Bones of the Sun God

After his adventures in Egypt, Sam Force is finding it nearly impossible to return to everyday life at boarding school—especially now that he knows his parents are still alive. However, his Uncle Jasper has banned him from setting off in search of them until he can go with Sam, but Sam’s not sure he can wait that long. When a man turns up at his school—a man he last saw in the Egyptian desert—he knows he can wait no longer.

Sam needs to continue the hunt for his parents. Luckily, his friend Mary Verulam has a plan, and before he knows it, he’s on his way to Belize. However, from the moment he lands, Sam finds himself being followed and threatened. When his research leads him to a local crocodile park and the leader of a mysterious crocodile cult, things become really dangerous. Sam is left to wonder if he’ll ever be able to locate his parents—and if there is anyone he can trust. 

Right from the start, Sam knows he’s going to sneak out of the country to continue the dangerous search for his parents—he just didn’t expect the search for clues to turn deadly. Multiple people warn Sam about the dangers that lay ahead and strongly encourage him to return home. However, the stubborn boy refuses to listen. While Sam’s determination and resourcefulness are admirable, he’s also impulsive and reckless. To make matters worse, Sam isn’t afraid to sneak into places he shouldn’t be, which causes many problems. Despite his dangerous actions, Sam is a likable protagonist that readers will root for.  

Similar to the first book in the series—The Iron Tomb—Bones of the Sun God doesn’t shy away from violence. In book two, a new villain appears—Felix, the crocodile cult leader – who will do anything to keep his secrets safe. This includes plotting Sam’s death, killing his henchmen, and feeding people to his trained crocodiles. The constant threat of being eaten by crocodiles keeps the action high. Plus, readers will be shocked when the crocodile park’s secrets are revealed. 

Bones of the Sun God continues the mystery of the pyramids and of how the Arc of the Covenant is related to them. However, Sam spends much of his time being chased by others and the story lacks the clues that made book one so much fun. Despite this, Bones of the Sun God will entertain readers. Readers will also enjoy the black and white pictures that are scattered throughout the book. The illustrations will help readers imagine some of the complicated plot points.  

Readers who aren’t put off by violence will find Bones of the Sun God highly entertaining because the action-packed story follows a likable protagonist who is willing to jump into danger to discover where his missing parents are. However, the strange crocodile cult and the bloody violence may make the book inappropriate for some readers. For a high-interest, fast-paced adventure with less violence, there are many good options including The Serpent’s Secret by Sayantani Dasgupta and Tristan Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky by Kwame Mbalia. And if you want to discover some Egyptian history in a non-fiction format, check out The Curse of King Tut’s Mummy by Kathleen Weidner Zoehfeld.   

Sexual Content 

  • None 

Violence 

  • While in a pool of water, a beast attacks a knight. The beast’s “white teeth enveloped his legs. A loud crack echoed across the chamber as powerful jaws slammed together around his waist. With one last effort, he brought his dagger arm down onto his attacker’s skull. . . And then there was only darkness.” The knight dies. 
  • While at a river, a young boy named Elio sees a “crocodile’s jaw open. . . A cloud of white mist bursts from the beast. With the pain came sudden understanding. The boy stared down at the silver dart sticking from his thigh. His eyes felt heavy . . . the last thing he heard as his world went black was the sound of the beast laughing at him.” Elio is kidnapped and taken to the crocodile park. 
  • Sam was cleaning the rowing shed when bullies from his school show up. Sam “aimed the bottle of detergent at Andrew Fletcher and squeezed. The soapy liquid hit him in the eyes, and Andrew howled in pain. Before his two friends could react, Sam swung the foamy jet at them.” Sam is able to get away.  
  • Sam hides with a group of tourists who go to a crocodile park. During a show, a man appears and says, “The guardians of the underworld demand sacrifices.” Then, crocodiles appear and begin attacking people. “Two more [people] went down, the first rammed from the side, the second pushed from behind. Arms flailed, water churned, and then there was only one person left. . . Down at the pool, the woman scrambled back toward the edge, but before she could climb out, her legs were pulled out from under her and she disappeared beneath the surface.” 
  • As the audience watches in horror, another man steps into the pool of water. “Lights in the bottom of the pool switched on, illuminating the crocodiles, who were still holding their human sacrifices.” The man calls on Kinich Ahau and then, “the crocodiles, unburdened by their prey, swam to the far side of the pool and disappeared into the tunnel.” The people who the crocodile attacked walk out of the pool unharmed. The scene is described over three pages. 
  • Two policemen were taking Sam to the airport when they come upon a broken-down car in the middle of the street. “Two men spun toward the police car. They had guns. There were two flashes of light and everything went black. . . A man pulled Sam’s door open and wrenched him out. As Sam was dragged to the old car, the struggling policemen fell silent.” Sam is taken to Felix, the founder of the crocodile park, who locks Sam in a cage. 
  • Sam escapes from the crocodile park and runs towards the forest. Sam falls and “lay there, defenseless. . . he saw the silhouette of the man looming over him. Suddenly, the red [laser] beam hit the man’s face. . . then the man threw his hands to his eyes and howled in pain.” 
  • One of Felix’s henchmen, Azeem, ambushes Sam in the wilderness. Sam throws juice at Azeem’s face and bats attack him. Sam “heard the fluttering of hundreds of pairs of wings as they swept through the forest . . .Sam heard a cry as the first one of the tiny juice-hungry mouths fell on their new meal.” Azeem is not seriously injured.  
  • Sam returns to the crocodile park to save Elio, another boy who is held prisoner. As they try to escape, they see “the body of a large bald man in a white suit.” The man’s skin was a “sickly gray color” and he “had been dead for some time.” Later, Sam discovers that the dead man’s body was stolen from the morgue. 
  • As Sam and Elio run from the crocodile park, a bomb goes off. “The concussion from the blast hit them. Sam saw Elio lifted off the ground and pushed through the air.” Sam has a “nasty cut on his forehead,” but is otherwise uninjured. 
  • Sam finds a hidden entrance into a pyramid. When Sam goes in, he finds Azeem and Felix digging a hole. Felix holds a gun on Azeem, who is at the edge of a pool. Azeem’s “confused look transformed to panic as he heard the noise behind him. . .” Azeem sees a crocodile, but is unable to get out of the pool because “Felix kept the gun aimed down at the Scar-Faced Man.” 
  • As the crocodile gets closer, Azeem panics. “He tried to climb out [of the pool] again, but Felix lashed out with his foot. The kick sent the Scar-Faced Man stumbling backward. . . Azeem went rigid. The water around him became red and his screaming reached new levels of loudness. . . the man was pulled under, his scream cut off. . .” Azeem dies. 
  • After leaving the pyramid, Felix sets off a bomb. Sam and his friend, Mary, run. The explosion “grew to a deafening roar and a howling wind, so powerful Sam and Mary were pushed along the floor of the tunnel. . . Sam felt his exposed skin being stung by the tiny fragments of stone carried along by the explosion. . . He heard Mary screaming.” Afterwards Sam’s “head was throbbing, his ears were ringing from the blast,” but he was otherwise unharmed. 
  • In the pyramid, Sam finds a parchment belonging to a Templar Knight that tells why they built a structure inside the pyramid. While building the structure in a pool, crocodiles appeared. “I shall never forget the look of horror, the pain, as unseen monsters took hold of their legs. Screams were stifled as the men were pulled under…the ugly red stain that spread through the pool left us in no doubt as to the fate of our other two companions.” Later, the knight meets a similar fate. 
  • Sam goes into the pool to retrieve an item. A crocodile “comes out of the tunnel . . . and smashed into [Sam], knocking him back off his feet. . . he went under with his mouth open. The choking sensation triggered a burst of panic that wiped the crocodile from his mind.” Sam survives without injury. 
  • Sam and his friends follow Felix, who is trying to escape in a submarine. “Sam pushed the hatch down, hitting Felix in the head. Stunned, the man let go to the side of the ladder and fell back inside. . . Five feet below, Felix was sprawled in a heap unconscious.” 
  • Sam is trying to get out of the submarine when Felix “grabbed Sam’s pants . . . [Sam] swung his free foot backward, catching Felix in his stomach, then released one hand from the ladder and swung his elbow back, smashing into Felix’s forehead.” The two wrestle with each other for six pages and Sam eventually escapes. 

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • None 

Language   

  • None 

Supernatural 

  • Some believe that the pyramids were “built on key energy points around the world. Powered by Arks, they create an energy field that holds the earth’s crust in place.” The Ark can produce a magical substance known as the philosopher’s stone, “but the Ark will only produce this magical substance if it is taken out of the pyramid.” Some men would like to remove the Arc and become immortal despite the danger to the earth.  

Spiritual Content 

  • The story revolves around Kinich Ahau, the Egyptian sun god and the god of the underworld. 
  • Sam visits Mayan pyramids where the Maya “performed ceremonies and made sacrifices to their gods.”  

Saving Montgomery Sole

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sexual Content 

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

Violence 

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

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • None 

Language   

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

Supernatural 

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

Spiritual Content 

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

Powwow Summer

Part Ojibwe and part French, eighteen-year-old River lives on a farm with her mother and stepfather. After graduating high school, she looks forward to spending her last summer before university with her friends, but she struggles with her identity after years of racist bullying. On top of this, she must deal with doubts about her relationship with her boyfriend, as well as her stepfather’s violent tantrums.  

When River’s mother reveals that she’s been seeing someone else, River supports her. But when River’s mother tells her that she wants them to leave in the dead of night and move in with her new boyfriend, River feels conflicted and angry. After a conversation with her mother turns heated, River buys a bus ticket to Calgary to stay with a friend. On the way, she is intercepted by a call from her dad, who invites her to stay with him instead. River agrees, and so begins a summer in the city with her father and grandmother, both of whom are Ojibwe. While staying with them, River learns about the lives of people in her community and grows especially close to her grandmother (or nokomis), Grace. 

Over the summer, River encounters new situations. She joins a healing circle. She goes to her first bar with her dad and, later that night, her first North Side party. She learns about the intergenerational effects of residential schools and other issues facing the Ojibwe community. Eventually, River attends a powwow. At the afterparty, River gets drunk and witnesses a knife fight between two gang members. Not thinking straight, River takes pictures of the fight, including a selfie in front of it that prominently displays her red bandana. When she posts the pictures online, they go viral and the comments are filled with threats from people who interpreted her bandana as gang affiliation. River panics, takes down the photos, and asks her family for advice.  

But the damage has already been done. While coming out of a convenience store, she is attacked by two girls who want to be initiated into a gang. Although she is terrified by this incident, River chooses not to press charges after hearing their experiences during another healing circle. Later on, she shares an especially profound moment with her grandmother while they gather birch bark. At the end of the summer, River returns home with a new sense of self and a plan to major in Indigenous Studies.  

Powwow Summer is ultimately an uplifting story that centers around River’s experience of learning about and growing close to her culture. But the novel doesn’t shy away from the struggles that can come with being indigenous. A prologue at the beginning of the book details the racist bullying that River endured in grade school. While the story doesn’t linger on this, River alludes to the bullying in a conversation with her mother, where River recalls being singled out by a racist elementary school teacher.  

Another issue that frequently pops up in the background of the story is the issue of missing and murdered indigenous women. River feels her heart sink when she observes a team of volunteers dragging the Red River in search of a missing woman. This comes up again when River attends a healing circle and hears one of the members talk about his cousin’s recent suspicious death. The family believes it may have been an overdose, but the police do not seem to care. It is even revealed that the two girls who jumped River only did so because they believe a gang will offer them protection from “perverts and Indian killers.” 

Also looming over the narrative is the memory of residential schools, where River’s grandmother and others endured years of abuse. River grows especially close to her grandmother and wonders how she is able to remain so strong despite such hardships. These three issues are far from the only issues that Powwow Summer tries to tackle. The novel includes a wide range of issues in less than 200 pages, and at times the scope may be a little too broad. Readers may find the plot complicated, but the various threads are woven together skillfully.  

Powwow Summer is told through both conventional chapters and River’s journal entries, which are usually one to two pages long. River is a likable character with believable struggles, but she also witnesses many other peoples’ struggles, and some readers may be disturbed by these intense scenes. Ultimately, Powwow Summer is a powerful story about identity headed up by a likable and well-developed main character. Powwow Summer is best suited for readers interested in historical fiction or who want to learn more about Ojibwe culture.  

Sexual Content 

  • When River tries to alert the teachers about the harsh bullying she receives from boys at school, the teachers say that boys teasing her means that they “like” her. 
  • While at the beach, River notices some younger teen boys gawking at her as she applies sunscreen to her friend’s back and observes that the towels in their laps seem “a little too strategic.” 
  • When River jokes about riding a horse in the Canada Day parade, her boyfriend tells her that it would add “sex appeal.” 
  • One of River’s friends denounces a potential love interest as not a “real lesbian.” Her friend says, “If you don’t like tacos, then go back to the hot dog cart already. I can’t be someone’s experiment.” 
  • River kisses her boyfriend several times. 
  • River brings a blanket to a day trip with her boyfriend. She intends to use it for a picnic, but adds “and then if you’re good, we’ll see what else we can do with, or under, it.” Nothing ends up happening at the day trip because River is a virgin and reluctant to have sex until she is sure that she is ready. 

Violence 

  • When River leaves some of her equipment on the front porch, her stepfather Randy reacts violently by “smash[ing]” fine china “against the brick chimney beside the dinner table.” Blood “splatter[s]” on River and “drip[s] from his hand.” 
  • A grade school teacher singled out River. When River would talk in class, the teacher began “pok[ing]” her and “slapp[ing]” her.  
  • River witnesses a gang fight between two men. One “[holds] a knife to” the other’s throat. He does not actually cut the other man. 
  • After her post goes viral, two girls approach River in a store parking lot and attack her. One girl “[swings] her fist” and punches River. When River falls to the ground, the girls “[stomp] on River’s foot and calf.” 
  • River receives several online threats including one that warns her, “You are gonna wish you killed yourself, after you find out what they are going to do to you.” 

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • In a flashback, River overhears two bullies say, “Indians are mostly drunk people on welfare.” The bullies speculate that River is “drunk at school” and that she “drinks Listerine and sniffs gasoline from a paper bag.”  
  • River’s friend relays that a party is going to have “lotsa babes and booze.” 
  • River’s stepfather drinks heavily. 
  • River’s father orders her a rum and coke from a bar.  
  • At a party, two girls do cocaine near where River is trying to sleep. They offer her some, but she declines. 
  • River gets drunk at a powwow afterparty. 

Language  

  • Bullies at school refer to River’s eyes as “dogshit brown.” 
  • In a flashback, River gets called a racial slur by her peers. 
  • The word “shit” is used frequently throughout the narrative. 
  • “Bitch,” “slut,” “damn,” and “hell” are also used at times. 

Supernatural 

  • None 

Spiritual Content 

  • At a youth night, River smudges herself with sage and wafts tobacco smoke from a bowl. The youth leader explains that the smoke carries prayers up to the Creator.  
  • River “ask[s] the Creator for a sign” or “something that would show her the path she was supposed to be on.” 

