Hearts Unbroken

by Cynthia Leitich Smith
First sentence: “Half past nine a.m. in the residual haze of my junior prom, I ducked into a powder room off the kitchen at the swanky lake house where the after-party took place.”
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Content: There are multiple f-bombs and a tasteful sex scene. It’s in the Teen section (grades 9+) of the bookstore.

Louise is a senior at a small(ish)-town Kansas high school, and has decided this year to be on the newspaper. She mostly wants to try out something new, but it’s also because her last boyfriend, Cam, turned out to be racist towards Native Peoples. And since Louise is a member of the Muscogee Nation, that really sat wrong. She’s decided that she’s going to make a stand against all the little micro-aggressions toward Native Peoples that she sees.

It doesn’t help that her family is being targeted by racists: her younger brother Hughie has been cast as the Tin Man in a color-blind casting of The Wizard of Oz (a black girl was cast as Dorothy) and the white people in town — especially the wife of the pastor of the big evangelical church — are Up In Arms. They think this is Ruining Their Values. And so, Louise, and her potential-love-interest Joey, tackle the story through the high school paper.

I wanted to like this one more than I actually did. On the one hand, I appreciated all the ways that Leitich Smith pointed out that we, as a culture, have adopted stereotypes of Native Peoples, and how that’s affecting them, whether directly or indirectly. But, I feel like there wasn’t much of a story there. Sure, there was a plot: Louise is dealing with her own issues, working on a relationship with Joey, and trying to balance friendships and family and school. But, I never really connected with it. I just felt like is was “here’s a situation, let me explain why this is racist”. Maybe that’s my problem: I felt like white people were the audience for this book, and while it’s an Own Voices title, I’m not sure how much a Native teen would relate to this book. I felt like Leitich Smith was Explaining Things to me, when I just really wanted a story about a Muscogee girl in Kansas who is dealing with high school and issues.

But maybe it’s just me.

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Valiant

by Lesley Livingston
First sentence: “The steam rising off the backs of the cantering horses faded into the morning fog.”
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Content: There’s violence, obviously, and some references to naked people and drinking. It’s in the YA section (grades 6-8) of the bookstore.

Fallon is a chief’s daughter of one of the Celtic tribes back in Roman times. They fought off the Romans, once, but her father was captured and her sister was killed rescuing him. Which means, Fallon’s not allowed to join the warriors (even though she’s an amazing fighter) and is being forced to marry a man she doesn’t love. So, in fit of pique, she storms off only to be captured by Roman slavers. She’s sold — for an exorbitant price — to a gladiatrix training school, one that Julius Ceasar owns, and has to decide: will she fight in warrior games for a country she despises? Or will she become target practice?

I didn’t expect to like a book set in Roman times about a female gladiator, with a side love story with a Roman soldier, but you know what? I did. Livingston knows how to propel a plot and I really enjoyed the female relationships in this. Fallon wasn’t the only girl the slavers captured, and I liked how Livingston developed those relationships. They learned to work together and care for each other, and while she did have some women (once Fallon got to the academy) who were operating out of jealousy, it was mostly a supportive environment.

I didn’t particularly like the romance, though, and it all felt a bit too modern for me at points, but that’s forgivable. I don’t know if I’m going to go on to read the other two in this series, but I thoroughly enjoyed this one.

Monster

by Walter Dean Myers
First sentence: “The best time to cry is at night, when the lights are out and someone is being beaten up and screaming for help.”
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Content: There is some frank talk about what goes on in prison, the use of the n-word as well as f-bombs. It’s in the teen section (grades 9+) of the bookstore.

Steve Harman is a 16-year-old black kid in Harlem who is in jail waiting trial for murder because of a drugstore robbery gone bad. He’s not the only one on trial; his “acquaintance” is also on trial for the same murder (I found myself wondering about the legality of this). Because Steve is an aspiring filmmaker, the book is written as a screenplay, covering the trial with flashbacks to Steve’s life as well as the night of the incident, interspersed with handwritten journal notes from Steve.

The most fascinating thing about the book, for me, wasn’t the format (which took a bit of getting used to). It was the way the story unfolded. We were basically the 13th juror, albeit with a bit more information, listening in on the trial from the opening arguments to the testimony and cross-examinations through the closing arguments. I don’t feel like Myers biased the reader in one direction or another (or maybe he did, wanting us to be more sympathetic to Steve), but instead allowing the reader to draw their own conclusions from the evidence presented.

On top of that, it’s a scathing look at the justice system. Sure, people are just doing their jobs, but when a 16-year-old kid ends up in an adult prison just because of who he knows, or what lawyer he can or can’t afford, when the guards don’t do much to protect the prisoners from each other… no wonder we need prison reform in this country!

It really was a fascinating and enlightening read, and I’m glad I did.

Who Will Tell My Brother?

by Marlene Carvell
First sentence: ¨When I filled out the form for the test — the dreaded “you will be labeled for life test” the “colleges will want you–or not” test the “who are you? — what are you? — why are you?” test, I wrote my name.”
It´s out of print, unfortunately.
Content: There is some blatant racism, one use of the n-word, and one (off-screen) instance of violence against an animal.

Evan is a bi-racial (half Mowhawk) senior at his small-town (Upstate New York?) high school, and he’s fed up with their mascot: an exaggeration of the “generic” Native American, with feathered headdress and tomahawk, complete with war whoops and “dancing” at the pep rallies. He decides that this year he’s going to do something about it. Except his petitions fall on deaf ears: they don’t want to change “tradition”; they don’t feel it’s racist; and by the way, you have light brown hair and blue eyes, are you even Indian?

