all the animals of the forest. Though young, she’s determined to protect her home, no matter what it takes. But, when the Golden Dragon shows up to burn her forest, Ren realizes she can’t fight alone anymore. When she meets Lukasz, she strikes a deal with him: slay the Golden Dragon and she’ll help find Franciszek.

However, that may not be as simple as it sounds. Unlike his brothers, Lukasz has no desire to slay the Golden Dragon. He just wants to find Franciszek and leave. Even if Ren and Lukasz have begun to fall in love with each other, he may very well break her heart in the end.

Don’t Call the Wolf is a standalone novel that’s well-written and well thought out. It’s a story about two worlds, the human world, and the fairy tale world, colliding unexpectedly. Lukasz is a Wolf-Lord, a dragon slayer, both an ally and enemy to Ren and her animal family. Throughout the novel, the disparity between humans and the rest of the natural and magical world is constantly shown, especially the distrust between the two groups. Through this, the novel explores how people can be too quick to judge or be wary of anything different or unfamiliar.

The story’s message of prejudice is where the novel is the strongest, as it weaves together characters that come from a variety of backgrounds and that overcome those prejudices to not only continue their journey but to become friends. A few even go so far as to sacrifice themselves for others. These characters, while not as fleshed out as they could be, are endearing because of this. The main characters, Ren and Lukasz, are the strongest of the cast; each character has flaws as well as realistic fears and desires. For instance, Lukasz can’t read, but this is an endearing flaw that he tries to overcome. Ren deals with being called a monster by the humans that live in her forest, and she must fight against that label.

Don’t Call the Wolf is a retelling of the Polish fairy tale The Glass Mountain. The story is full of adventures in the magical forest, and romance that is excellently paced. The character development is similarly strong, and Ren is fabulously fierce. Don’t Call the Wolf is a great read for anyone looking for a touch of magic in a novel. With a strong setting, elements of a fairy tale, and a theme of overcoming prejudice, fantasy lovers will want to pick up this novel.

Sexual Content

  • Ren watches as Lukasz kisses a monster. “Eyes still locked on Ren, it kissed him [Lukasz]. His arms came up, encircling it. And to Ren’s disgust, he kissed it back.” When thinking about the kiss later, Lukasz thinks it should have been Ren kissing him. “He wished she had been the one to kiss him.”
  • Ren and Lukasz develop a romance. While camping in a forest, Ren “felt a stab of jealousy as Lukasz lowered himself beside Felka to talk. His eye caught hers across the clearing, and Ren turned quickly back to Czarn.” Felka is a human from the only village in Ren’s forest. Later, when Ren is watching Lukasz, she thinks, “Then she ran a hand over the stubble edge of his jaw. She loved his face. She loved that crooked tooth. Ren wondered, suddenly, if she loved more than that.”
  • Lukasz’s older brother, Franciszek, asks Lukasz, “You love this girl [Ren], right?”
  • At the end of the novel, Ren and Lukasz plan to marry. When Lukasz jokes about going to propose to her, Ren says, “No. I think I will.” Then, they kiss. “He leaned down and kissed her. She ran a hand over his cheek, through his hair.”

Violence

  • Throughout the novel, the main characters fight monsters. The first time Lukasz sees one, he notes, “Some were burned beyond recognition, others had whole limbs hacked off. Some had parts of their skulls cleaved away, bits of gray brain and viscous blood spattering their shoulders. Their faces, frozen, still stretched into the tooth-baring, agonized grimaces of death.”
  • While fighting a dragon, Lukasz’s hand is badly burned. “Lukasz screamed. He was on his knees, screaming. Coughing. Tears streaming down his cheeks, dripping off his chin.”
  • As a lynx, Ren attacks a strzygoń, a monster, “Its re-formed limbs could not match the strength of her forelegs. She bit down. Hot blood splashed over her face.” Just after this, Czarn, a wolf loyal to Ren, attacks another strzygoń. “The fight was short. And bloody. One of the bulkier strzygi managed to take a chunk out of Czarn’s ear before the wolf’s powerful jaws closed around its throat and severed its head.”
  • When Ren meets a human girl named Felka, Felka tells Ren, “You ripped his face off!”
  • Koszmar, a soldier that accompanies Lukasz, is startled and shoots a tree branch. “Koszmar shrieked and fired an entire round of bullets into it before realizing it wasn’t another monster.”
  • After Koszmar is killed by a strzygoń, a strzygoń spawns from his corpse, “Then a chest and shoulders emerged, tearing the ribs wide. A head unfurled, with hair congealed in clots. Slick rivers of blood coated naked spine.”