500 Words or Less

Nic Chen doesn’t want to spend her senior year known as the girl who cheated on her lovable boyfriend with his best friend and made him transfer schools. She doesn’t want to continue to be ostracized. She doesn’t want to be stared at as she walks down the hallway or have people write “whore” on her locker in lipstick. So, when an opportunity arises to write a classmate’s college admissions essay, Nic tries to use it as an opportunity to rebrand herself and change her reputation. 

As Nic is asked to write more and more essays, she begins to walk in her classmate’s shoes. But the more essays Nic writes, the more unsure of herself she becomes. Weighed down by the guilt of cheating on her ex-boyfriend and writing other people’s essays, Nic questions the person she is becoming and if she is still the perfect straight A, Ivy League-bound teenager society wants her to be. 

Written in poetic verse, 500 Words or Less is very approachable and is a great introduction to poetry and novels written in verse. Interestingly, Rosario includes the essays that Nic writes for her classmates throughout the book. Told mainly from Nic’s perspective, the reader will see Nic’s journey as she learns to move on from her failed relationship, deals with the heartache of breaking up with her first love, and rebuilds herself knowing she acted terribly wrong. Nic is a complex character. She is a determined, passionate girl, who has admittedly made mistakes. Readers will relate to Nic’s struggles with self-confidence, knowing who she is, and wondering if her actions define her. She explains, “I’m still the girl / who cheated on her boyfriend, / the girl who cheated / on those essays, / the girl who cheated / because maybe / that’s who I am.” Throughout this book, Nic learns to forgive and accept herself as well as forgive the people who have hurt her. 

Through Nic and her classmate’s experiences in their senior year of high school, 500 Words or Less takes a look at the pressures of high school and of getting into the right college. Nic explains that she and her classmates “waited for our lives to change / with a single e-mail / from a university / that wanted us.” Furthermore, Nic explores the pressure she and her classmates receive from their parents to be successful and get into the right school. When Jordan, an old friend, tells Nic he is no longer going to Princeton, he explains, “I was always supposed to go / to Princeton. / Because I was supposed to become / my father, / and my father is an asshole.” In the end, Nic and Jordan end up not going to Princeton. Rather than following their parents’ dreams for them, Nic and Jordan decide to do what’s best for themselves, showing that getting into the perfect college will not make or break someone’s life and that any path after high school is valid. 

500 Words or Less also touches on the topic of sexism. Nic points out that while people began to alienate her and write “whore” on her locker, everybody still likes Jordan, the guy she cheated with. She thinks to herself “was there even a male equivalent / to the word ‘whore?’/ There were words/ but none that carried / the same weight.” While Nic is outcasted, Jordan remains the popular kid, showing the blatant misogyny in the treatment of men and women even when they both make the same mistake. 

The book also touches on racism. When Jordan asks Nic for help on homework in Japanese, Nic says, “You know I’m part Chinese, Jordan.” Jordan responds, “It’s like the same thing- / Chinese, Japanese, Korean.” In another instance, a friend tells Nic that she’s “lucky because / half-Asians were always prettier than/ white girls like her.” Nic feels uncomfortable when her friend tells her this. However, Nic isn’t the only person who feels stereotyped. In a college application essay, an African American classmate writes, “I want to attend [this college] because I want to be more than a football player. In America, this is not what young black men are supposed to do . . . I want to be more than an athlete, more than a black man who has a great arm.” Although people would like to “forget that race exists,” Nic points out the subtle ways racism leaks into society, negatively affecting people of color.  

Furthermore, 500 Words or Less examines classism, as Nic’s school is predominantly full of upper-class students whose parents can afford to “[donate] handsomely to the school” they are applying to. Nic herself comes from a wealthy family. She admits that even though she charges $300 per essay, she doesn’t need the money. However, there are a few students who are lower class and do not have the same opportunities as the richer students. Unlike the rich students who know they can go to college no matter what, to some of these students going to college “means everything” as it is a path to upward social mobility.  

Overall, 500 Words or Less is an engaging book, written uniquely with a diverse cast of characters. However, it’s best for mature readers because of the profanity, alcoholism, and normalized teenage drinking. Readers who are applying to college and figuring out what they want to do after high school will relate to Nic’s story and learn that getting into the perfect school is not everything. Furthermore, 500 Words or Less explains that the choices you make in high school do not define you. If you’re ready to jump into another engaging book with a protagonist who is trying to figure out who she is, grab a copy of I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter by Erika L. Sánchez. 

Sexual Content 

  • At a party Nic throws, she and her boyfriend went into her father’s office to find a drink. Nic remembers she was “drunk / on love / and alcohol. / I ran my fingers along the side of his body. / He squirmed / and smirked / and grabbed my hand in his. / He pulled me closer. / Our lips met.” He begins to tug at “the zipper on my dress, / fumbled with the clasps on my bra. / I unlocked my lips and stepped away.” Nic is worried someone will find them and leads Ben up to her room. She describes, “I untangled my hand from his / and fell on top of my bed . . . / [He] fell on top of me . . .  / [and] this time I didn’t stop him.” 
  • On a date, Nic and her boyfriend stop for a bite to eat. As the two eat, Nic thinks, “I wanted to kiss him.” 
  • At Jordan’s party, Nic and Jordan “ended up / upstairs” and have sex. It is suggested that they have sex once or twice more.  

Violence 

  • Nic’s boyfriend dies in a tragic snowboarding accident. Nic explains “teenagers didn’t die in avalanches/ they died in / car crashes, / drunk-driving accidents, / drug overdoses, / gunshot wounds, / or suicide.” After the accident, Nic heavily researches avalanches to understand how he died. She finds out “the force alone / of snow / sliding down a mountain / can kill you,” or “one suffocates after being trapped / in the snow / for thirty minutes.” 

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • During a family dinner, Nic’s father drinks wine. 
  • Nic’s mother was a heavy drinker. Nic remembers how her mother “couldn’t / French braid / my hair / because she was / drunk.” Her father would often find her mom “slumped in a chair” with “an empty bottle of wine” when he came home from work.  
  • Nic remembers how “Mom poured herself another / from a bottle of chardonnay / on one of the last nights / before she disappeared.”  
  • When Nic and her friend Kitty arrive at a party, they are greeted by the host, who smells like “a pitcher of margaritas.” At this party they find “handles / of cheap vodka, rum, and whiskey / wafting toxic smells on the kitchen counter,” along with a variety of mixers.  
  • At the party, Kitty pours “everything- / and I mean everything, / including the dredges of empty bottles- / into a plastic cup” and takes “a large gulp.” Nic leaves the party without checking on Kitty, leaving her “shit-faced” and extremely “drunk.” 
  • Nic reminisces on the party she threw two years ago where she first reconnected with her boyfriend. “Strangers filled empty spaces, / squeezing by, / finding friends / and a beer.” Nic found him in the kitchen drinking “a Keystone Light/ slowly.” The pair go into Nic’s father’s study and she offers him “whiskey, bourbon, or scotch” and pours the two of them “a glass of Glenrothes 1970 / single-malt whiskey,” which Nic explains is a “five-thousand-dollar bottle / of whiskey.” 
  • In a draft of an essay Nic is writing for someone else, she writes about this person’s mother who “is an alcoholic, which leads me to my biggest fear in college—drinking. . . I go to parties all the time. . . But I don’t drink. I haven’t drank.” 
  • At a barbecue, someone asks Nic to “grab a beer for me.” 
  • Nic reminisces about how it all went wrong with her ex-boyfriend. She thinks, “it was polishing off a bottle of Jameson / with Jordan / last summer, / at his party.” As Nic leaves this party she encounters “stragglers smok[ing] / cigarettes and weed.” 
  • Nic remembers previous Christmases where here mom “drank a bottle of Riesling / and passed out under the tree.” 

Language   

  • Profanity is used often. Profanity includes whore, shit, bitch, goddamn, fuck, slut, ass, and asshole.  
  • After the school finds out that Nic cheated on her boyfriend, her peers begin to bully her, calling her names like “slut” and repeatedly writing “whore” on her locker.  

Supernatural 

  • None 

Spiritual Content 

  • None 

What My Mother Doesn’t Know

When Sophie Stein enters high school, she finds herself falling in love with a boy named Dylan. However, as she goes through some difficult self-discovery, she realizes that she and Dylan are not compatible. Instead of being attracted to Dylan’s intellect, Sophie is only attracted to him physically. Meanwhile, the ups and downs of this romance lead Sophie to chat online with Chaz. At first, Chaz gives Sophie the validation she seeks, but Chaz isn’t prince charming. Instead, Chaz makes sexual comments toward Sophie, who finds herself alone again. 

Then Sophie meets Murphy, an unpopular boy who isn’t conventionally attractive. Despite this, Sophie becomes enamored by him and they start hanging out. Sophie discovers that she has more in common with Murphy than she initially thought, and she eventually falls in love with him. In this relationship, her connection with Murphy is stronger than anything she had previously experienced. However, Sophie has a difficult time telling her two best friends about the romance, since most of the school has spent many years making fun of Murphy.  

Sophie is a relatable character dealing with the average struggles of a teenager. Throughout the novel, she attempts to discover who she is in both her romantic life and family life. She also combats peer pressure and her own insecurities. In the end, Sophie overcomes her fears of becoming unpopular and is no longer afraid to show her affection toward Murphy. One of the big themes of this novel is that attempting to be popular and well-liked should not come above what brings happiness. Another theme is to not judge a book by its cover. At first, Sophie judges Murphy, but when she looks beyond his appearance Sophie forms a beautiful relationship with him. These messages will resonate with many teens. 

The story’s conclusion is predictable because from the first time Murphy appears Sophie finds herself dealing with a strange attraction toward him. Plus, the story lacks conflict and the ending is a bit too happily ever after. Because Sophie is a teenager, she can act a little childish at times. She approaches many things, like romance, for the first time in her life. Therefore, she comes across as a bit naive when dealing with these new situations. Since Sophie focuses a lot on her blooming sexuality and the intense attraction she feels towards the men in her life, only big romance fans will enjoy What My Mother Doesn’t Know 

What My Mother Doesn’t Know is told through a series of poems and diary entries that Sophie writes, making it a quick read. While the novel is told entirely from the perspective of the main character, readers won’t find it difficult to relate to other characters in the book. Not only are Sophie’s romantic interests well-developed, but so are her best friends and parents. Overall, the story is a cute tale of teenage romance.

Sexual Content  

  • After sitting on a guy’s lap in a car, Sophie said it felt like “some R-rated movie and everyone else in the car was just going to fade away and this guy and I were going to start making out.” 
  • Sophie makes sexual references to prove that her father is not actually listening to her. When he asks how her day at school was, she says, “We played strip poker during third period and I lost.” Her dad replies, “‘That’s nice,’ without even looking up from his meatloaf.”  
  • Sophie has to listen to her friend, Grace, “moan about how horny she is.” 
  • Sophie says her “breasts have been growing so fast lately that if [she] were to sit there and watch them for a while . . . [she] could actually see them getting bigger.” 
  • Sophie discusses how her mother has never talked to her about safe sex or birth control, yet her mother is still scared Sophie will “get pregnant or something.” 
  • Sophie and her friends go to the ice cream shop wearing no clothes under their coats: “This afternoon before we put on our raincoats, we took everything else off!” 
  • Sophie talks about how she only really liked Dylan physically, saying, “If Dylan and I had met by chatting on the Net . . . instead of face to face and I hadn’t seen his lips or the way he moves his hips when he does that sexy dance and I hadn’t had a chance to look into his eyes and be dazzled by their size and all that I had seen were his letters on my screen, then . . . I think I would have liked him less.”  
  • Chaz tells Sophie that one of his favorite things to do is “jerk off in libraries.” 
  • While waiting for her mother after the school dance, a boy grabs Sophie’s breast on a dare. “The guy standing closest to me is suddenly bursting out laughing and grabbing my breasts with his slimy paws.” 
  • While having breakfast at a hotel, Sophie imagines “what it would be like to be lying naked underneath a sheet while a strange man rubbed oil all over my body.” 
  • Sophie dreams about having a man “remove every stitch of [her] clothes.” The man in her vision turns into Murphy and she dreams of “how his hands will feel cupping the lace of [her] bra.” 

Violence  

  • When a boy grabs Sophie’s breast after the school dance, she “slams [her] knuckles into his chin” and “smashes [her] foot into his friend’s knee.” 

Drugs and Alcohol  

  • Sophie briefly mentioned how her mother is “stuffing Hershey’s Kisses into her mouth, chain-smoking, watching her soaps, and weeping.”  

Language                                                                                                                                               

  • None 

Supernatural  

  • None 

 Spiritual Content  

  • Sophie flashes back to a confrontation with a group of girls where she is ridiculed for her faith. The girls ask Sophie’s friends, “Don’t you know you aren’t supposed to play with anyone who doesn’t go to church?” 

The Midwife’s Apprentice

A girl known only as Beetle has no family, no home, and no future until she meets Jane the Midwife and becomes her apprentice. As she helps short-tempered Jane deliver babies, Beetle—who renames herself Alyce—gains knowledge, confidence, and the courage to want something in life for the first time. 

At first, Alyce thinks she is unimportant and unworthy of kindness. The midwife often reminds Alyce that she is a nimwit, a lackwit, and has no brains. At first, Alyce believes the midwife’s assessment of her and silently takes the midwife’s abuse. Slowly, with the help of fate, Alyce begins to realize that she is worthy and deserves a real name. However, Alyce’s growing confidence is often overcome by fear. And when Alyce faces failure, she runs away from the midwife and leaves the village. While she is gone, she learns to value herself and to ask herself what she really wants.  

As the title implies, the story revolves around a midwife who often delivers babies. While none of the births are described in detail, there are some long descriptions of the herbs and potions that are used during birth. In addition, the story discusses some of the medieval superstitions revolving around birth. Because Alyce is the midwife’s apprentice, she accompanies the midwife and learns many skills through observation. Due to this, there is little action (after all, babies take time and patience to deliver.) 

While Alyce isn’t necessarily a relatable character, readers will still sympathize with her plight and understand her fear of failure. Originally, Alyce allows her fear and uncertainty to paralyze her, but she eventually learns that failure is part of life and she must “try and risk and fail and try again and not give up.” Even though Alyce is frightened, she is brave when a boy almost drowns and she saves him, and when a woman is struggling to birth her child, Alyce uses her knowledge to safely bring the child into the world. These events help Alyce learn that “everyone is somebody” and everyone deserves to be treated with kindness. It is Alyce’s compassion for those in need that make her a truly remarkable character.  

The Midwife’s Apprentice received the Newberry Medalist award. It has universal appeal because Alyce wants what every human wants—to be loved. Through Alyce’s experiences, readers will step back into medieval times and learn about their superstitions, customs, and the importance of midwives. The rich period language, advanced vocabulary, and slow pace make The Midwife’s Apprentice best for strong readers who are interested in the topic. Readers who stick with the story will fall in love with Alyce and her cat, and the story’s conclusion will leave readers with a warm glow and encourage them to never give up.  

