Audio book: Such a Fun Age

by Kiley Reid
Read by Nicole Lewis
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Or listen at Libro.fm
Content: There is a lot of swearing, including multiple f-bombs. There is also talk of sex, but none actual. It’s in the Fiction section of the bookstore.

Emira is a 25-year-old Black woman who is kind of aimless. All her friends seem to have “real” jobs, but she’s working as a temporary typist for the Green Party in Philadelphia and as a babysitter for Alix and Peter Chamberlin. The thing is, Emira adores Briar, the girl she sits, and doesn’t really feel much of a need to change things up. Then she meets Kelly — at a grocery store after Emira had a run-in with a security cop. And they begin to date, which sets up a run-in with Alix.

It doesn’t sound like a whole lot happens in this book from the description, but it’s more thoughtful and intricate than that. It’s a meditation on relationships — can a wealthy White woman really have a “friendship” with her Black babysitter? Is a White man who sees himself as an ally because he has Black friends and dates Black or biracial women, really an ally? — but it’s also a meditation on how we perceive ourselves. Reid did a fabulous job making no one out to be the “villain” here. Everyone had reasonable motivations (or at least presented reasonable motivations) and I could see they were all operating from a place they thought was reasonable. But, I could also see how the decisions were self-interested. Everyone said they were trying to help Emira, but were their decisions really helping? There’s a lot to talk and think about, especially about the way White people center themselves, even when they’re trying to help.

On top of that, the narrator was fabulous. I loved the way she portrayed each character (especially 3-year-old Briar; she was perfect!) and the way she made them distinctive and intriguing. She kept me coming back (though I think this one would have worked for me in print form, as well) and wanting to see what was going on next with Emira and Alix.

Definitely worth the buzz it’s been getting.

I’m Not Dying with You Tonight

by Kimberly Jones and Gilly Segal
First sentence: “‘Waiting for Black is on your agenda, not mine,’ LaShunda barks as we leave the building.”
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Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There is violence, some swearing and the use of the n-word. It’s in the Teen (grades 9+) section of the bookstore, but I would give it to a 7th/8th grader as well.

All Lena wants to do is hookup with her boyfriend Black after halftime at the football game. All Campbell wants to do is sell concessions and get the heck out of there. But when a fight breaks out at the game, Lena and Campbell are thrown together. And when the fight escalates and turns into a protest which escalates and turns into riots, Lena and Campbell are forced to rely on each other to survive the night.

The book this most reminded me of is All American Boys: two kids — one white and one black — thrown together have to figure out how to relate to each other. So, yeah, this has been done before. That said, one of the things I thought Johnson and Segal did well was show how introducing the police actually made things worse. The fight started at the school, police were called, and it escalated. A protest was happening, police came in full riot gear and the situation escalated. Additionally, I thought that Lena and Campbell’s personal unpacking of biases (more on Campbell’s part, which is a good thing) was a valuable thing.

That said, there are books that do this better. Like All American Boys. Or The Hate U Give. Or Riot Baby.

It’s a valuable book, one that I do hope people (probably mostly white people, who I think this book was aimed at) will read. But, it’s not the best one out there.

The Knockout Queen

by Rufi Thorpe
First sentence: “When I was eleven years old, I moved in with my aunt after my mother was sent to prison”
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Review copy provided by the publisher.
Release date: April 28, 2020
Content: There is a lot of swearing, including many f-bombs, and some graphic sex. It will be in the adult fiction section of the bookstore.

When Michael moved to North Shore, California, he moved in next door to Bunny Lampert and her father. Bunny was the star of North Shore, tall, blonde, beautiful (even at eleven) and talented at volleyball. Even though Michael was none of those things — being, rather, a tortured, deeply in the closet gay teenage boy — he and Bunny became best friends. Not the sort of friends that hung out at school (or even after, really) but the kind that stays up late at night doing face masks and talking about all sorts of things. While they were not inseparable, they were devoted.

So much so, that Bunny is willing to go to bat for Michael when a girl on the volleyball team starts badmouthing him. Go to bat, in the sense that she beat the other girl into a coma. From there, Michael’s and Bunny’s paths irrevocably diverge.

This story is all told through Michael’s reflections as an adult, as he tries to figure out who he is, and why society is so deeply unfair to those who don’t have the money to make a decent life for themselves (his mother was sent to prison for defending herself against and abusive husband). He gets into abusive relationships because he’s deeply self-loathing, as is Bunny, and maybe this self-loathing is what ties them together? It’s not a happy narrative, but it is one that has made me think. About perceptions — did Bunny become the person everyone thought she was, or was she always that way — about class, about the things in our lives that affect us.

