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.

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Glory Be

by Augusta Scattergood
First sentence: “What was taking Frankie so long?
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Content: There’s some physical violence. It’s short and the chapters are short. It’s in the middle grade section (grades 3-5) of the bookstore.

Glory, the youngest daughter of a Southern preacher, has grown up all her life in Hanging Moss, Mississippi. She hasn’t thought much about how her cook, Emma, is black. Or why she doesn’t see any black people at the pool or library. But, it’s the summer of 1964, and things are changing. The pool closes “for repairs”, but it’s because the pool committee doesn’t want “those people” sullying the waters. They try to do the same with the library, but the librarian stands up and keeps it open. And Glory’s best friend, Frankie, is on the line because his older brother and father are leading the charge against desegregation.

This had a lot of the same feeling as The Help did: white southern people being enlightened and standing up to their racist neighbors, but not really doing much else. I don’t know. It wasn’t bad, and I’m glad that white people have this kind of awaking story, but it kind of left a sour aftertaste. It was a very white book (I am surprised it was on my list for a mulitcultural children’s literature class…) and I wanted, well, more. Emma, the cook, didn’t play a huge role, and the whole book had a white savior narrative to it: Look! White people can recognize that black people are people too. Ugh.

I wanted more.

Miles Morales Spider-Man

by Jason Reynolds
First sentence: “Miles set the good dishes on the table.”
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Content: There’s violence, but not graphic and some mild swearing. It’s in the YA section (grades 6-8) but I’d give it to a younger kid who was interested.

Yes, I did pick this up because I adored Into the Spider-Verse. I liked Miles Morales as a character, and I wanted to spend more time with him. Aside from the movie, I have no knowledge of Miles’s backstory or comic history, so I’m pretty much operating blind.

The basic plot is that Miles is kind of tired of being Spider-Man, and mostly just wants to focus on school. Except he keeps getting called into the office, first for leaving class (his Spidey sense was tingling) and then for a minor theft, for which he was totally framed. And it feels like his history teacher is super antagonistic toward him. And maybe it’s not an evil plot to take over the world, but maybe it is.

And on top of all that, he’s struggling with school and friends and fitting it. Not to mention the crisis about being Spider-Man; maybe he’s just not cut out for this.

My first reaction? It was fun, but heavy on the social justice. Not that that’s a bad thing. I liked the book well enough; Reynolds is a great writer and Miles is a great character. But… perhaps I would have liked it more had I been more invested in Miles Morales as a superhero. Coming in with as little knowledge as I did, I kind of felt like I was missing something. I caught similarities between the book and the movie, but it wasn’t enough or deep enough for me to truly love this book.

Field Notes on Love

by Jennifer E. Smith
First sentence: “Mae wakes, as she does each morning, to the sound of a train.”
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Content: It’s a romance, but there’s really nothing objectionable. Some mild swearing and a lot of kissing. It’s in the YA section (grades 6-8) of the bookstore.

Hugo is one of a sextuplet, and so he’e never really been alone. He’s never done anything extraordinary (unless you count being born) and he’s never really had an adventure. So, when his girlfriend Margaret breaks up with him, and begs off of their planned American cross-country train trip, Hugo is left aimless. That is, until he hatches a plan: find another Margaret Campbell and still make the trip.

Mae (aka Margaret Campbell) has applied to the USC film school, but when they reject her, she’s left aimless. That is, until she sees Hugo’s advertisement for someone named Margaret Campbell to go on this train trip with him. She jumps at the chance: why not go on a bit of an adventure before school starts? Maybe, then, she can find her direction again.

Since this is a romance, of course Hugo and Mae fall in love. Of course there is a falling out moment. Of course they (kind of) (mostly) end up together in the end. Of course it’s sweet and wonderful and all that.

Smith is excellent at writing charming, sweet, lovely romances, though. And this hit all the notes. Hugo and Mae were endearing and sweet, and I loved the cross-country train trip, which was something a little different. It’s completely unobtrusive and utterly delightful.