Sexual Content 

  • Alyce spies on the midwife and sees her kissing the baker, “and him with a wife and thirteen children in their cottage behind the ovens.”  
  • While looking at a comb, the merchant says, “Comb those long curls till they shine, girl, and sure you’ll have a lover before nightfall.”  
  • Some of the village boys have “too much ale and too few wits.” When they see Alyce, a boy says, “Dung Beetle, give me a kiss.” Alyce runs away. 
  • The priest opens the door to a barn and sees “the smith’s lardy daughter, and the pockmarked pig boy from the manor. The boy gathered his breeches and flung himself out the barn window.” Their behavior was blamed on the Devil. 
  • While looking for a friend, a man looked at Alyce and said, “Forget this Edward, curly top. . . Climb up here on this hay bale and give me a warm, sticky kiss.” Alyce tells the man, “Save your sticky kisses for your wife or your cow.” 

Violence 

  • The boys in the village are mean to Alyce and her cat. “The taunting, pinching village boys bedeviled the cat as they did her, but he, quicker and smarter than they, always escaped. She did not, and suffered their pinching and poking and spitting in silence. . .” 
  • Two of the village boys throw rocks at Alyce, “which made the villagers laugh.” 
  • One day the village boys capture the cat. A boy put the cat in a sack with an eel. “And the sack with eel and cat was tossed into the pond.” Alyce saves the cat. 
  • A boy drags Alyce to a pregnant woman’s house to help deliver a baby. When Alyce doesn’t know what to do, the woman yells, “‘ ‘By the bones of Saint Cuthbert, they have sent me a nimwit! You lackwit! No brains!’ Screeching still, the miller’s wife let go of Beetle’s arm and began to throw at the girl whatever she could reach from her bed—a jug of warm ale, half a loaf of bread, a sausage, the brimming chamber pot.” The midwife shows up and sends Alyce away. 
  • For fun, a mean boy would sit on Alyce, “so Jack and Wat could rub chicken manure in her hair.” The miller was also mean to Alyce. He “pinched her rump when she brought grain to the mill.” 
  • When the village boys begin teasing Alyce’s cat, “she took a handful of nuts, the biggest and hardest and heaviest in her basket, and heaved them at the boys.” Then she yells, “Touch that cat again and I will unstop this bottle of rat’s blood and viper’s flesh and summon the Devil, who will change you into women, and henceforth each of you will giggle like a woman and wear dresses like a woman and give birth like a woman!” The boys leave the cat alone. 
  • A pregnant woman sends someone to get Alyce, instead of the midwife. The midwife is furious and “she began to throw cooking pots.” Alyce quickly leaves the room.  

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • The midwife uses herbs and other plants such as “columbine seeds to speed the birth, cobwebs for stanching blood. . . jasper stone as a charm against misfortune, and mistletoe and elder leaves against witches.” 
  • Throughout the story, both children and adults drink ale. The adults also drink wine. 

Language   

  • After Alyce pulls the cat out of a pond, she says, “Damn you, cat, breathe and live, you flea-bitten sod, or I’ll kill you myself.” 
  • The midwife insults Alyce and calls her derogatory names such as a “clodpole,” “brainless bratt,” “good-for-nothing,” “shallow-brained wiffler,” etc. Other villagers call Alyce names as well. 
  • While delivering a baby, the midwife tells the woman, “Push, you cow. If an animal can do it, you can do it.” 
  • Alyce saves a boy from drowning in the river. When he calls Alyce brave, she says, “I near pissed myself. I did it for else you’d have drowned and gone to Hell, a drunken loudmouth bully like you, and I would have helped send you there. . .” 
  • The saints’ names, such as “corpus bones,” are used as exclamations, but rarely. For example, a pregnant woman says, “Let me die. By the bones of Saint Mildred, let me die.”  

Supernatural 

  • The midwife requested “a murder’s wash water” to help in delivering babies.  
  • People are superstitious and think there are witches and devils in town because a two-headed cow was born and a “magpie landed on the miller’s barn and would not be chased away.” Then they see strange footprints and the villagers are “convinced the Devil had found their village and was looking for souls to lead into sin.” For a while, when people were found sinning, the villagers thought the Devil tempted them. 
  • People believed that “newborn infants are readily seized by fairies unless salt is put in their mouths and their cradles, that a baby born in the morning will never see ghosts, and that a son born after the death of his father will be able to cure fevers.” 
  • The villagers believed that twin cows were “a joy and a boon while twin babies were ill-starred and unlucky.” 

Spiritual Content 

  • When the hay had been cut and was drying, “the village [was] praying for rain to hold off until the grain was safely cut and stored away.” 
  • When the midwife injures herself, “her furious oaths made Beetle truly fear she was a witch, for only someone who had truck with the devil could know such words.” 
  • Alyce helps birth a cow. During the labor, a boy tells her, “Rub her head and belly. If we can but calm her, God will tell her and the calf what to do.” 
  • An innkeeper cheats her customers. She tells Alyce, “Thundering toads. . . I am sure God does not begrudge me my little economies.”  
  • A peasant “cursed God for making him a peasant and not a lord.”
  • While delivering a baby, Alyce “called on all those saints known to watch out over mothers—Saint Margaret and Saint Giles and Saint Felicitas, and even Saint Loy who protects horses, and Saint Antony, who does the same for the pigs, for she believed it would do no harm.” After the baby is safely born, “the man and the servants, still on their knees before her, prayed and thanked her for the cure of their mistress.” 

Iron Widow

The boys of Huaxia dream of pairing up with girls to pilot Chrysalises, giant transforming robots that can battle the mecha aliens that lurk beyond the Great Wall. It doesn’t matter that the girls often die from the mental strain.

When 18-year-old Zetian offers herself up as a concubine-pilot, it’s to assassinate the ace male pilot responsible for her sister’s death. But she gets her vengeance in a way nobody expects—she kills him through the psychic link between pilots and emerges from the cockpit unscathed. She is labeled an Iron Widow, a much-feared and much-silenced kind of female pilot who can sacrifice boys to power up Chrysalises instead.​

To tame her unnerving, yet invaluable mental strength, she is paired up with Li Shimin, the strongest and most controversial male pilot in Huaxia​. But now that Zetian has had a taste of power, she will not cower so easily. She will miss no opportunity to leverage their combined might and infamy to survive attempt after attempt on her life, until she can figure out exactly why the pilot system works in its misogynistic way—and stop more girls from being sacrificed.

Iron Widow is not only about Zetian avenging her sister’s death, but about showing girls that they can—and should—grow up to be more than just a sacrifice for the advancement of men, and to aspire to be something more than the perfect subservient. Zetian faces very complex problems, in which she is constantly forced to choose between what is safe for her as a woman and what is fair to her as a human. Zetian is a powerhouse, who is a bit hotheaded, but she is extremely justice oriented. She balances power, strength, and the desire for companionship throughout the duration of the story. Though she is extreme in her actions, she is relatable in her thoughts; she is a strong-willed, independent girl that will stop at nothing to release herself and other women in her world from the shackles of the system that holds them back. She handles things violently and with no regard for consequences, but in her world, it’s her only option. Iron Widow is written from the perspective of such an intense, passionate character that it’s impossible not to root for her from start to finish.

Xiran Jay Zhao successfully writes a strong female lead who doesn’t yield to anyone or anything. Unlike most protagonists, Zetian is not worried about fighting fair, she’s focused on fighting to win. She campaigns ruthlessly for her own freedom, though she is often faced with painful and terrifying consequences for both her and her family. Zetian is merciless to those who have shown her no mercy, whereas traditional female roles may have been forgiving. She is ruthless in her pursuit of liberation for the women of her world and does not draw moral “lines” that she will not cross, which allows her to fight the system that has held her down simply because she was born a girl. Plus, she is not worried about who is caught in the crossfire. Zetian is violent in a way that only traditional male characters have been allowed to be, which may be shocking to some readers.

Iron Widow is a violent science fiction book. It is set during a tumultuous time and features people who are very rough around the edges, so both the fight scenes and the inner dialogue of the protagonist are often brutal and unforgiving. However, because the nature of the fighting style, the scenes are not overly gory or upsetting. Most of the combat takes place using spirit power known as “Qi,” so when an enemy is killed it is often described as a kind of disappearing process which eliminates bloody and grotesque scenes. There are several depictions of murder, torture, and abuse woven in that may upset sensitive readers.

The main theme of Iron Widow is anger against the oppression of women. This creates an emotionally charged story. Zetian is angry from start to finish, and the subject of her hate changes every few chapters. Her anger is justified and makes Iron Widow refreshing to read. Iron Widow will appeal to readers who enjoy futuristic fantasy novels with epic battles and anti-heroes.

Sexual Content

  • Female soldiers are used as “concubines” for the pilots. This is alluded to a few times but not described in detail. Before being matched with a male pilot, the female concubines are given an introductory speech. They are told, “From this day onward, you will exist to please him. . . most importantly, you will not react negatively to his touch.”
  • In order to avoid joining the military, Yitzi, Zetian’s best friend, offers to marry Zetian refuses his offer saying, “Stop pretending like your family would let me be anything but a concubine. . . And that will never work. There’ll be problems when I refuse to kowtow to your disgusting pig of a father. . . when I refuse to bear your son – because I am never letting anyone’s spawn swell up my body and bind me forever, not even yours.”
  • After Zetian enlists in the military, her dad says, “You better be able to pass the maidenhood test. . .” Zetian responds by saying, “For the last time, nothing’s ever been up inside me . . . Stop being so obsessed!” The process of the test is not explained, but it is implied that passing it is a requirement for girls to be accepted into the military.
  • After the “maidenhood test,” Zetian is in a room with other girls. “No one speaks. We haven’t spoken since the maidenhood tests hours earlier by the aunties. One girl didn’t pass… . They took her away. To where, I don’t know. Hopefully not back to her home. Her family would probably drown her in a pig cage.”
  • Zetian and Yitzi are talking in the woods near her house. Zetian is about to enlist in the army and Yitzi’s trying to convince her to stay instead. Then she kisses him. “I grasp his face and close the gap between us. His plea hushes away between our lips. Warmth like I’ve never felt blooms through me. Heat seeps into my blood, and I swear I could’ve turned luminous. Yitzi’s lips are tense with surprise at first, then meld to the shape of mine. His hand lifts up, trembling, grazing my neck like he’s afraid to touch me, like he’s afraid this isn’t real.”
  • Zetian and her first pilot have just met and are in their shared bedroom for the first time. “The heat of his breath on the shell of my ear triggers something visceral in my body. My muscles tighten as if pulled by a string. My breaths shallow and quicken. My blood rushes to startling places, and I have to clench down my surprise.”
  • Zetian and her second pilot, Yang Guang, kiss. “I caress his lips, though what I really want to touch is his crown . . . He takes my hand and kisses the pads of my fingers. . . I draw Yang Guang down into the second kiss of my life. It’s less gentle, less timid. Less chaste. When the hot blade of his tongue parts my lips, I can’t help the gasp that rushes out of me. His mouth moves more aggressively than before, scattering my mind. His armored hand runs down my back. . . He kisses a trail down my neck. I reflexively arch my back. . . I bite back a whimper.”

Violence

  • Zetian plans to avenge her sister’s death. When it comes to her killer, Zetian says, “I’m going to be his beautiful, sultry concubine. And then. . . I’m going to rip his throat open in his sleep.” Yitzi replies, “There has to be a different way to kill Yang Guang. My family has connections in—” Yitzi implys that his family could hire someone to kill Yang Guang or his family.
  • Zetian theatens Yitzi. Zetian says, “If you tip off the army in even the slightest way, I will kill myself when they lock me up, and then I will haunt you.”
  • When Zetian is paired with a pilot, she thinks, “Before I do any throat slitting, I am going to have to be his plaything.”
  • Zetian kills a child in her copilot’s spirit realm. The child represents a younger version of her pilot and once she kills the child, it allows her to exit the pilot’s spirit realm that she is trapped in. “With a howl, I seize the boy’s neck and slam him down over the vines. ‘This is your mind.’ I crush his throat. ‘You’re the one who trapped yourself!’ He gags and shrieks, but I don’t let go. Even when everything screams for me to have mercy and that I can’t kill a child, I tighten my grip… As the light leaves his eyes, the realm destabilizes… I scream as I’m flayed apart as well, bones shattering, muscles snapping, skin peeling. My spirit, set free, rushes up and away.”
  • Zetian kills the male pilot who killed her sister. Zetian “slam[s] him down by his throat, just like I did his child self. I plunge my dagger into his neck, the way I dreamed so long and so often of doing. His screams gurgle, though there’s no blood. Laughing uncontrollably, I keep stabbing. And stabbing. And stabbing.”
  • Li Shimin, the second pilot Zetian is paired with, tells Zetian he murdered his brothers for raping a girl. Then his father came home. Li Shimin says. “One day, I found out some of my Big Brother’s friends were blackmailing her, so I beat them up. Soon after, I came home and heard some weird noises in the room I shared with my brothers. Went in and saw them. With her. And . . . I guess he didn’t realize I had it in me to come for his life. . . [My father] came home before I could get out. Saw what I did. Grabbed a cleaver, too, and came for me. . . I had to defend myself.”
  • When male copilots speak ill of Zetian, Li Shimin fights brutally to defend Zetian’s honor. “Li Shimin grabs his leg, yanks him off balance while completing the turn, then stomps on the highest part of his thigh. There’s an audible crack as his leg juts up to an unnatural angle. Everyone gasps in giddy shock, pierced through by his guttural scream.” The fight scene spans over two pages.
  • A female concubine threatens Zetian Then, the concubine hits Zetian hard enough to knock her to the floor and tells Zetian, “Stay away from my partner you man-killing whore.”
  • Zetian is inside Li Shimin’s mind and see his violent battle memories. “The muffled cries of a young girl, coming from behind a door I approach with equal parts fear and rage. The shrieks of my own brothers as I smash a cleaver through their bodies over and over. The yowls of fellow boys in bright orange jumpsuits as I bash their faces with scabbed fists. The frustrated shouts from my own mouth as electricity shocks through my body while I lay bricks with bloody, trembling fingers. The desperate, slow-building wail of girls in the grip of soldiers as I’m escorted toward them across a docking bridge.”
  • Zetian and Li Shimin torture an army general for information. They waterboard him using alcohol and a towel. “Shimin shoves the tilt table so that An Lushan’s head swings near the ground. I press the towel over his squirming face… Shimin upturns the bottle. Liquor pours out in a rhythmic glug glug glug over Lushan’s smothered nose and mouth. A wet, animalistic shrieking gurgles against the towel. . . Shimin grips the bottle tighter. . . Shimin fetches a fresh bottle of liquor. . . An Lushan opens his mouth to spew something else, but I silence him with the towel, like he tried so hard to silence me. Shimin unleashes a nonstop deluge of the liquor once used to break his mind. An Lushan’s last words drown in wet, choking misery.” An Lushan dies. The scene spans over seven pages.
  • After Yitzi’s father, Gao Qiu, tries to blackmail Zetian, Yitzi uses his power to harness lightning. “Radiance beams under Yitzi’s fluttering robes. A war cry scours out from the bottom of his lungs. Electric-hot Wood qi, boosted by Earth qi, bursts from his fingers, held like a gun. It streaks across the ether and into Gao Qiu. A smell of roasting flesh blows over on the wind. It’s over in less than three seconds, but shocks enough for a lifetime. The shrieking little girls scramble away from the charred, smoking shape that used to be Gao Qiu. His goons freak out as well, kicking it out of the hovercraft. It plunges into the city, splattering over a random rooftop, triggering another tide of screams.”