Drugs and Alcohol

  • After getting his hand burned by a dragon, Lukasz is put in a hospital. He’s given opium for the pain. Doctors “kept him knocked out with opium for a full two weeks. For the pain, the doctor had explained.”
  • When thinking about his brothers, Lukasz thinks, “Rafał lay upon the beds of Miasto tattoo parlors, Eryk bought a vodka distillery, and Anzelm drank most of it.” Later, Lukasz thinks of himself, “Lukasz was twenty, bored, and a little tipsy.”

Language

  • Bastard and bullshit are used a few times. For example, Lukasz talks to a dragon he’s fighting. He says, “Come on, you feathery bastard.”
  • Damn is used frequently. For example, while fighting another dragon, Lukasz thinks, “Where is the damn sword?”
  • Lukasz constantly says “God.” When he is talking with his older brother, he says, “My God, Rafał.”

Supernatural

  • This novel is filled with magical creatures from old European legends.
  • Dragons are all over Lukasz’s country. When Lukasz is hunting a dragon, he sees, “It was huge, orange, covered in feathers and scales. It had a curved beak and a quizzical, birdy look in its eye. It chirped again.”
  • Lukasz is a Wolf-Lord, a famous dragon slayer. During a lecture, a professor describes the Wolf-Lords, “By tooth or by claw, they promised. The Brygada Smoka. The last of the Wolf-Lords, and the greatest dragon slayers in the world.”
  • Ren’s forest is filled with strzygoń, a type of monster that was once human. When Ren encounters one in the forest, she sees, “It stood on all fours, joints locked. With the bulging eyes of a goat, oblong pupils in slate gray, it considered her. It put its head to the side, feathery brows jutting over those terrible eyes. It looked almost like an enormous moth, and again, Ren trembled.” When strzygoń appears in the forest, they crawl out of pits. “A pit opened up, earth crumbling away in its center, ringed with orange flames and twisting roots. It gaped wide in the forest floor.”
  • Ren can shapeshift into a lynx. When she goes to fight a monster, she shifts. While shifting Ren’s “knees shot to her chest and her spine curled up. Her muscles expanded, snapping into place around her limbs. Power tore across her shoulders. Fur raced over her skin.”

Spiritual Content

  • Ren has the power to baptize strzygoń, monsters that were once human. When she encounters a group of strzygoń, she says, “Your time here is finished. I. . . I baptize you.” Once that is said, the strzygoń all crumple and their souls go to either heaven or hell.

by Jonathan Planman

Shine

What would you give for a chance to live your dreams?

For seventeen-year-old Korean American Rachel Kim, the answer is almost everything. Six years ago, she was recruited by DB Entertainment—one of Seoul’s largest K-pop labels, known for churning out some of the world’s most popular stars. The rules are simple: train 24/7, be perfect, don’t date. Easy right?

Not so much. As the dark scandals of an industry bent on controlling and commodifying beautiful girls begin to bubble up, Rachel wonders if she’s strong enough to be a winner or if she’ll end up crushed…especially when she begins to develop feelings for K-pop star and DB golden boy, Jason Lee. It’s not just that he’s charming, sexy, and ridiculously talented. He’s also the first person who really understands how badly she wants her star to rise.

Get ready as Jessica Jung, K-pop legend and former lead singer of Korea’s most famous girl group (Girls’ Generation) takes us inside the luxe, hyper-color world of K-pop. The stakes are high, but for one girl the cost of success—and love—might be even higher. It’s time for the world to see: this is what it takes to SHINE.

Life as a trainee is not glamorous. Instead, the girls’ daily weight checks are belittled and they are treated harshly. For example, one of the trainers yells at Rachel. “Look, if this is too hard for you, go home. You think giving me attitude will make you a better dancer? Get your head out of your ass and try harder. If you can’t even get these dance steps, you’ll never get anywhere.” All of the girls take the abuse because they are afraid that speaking up will cause them to be kicked out of the training program.