I’m not entirely sure I liked this book, but it is one that will stay with me for a while, and perhaps that’s worth something, in the end.

Grimoire Noir

by Vera Greentea and Yana Bogatch
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Content: There are some scary images. It’s in the graphic novel section of the bookstore, but I think this one would appeal to younger mystery lovers (and lovers of the supernatural).

The town of Blackwell is unusual: all of the girls and women in town are witches. And prisoners: there is a magical barrier surrounding the town that prevents the girls and women from leaving: if they do, they will at best lose their powers and at worst, die. Bucky Orson was best friends with one of the girls, Cham (short for Chamomile, if that helps with the pronunciation), but their friendship died when she joined the Coven of Crows. But now, when Bucky’s younger sister Heidi has gone missing and the town is in upheaval (partially because it rains whenever Bucky’s mother cries, and so it’s been raining for a while) and the police don’t seem to be solving anything. So, Bucky takes it into his own hands to find out what happened to Heidi, and discovers a lot of the secrets of the town in the process.

First, this one was gorgeously drawn. It’s all in sepia and black and white with some spots of red and blue and is just beautiful. I loved how Bogatch depicted magic and how she captured the noir feel of the title. And while I enjoyed the story — I liked how Bucky peeled back layers of the town, going back to the origin. I liked that you could look at it through a feminist lens: the women have power, but were deemed “unsafe” by less powerful men, who are keeping them trapped in this town. There’s a lot to think about.

The ending is a bit weak, but for the most part, this was a thoroughly enjoyable graphic novel!

Crush

by Svetlana Chmakova
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Others in the series: Awkward, Brave
Content: There’s some bullying and general middle-school romance. It’s in the Middle Grade Graphic Novels section of the bookstore.

Jorge is the Big Kid at Berrybrook Middle School, the one that’s head and shoulders taller than everyone else. He doesn’t mind; he uses people’s assumptions of him (that he’s a Heavy) for good, making sure that bullies don’t pick on other kids. He’s got a group of friends he’s been friends with forever: Liv, the outgoing popular one, and Garrett, who just transferred to Berrybrook and is trying to fit in. Jorge is fine with the way things are.

But then Garrett decides to get in with the starting quarterback James’s group, and Jorge develops a crush on Liv’s friend Jazmine, and Drama breaks out in the middle school halls.

I really enjoyed this one. I think that Chmakova gets middle schoolers, and the everyday ups and downs of friendship, crushes, and belonging. I liked Jorge as a character, how he used his size to help others and how he wasn’t afraid to be an individual rather than going along with the crowd. This one was less about crushes, though, and more just about relationships, and what it takes to have a good one, whether it be friendships or romantic. Jorge wasn’t the character with the growth arc; rather, he was the rock that everything in the book revolved around, which was perfectly fine by me.

Really very, very good.

Operatic

by Kyo Maclear and Byron Eggenschwiler
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Content: There is some bullying and a wee bit of romance. It’s in the middle grade graphic novels section of the bookstore.

It’s near the end of middle school and Charlie is trying to figure herself out. Her music teacher, Mr. K, as assigned the class to come up with a presentation on a song that “speaks” to them. As part of that, he’s introducing a lot of new stuff to the class. And when he hits opera — Una voce poco as sung by Maria Callas — Charlie is smitten. She does a lot of research about Maria and decides that maybe being a Diva isn’t a bad thing.

There’s also Emile, a boy Charlie likes; Luka, the super-talented, yet super-awkward guy at school that is bullied; and Charlie’s three friends, Addie, Rachel, and Mayin. It’s a bit of personal drama as they all make their way through the last couple of months before the end of school.

On the one hand, the art in this is gorgeous. It’s all done in sepia tones, except for the bits about Maria Callas which are done in reds and pinks. I loved the use of insect imagery and the use of music (though I wish it had a playlist with artists in the back; I kept trying to look the songs up!).

I had a hard time following the story though. Does Charlie end up ditching some of her friends? I think so? But I’m not entirely sure why. I couldn’t quite follow who was who, and the story just felt like it was lacking something. Maybe I really am getting to old for this.

The Boy, the Mole, the Fox, and the Horse

by Charlie Mackesy
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Content: It’s a short book, and there’s nothing objectionable. The cursive writing might be difficult for young children to read, though. It’s in the graphic novel section of the bookstore.