Language

  • Profanity is used several times. Profanity includes shit, fuck, whore, slut, ass, and asshole.
  • Zetian says, “There is no such thing as karma. . . or, if it does exist, it sure doesn’t give a shit about people like me.”
  • Zetian is mid-battle and is struggling to remember her past, her surroundings, and what is currently happening. She thinks, “What the fuck is a Chrysalis?“
  • Zetian is confused about her surroundings and lashes out at her copilot, Li Shimin, because she thinks he’s attacking her. She thinks, “I am also absolutely fucking bonkers.”
  • Quielo, another female concubine, is talking to Zetian about injustice against women. Quielo says, “The entitled assholes of the world are sustained by girls who forgive too easily. And there’s nothing I’d like to rid the world of more than entitled assholes.”
  • Li Shimin, Zetian’s copilot, talks about his feelings for a man. He says, “The last thing I needed was another reason for the world to hate me. Though, now . . . Now, I see—it’s all fucking bullshit.”

Drugs and Alcohol

  • Li Shimin drinks heavily after a battle. He is given large amounts of alcohol to keep him dependent on it so that the army can control him. At one point, Li Shimin “unscrews the flask and swigs it like it’s the first freshwater he’s found after months of drought.”
  • The main character is an alcoholic who goes through withdrawal.

Supernatural

  • The entirety of the book is based on spirit realms and use of superhuman powers and abilities. Characters harness spirit/soul power in the form of ‘qi’ to fight battles against alien creatures known as Hunduns, they are faceless and the size of a building and come in many different animalistic forms.
  • A fight is taking place with Hunduns advancing towards human civilization. “The Hunduns were coming. A whole herd of them, rumbling across the wilds, stirring up a dark storm of dust through the night. Their rotund, faceless bodies, made of spirit metal, glinted under the silver half-moon and sky full of glittering stars.”
  • A pilot by the name of Yang Guang is preparing to meet the Hunduns in battle and defend his home and people. “Through hair-thin acupuncture needles along his pilot seat that bit into his spine, Yang Guang channeled his qi, his life force, to power the Fox. Qi was the vital essence that sustained everything in the world, from the sprouting of leaves to the blazing of flames to the turning of the planet.”

Spiritual Content

  • None

by Peyton Watson

Nothing Can Possibly Go Wrong

Charlie is the laid-back captain of the basketball team. Nate is the neurotic, scheming president of the robotics club. The two have been best friends their whole lives until Nate declares war on the cheerleaders and the cheerleaders retaliate by forcing Charlie to run against Nate in the class election. What’s at stake? Student funding which, depending on who wins, will either cover a robotics competition or new cheerleading uniforms.

Bad sportsmanship? Sure. Chainsaws? Why not? Running away from home on Thanksgiving to illicitly enter a televised robot deathmatch? Let’s do this!

The drama of high school comes to life in this hilarious graphic novel that focuses on two friends. Readers will love the interplay between Nate and the cheerleaders as they go head to head trying to best each other. The ridiculous student body campaign, the high school drama, and the crazy antics of Nate and Charlie will have readers laughing out loud. At first the characters argue or fight, but Nate’s experiences will ultimately teach the importance of working together, even when people dislike each other.

While a lot of the story’s action comes from humorous situations, Charlie also deals with some difficult family dynamics. His father travels for work, leaving Charlie alone most of the time. Charlie also has a hard time dealing with the trauma of his mother leaving town to live with another man. While this conflict is not developed in detail, Charlie does learn that he cannot ignore the situation and instead must talk to his parents about his emotions.

Nothing Can Possibly Go Wrong is a quick read and a fun graphic novel. Each page’s panels have zero to seven sentences that often contain onomatopoeia and interesting banter. A lot of illustrations show characters’ facial expressions; some facial expressions are over the top, but this adds to the humor and makes it easy for readers to understand the characters’ feelings.

Nothing Can Possibly Go Wrong focuses on high school drama and uses the typical stereotypes—mean cheerleaders, nerdy robot builders, and a basketball star—to create humor and keep the action moving. To increase the tension, the teens generally behave badly. For instance, one cheerleader uses her parent’s credit card without permission so the kids can sneak off to a battle bot competition. These episodes will appeal to a wide range of teenagers, who will enjoy watching Nate deal with the pressures of high school cliques. Nothing Can Possibly Go Wrong will grab readers right from the start and keep them smiling as they experience Charlie’s crazy high school drama.

Sexual Content

  • Someone uses bleach to write on the school’s sports field. The field says, “Nolan loves goats.” Underneath, someone else writes, “Yeah, well, Nate Harding bangs them.”

Violence

  • Nate slams Charlie against the wall and yells at him. Charlie runs and Nate gives chase. Then a cheerleader trips Nate, who falls to the floor. Later, the principal asks, “Mr. Nolan, why were you trying to make Mr. Harding eat your physics book?”
  • During a basketball game, a boy from the other team purposely elbows Charlie in the head, causing him to fall. Charlie is taken to the hospital and has a concussion.
  • One of Nate’s friends gets angry and tries to choke him.
  • While at a battle bot competition, two boys start picking on Joanna, so Charlie grabs one of the boy’s arms and flings him to the ground.

 Drugs and Alcohol

  • Charlie mentions that his father is out of town, so a bunch of kids go to his house to have a party. Nate finds Charlie hiding under his bed. Charlie says he did “not invite half the school to bring over their parents’ cheap alcohol and get drunk on my front lawn.”

Language

  • Profanity is used occasionally. Profanity includes ass, crap, hell, and dammit.
  • Charlie’s friend asks him, “Now you’re older and have since grown a pair, right?”
  • Charlie calls Nate a jackass and then flips him off.
  • Nate calls two boys “a pair of dicks.”
  • Oh God is used as an exclamation a few times.

Supernatural

  • None

Spiritual Content

  • None

Page by Paige

New city. New friends. New Paige?

When Paige’s parents move her family from Virginia to New York City, Paige doesn’t know where she fits in anymore. At first, the only thing keeping her company is her notebook, where she pours her worries and observations, and experiments with her secret identity: ARTIST. With the confidence the book brings her, she starts to make friends and shake up her family’s expectations. But is she ready to become the person she draws in her notebook?

Paige tells her own story, which allows readers to understand her insecurities and struggles. Paige is an extremely likable and relatable main character who worries about many typical teenage problems such as making friends, having a boyfriend, and becoming more independent. As Paige matures, she learns to be comfortable in her own skin and she becomes more confident in sharing her artwork.

Throughout the story, Paige’s doubts and insecurities are shown in thought bubbles. When it comes to her art, she questions herself and thinks, “You’re going to fail, so why even try? What if I have nothing to say? No good at all?” Paige’s self-doubts continue when she begins to make friends. Paige thinks, “I’ve always been scared of revealing too much, saying the wrong thing, screwing up. . .” Paige is tired of always feeling “awkward, behind, sheltered,” so she begins a journey of self-growth and starts to stretch herself and be more open.

One of the best parts of Page by Paige is the black and white illustrations which are beautiful and interesting. Instead of just relying on facial expressions, Paige’s emotions come through her own artwork. For instance, when Paige is afraid of expressing herself, the illustration shows Paige’s mouth sewn shut. The imaginative artwork gives Paige’s emotions a life of their own and the pictures will help the reader understand Paige’s inner conflicts.

Readers can learn a lot about self-acceptance from Paige. At the beginning of each chapter, Paige writes a rule she wants to live by. For example, “Figure out what scares you and DO IT and let yourself FAIL. Don’t take it all so personally.” When Paige allows these rules to guide her behavior, she learns more about herself and begins to overcome her fears. As Paige matures, she realizes, “Bad experiences are like bad drawings. They stay in our sketchbooks. They stay a part of us. You can’t erase your past or who you are. You have to deal with it, I suppose.”

Page by Paige’s format will appeal to even the most reluctant readers. The story includes list and thought bubbles that use simple but expressive vocabulary. Some pages have no words, but allow the illustrations to express Paige’s complex emotions instead. While a few pages are text heavy, most pages have one to eight short sentences. Even though Paige’s struggles are typical, her illustrations elevate the graphic novel’s ability to express emotions.

Page by Paige will appeal to a wide variety of readers because it focuses on issues that most teens face. While the story gives readers a lot of good advice, the story never feels like a lecture. Instead, the graphic novel focuses on Paige’s personal growth. If you’re looking for an engaging graphic novel with interesting artwork, then Page by Paige is the perfect book for you.

Sexual Content

  • When meeting kids at her new school, someone asks Paige, “Are you Irish?” Then the kids tell Paige what their diverse heritage is. Paige says, “Me, I’m just like if all the pale countries got together and had a big orgy.”
  • A boy teasingly tells Paige, “I’ll try not to pop your cherry.”
  • The illustrations show Paige kissing her boyfriend twice. This is her first kiss.

Violence

  • None

 Drugs and Alcohol

  • None

Language

  • Crap is used four times.
  • Damn is used twice.

Supernatural

  • None

Spiritual Content

  • None

 

A Wish in the Dark

All light in Chattana is created by one man — the Governor, who appeared after the Great Fire to bring peace and order to the city. For Pong, who was born in Namwon Prison, the magical lights represent freedom, and he dreams of the day he will be able to walk among them. But when Pong escapes from prison, he realizes that the world outside is no fairer than the one behind bars. The wealthy dine and dance under bright orb light, while the poor toil away in darkness. Worst of all, Pong’s prison tattoo marks him as a fugitive who can never be truly free.

Nok, the prison warden’s perfect daughter, is bent on tracking Pong down and restoring her family’s good name. But as Nok hunts Pong through the alleys and canals of Chattana, she uncovers secrets that make her question the truths she has always held dear. Set in a Thai-inspired fantasy world, Christina Soontornvat’s twist on Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables is a dazzling, fast-paced adventure that explores the difference between law and justice — and asks whether one child can shine a light in the dark.

Beautiful imagery and compelling characters bring the world of Chattana into clear focus. While the story focuses on Pong, the supporting characters add interest and depth. Pong, who was born and raised in prison, believes that his only chance of living a happy life is to flee Chattana. With the help of Father Cham, Pong realizes that he cannot run from his problems. Father Cham explains, “You can’t run away from darkness. It’s everywhere. The only way to see through it is to shine a light.” Because of Father Cham’s wise words, Pong has the strength to stand up for justice and change his world for the better.

A Wish in the Dark shines a light on social issues such as protest, privilege, and justice. However, the book does not preach a particular doctrine. Instead, Pong’s experiences lead him to understand that one mistake or misfortune does not define a person. For example, Pong sees firsthand how people who have been in prison face discrimination. Once they are released, they find it difficult to find jobs and provide for their families. Because Father Cham lives a life dedicated to helping the poor, Pong learns compassion for those who are poor and downtrodden. Father Cham teaches that “desperate people deserve our compassion, not our judgment.”

As a Newbery Honor Book, A Wish in the Dark will leave readers thinking about many of society’s problems. While the story shows the glaring disparities between the wealthy and the poor, it does not give unrealistic solutions. Instead, readers see how “wealth can be as much a curse as a blessing and no guarantee of happiness.” The conclusion doesn’t end with a perfect happy-ever-after, but instead shows that there is hope for the people of Chattana. The story also leaves readers with this question: “Which is better: being safe or having freedom?”

Sexual Content

  • None

Violence

  • While in prison, two girls beat up Somkit because he won’t give them a mango. Later, “Somkit touched his bruised cheek and winced.”
  • When the mean girls throw Somkit’s food on the ground, Pong “stomped on her bare foot.”
  • Nok, Somkit, and Pong are held captive in a stable. When the guards catch them trying to escape, Nok, “brought the end of it [her staff] down hard on the stable floor. . . The ground shook like an earthquake. . . All four guards lay on their backs on the floor, twitching like fish in the bottom of a boat.” All three run.
  • When a group of over 1,000 peacefully march over a bridge, the Governor orders his men to arrest everyone. “In the Governor’s right palm, a huge ball of light began to swirl, as blindingly bright as the center of a star. It swelled, bigger and bigger. People in the crowd cried out. . .The Governor reared his arm back, as if getting ready to hurl the enormous mass of light forward . . . Pong knew what to do . . . Pong seized the Governor’s wrist and held on. . . As soon as he grabbed the Governor’s wrist, the raw light swirling in the Governor’s right hand went out.”
  • Angry, the Governor “growled like a beast and raised his other fist to strike Pong. As he brought it down, a streak of jet black shot out from the crowd. Nok flew to Pong’s side and crossed her forearms in front of her, blocking the Governor’s fist.” The Governor flees. The protest and the supernatural events (see below) are described over 14 pages.
  • The Governor grabs Pong. “Two hands gripped his shoulders. The last thing Pong saw was the rage in the Governor’s eyes as he yanked Pong toward him, and then hurled him over the side of the bridge.” Someone jumps in after Pong and saves him.

 Drugs and Alcohol

  • None

Language

  • A girl calls her brother a dummy.
  • Somkit tells Pong, “Don’t be a jerk.”
  • A man calls a group of kids “lazy brats.”
  • Crap is used three times. For example, Somkit calls a boat “a piece of crap.”
  • Heck is used five times.

Supernatural

  • Chattana used to have vendors who “sold all manner of magical treats: pears that made you fall in love, cakes frosted with good luck, even a rare fruit shaped like a sleeping baby that would let you live for one thousand and three years if you ate a single bite.”
  • The governor is the only one who can create light that powers the city.
  • Pong is thrown into the river and is drowning when he has a vision. Then, “The white wispy shape formed the body of a man. . . It was Father Cham. . .Pong turned to follow Father Cham’s gaze and saw a pulsing orange glow hovering on the northern horizon. He knew he was seeing another vision from the past: The Great Fire.” In the vision, Father Cham imparts wisdom to Pong. The vision is described over seven pages.
  • During the protest, Pong grabs the Governor’s wrist and “the Gold light flowed into his palm, down his left wrist and into his arm . . . A liquid Gold light flowed, trapped beneath Pong’s skin . . . The lines of light streamed out of his prison mark.”
  • Trying to help his friend, Somkit grabs Pong. “Light flowed from Pong into Somkit’s hand. The same streams of Gold light poured form Somkit’s crossed-out tattoo.”
  • Somkit, Nok, and Pong were “glowing like human lanterns on the dark bridge.” The people come forward and hold hands. “Each person felt the surge of light flow through them and burst out into the darkness.” By the next morning, everyone’s light had disappeared.

Spiritual Content

  • Father Cham, a monk, puts bracelets around Pong’s wrist. As he does, he gives blessings such as, “May you never get food poisoning from a raw chicken” and, “May wasps never sting the palms of your hands or the bottoms of your feet.”
  • Father Cham blesses a baby and says, “may you walk in peace wherever you are in the world.”
  • When Father Cham dies, a monk tells Pong, “You know that Father Cham is merely leaving this life behind and going on to the next.”
  • After Pong leaves Somkit, “not a day had passed at the temple that Pong hadn’t prayed for his friend and wished he could know what he was doing.”