In the K-pop world, men and women have different standards. Women get lower pay, aren’t supposed to date and are treated badly. One K-Pop singer says, “All they [her agents] care about is making us into perfect K-pop machines that will do everything they say and rake in the money for them.” Shine puts a spotlight on the sexism in the K-pop world as well as in the girls’ families. Even though women are treated differently than men, the women never come together to work to improve their situation.

Even though the narrator, Jessica, is self-centered, acts rashly, and is sometimes mean, readers will get caught up in the drama of the K-Pop world. Jessica’s erratic behavior keeps readers on the edge of their seats. Unfortunately, all of the characters have flaws that will leave readers wondering why anyone would subject themselves to the abuse of training. Jessica leaves the reader with one thought, “When we feel like we cannot do this any longer, we remember that we already have, and we will again.” If you’re up for a fun, romance-based Korean comedy, add I Believe in A Thing Called Love by Maurene Goo to your must-read list.

 Sexual Content

  • Rachel sees two people she knows with their “lips locked.”
  • Right before a concert, Jason “cups one hand gently against my face, and I let my eyes close as I lean in. I feel his lips press softly against mine. Warmth floods through my entire body as he moves his hand to the back of my neck, sparking in my stomach and out to my fingertips.”
  • While at a party, Jason kisses Rachel. “When he finally turns toward me, his face lit up in the familiar Jason way, it feels like a thousand tiny fireworks going off in my heart. . . I throw my arms around him and kiss him.”
  • Rachel overhears trainees talking about a love triangle between a K-pop star and two girls. The girl says, “I heard she’s [Rachel’s] pregnant with Minjun’s love child. . .”
  • A boy comes over to Hyeri’s house, one of Rachel’s friends. “Hyeri throws her arm around him and presses her lips against his. Juhyn and I cheer as Daeho wraps his arms around her and kisses her passionately back. . .”

Violence

  • Rachel sees Akari, a trainee, being yelled at by her trainer. “Her voice cracks on the high note and the trainer bends over, slapping her hard in the gut. Akari winces through the blow but doesn’t stop singing. . . the trainer hits her again. Harder.”

 Drugs and Alcohol

  • When a trainee was let go “rumors had run rampant that she had a drug problem and she owed thousands of dollars to her dealers.”
  • Rachel goes to a party at the trainee house. “I trip over more than a few empty beer cans as I march toward what looks like the bar area. . .”
  • Rachel and other people at the party drink. “People are dropping shows of grapefruit soju into beer glasses and downing the whole drink.”
  • While at the party, Rachel gets drunk and then one of the trainees puts something in Rachel’s champagne. Later, Rachel wonders, “What the fuck did Mina put in that drink?”
  • Rachel goes to a hotel buffet and sees “a young couple sharing a bottle of wine with their salmon dinner.”
  • Jason and Rachel go to a restaurant for dinner. While there, they see three girls. “One of them is clearly wasted, chugging soju straight from the bottle.”
  • Rachel and Jason go to dinner with Jason’s aunts, who order wine.
  • Rachel and Jason go to a party, where alcohol is served to minors.
  • Rachel goes to her friend’s house and they have “alcohol bottles lined up neatly on the table, all ready for the twin’s predrink.” Upset, Rachel grabs “the bottle of tequila and pop[s] it open. . . I take a big gulp straight from the bottle.” All three of the girls get drunk.

Language

  • “Omg,” “God,” and “ohmygod” are occasionally used as exclamations.
  • Profanity is used often. Profanity includes ass, asshole, badass, bitch, crap, damn, fuck, hell, holy shit, piss, and shit.
  • Rachel says “thank god” several times.

Supernatural

  • None

Spiritual Content

  • None

 

Octopus Stew

Ramsey loves to wear his superhero cape, but he never thought he’d ever become an actual superhero. That all changes one afternoon when Ramsey is at his grandma’s house and his grandma decides to make pulpo guisado, octopus stew. When Ramsey and his grandma go to the supermarket, Grandma chooses the biggest octopus in the store. Grandma scrubs the octopus and puts it in the pot, and that’s when the trouble begins.

The octopus grows and grows. When it grows out of the pot, the octopus grabs Grandma and refuses to let her go. Determined to save his grandma, Ramsey grabs his superhero cape. Will Ramsey be able to save his grandma? Or will the octopus have her for dinner?