This was the “it” book at Christmas; everyone was calling and ordering it; we were actually surprised that the publisher managed to get copies out before the holiday. And since then, every time we get copies in they sell out. I’ve also had a handful of people tell me I MUST read it, so I picked myself up a copy.

And… well, let’s just say it reminded me of Winnie the Pooh, but without the plot. It’s a series of musings about life and friendship and belonging starring a boy and three charming animals, all accompanied by some amazingly beautiful art. (I do want some of the spreads as pictures to hang on my wall!) It’s one of those books that makes a perfect gift (it will be perfect for graduations!) because there’s nothing offensive. It’s sweet and sometimes poignant and sometimes funny.

But that’s really all there is to it. I’m not sure I will reread this many times, but I am not sorry I have a copy to keep.

The Authenticity Project

by Clare Pooley
First sentence: “She had tried to return the book.”
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Release date: February 4, 2020
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There is swearing, including multiple f-bombs. It will be in the adult fiction section of the bookstore.

It starts with a green notebook, with the words “The Authenticity Project” on it, that gets passed from one person — a depressed former artist named Julian — to another — a stressed cafe owner named Monica. From there, we learn their stories, their fears, and as they form a friendship and pass the book to other anonymous people, a community of people. The plot is simple: everyone needs friends, but we don’t really know how to Truly make them anymore, and maybe being honest about our Truths will help.

I’m not making it sound all that exciting, but honestly? I loved this one. I was thoroughly charmed by the relationships and the community that grew because of this book, by the lives that were changed by friendship. And yes, there is a romance in it (which I kind of called from the beginning, but was still satisfied to see happen), but mostly it’s a relationship — all kinds of relationships! — book.

It’s sweet and charming and I loved every minute of reading it.

A High Five for Glenn Burke

by Phil Bildner
First sentence: “Let’s do this, Silas,’ I say to myself.”
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Review copy provided by the publisher.
Release date: February 25, 2020
Content: There are some awkward moments. It will be in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

Sixth-grader Silas Wade has a loving family (though his parents work too much and his younger sisters are sometimes annoying), and a great best friend in Zoey. He loves playing baseball with his team, the Renegades, and and his coach, Coach Wade, is the best. But Silas has a problem: he has realized that he is gay, and doesn’t quite know how to tell everyone.

Enter a report on Glenn Burke: a real-life professional baseball player (and the inventor of the high five!) in the 1970s who was run out of the major leagues after he came out as gay. Learning about Burke gives Silas the courage to come out to Zoey and then to Coach Wade. It’s not all roses, however. There are ups and downs to this process as Silas figures out how to be his authentic self.

This is a really good book as well as being an Important One. I think there needs to be more sports-oriented books that have LGBT themes, partially because I think there still is a stigma about being LGBT and playing sports. (It’s probably less than it was, but it’s still there, I think.) It’s good to have a book — and one that is written so that kids can grasp what’s going on — that shows that an LGBT kid can play ball well and be gay. And not necessarily fit all the stereotypes that normally come with being gay. I also appreciated Silas’s growth arc; he starts out terrified that people will find out his secret, but as the book goes on, he becomes more and more comfortable with himself.

Bildner knows how to write for kids in a way that makes all of this make sense. And perhaps that’s the most important thing.

Look Both Ways

by Jason Reynolds
First sentence: “This story was going to begin like all the best stories.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There are some tough subjects, like bullying and parents with cancer. It’s in both the YA (grades 6-8) and the middle grade (grades 3-5) sections of the bookstore.

The format of this book is really the highlight: it’s a series of ten interconnected short stories, based out of a school, and following kids as they go home after school one day. One story for either one kid or a group of kids per block.

It’s a clever premise, and one that shuns the large (a school bus fell from the sky is the underlying “What?” of this story) in favor of the small stories. It’s the story of a girl writing in a notebook, observing things and collecting data on the way home (and a side note in another story about how she is “mysterious”). It’s about the troublemakers who are always stealing loose change, and where they go after school and what they do with the money. It’s about older siblings who have died, or kids getting beat up for defending a boy-on-boy not-quite kiss. It’s simple and deep and profound and lighthearted all at once. Which is why, I think, Reynolds is one of the brilliant writers out there.

Will kids read it? I don’t know. I hope so. It would be perfect for school book groups, and for parent-children discussions. And it’s a good reminder that everything — and everyone — isn’t always what it looks like.