Run

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sexual Content

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

Violence

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

 Drugs and Alcohol

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

Language

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

Supernatural

  • None

Spiritual Content

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

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

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

 

Everything I Know About You

Thirteen-year-old Talia “Tally” Martin, along with her class and her friends Sonnet and Caleb “Spider,” is going to Washington, D.C. for a class trip. Only there’s one catch: the teachers are assigning rooms, and Tally, Sonnet, and Spider end up rooming with their least favorite classmates. This means that Tally and popular girl Ava are roommates, and neither is happy about the situation.

As Ava and Tally are forced to spend time together, Tally notices Ava’s strange habits—working out all the time and at weird hours of the night, rarely eating, and her scribbling in a notebook. When Tally confronts Ava about her odd behavior, Ava threatens to blackmail Tally. Tally struggles to decide if being a good friend means telling a secret she promised to keep.

Everything I Know About You deals with topics such as body image, eating disorders, and what it means to be a good friend. Tally is unflinchingly honest, and her straightforward view of the world sometimes clashes with the people around her. Although Tally is a deeply loyal friend, she is also jealous when Sonnet and Spider befriend their roommates, who they once hated. Despite her flaws, Tally grows as a person, and through her experiences and interactions with her roommate, Ava, Tally gains a more nuanced understanding of the people around her and her deepening friendships.

The main event hovering around the edges of the book is Ava’s eating disorder, although Tally doesn’t articulate it as such in the beginning. However, Ava’s struggles are present throughout, and Barbara Dee does a good job presenting the issue through Tally’s eyes as well as the eyes of the other students and Ava’s mom. Although Tally doesn’t make any connections between Ava’s eating disorder and Ava’s mother’s obsession with public image and weight, Dee added these elements to give more context to Ava’s life. In addition, the supporting characters—Ava’s mom, Spider, Sonnet, and Ava herself—are interesting and complex. The strengths of Everything I Know About You are the subtle details that Tally glosses over but that the reader can still recognize, like the details about Ava’s mom, or the fact that another boy on the trip, Marco, clearly has a crush on Tally, even if Tally herself doesn’t notice it initially.

Everything I Know About You is an intelligent book that addresses eating disorders. Tally and her classmates have other struggles and strengths, which make the discussions about eating disorders and body image more nuanced. Everything I Know About You captures a multi-faceted slice of the middle school experience, and young preteens and teens will learn the importance of loving yourself, including your flaws.

 Sexual Content

  • According to Tally, “some dumb relative told [Spider’s mom] that if [Spider] kept hanging around with me, he’d ‘turn gay,’ like you could catch it from being friends with girls.”
  • Sonnet thinks that another student, Marco, likes Tally. Tally responds with, “Don’t be preposterous.”
  • Sonnet later asks Tally if Tally thinks Marco is cute. Tally responds with, “Maybe a little,” but she is still angry that Marco bullied Spider so badly the previous year. It is also clear from her constantly asking that Sonnet might also think that Marco is cute.
  • Marco seems to like Tally, though Tally has no idea. He often blushes when speaking to her, and one time she “saw Marco staring at [her] hair, as if bun-making were a complicated math problem he wanted to watch me solve.”
  • Tally starts to have a crush on Marco. Now, like Marco, her “cheeks flush” when she sees him. She admits that he’s “preposterously cute.”

Violence

  • Sonnet passes cookies to Trey and Marco, two bullies sitting in the bus seats behind Sonnet and Tally. Tally “kicked [Sonnet] in the shin” as a response.
  • The previous school year, Tally’s friend Spider “was bullied so much he had panic attacks.”
  • Spider and Tally have been friends since childhood, and other kids would often bully Spider and take his toys. Tally recounts that “I’d have to get [Spider’s things] back for him. Even if it meant punching the kid.”
  • Tally spends half of a chapter describing the harassment that Spider endured. For instance, two of the bullies often left Spider “gifts” of dead spiders, causing Spider to have panic attacks, and he’d “start gasping and wheezing.”
  • One day, Tally “punched Trey in the mouth” because she caught him and Marco bullying Spider. Tally received a two-day suspension, but she “didn’t care. The bullying had stopped, and Marco even apologized, for Trey and for himself.”
  • At the buffet, Trey says that he’s going to eat until it’s “coming out of [his] eyeballs.” Another student then slaps his arm and tells him not to be disgusting.
  • Trey suggests that they leave Spider at the hotel. Then Marco “punched [Trey’s] arm and told him to shut up.”

Drugs and Alcohol

  • None

Language

  • In lieu of swearing, Tally prefers to say, “Oh, bleep” as a stand-in phrase.
  • Tally refers to a group of popular girls in her grade as “clonegirls.”
  • Ava tells Tally that the rest of the grade cares about spirit day, to which Tally responds, “The rest of you can stuff it.”
  • Mean language is used often. Language includes suck, dumb, weird, omigod, stupid, idiot, jerk, ignorant, and freak.
  • Tally calls a rom-com that her classmates want to watch “ultra-insipid.”
  • Tally says that “this whole ‘class unity’ thing is a pile of dog poop.”
  • Tally is unusually tall for her age, recalling how she stood at “five foot eight” in sixth grade. As there is intense discussion of body image and eating disorders in this book, it is important to note that even Tally acknowledges her tall size often and that Ava makes fun of her for it. Tally notes that “Mom told me I was ‘big-boned,’ but I was muscly, too, with a squishy belly and a big butt.”
  • Ava tells Tally that she doesn’t eat sweets because there are too many carbs, and Tally laughs and calls her a “stick.”
  • Spider’s mom, Mrs. Nevins, makes comments about Tally’s body to Tally’s mom when they think Tally isn’t in the room. Mrs. Nevins says, “Some of the cute styles the girls are wearing must look so wrong on her. You know, with her body type.” This comment infuriates both Tally’s mom and Tally.
  • While at dinner, the clonegirls spend the majority of dinner talking about how “fat” they’ll get eventually and the food that they’re eating. For instance, Haley says, “Seriously, you guys, I’m just squish. My arms are balloons, my hips bulge out, and my belly is, like, disgusting. This summer I had to throw out all my favorite skinny pants.” This conversation lasts for several pages.
  • Ava tells Tally that Nadia is “pre-fat” This term is never clarified, but it seems to refer to Nadia as not being fat yet.
  • Ava has an eating disorder. This is detailed throughout the book, with her eating very little at dinner one night, working out compulsively, and Tally even describes Ava as “emaciated.” Tally doesn’t have the vocabulary initially to describe what she and her classmates are seeing, but Ava’s eating disorder is clearly lined out in the book’s details.
  • Tally says that she’s not feeling well enough to go to a baseball game, and Trey says, “What’s wrong with you, Tally? You got your period?” Marco then tells Trey to “shut up.”
  • Tally calls Trey a “microbe” because of his period joke.

Supernatural

  • None

Spiritual Content

  • None

by Alli Kestler

Ways to Make Sunshine

Ryan’s name means “king,” and she is determined to grow into the name her parents gave her. She is all about trying to see the best in people, to be a good daughter, sister, and friend. But Ryan has a lot on her mind.

For instance, Dad finally has a new job, though money is still tight. That means moving into a new house, and Dad working the night shift. Also, with the fourth-grade talent show coming up, Ryan wonders what talent she can perform on stage in front of everyone without freezing. As more changes and challenges come her way, Ryan always finds a way forward and shows that she is a girl who knows how to glow.

Ryan deals with real issues, including arguing with her brother and having stage fright. The story hits on several difficult topics such as family financial difficulties and having a best friend move away. Despite this, none of the topics are well developed. However, Ryan does tackle each obstacle and tries to see the bright side of things.

Most of the conflict comes from Ryan arguing with her brother as well as some friendship issues. While the conflicts are realistic, none of them are very exciting. The story portrays Ryan’s family in a positive manner and her parents always encourage her to do her best. Despite this, Ryan still has stage fright and is unable to say a poem during church. Ryan’s mother doesn’t reprimand her but instead encourages Ryan to try again. In the end, Ryan is able to gain confidence and overcome her stage fright.

Ways To Make Sunshine shows how Ryan uses the power of positive thinking to overcome many obstacles. Another positive lesson the book teaches, is that beauty doesn’t come from looks. Ryan’s grandmother says, “Your kindness makes you beautiful and the way you’re always willing to offer help makes you beautiful.” Another positive aspect of the story is the cute, black-and-white illustrations that appear every 4 to 11 pages.

Ryan is a relatable African-American character. However, the story is realistic fiction and does not have much action or adventure. If you like cooking disasters, sibling squabbles, and friendship drama, then Ways To Make Sunshine will entertain you. On the other hand, if you’re looking for a book with similar themes but more action, take a look at The Friendship War by Andrew Clements or Caterpillar Summer by Gillian McDunn.

Sexual Content

  • None

Violence

  • None

 Drugs and Alcohol

  • None

Language

  • None

Supernatural

  • Ryan and her brother, Ray, find a container with keepsakes inside. Ray thinks it belongs to a dead person. “Maybe the spirit of whoever lived here before is angry because we went through her things. Maybe she’ll haunt me every night till I put them back where she left them.”

Spiritual Content

  • At church, Ryan and the other children say a speech every Easter and Christmas. None of the speeches are shown in the book.
  • When Ryan is unable to say her speech, she runs off the stage and wonders “why Jesus’ love for us has to be celebrated by torturing children to memorize poems.”
  • At dinner, Ryan’s father prays. “God, we thank you for this food. Please bless it and bless the hands that prepared it.”
  • When Ryan’s father prays, Ryan wonders “if God will bless me even though I’ve made Ray’s food extra, extra, extra hot.”
  • When Ryan and Ray’s parents announce that they are having another baby girl, Ray asks why the baby isn’t a boy. Their dad says, “Because God blessed us with another girl.”

Don’t Date Rosa Santos

Everyone in Port Coral knows that the Santos family is cursed by the sea. After all, two generations of Santos women have loved men who were lost to the ocean. Which is why, even though she’s lived in a coastal Florida town for most of her life, eighteen-year-old Rosa Santos has never even stepped foot in the ocean.

Rosa has the next few years of her life all planned out. In a few months, she’ll be graduating from high school with both her diploma and a two-year degree from the local community college. Then it’s off to a four-year university where she’s been accepted in a study abroad program at the University of Havana. She’ll finally be fulfilling her lifelong dream of traveling to Cuba, the island of her ancestors. She just hasn’t quite figured out how to tell her Grandmother. It won’t be an easy feat. After all, Mimi Santos has always refused to talk about Cuba.

But when an offer to buy the Marina threatens to destroy Port Coral, Rosa must set her plan aside and help put together a fundraiser to save her beloved hometown. It might be more difficult than expected, considering she’ll be working side by side with the distressingly cute Alex Aquino. Her growing crush wouldn’t be that bad, except Alex happens to be the one thing that ought to be strictly off limits to a Santos girl like her: a boy with a boat.

Rosa struggles with some uniquely heavy issues like inherited grief and the immigrant experience of feeling like she doesn’t quite fit into her own culture. Although these issues might be difficult for some readers to fully comprehend, they are important, especially for Latinx teens looking to find themselves in a story. These tough themes are balanced out by the more “everyday” issues Rosa deals with, including the college application process and harboring a secret crush.

Although there are plenty of adorable and romantic moments, the story itself goes beyond the typical rom com. Moreno makes a beautiful exploration into the many ways that love can manifest itself; from the years of love and loss that bind the Santos women together, to the thrill of a relationship just beginning, to the overarching love that creates a community. The characters are all well developed and both Port Coral and Cuba come alive on the page.

Readers are sure to fall in love with the complex story of the Santos women, which is equal parts heart wrenching and hopeful. Don’t Date Rosa Santos is a wonderfully diverse story about family, identity, and finding your place in the world.

Sexual Content

  • Mimi tells Rosa that if she could go anywhere in the world, she would go to Hawaii because “I like The Rock. He is very handsome.”
  • Jonas kisses his fiancee hand.
  • When Rosa is being teased about boys, she thinks “There had been kisses at parties and group movie things, but nothing to write home about.”
  • Rosa’s mother says, “You haven’t had a crush in forever.” This prompts Rosa to reflect on her recent crushes: “An older guy in my calculus class at Port Coral Community who always held the door open for me, and a girl from the ice cream shop who never wore the same name tag and told me I smelled like strawberries.”
  • Rosa’s friend Mike teases her about “running away with an Argentinian sailor.”
  • Rosa asks Mike if he would date her. She says, “I was just curious if you’d ever think of me like that.”
  • Rosa describes Alex, the love interest, as “a very cute sailor tattooed with the sea.”
  • Rosa runs into Alex at the dock. He asks her to sit, and she decides to stay because “I needed a moment and this little seed of a crush really wanted me to sit with him.”
  • Alex runs a hand over his beard, and Rosa finds herself “wondering how it might feel to run my fingers across his beard and maybe press my face to his neck. I frowned, surprised at myself. Talking by moonlight softened a lot of edges.”
  • Rosa and her friend have a conversation about Alex in which her friend describes him as “super hot.”
  • While stuck on the side of the highway, Alex and Rosa kiss for the first time. “He smiled and ducked his head. He captured my lips in a kiss that already tasted bittersweet.” The kiss is described for about half a page.
  • Rosa’s friend tells the boys that they missed their chance with Rosa because she is “out here getting kissed by cute boys with man beards and baked goods.”
  • When Rosa is getting ready for her first date with Alex, she is advised to “Scoop him up and throw some sprinkles on that. Drizzle the caramel. You get me. Doodle his name in that little journal of yours. Doodle it hard.”
  • At the end of their date Alex tells Rosa, “I like you like you.” The two kiss briefly at the end of the scene.
  • When Rosa agrees to be Alex’s second for the regatta, he kisses her “quickly.”
  • When Alex and Rosa win the regatta, he “pulled me against him and dropped a hard, grateful kiss on my lips.”

Violence

  • During an argument, Rosa’s mother opens up about the death of Rosa’s father. “Tell [Rosa] that my love killed him. . . I loved him too much, so the sea took him. When this whole town cried for the lost boy at sea, you looked at your own daughter and her growing middle and said it was the cures. That it was me.”

Drugs and Alcohol

  • Rosa says that the vejitos, a group of old Cuban men living in Port Coral, act “like a person could live forever on coffee, rum, and cigars.” She later describes them as smelling like “sharp aftershave and cigars.”
  • Rosa says that Junior, one of the Peña Cousins, “used to sell weed, but now he was focused on getting his mixtape to go viral.”
  • Rosa’s mother returns home drunk after she “bought a bottle of wine and sat at the end of the dock where I drank the whole thing before slipping a note inside and chucking it into the water.”

Language

  • Oh my God, God, Dios mio, Por dios, and Jesus are all used frequently as exclamations. For example, when Mrs. Peña mentions jazz band, Ana replies “God, don’t say that so loud.”
  • Profanity is used frequently. Profanity includes: damn, hell, crap, and asshole.
  • Ana tells her brother that her drums “cost more than your shitty car.”
  • Ana tells Junior not to be “a dick.”
  • Mimi gets angry about the current state of Cuba and exclaims “Carajo qué mierda.”
  • Rosa’s mother says “Come mierda,” a phrase that literally translates to “shit eater” which Cubans often use to mean “dumbass.”