Ramsey’s tale comes to life in full-colored illustrations that are at times humorous. The oil-painted illustrations pop with bright colors. Young readers will relate to Ramsey, who gets stern looks from the adults in the story. Readers will also appreciate Ramsey’s facial expressions which are full of emotion. The family dog gets a starring role in the illustrations, and readers will love looking for him in each of the story’s pictures. Even though the octopus grabs Grandma in his huge arms, his appearance adds suspense without much little fear factor. The conclusion is surprisingly sweet.

Ramsey’s family is Afro-Latino and the family’s love of telling stories is apparent. The story includes a central foldout that contains a humorous surprise. Octopus Stew would be the perfect introduction to tall tales and will encourage readers to tell their own family stories.

Octopus Stew makes a wonderful read-aloud book because it’s packed full of sound words such as bloop, kerchunk, and thum! The English text intertwines with Spanish phrases and reflects the author’s family, who spoke non-standard Spanish at home. A glossary provides definitions and pronunciations of the Spanish phrases. However, the story’s context clues are sufficient to understand the Spanish words’ meanings.

Even though Octopus Stew 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 of the picture book has 1 to 3 complex sentences. A recipe for octopus stew is included at the end of the book.

Octopus Stew shows how oral storytelling can be fun for families, and the story will encourage readers to create a tall tale of their own. The wonderful illustrations and the unique plot make Octopus Stew an entertaining story that kids will love. In addition, the illustrations have enough detail to capture readers’ attention. Octopus Stew is a family-oriented story that will appeal to a wide range of readers who enjoy the humor, suspense, and surprising conclusions.

Sexual Content

  • None

Violence

  • A huge octopus grabs Grandma and holds her in the air.
  • The octopus “attacked, spraying ink all over my [Ramsey’s] drawing.”

 Drugs and Alcohol

  • None

Language

  • None

Supernatural

  • None

Spiritual Content

  • None

 

 

 

All Thirteen: The Incredible Cave Rescue of the Thai Boys’ Soccer Team

The Wild Boars soccer team is made up of explorers. The 12 members ventured deep into the caves at Tham Luang, further than even some seasoned cavers. They were bold with their exploring, looked out for one another, and worked well as a team. However, their adventurous spirit was met with bad luck when the team and their assistant coach became trapped in the cave. With the wet season approaching in Thailand, the mountain where the cave was located was saturated with water and when it started to rain, the caverns began to flood.

When the team went missing, rescuers and problem-solvers were called to action to rescue the team. In order to save the soccer team, rescuers would need a well-thought-out, coordinated plan. It was going to be a huge undertaking. The book takes the reader through the timeline of the rescue mission and dives into broader topics that color the event. Soontornvat highlights the importance of STEM in the mission and goes into the scientific details about the cave and how the water and sediment affected the mission. At the same time, there are subsections in the book that go into the historical and cultural context of the local community.

Buddhism and meditation is an important piece of this nonfiction story. Part of what made the mission successful was that the soccer team did not panic and they were able to focus their energy with meditation. “When thoughts of hunger, pain or shame come in through one window, you can notice them, and then let them float right out the other window, keeping the room of your mind clear from all that clutter.” The Wild Boars were trapped in the cave for 18 days and they needed to look within to ease their pain. The subsections on Buddhism and meditation are a great introduction to Eastern religion and meditation practices. Without overwhelming the reader with specifics, the book takes these concepts and displays them in a way that is relatable to a younger audience.

Soontornvat also touches on geopolitical issues that are present in Thailand, such as immigration and religious persecution in neighboring countries. While the story is focused on the rescue mission, Soontornvat uses the experiences of the Wild Boars’ assistant coach, Coach Ek, to understand asylum-seekers. Coach Ek was forced to migrate to Thailand from Myanmar to escape the armed conflict. Migrant children face tough odds as they often do not have the necessary support systems to help them. Coach Ek considers himself lucky to have found the Wild Boars because he was able to find community and serve as a mentor to the soccer players.