To Night Owl from Dogfish

by Holly Goldberg Sloan and Meg Wolitzer
First sentence: “
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Content: There’s some frank talk about periods, so maybe for the older end of the spectrum? Still, it’s in the Middle Grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore, though I think older readers would like it as well.

Bett and Avery are happy with their respective lives. Bett lives with her dad in Southern California, surfing and collecting feathers and shells. Avery lives in New York City with her dad and is happy with their super structured life. But when their dad’s meet, everything changes. They arrange for Bett and Avery to attend the same summer camp, hoping that they’ll become best friends. And Bett and Avery are determined to stop them.

Except… they do become best friends. (And have adventures!) But their dads? Well, it doesn’t work out. But don’t worry: Bett and Avery have a plan.

This was a super adorable book! Seriously. Written entirely in emails — between Bett and Avery with ones from the adults in their life every once in a while — it’s oozing charm and delight and just plain fun from every pore. Sure it’s a bit Parent Trap-y, but I think it manages that (it has a nice twist ending that’s quite sweet) without being too cloying. I adore both Bett and Avery, and I loved how their individual voices and personalities came through in the letters. It’s just a super charming book.

(I do have to note that Bett is a bi-racial character, though both the authors are white. Take that for what you will.)

At any rate, I did enjoy it a whole bunch.

The Poet X

by Elizabeth Acevedo
First sentence: “The summer is made for stoop-sitting and since it’s the last week before school starts, Harlem is opening its eyes to September.”
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Content: There’s some mild swearing, a tasteful almost-sex scene, and some talk of smoking weed. It’s in the Teen section (grades 9+) of the bookstore.

Xiomara is many things: a daughter, a poet, a twin. But she feels like she doesn’t quite fit. It doesn’t help that her parents — both from the Dominican Republic — don’t really get along, or that her mother is super religious. Or that her twin, Xavier, is super smart, and goes to a magnet school, while Xiomara is stuck going to the not-really-great neighborhood one. And on top of everything, as she starts her sophomore year, her mother is insisting that she go to classes so that she can be confirmed (I think that’s how it is in Catholic churches?). But Xiomara has questions about God, and religion, and the way her parents treat her.

On the one hand, I can see where Xiomara’s mother is coming from. She wants her daughter to have all the things she didn’t have. She wants her daughter to follow in her footsteps, and to have the faith she did. What she doesn’t take into consideration — and this is the conflict at the heart of this elegant novel in verse — is that Xiomara’s feelings and desires might be different than her own. It’s often the conflict at the heart of young adult books: parents who believe they know better and don’t stop to listen to the desires of their kids. I loved getting to know Xiomara through her poetry, to understand her feelings and the tensions she perceived in her family. And I’m glad that, in the end, there was a resolution that didn’t involve someone dying. That Xiomara realized her parents loved her, even if they didn’t always show it in a way she could understand it.

Acevedo’s writing is gorgeous and her storytelling exquisite. This is definitely worth the hype.

Audiobook: Finding Yvonne

by Brandy Colbert
Read by Maya Barton
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Listen at Libro.fm
Content: There is swearing, including multiple f-bombs, pot smoking by an adult, some teenage drinking and off-screen sex. It’s in the Teen section (grades 9+) of the bookstore.

Yvonne is a senior at an LA prep school, and has been putting her heart and soul into her violin playing ever since her mother left when Yvonne was seven. Now, though, she’s at loose ends: her violin teacher dropped her because she wasn’t “good” enough, and she feels like she has lost her passion for playing. But, without playing, who is she?

On top of that, Yvonne hardly sees her father, a successful chef. And she’s wanting to take the next step with Warren, who’s hesitant because of their age difference and because he works for her father. And so, when Yvonne meets a street musician, she explores a relationship there, mostly to see if it can help her figure things out.

I liked this one, but mostly because I think the narrator was really good. She kept me engaged in the story, and helped propel the narrative — which is super complicated, but then again, so are many senior kids’ lives — forward. I liked that Yvonne was a musician and a cook, and that she was looking for connection anywhere. It’s not the best book I’ve read, but it wasn’t terrible either.