As Evan’s fight goes on over the years, this book gives readers an extended look into not just white privilege, but also White Arrogance. White people, at least the white people in this book, not just refuse to listen to a minority, they assume they Know Better just because they’re white. (In other words: white people are the worst!)

I was a bit skeptical about Carvell writing this story, since she’s white, but since it’s loosely biographical (written in verse, which is why I’m not entirely sure of some of the details) based on her son, I’m going to give her a pass. She didn’t come up with a huge white savior ending; the school didn’t change their policy, though there was some protests by other seniors at graduation. It felt real and honest, which I appreciated.

Sold

by Patricia McCormick
First sentence: “One more rainy season and our roof will be gone, says Ama.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: There is violence toward women and a (non-graphic) rape scene. It’s in the teen section (grades 9+) of the bookstore.

Lakshmi is a 13-year-old girl in the mountains of Nepal who is just getting by with her mother and step-father and baby brother. Their existence isn’t great: they depend on the weather to make sure their livelihood — growing rice — is secure, and Lakshmi’s stepfather is a gambler and a drunk, spending all their money on cards and booze. Still, it’s not a terrible life. That is, until one monsoon season wipes out their entire crop. There’s nothing else to pay their debts with, and so Lakshmi’s stepfather sells her to a buyer that’s passing through. Lakshmi thinks she’s off to be a maid, and that the wages will go home to her family. Turns out, though, that she’s been sold into slavery, and that her “job” is prostitution. (I loathe to use that word, because I feel it implies some sort of choice, and Lakshmi has NO choice in the matter; in fact, she’s drugged and repeatedly raped at the beginning since she’s unwilling to do what she’s told.)

Eventually, some well-meaning Americans come in and shut the business down and rescue the girls who want to be rescued (go white savior moment?) but there’s a lot going on culturally with the girls.

This is such a hard book to read. Not technically; it’s written in loose prose verse (they weren’t simple enough to be poems, but it wasn’t really a prose book either), and so it went quickly, but emotionally? It packs a wallop of a punch. Toxic masculinity and patriarchy and class divisions are going to kill us all. That someone would sell their child to be a sex worker, that men would want to come visit them, that women would imprison these girls for their own gain? It’s a lot to stomach and it makes me feel both incredibly angry and incredibly hopeless.

It’s an excellently written book, and I’m grateful someone told their story (even if it’s a white woman). Even if it is emotionally draining and difficult.

The Circuit

by Francisco Jimenez
First sentence: “‘La frontera’ is a word I often heard when I was a child living in El Rancho Blanco, a small village nestled on barren, dry hills several miles north of Guadalajara, Mexico.”
It’s out of print, unfortunately. I found a copy at the library.
Content: It’s a series of short chapters, fictional but with an autobiographic feel. It’s in the teen section at the library, but I really can’t figure out why.

This is basically the fictionalized autobiography of Jimenez. He doesn’t bother to change the names of his family (maybe of the other characters?) or even of the situations he finds himself in over the time that his family — he’s the second of seven children — spent as migrant workers in California. This book covers the time they entered the United States (his father had a green card; his mother, older brother, and he were all undocumented. His younger siblings were all born in the United States) through the time when, in high school, his older brother was picked up by ICE. (Though he doesn’t go into what happened after. Just that he was picked up.)

Jimenez does an amazing job making the migrant worker’s life come to life on the page: the back-breaking labor, the constant moving to follow the work. Not just for his parents — there was a scene when his father was sitting in their meager tent, smoking cigarette after cigarette, cursing the rain that wouldn’t stop and that was ruining the crops and therefore their livelihood that really brought it home to me — but also for the children, how they couldn’t start school until after the cotton crop in November, how they moved often so he went to multiple schools in the course of one school year.

It makes one think about where one’s food come from. Who is out there picking the crops, and what kind of conditions they live in. And yes, it made me think about immigration — this story took place beginning in the 1940s — and the way they are treated, not just by the government but also by business owners. It’s not an easy thing, politically, but I think we often forget that there are people on the other end.

At any rate, it was a fascinating little book.

With the Fire on High

by Elizabeth Acevedo
First sentence: “Babygirl doesn’t even cry when I suck my teeth and undo her braid for the fourth time.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There is swearing, including multiple f-bombs, one almost sex-scene, and frank talk about teenage sex. It’s in the teen section (grades 9+) of the bookstore.

Emoni is many things: Afro-Puerto Rican. A mom. A senior in high school. And most importantly, someone who loves to cook.

As she starts her senior year, she’s navigating her world: co-parenting with her ex, Tyrone, and taking more responsibility for their daughter. Her relationship with her abuela and her absent father. And her final year at high school. She wasn’t really expecting any challenges, but she is thrown for a loop: her school has just added a culinary arts class. And she wants to take it, but will she be able to handle the pressure from a working chef.

This isn’t a novel in verse like Poet X is but it’s still just as lyrical. I thoroughly enjoy Acevedo’s writing, and her celebration of Afro-Latinx culture. I loved the food in this book, and though she touched on magical realism (I really love it when food makes people feel/do things) she didn’t really go there. I loved Emoni as a character, and her struggle to overcome the results — the baby — of a bad decision she made when she was 15. I loved the support she got from her abuela and friends, and I felt that Acevedo captured some very real emotions.

It was just a delight to read and I can’t wait to see what else Acevedo writes.