Supernatural

  • The Santos Women believe that they are cursed. The men they love are destined to die at sea. Rosa explains, “The lullaby of my life is that to know the sea is to know love, but to love us is to lose everything. We’re cursed, they still whisper, but whether it’s by an island, the sea, or our own stubborn hearts, I don’t know.”
  • Rosa’s grandmother acts as the neighborhood curandera. According to Rosa “The neighborhood curandera oversaw concerns about struggling gardens, bad dreams, career changes, and terrible luck, and she brewed hope frothier window that smelled like herbs and dryer sheets.”
  • Mimi owns a magical wind chime. “There was a wood and steel wind chime that was steady when the day was nice, a little wilder with the rain, and as agitated as a scared kid when bad luck was coming.”
  • Rosa owns a magical backpack. “Mimi had sewn it before I started high school, enchanting it with powerful words so it would always carry whatever I needed and never get lost.”
  • Rosa’s mother coming home has interesting consequences. “She and the house were like warring siblings, and it always knew when she returned, because it stopped working. Food burned, candles wouldn’t stay lit, and worst of all, my laptop always struggled to find the Wi-Fi signal.”
  • Rosa’s mother practices tarot. “Sometimes there was a knock at the door, late at night when she was home, and a sad eyed soul waiting on the other side. Mom would sit with them, cards spread across the old wood table. My mother was a storyteller fluent in spells and heartache.”
  • Mimi keeps a notebook that has “ingredients listed for different oils and potions,” as well as accounts of miracle helpings back in Cuba.
  • Rosa says that she puts acorns on windowsills “so lighting won’t strike my house.”
  • When Ana loses her drum sticks, she asks Rosa to “Give me some brujeria, Rosa. Throw down some shells, fire up some smoke! I need that tracking-lost-things spell!”
  • Mimi uses magic to create a replica of Havana in the middle of Port Coral.
  • When Mimi is describing Cuba, she says that Tia Nela warned her not to leave. “She warned me our land was bleeding and the sea would demand a sacrifice.”
  • Rosa knows something is wrong because the wind chime “was wild with panic.”
  • Rosa and her mother participate in a ritual where they see and hear Mimi and Alvaro’s spirits. The description lasts for about three pages.

Spiritual Content

  • When Rosa asks if Mimi would ever return Cuba Mimi responds, “My spirit will, mi amor.”
  • Rosa has an altar set up in her room, which includes, “a couple of pastel candles and fresh flowers sat beside a faded sepia picture of my grandfather and the single Polaroid I had of my father.”
  • When he sees Rosa, a sailor makes an old warding sign, “To keep evil away.”
  • After Rosa’s mother returns home, Mimi cleanses the house. Rosa’s mother claims it’s because of her “bad juju.”
  • Mimi and Rosa both pray to saints and ancestors throughout the story. For example, when Rosa’s mother comes home drunk, “Mimi reached for the saint medallion on her nightstand and muttered a prayer.”
  • Rosa and Ana perform a cleansing spell. “[Rosa] exhaled a shaky breath before asking for protection and guidance. Anna dimmed the lights, watching me. With the swipe of a match, I lit the wick and held the egg over the flickering candle light for a few seconds before closing my eyes and mindfully holding it to the top of my head.” The description of the full ritual is spread out over about six pages.
  • Rosa cleans off her altar and asks her deceased father and grandfather for advice. She says, “I could really use some help with college. Can you see the future? Yeah, it probably doesn’t work like that. But maybe you can get together with my other ancestors and let me know what you think? Some clarity on this would really help.”
  • Rosa listens to one of Mimi’s patients talking about a healing miracle. The patient says that it was “like listening to someone describe a version of la Virgen.”
  • When Mimi is describing Cuba, she says “If her cities fall, if we’re all gone, may God watch after her.”
  • While at the hospital, Ana and her mother pray silently.
  • When Alex offers to spend the night, Rosa says that she needs to lose herself in “inherited rituals.”

by Evalyn Harper

Beverly, Right Here

Fourteen-year-old Beverly has run away from home before. But this time, she plans on leaving for good. Beverly wants to make it on her own. She finds a job and a place to stay, but she can’t stop thinking about her drunk mother and her dog Buddy, who is buried under the orange trees back home. She also worries about her friend Raymie, who she left without saying a word.

Beverly doesn’t want to make friends. She doesn’t want to care about anyone. In a world where everyone has left her, Beverly decides to only care about herself. But soon, she realizes that there are good people around her. There are people that care about her and depend on her. As she begins to find a sense of community, she learns about herself as well.

It’s 1979 and Beverly hops in a car with her cousin, who drops her off in a random town. She has no money, no friends, and no idea where her steps will take her. Luckily, Beverly finds Iona, who takes in Beverly and treats her like a beloved niece. Iona is funny, truthful, and an overall wonderful person. However, the story never hints at the dangers of running away and trusting complete strangers.

Set in 1979, Beverly, Right Here does not show the dangers of the modern world. For example, in one scene, when an older man pinches Beverly’s butt, the waitress tells her not to complain. Another troubling aspect of the story is Beverly’s relationship with Elmer. Although Elmer’s age is never revealed, he is preparing to go to college. Even though Elmer is a sweet soul, and Beverly and him only dance and hold hands, the age difference is alarming.

Unlike its companion book, Louisiana’s Way Home, the characters and themes in Beverly, Right Here are not as developed, which leaves too many unanswered questions. Even though Beverly’s mother is a drunk, it is unclear why Beverly felt the need to run away. In addition, Beverly talks about the death of her dog; however, the reader doesn’t know how the dog died and why the dog’s death had such a negative impact on Beverly. Lastly, at the end of the book, Iona’s son shows up, questions her decision-making skills, threatens to take away Iona’s car, and tells Beverly she is “nobody” and must leave.

Beverly, Right Here is realistic fiction that highlights the importance of making connections. The short chapters and easy vocabulary help propel the action forward. Although there are several interesting characters, including Iona and Elmer, Beverly’s actions are at times confusing. The abrupt conclusion leaves the reader wondering what will happen to Iona and Beverly. Beverly, Right Here is a companion book to Raymie Nightingale and Louisiana’s Way Home. However, each book can be read as a stand-alone.

Sexual Content

  • While working at a restaurant, “a fat old man with a cigar in his mouth pinched [Beverly] on the butt.”

Violence

  • Beverly’s friend, Elmer, tells her about a school bully who “beats the crap out of you, for being a poetry-loving sissy.”
  • When Elmer was in high school, he was bullied. A boy duct-taped Elmer to a chair and locked him in a janitor’s closet. When the janitor found him and let him loose, “he cried. And I cried.”
  • A man comes into a restaurant and threatens the owner with a whiffle bat. As the man leaves, he yells, “If you call the cops, I’ll come back here to this stupid fish place and break everybody’s bones. I promise you I will.” After the owner gives the man money, one of the employees chases the thief down and tackles him.

Drugs and Alcohol

  • Beverly mentions that her mother was “drunk all the time.”
  • When Beverly calls her mother, she thinks that her mother “didn’t sound too drunk.”
  • Beverly thinks about her mother “sitting on the back porch, drinking beer and cigarettes. . .”
  • Beverly tells a friend that her mother is “drunk most of the time.”

Language

  • Beverly’s cousin yells at her, “Dang it! You always did think that you were better than everybody else on God’s green earth.”
  • When a woman sees Beverly’s wet, sandy clothes, the woman says, “Lord, child. What have you been doing?”
  • When Beverly was younger, she would eat glue because “it was just a way to piss the teachers off.”
  • A woman calls Beverly “con artist trash.”
  • Crap is used six times. For example, Beverly wonders, “why was there so much crap in the world?”

Supernatural

  • None

Spiritual Content

  • None

Spin the Dawn

Maia loves to sew. She dreams not only of becoming a master tailor but becoming the imperial tailor. However, it’s a far-fetched dream as only boys are allowed to become tailors in A’landi. As her father’s only daughter and youngest child, Maia is expected to be quiet, obedient, and eventually raise a family. After her older brothers die in war and her father becomes too sick to sew, the burden of caring for her family becomes even greater, and her dream of becoming a tailor fades.

Maia cannot think of anything more abhorrent than abandoning her sewing, but she sees no alternative until her father is called upon by the emperor. The emperor is getting married and needs a new imperial tailor to create his betrothed’s wedding gowns. There is to be a competition of the best tailors in the land, and her father is invited to join. Maia’s father is too sick to travel to the capital, so Maia disguises herself as her father’s son and goes in her father’s place. Soon she finds herself competing with tailors who are decades more experienced than herself, who are willing to cheat, and who would possibly even be willing to commit murder in order to become the next imperial tailor.

Spin the Dawn has a lovable, interesting cast of characters that will hook readers. The land of A’landi is foreign, beautiful, and magical. The rich characters, court intrigues, and mysterious Lord Enchanter keep the tailoring competition from becoming cliché. Readers will be delighted when magic becomes a part of Maia’s life and will understand her moral struggle in deciding whether or not to use it.

While Part I of Spin the Dawn is a delightful read focused on the tailoring competition, Part II takes an entirely different track with Maia going on a journey to create three magical dresses for the emperor’s betrothed. The lore behind the dresses is fascinating, but the journey feels rushed and some conflicts are resolved too easily to be believable. Still, the Lord Enchanter accompanies Maia on her quest and their relationship is enchanting to watch. While Part II is weaker than Part I, the delicious dynamic between Maia and the Lord Enchanter will be enough to keep readers reading until the end.

Sexual Content

  • When speaking of the emperor, Maia’s brother says, “So you’ve heard how handsome he is from the village girls? Every one of them aspires to become one of the emperor’s concubines.” Maia says, “I have no interest in becoming a concubine.”
  • A village boy wants to marry Maia. “I thought with dread of Calu touching me, of bearing his children, of my embroidery frames collecting dust . . . I stifled a shudder.”
  • There are rumors that the emperor’s betrothed has a “lover. But it’s all court gossip. No one knows for certain.”
  • While pretending to be a boy, Maia had “been wearing at least three layers to help obscure my chest.”
  • When Norbu finds out that Maia is a girl disguised as a boy, he “touched my cheek and pressed his thigh against my leg. ‘I always thought you were a pretty boy. Perhaps a little kiss?’ “
  • Maia and the Lord Enchanter almost kiss. “He pressed a gentle kiss on the side of my lips, just missing my mouth. His lips were soft, despite the desert’s unrelenting dryness. A shiver flew up and down my spine, even though his breath was warm, and his arm around me even warmer.”
  • Maia and the Lord Enchanter kiss several times. “His lips pressed against mine. Gently at first, then with increasing urgency as I started to respond with my own need. His hand was tight on my waist, holding my wobbly knees steady.” Another time, “he tilted my chin and kissed me. Heat flooded me from my lips to my toes, and my heart hammered, its beat rushing and skipping to my head.”
  • Maia and the Lord Enchanter sleep together. “He kissed me, exploring my mouth with his tongue, then tantalizing my ears and my neck until I was dizzy and feverish. Finally, when my knees weakened and I couldn’t bear to stand any longer, Edan eased me onto his cloak against the soft, damp earth. Our legs entwined; then we became flesh upon flesh. All of me burned, my blood singing wildly in my ears.”
  • When Maia is captured by bandits, one of them says, “Do you know how long it’s been since I’ve felt a woman?” Maia is then rescued.
  • Maia and the Lord Enchanter kiss goodbye. “I crushed my mouth against his, wrapping my arms around his neck and my legs around his hips. His kisses moved to my cheeks, my neck, my breasts, back to my lips. Passionate, then tender. Then passionate again, as if we couldn’t make up our minds.”

Violence

  • A man breaks Maia’s hand. “Norbu stepped on my wrist, pinning my hand to the ground . . . He was carrying one of the heavy metal pans we used for smoothing our fabrics. I tried to yank my wrist away, but he was too strong. Too quick. He raised the pan high, then brought it crashing down onto my hand. Pain shot up from the tips of my fingers and flooded my brain. I screamed.”
  • When it’s discovered that Maia is a girl, she is thrown into a dungeon. The guards “struck me in the ribs and kicked me to my knees so that I landed in a rotten pile of hay, coughing and whimpering.”
  • Maia is whipped for lying to the emperor. “The guards tore my tunic and ripped off my chest strips—so fast I’d barely crossed my arms to cover myself when the whip burned into my skin, a stinging line of fire. Blood splattered onto the cold stone floor. . . Each lash bit into me, gashing my back, and I chewed on my lip so hard my mouth grew hot with blood.”
  • Maia is chased by wolves, which then turn on each other. “Soon I was forgotten as the wolves fought one another. The sight was gruesome, blood on fur on sand. I buried my face in my hands until the snarls became whimpers, then nothing.”
  • Maia stumbles upon an old battlefield. “Broken drums, slashed war banners, mounds of bones—human bones. And bodies . . . Some of the men had frozen to death. I could tell from their ashen faces, tightly drawn blue lips, and curved-in shoulders.”
  • Maia and the Lord Enchanters are attacked several times by bandits. Once, the Lord Enchanter “fired three arrows in quick succession. Vachir eluded each shot, but the men behind him weren’t as lucky. Two fell.”
  • Maia fights a demon. “I lunged forward and slammed my dagger into his shoulder. He cried out, an anguished scream that made my blood curdle.”
  • Maia is attacked by bandits. “I slashed at the one who’d spoken, but I missed his throat and scored his cheek instead. I made a long, jagged gash.”

Drugs and Alcohol

  • A fellow tailor “reached into his robes for a flask. He offered it to me, and after I declined, he took a long drink.”
  • Maia turns in early one night. In the morning, she discovered “It was a good thing I’d refused to go out with Norbu and the others. After their bath, they’d gone to the local drinking house, where Master Taraha and Master Garad drank themselves into a stupor. Now they were spending the day retching. Even from my table, I could smell it.”
  • While traveling, Maia and the Lord Enchanter stay the night with a group of travelers. The travelers pass around a wine gourd after dinner, and Maia accidentally gets drunk. “I was so mortified I simply took another drink. And another. The more I drank, the less it burned my throat . . . Normally I wouldn’t have stared at him so obviously, but the wine had washed away my caution.”

Language

  • Variations of the phrase “demon’s breath” are used a few times as profane exclamations.
  • A man says a country’s wine “tastes like horse piss.”
  • Damn is used a few times. The Lord Enchanter says, “I want to get out of this damned place.”