The photographs in the book bring humanity and a sense of urgency to the story, as well as highlight the scale of the rescue mission. Many of the pictures were taken during the mission. The massive undertaking of bringing the Wild Boars to safety is captured with photographs of heavy machinery, the elaborate sump systems, and camo-wearing Navy SEALs. The book has a cinematic feel to it and the fast-paced life-or-death story keeps the reader turning pages. With loads of first-hand accounts, artifacts, and photos, the reader will feel immersed in the rescue mission.

One of the underlying themes of the book is that collaboration and teamwork can accomplish amazing things. There is no shortage of heroism in this story as people from all over the globe pitch in to save the boys. Donations are made, scuba experts consulted, farmers help with the sump system and the soccer team supports each other during the trying times. For the team, their support for each other was paralleled through the lens of soccer, helping to make it relatable to young readers. “Through their time on the soccer field, they know what it feels like to work as a team to tackle something that seems impossible.” Despite the danger of being trapped and impossible odds, through collaboration and sheer willpower, the boys are brought to safety.

Sexual Content

  • None

Violence

  • Tham Luang has a mythology of the Sleeping Lady which visitors pay their respects to at a shrine. In the story, “he [a servant who loved the princess] was captured and killed by the king’s soldiers. The heartbroken princess killed herself. Her blood became the water flowing in the cave and her body became the mountain.”
  • When discussing the probability of the soccer team’s survival, Major Hodges says, “if they are in there, they’re probably dead, and if we’re lucky, we will find their remains.”
  • When contextualizing the background of Coach Ek, it is said that “groups such as the Rohingya of Myanmar, have fled their ancestral land because they are persecuted and murdered by their own government.”
  • While making plans for a recovery, there is a reminder that “a dead body requires a recovery. Rick’s experience as a firefighter has trained him to be unemotional about such things, but trying to maneuver a lifeless body through the twists and turns of a sump is a grim and dangerous task.”
  • One of the Navy SEALs dies during the rescue effort. “When Saman’s partner finally emerges, he is pulling a lifeless Saman behind him. The other SEALs rush to revive him, but it’s too late.

Drugs and Alcohol

  • The soccer team is sedated during the rescue mission. “Dr. Harris has finally decided to give the boys a sedative called ketamine. Ketamine is a common drug used during surgeries when the patient needs to be unconscious.”

Language

  • None

Supernatural

  • None

Spiritual Content

  • The caves at Tham Luang “house giants who were defeated by the Buddha himself.”
  • Before the Wild Boars go to bed, Coach Ek “tells them all to pray together.”
  • When discussing meditation, a background on Buddhism is given. “It was through meditation that the Buddha arrived at the pillars of his great teachings that guide all Buddhists today. The Buddha taught people how to free themselves from the suffering that is a natural part of life.”
  • The Thai variety of Buddhism is often intertwined with other spiritual beliefs. It is written that “spirits are everywhere; they can be gentle and protective, or moody and vengeful. Either way, spirits should be treated as respectfully as the living.”

by Paul Gordon

Yasmin The Explorer

Every explorer needs a map! Baba encourages Yasmin to make a map of her own neighborhood. When Yasmin and Mama go to the farmer’s market, Yasmin adds the different booths to her map. When she sees a playground, Yasmin gets excited and goes to play on the swings. Soon Yasmin realizes that she isn’t sure where Mama is. Can her map bring them back together?

The story has three short chapters and each page has large illustrations that will help readers understand the plot. The full-color illustrations use cheerful colors and show Yasmin’s map. Yasmin is Pakistani and her mother wears a hijab. Yasmin’s mother also uses Urdu words, which are defined in a glossary that appears at the back of the book.

Yasmin The Explorer will help emerging readers feel confident with their reading. Each page has 1 to 4 short sentences which are printed in oversized text. At the end of the book, there are questions that will help students connect to the text, some fun facts about Pakistan, and a recipe to make Mango Lassi, a traditional Pakistani dish.

Yasmin’s curiosity and enthusiasm are contagious; however, the story lacks conflict because the plot focuses on the places that Yasmin puts on her map. However, readers will relate to Yasmin when she is lost. Yasmin The Explorer would make a good conversation starter about the importance of telling your parents where you are going, as well as what to do if you are lost.

Sexual Content

  • None

Violence

  • None

 Drugs and Alcohol

  • None

Language

  • None

Supernatural

  • None

 

Spiritual Content

  • None

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