Supernatural

  • Maia “repaired amulets for travelers who asked it of me, though I didn’t believe in magic. Not then.”
  • A man says to Maia, “The A’landans are superstitious people. Constantly praying to their dead ancestors. If you believe in spirits and ghosts, I don’t see why you wouldn’t believe in magic.”
  • Maia meets the emperor’s Lord Enchanter. Maia “knew little of enchanters, lord or not, other than that they were rare and drifted from land to land.” Longhai tells Maia, “The Lord Enchanter advises Emperor Khanujin on many matters. He served the emperor’s father for years, yet he hasn’t aged a day!” Maia later finds out that the Lord Enchanter can transform into a hawk, which is his spirit form. “Feathers sprouted over his skin and spine. A pair of wings erupted from his shoulders and fanned down across his arms.”
  • Maia discovers that the scissors passed down from her grandmother are magical. “The scissors glided over the shawl, possessed in a way that my hands could only follow. Invisible threads repaired the cloth’s damage, giving it life anew, and colors from my paint pots soaked into the silk . . . Impossible as it appeared, the scissors not only cut but embroidered . . . My hand wouldn’t let go of the scissors, no matter how much I tried to pry them away, no matter how much I wanted to put them down. I was under a spell, drunk with their power.”
  • In Part II of Spin the Dawn, Maia is forced to go on a journey with the Lord Enchanter. On this journey, magic becomes a part of daily life. From enchanted carpets that fly, using magic to heal, and a magical tablecloth that creates an entire meal from nothing, Maia’s journey is filled with magic.
  • Maia is given an impossible task by the emperor’s betrothed. She is told to make a dress out of the laughter of the sun, the tears of the moon, and the blood of the stars. These three dresses are called Amana’s dresses, and it is said that whoever possesses them will receive a wish from the goddess Amana herself.
  • Maia goes to an island filled with ghosts. While there she meets a demon—a creature who used to be a sorcerer but was cursed when he killed his master. The demon steals a piece of Maia’s soul, which means he can follow her anywhere.
  • When Maia finishes the dresses, the goddess Amana speaks to her. Amana’s statue in the temple glows and a “low and powerful, yet kind” voice says, “Ask me your heart’s greatest desire, Maia. And I shall grant it.”

Spiritual Content

  • It is mentioned in passing that “Toward the end of every month, [Maia] helped the women who were preparing their gifts for the dead—usually paper clothing, which was tricky to sew—to burn before the prayer shrines in honor of their ancestors.”
  • Maia lives in a land with many gods. The gods are often mentioned in passing. A tailor says, “The gods are listening to us, masters. Do you want to invoke their wrath?” The emperor’s betrothed says, “The imperial tailor is a master chosen by the gods. I expect him to be able to work with any material, whether it be glass or silk.” Another time, a man says, “The gods watch over me, I am very grateful.”
  • Two gods are more developed and become part of the plot. The first is the goddess Amana, whose magical dresses Maia is tasked with sewing. People often say, “Amana be with you.” The other is the sun god, who Maia indirectly encounters during her search for the laughter of the sun. While in the desert, the Lord Enchanter says, “The sun is worshipped in many lands. He’s a brilliant, brutal deity. And now we are in the heart of his kingdom.”
  • The Lord Enchanter says, “Pigs are smarter than people give them credit for! Where I grew up, we almost worshipped them.” Maia “couldn’t tell if he was joking.”
  • Maia confesses that she doesn’t “even trust the gods. Not to listen, anyway. My father prays to Amana every morning, every night. . . But Finlei and Sendo died.”
  • The Lord Enchanter grew up in a monastery. “The monks I grew up with were different from the ones here. Not generous and kind. And the gods we worshiped were harsh and unforgiving.”
  • Maia asks a monk, “What if there are no gods? What if there is only magic, only enchanters and demons and ghosts?” The monk replies, “You must keep your faith . . . The gods watch over us, but unlike the spirits of this realm, they do not interfere in our lives. Not unless we anger them greatly, or impress them.”

by Morgan Lynn

 

Guts

Raina wakes up with a terrible stomachache. Because her mom is also sick, no one is really worried. But Raina’s stomach continues to hurt, even after she’s returned to school. Raina worries about throwing up at school. She’s worried about her classmates giving her an illness. She worries about eating something that will make her sick. She’s worried about her best friend moving. Raina’s tummy trouble isn’t going away. All this worrying is making Raina sick. What will it take for Raina to conquer her fears?

Raina doesn’t just have tummy trouble; she is also being bullied by Michelle. Every time Michelle says something mean to Raina, she explodes and ends up in trouble. Raina only talks to her best friend about Michelle’s mean words. Everything gets worse when Raina’s best friend begins talking and giggling with Michelle. Many readers will relate to Raina’s fears and anxiety. In the end, Raina and Michelle learn that they actually have a lot in common, and they might just be able to become friends.

As Raina’s stomach problems become worse, her parents take her to the doctor and eventually to a therapist. Even though Raina is “perfectly healthy,” she learns that her constant worrying is making her sick. With the therapist’s help, Raina learns breathing exercises to calm herself down. When she tells her friends that she is in therapy, Raina thought her friends would freak out, but instead, they think it’s “no big deal.”

Guts deals with the difficult topic of panic attacks, anxiety, and puberty. Using both illustrations and text, Telgemeir tackles the problem with compassion and humor. Each page contains eight or fewer sentences. The easy vocabulary, simple sentences, and bright pictures make Guts accessible to all readers. The brightly colored pictures do an amazing job at showing the facial expressions of the characters, which brings the character’s emotions to the forefront. The engaging story explores feelings and lets readers know that sometimes people need help to conquer their fears.

Readers who enjoyed Guts should pick up Telgemeier’s graphic novel Ghost which shows a healthy sibling relationship and has a positive message. Roller Girl by Victoria Jamieson is also an excellent graphic novel that contains a positive message.

Sexual Content

  • None

Violence

  • None

Drugs and Alcohol

  • During a sleepover, the girls share their secrets. One girl says, “my dad gets drunk sometimes. He’s never dangerous, but a couple of times he’s yelled at me and my brother. It’s scary.”

Language

  • A girl at school calls Raina a “poopy diaper baby.”

Supernatural

  • None

Spiritual Content

  • None

Focused

Clea can’t control her thoughts. Some days, her thoughts repeat in an endless loop. Other days, her mind jumps from topic to topic. Either way, she can’t focus on her homework. Even when she tries to focus really, really hard, she still gets distracted. Someone is always chewing their gum too loudly or making annoying noises.

But that’s not her only problem. Everything that Clea thinks pops out of her mouth. She can’t seem to keep the words from jumping out. Clea’s issues are starting to cause problems in other areas of her life—when she’s playing chess, or when she’s hanging out with her best friend. What’s worse is that other kids are starting to notice.

When Clea keeps doing poorly in school, her parents want to have her tested for ADHD. Clea is convinced that she doesn’t have ADHD. If she tried a little harder, everything would be fine. Then, when Clea has an epic fight with her best friend, she knows that something has to change. But how do you change something that is in your head?

Anyone who has struggled in school will be able to relate to Clea. Even when Clea tries her best, she still can’t focus. She constantly berates herself, thinking that she’s just too dumb to do well. Told from Clea’s point of view, Focused allows Clea’s frustration to take center stage. With the assistance of a cast of helpful adults—psychologists, teachers, parents, counselors—Clea gains new time management skills and learns how to speak up for herself.

Even though the story focuses on Clea’s difficulties, the reader will be drawn into the conflict between Clea and other characters in the story. Clea’s best friend is dealing with family problems while one of the chess players constantly puts Clea down. The story also adds a little romance, a little chess, and a host of imperfect characters. Clea’s sister Henley is one of the best parts of the story. The sweet little sister who struggles with talking is always cheering for Clea. Clea realizes that having a person love you unconditionally is amazing. She thinks, “It feels like magic that there’s a person in the world who thinks I’m definitely going to win, no matter what, just because I’m me.”

This easy-to-read story explains how ADHD works and teaches management skills as well. Best of all, it shows that having a learning disability is nothing to be ashamed about. Anyone who reads Focused will come away with a better understanding of ADHD plus empathy for those who struggle with their emotions. The story also highlights the importance of perseverance and forgiveness. Anyone who has ever struggled with feeling inferior or has struggled with school work should read Focused. The story will encourage young readers to ask for help when needed as well as never to give up.

Sexual Content

  • Red’s father moved to Colorado and has a new girlfriend. Red finds out that his dad married his girlfriend and that she is going to have a baby.
  • While talking to Dylan, Clea slips her hand into his, and “he wraps his fingers around mine and squeezes, like he doesn’t want to let go. My stomach flips.”
  • After Dylan asks Clea to be his girlfriend, they kiss. Clea smiles at him, and then “before I know it, his lips are on mine and we’re kissing. It’s soft and sweet and mint chocolate flavored, and I’m not sure what I’m supposed to do with my hands, so I leave them exactly where they are, because I never want the kissing to stop. I want to stay like this forever.”
  • Clea and her friend talk about kissing a boy. It was both of the girl’s first kiss. When Clea’s friend worries that she was bad at kissing, Clea googles “Am I bad at kissing?” Clea then asks her friend, “Okay—did you bump teeth? Or move your head all over the place? Or slobber?” When Clea’s friend says no, the girls laugh and decide they are good at kissing. The conversation takes place over a page.

Violence

  • None

Drugs and Alcohol

  • None

Language

  • Clea thinks she is “an idiot.”
  • Jerk is used four times. Once Clea thinks a boy is a “jerk.” Later she tells the boy that he was acting like “a jerk.”
  • OMG is used six times.

Supernatural

  • None

Spiritual Content

  • None

 

 

The Friendship War

Grace and Ellie have been best friends since second grade. Grace doesn’t mind that Ellie always gets her way and is always the center of attention. When it comes to Ellie, Grace is used to tagging along and doing what Ellie wants.

Everything changes when Grace shares part of her button collection at school, and accidentally starts a new fad. Soon students in her grade, and then the entire school is trading and fighting over buttons. Grace has always been okay with fading into the background, but when button fever hits her, she just has to have the button with a blue pinwheel. Soon Grace and Ellie argue over a button, and it looks like their friendship might just be over. Button collecting may have cost Grace one friend, but it also leads her to a new one—Hank, the biggest button collector in the sixth grade. Is there any way the two new friends can figure out how to stop the button craze?

Readers will relate to Grace, who connects to the world through math. Grace is always counting, collecting, and overthinking. Her unique flaws and the way she connects with others will give readers a unique perspective as well as show how people with different personalities and interests can still be friends. Throughout the book, readers will learn new words because Grace explains several scientific words and ideas. The vocabulary is so ingrained into the plot that learning new concepts never feels like a school lesson. Learning about science, math, and the history of buttons has never been so much fun!

Another positive aspect of the story is Grace’s strong relationship with her family, who understands her crazy collections. Her family relationships extend to her grandfather, who writes letters and texts to Grace. Scattered throughout the story are conversations about Grace’s recently deceased Gramma, which gives insight into the grieving process.

The Friendship War, which is written by the same author of Frindle, is a fast-paced story that highlights the complicated nature of friendship. Through Grace’s experiences, the reader will learn not only the value of friendship but also how friendship should not be one-sided. At one point, the school principal tells Grace, “It’s a great thing to have one good friend, but to have two looking out for you? That’s nothing short of wonderful.” The story also highlights the importance of forgiveness and taking responsibility for your actions. The Friendship War is a highly entertaining story that not only shows the family in a positive light but is also packed with life lessons that are so ingrained in the story that the message is never preachy.

Sexual Content

  • None

Violence

  • None

Drugs and Alcohol

  • None

Language

  • Grace thinks that her brother is “acting like a jerk today.”

Supernatural

  • None

Spiritual Content

  • Grace and her mom have a two-page conversation about what happens after someone dies. Grace’s mom says, “If you’re asking me if your grandmother is still herself, still somewhere, then I would say yes, I believe she is. But do I know that, the same way I know that the sun comes up every morning? Then, no, I don’t know it like that. . . I believe that Gramma is still herself, still thinking, still loving you and Ben and your dad and me and Grampa. . . And I guess I won’t completely know any of this for sure until that moment when I die, or rather, when I don’t die—when I figure out that I haven’t stopped thinking or stopped being myself. Where I will be at that moment, or what any of that will be like—I have no idea.”

 

 

Sweeping Up the Heart

For spring break, Amelia wants to go on a vacation to Florida. But Amelia’s father doesn’t like to travel. He’d rather spent his time peacefully at home. Amelia wants adventure. Amelia already feels like a freak at school, and she isn’t thrilled about being the only seventh grader sitting at home, doing nothing over spring break.

Amelia plans to spend as much time as possible at Louise’s art studio. When she works with clay, she forgets all about her quiet, lonely house. When Amelia goes to the art studio, she meets Casey. Amelia is looking forward to the break now that she has a new friend to spend time with. While sitting in a cafe, Casey begins a game where he and Amelia make up names and stories for those who are passing by. Casey sees a woman, who looks similar to Amelia, and thinks the woman could be Amelia’s dead mother. Amelia begins to imagine that the woman is her mother and all of the ways that would impact her life.

Sweeping Up the Heart is a simple, beautiful story that deals with the complicated nature of family life. Amelia is insecure and often lonely. Although she has outgrown sleeping with her stuffed lamb, Dr. Cotton, she still tells him her secrets. Amelia, like many younger kids, wants a more exciting life. She doesn’t understand why she doesn’t have more friends. When she meets Casey, she is eager to have a friend to talk to. Like herself, Casey’s family life is not perfect. Casey has been on a campaign to keep his parent’s marriage from falling apart.

Although Amelia and Casey are relatable characters, who deal with grief, some readers may not like the slow pace of Sweeping Up the Heart. Much of the story focuses on the characters’ interactions, as well as Amelia’s struggle with her often silent father. The story is creative, interesting, and heartfelt, but lacks action. Amelia struggles with missing a mother she doesn’t remember, as well as wishing for more adventure in her life. Amelia relies heavily on Mrs. O’Brien, who takes care of the house and meals. Amelia’s loneliness is described in lovely language that allows the reader to understand Amelia’s longing for something more. However, the conclusion comes too soon and there are so many unanswered questions that will leave the readers with mixed emotions. Although Sweeping Up the Heart is an easy-to-read story, younger audiences may have a difficult time finishing the quiet story that focuses on Amelia who is dealing with the changes that come with adolescence. The story will resonate with anyone who feels like an outcast, has family problems, or just longs for more adventure in life.

 Sexual Content

  • None

Violence

  • None

Drugs and Alcohol

  • None

Language

  • None

Supernatural

  • None

Spiritual Content

  • Amelia has a stuffed animal that she talks to. She thinks, “she talked to him the way she supposed some people talked to God.”
  • Amelia’s mother wanted to name her Epiphany because “I was born on January sixth, the Feat of Epiphany. . . It’s the day the Three Kings supposedly visited Baby Jesus with their gifts. But we’re not very religious and my father thought it was an odd, trendy name.”

When Zachary Beaver Came to Town

Nothing ever happens in Toby’s small Texas town. When Zachary Beaver comes to town, almost everyone is willing to give up their money to see the “fattest boy in the world” who weighs over 600 pounds. Toby and his best friend Cal try to befriend the boy, who says he’s been everywhere including Paris. Toby realizes that most people only see Zachary’s large size, not the sad boy underneath.

Zachary isn’t the only thing on Toby’s mind. Everyone seems to be leaving. His mother leaves home to chase her dream of being a country singer. His best friend Cal’s older brother is fighting in the Vietnam war. Toby doesn’t want anyone to know that his mom isn’t coming back, so he makes up a crazy tale. It is then that Toby realizes that he and Zachary might not be so different after all.

Set during the Vietnam era, When Zachary Beaver Came to Town gives the reader a glimpse into life in a small Texas town, where everyone knows everyone. Although Zachary Beaver is the main focus of the story, there are other subplots that weave their way into the story. Toby is dealing with teen love, his mother leaving, as well as his best friend fighting in a war and eventually being killed.

Even though all of the events are told in a kid-friendly manner, many younger readers will find the character-driven story less than exciting. The beginning of the story introduces many, many characters who are difficult to remember. Toby, who tells his story, is interesting and brings humor to the story. Even though the story is told by a 12-year-old narrator, the story deals with some heavy topics including feelings of abandonment, death, dementia, and forgiveness.

Readers will eventually fall in love with Toby and the community; however, readers who are looking for an action-packed adventure will be disappointed in When Zachary Beaver Came to Town. The story highlights the importance of not judging others and forgiveness. The ending of the story will leave readers in tears as it highlights the importance of striving to make your dreams come true. There is a reason When Zachary Beaver Came to Town is taught in schools—it gives readers a picture of the time period as well as teaches important life lessons.

Sexual Content

  • Toby makes a joke about Miss Myrtie Mae who wears a “wide-brim straw hat.” Toby says it’s to “protect her virgin skin.” Cal laughs, “That ain’t the only thing virgin about her.”
  • Toby talks to a girl he has a crush on. He thinks, “I want to reach for her, pull her toward me, and tell her it will be all right. I want to smooth her hair, massage her neck, kiss her toes. Instead, I wrap my arms around my knees.” They dance and then she “kisses me on the cheek.”
  • After Toby accidentally sprays himself with a girl’s perfume, someone tells him, “You smell like a French prostitute.”

Violence

  • Some kids start hitting Zachary’s trailing and yelling insults, so Cal and Toby throw rocks at them.  Toby’s “rock sails through the air and hits a perfect target. Mason’s hands fly to his porky bottom. ‘Ow!’ When Cal hits Simon Davis’s leg, Simon takes off crying, his hand pressed against his thigh.” Toby and Cal accidentally break a window.
  • Cal rides his bike to the lake, hoping to outrun Toby. When Toby appears, Cal kicked water in his face. When Toby doesn’t leave, Cal “slugs me on the arm. I still don’t move and he punches me again. My arm throbs in pain.” The two friends make peace.

Drugs and Alcohol

  • One of the adult characters, Ferris, got a tattoo when he was drunk. “He said he got them the night he met Jim Beam. Cal thought he was talking about a real person until I explained that Jim Beam was whiskey and Ferris was drunk as a skunk when he got the tattoos. That was before Ferris met Jesus and got religion.”
  • While the townspeople are at a funeral, Ferris stays in his restaurant and gets drunk. He tells Toby, “Don’t ever start drinking, Toby. Next to money, it’s the root of all evil.”
  • Cal gets a letter from his brother who is fighting in the Vietnam war. His brother writes, “it doesn’t seem like anyone wants us here. Not even the people we’re protecting. They just want to sell us cigarettes, booze, and anything else we’re willing to put down our money for.”

Language

  • None

Supernatural

  • None

Spiritual Content

  • Before Ferris was hurt, he “wanted to be a preacher. He even went a semester to a Bible college in Oklahoma. Now he never goes to church, but Mom says he knows the Bible from Genesis to Revelation.”
  • Ferris owns a restraint and his “chalkboard hangs near the kitchen window behind the counter. . . Beneath the menu is the daily Bible verse. ‘It is an honor for a man to cease from strife: but every fool will be meddling.’ Proverbs 20:3. Mom says some people wear their religion on their sleeves. Ferris posts his on the chalkboard.”
  • Toby includes Wayne, a boy who is fighting in the Vietnam War, in his nightly prayers.
  • Toby asks about baptism. Miss Myrtie Mae tells him, “The good Lord knows what state our mind is in when we make such a commitment. But it’s a wonderful commitment, Tobias. The Christian life is not an easy life, but it brings such joy. And of course, there is the gift of eternal life.” She then tells him the steps involved and hands him a paper with John 3:16 written on it.
  • Toby prepares to baptize Zachary, in case Ferris doesn’t show up to perform the ceremony. Toby reads the Bible looking for a verse. “But as I read the story, I forget about searching for verses. I read that Jesus goes to John the Baptist and asks to be baptized, but John doesn’t think he’s worthy enough to baptize Jesus. Then Jesus says, ‘Suffer it to be so now: for thus it becometh us to fulfill all righteousness.’ So, John baptizes him.” Toby calls Ferris and tells him to read the verse.
  • Zachary is baptized. As part of the ceremony, he must agree to “take the Lord Jesus Christ as your savior.”

Fangirl

Cath is the world’s biggest Simon Snow fan. Simon Snow is her everything—his magical world consumes Cath until her entire world revolves around it. Ever since she was little, she and her twin sister Wren poured over the series, continually reading and re-reading, and eventually writing. In Cath’s case, writing an extremely popular fanfiction that has hundreds of thousands of followers. Cath loves being immersed in this fictional world with her sister, but she must soon face reality.

Cath’s freshman year of college is quickly approaching, and in addition to having to pull herself out of her Simon Snow hole, she has to deal with an entirely new obstacle— her sister. As they have been best friends for the entirety of their lives, Cath is shocked when Wren suddenly decides that she does not want to be roommates for their freshman year. This causes Cath’s social anxiety to spiral as she attempts to survive in a new collegiate world without her sister.

Cath is grappling with her pressure-filled, Simon Snow fanfiction and the rough transition to college. Additionally, her emotionally fragile, single father is alone for the first time in eighteen years, and she can’t help but worry about what might happen to him in her absence. She also must confront new feelings towards a male classmate who only seems to want to talk about writing, and a wild roommate with a fascinating best friend.  Can Cath hold it all together while the world around her feels like it is all falling apart?

Fangirl is a delightful coming-of-age novel that accurately encapsulates the strong emotional response to the transition to university. Cath’s struggles with her mental health and social anxiety are relatable to modern-day teens, particularly those leaving home for the first time. Her relationship with her sister represents the drifting apart from friends and siblings that can occur as a person grows up.

Despite this novel’s enthralling story and heartfelt characters, Fangirl may not be appropriate for younger audiences. As it is set in college, there are mature events and themes. Sexuality, alcohol, and drugs are discussed often, making the story more appropriate for older readers.  Fangirl is also a long and semi-difficult book due to more advanced vocabulary and complex plot lines, making it tough for less advanced readers. For mature readers, Fangirl will be a highly enjoyable read that delves into the depths of a teen’s emotions and life.

Sexual Content

  • When Cath’s roommate has a guy waiting outside their room on move-in day, she is very uncomfortable. She tells him, “I can’t just let strange guys into my room. I don’t even know your name. This whole situation is too rapey.”
  • Cath writes fanfiction about the homosexual romance between Simon Snow and his nemesis Baz.
  • Cath had a boyfriend in high school named Abel, but they weren’t particularly serious or romantic. Wren always calls him an “end table” and accuses Cath of not liking to kiss him.
  • Wren’s high school boyfriend Jesse never seemed all that interested in her, which made her crazy for him. Cath laments, “He never had eyes only for Wren, not even after they had sex last fall. It threw off Wren’s game.”
  • Cath’s roommate Reagan asks if she has, “gay homemade Simon Snow posters.”
  • Levi wants to walk Cath to the library at night because she has a “little red riding hood vibe.” Cath responds by saying, “I don’t think rapists care about self-confidence.”
  • When writing with Nick, Cath tells him that she doesn’t want, “to write about, like, dead bodies or . . . naked bodies.”
  • Cath talks to Wren about the first time that she kissed Abel. “He kissed me that day, on our seventeenth birthday, for the first time. Or maybe I kissed him… I remember thinking… that he made me feel safe.”
  • Cath tells Wren about her writing sessions with Nick. Wren responds by asking, “Does it involve kissing?” Cath thinks to herself, “Wren wouldn’t leave the kissing thing alone. Ever since Abel had dumped Cath, Wren was on her about chasing her passions and letting loose the beast within.” After this point, Cath sees boys everywhere and as a constant distraction to her, particularly their physical qualities.
  • Cath gets a ride home with a girl named Erin who talked too much. “All she talked about was her boyfriend who still lived in Omaha and who was probably cheating on her.”
  • Cath writes Simon Snow fanfiction for her creative writing professor. A friend responds to this information by laughing and asking, “Do you really expect an elderly English professor to be down with gay Simon Snow fanfiction?”
  • Levi wants her to read fanfiction aloud to him. She searches her computer for something, “not too romantic. Or dirty.”
  • Cath describes the time after her mom left their family and says that Wren, “scratched a boy who said they were gay in the eye.”
  • There is an excerpt from Cath’s fanfiction that carries sexual innuendo. Baz asks, “Have you ever done this before?” Simon responds, “Yes. Not like this.” Baz then asks, “Not with a boy?” and Simon responds, “Not when I really wanted it.”
  • Levi leans against Cath when she is reading to him, making her nervous about what their relationship status is. This is followed by Levi sleepily kissing her. A half-page make-out scene follows.
  • When Cath tries to convince herself that she does not want romantic involvement with Levi, she says, “He’s different… He’s older. He smokes. And he drinks. And he’s probably had sex. I mean, he looks like he has.” She then proceeds to think that the last person that he slept with was Reagan.
  • When Reagan helps Cath get ready for a party, she discusses her hair, saying, “If you’re not going to blow it out… you may as well look like you’ve just been fucked.”
  • When Cath gets to a party, she sees Levi kissing a girl, “with his mouth smiling and open. He made it look so easy.”
  • Every time Cath sees Levi, she is reminded of the relationship that they almost had. “She tried not looking at him— because every time she did, she imagined him kissing someone, either her or that other girl, and both memories were equally painful.”
  • When Cath tries to tell her father that she doesn’t want to go back to school, he first asks, “Are you pregnant? Are you gay? I’d rather you were gay than pregnant. Unless you’re pregnant. Then we’ll deal.”
  • After Cath makes up with Levi, Reagan asks, “Did you sleep with him?” She proceeds to ask about their relationship, to which Cath responds, “Things you pressure me to do: one, underage drinking; two, prescription drug abuse; three, premarital sex.” Reagan then tells Cath that she lost her virginity to Levi.
  • Cath talks about her feelings towards Levi and says, “God, she wanted to tackle him and roll around in him like a cat in a field of daisies.” She also says that his eyebrows are, “pornographic.”
  • There are several make-out scenes, each lasting about a half-in page in length. They are fairly detailed.
  • Cath’s mother told her daughters about her unwanted pregnancy. Cath wonders if her mom told them as a warning to, “Stay away from men? Maybe just ‘use a condom.’ Or ‘stay away from men who don’t know how to work a condom.”
  • Levi and Cath talk about having sex, but she is not comfortable with it, so she consents to “touching.” Even in this situation, she must read fanfiction with him to feel comfortable.

Violence

  • Wren’s boyfriend Alejandro punched a “drunk pervert right in the chin” when they were at a bar.
  • Cath gets hit in the ribs by the doorknob of her dorm room door when Reagan barges in. She is not injured.
  • In Cath’s fanfiction, Simon fights a rabbit with his sword. Baz later kills it. “He ran toward the rabbit, holding his sword with both hands over his head, then plunged it with all his strength into one red eye. The rabbit collapsed, utterly limp, a paw falling into the fire.”

Drugs and Alcohol

  • Cath discusses the observation that all of the upperclassmen and professors wear black Ray-Ban frames. “If Cath got a pair of black Ray-Bans, she could probably order a gin and tonic around here without getting carded.”
  • Cath says that Reagan smokes.
  • Cath asks if engineering fraternities, “get drunk and build bridges.”
  • Wren declares that “drinking tequila is more about the journey than the destination.”
  • Reagan asks Cath if she is on drugs. When Cath responds with no, Reagan says, “maybe you should be…” Reagan later proclaims that she is on drugs and that they are, “a beautiful thing.”
  • Cath discusses illegal drinking on campus. She said that it didn’t matter on campus as “there was booze everywhere. Wren already had a fake ID.”
  • When Cath calls her dad, he says, “Don’t hang out with frat guys, Cath, they’re terrible. All they do is get drunk and watch
  • On weekend mornings, Reagan always looked like a mess because she, “drank too much and slept too little… She still smelled sweat and cigarette smoke.”
  • Cath is harassed by drunk perverts in a bar. The scene lasts several pages and many characters are inebriated.
  • Cath says that she does not want to go to Levi’s party because she doesn’t want to “drink, smoke, or get high.”
  • When Cath objects to dating Levi, Reagan says, “You’re making him sound like he’s some rowdy mountain man who like, smokes cigars and has sex with prostitutes.”
  • Cath’s date struggles with mental health issues and is supposed to take medication for his problem, but it never lasts as he believes it blocks his creative process.
  • Reagan tries to quit smoking by never lighting the cigarettes that are in her mouth.
  • Wren gets alcohol poisoning and is taken to the hospital. When Cath arrives, she has to answer a list of medical questions. “Was Wren a regular drinker? Did she often drink to drunkenness? Yes. Did she black out? Yes. Did she use any other drugs? I don’t know. Was she on any medication? Birth control.”
  • Nick always writes about girls with nicotine-stained fingers.

Language

  • Profanity is used frequently throughout the novel. This includes shit, fuck, fuck off, thank god, bitch, damn, hell, crap, ass, asshole, goddamn, and horseshit.
  • During move-in day, Reagan says, “If you’ve got feng shui issues, feel free to move my shit.”
  • Simon Snow calls Baz a, “complete git.” He also later calls him a “prat.”
  • Wren’s roommate says that she is on the “skinny bitch
  • Levi has an, “especially shitty truck.”
  • Wren flips off a drunken pervert at a bar.
  • When Cath looks in the mirror before going to a party she thinks she, “looked like exactly who she was— an eighteen-year-old nerd who knew eff-all about boys or parties.”
  • One character is always referred to as, “fucking Kelly.”
  • God, Jesus, oh my god, godforsaken, and Jesus Christ are all used frequently.

Supernatural

  • Cath is a huge fangirl for a book series about teenage magicians. Their exploits are often described, as are their uses of magic. This series is very similar in content and tone to Harry Potter.
  • Baz, a character from Simon Snow, is revealed to be a vampire.

Spiritual

  • Reagan tells Cath, “If God put me in your life to keep you from wearing a fucking tail… I accept the assignment.”
  • Levi calls the town that he is from, “god’s country…All the gods. Brahma and Odin would love it there.”
  • When Cath wears a ponytail, Reagan asks her, “Do you have to wear your hair like that? Is it some kind of Mormon thing?” Cath is not Mormon.
  • Cath’s English professor talks about the power of writing. She says, “Think about it, Cath. That’s what makes a god—or a mother. There’s nothing more intoxicating than creating something from nothing.”
  • The English professor says, “I can do whatever I want with my student’s grades. I’m the god of this small thing.”
  • Levi’s mom is active in her Baptist church.

by Morgan Filgas

 

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