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.

Sal and Gabi Break the Universe

by Carlos Hernandez
First sentence: “There’s all sorts of bad advice out there about how to deal with bullies.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: It’s long and sometimes meandering, which might discourage reluctant readers. There are also hints of romance (but none actual) which might turn off squeamish kids. It’s in the middle grade section (grades 3-5) of the bookstore.

Sal Vidón has just moved to Miami from Connecticut, and is starting his first week at a really cool performing arts and technology school. The problem? It’s the third day of school, and it’s the third time he’s landed in the principal’s office. The first two were reasonable: to meet the principal on his first day, and the second because he was eating Skittles after PE and the gym teacher was unaware that Sal is diabetic. But this time? It’s because he played a prank — put a raw, whole chicken — into the locker of a kid who was bullying him. Sure, as a prank goes it’s mostly harmless. The real catch? Sal pulled that chicken out of a different universe.

And he was being watched: by Gabi Reál, student council president extraordinaire, and puzzle figure-outer. And once she turns her sights on Sal, his life is never going to be the same.

This is one part science fiction book: with multiverses, and calamity physics (is that a real thing?) and warping the space-time continuum, with self-driving cars (I want one, please) and really advanced AI. And one part Cuban family drama: Sal’s mother died six years ago, and he’s been pulling other versions of his Mami out of other universes ever since. There’s also Gabi’s drama with an infant baby brother fighting for his life, and the bully with a bigger backstory. There’s a lot going on in this book, but it all works, and works well together. Hernandez has given us a funny, clever Cuban speculative fiction book, that kept me turning pages and wondering where he was going to go next. There are cool teachers and Gabi’s gaggle of dads (too hard to explain), and it’s all just enormous amounts of fun.

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.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
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.

Lety Out Loud

by Angela Cervantes
First sentence: “If Lety Muñoz could adopt any animal in the world, it would be Spike, the sweet black-and-white terrier mix sitting across from her on the lawn that very minute.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Release date: February 26, 2019
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: It’s aimed at 3-5th graders (and it fits that), so it’ll be in the middle grade section of the bookstore.

Lety’s first language isn’t English. She’s been learning, since she arrived in Kansas City with her parents and younger brother a few years ago. She knows that she’s not the strongest English speaker, or even writer, but she loves the animals at the Furry Friends Animal Shelter so much that she wants to be the volunteer who writes animal profiles. Except Hunter, who’s a bit of a jerk, wants the job, too. So he creates a contest (that he’s probably sure to win) to see who will be the best profile writer.

But — and this was one of the things I really liked about this book — things didn’t quite go as planned. Hunter, while a bully, had a reason, and a personality and humanity. As do all of the kids Cervantes writes about (even Lety’s friend Kennedy, who could have been Generic White Kid). Cervantes gets kids, and gets their concerns, and knows how to write about hard things — like discrimination and racism and needing to belong — in ways that the readers she targets are able to understand and appreciate.

It’s a fun book, and a delightful story.

The Moon Within

by Aida Salazar
First sentence: “There is a locket in my heart that holds all of the questions that do cartwheels in my mind and gurgle up to the top of my brain like root beer fizz.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Release date: February 26, 2019
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There is frank talk of puberty and the way girls bodies change. It’ll probably be in the YA section (grades 6-8) of the bookstore, though it’s perfectly appropriate for younger kids, if parents don’t mind the subject matter.

Celi Rivera is many things: A bomba dancer. The daughter of a Mexican mother and an Afro-Puerto Rican father. A friend to Magda, who is transitioning and wants to go by Marco and use he/him pronouns. A girl who has a crush on Ivan. Except things aren’t as simple as they seem on paper: Ivan is a bit of a jerk to Magda, especially after he changes his name to Marco. Celi’s mother, whom she loves, has decided that she wants to have a moon ceremony when Celi gets her first period, something which her mother feels is honoring their ancestry, but Celi just feels is embarrassing. Being 11 almost 12 is tough, and Celi’s trying very hard to navigate the transition from childhood.

On the one hand, I loved the language and culture in this slim novel in verse. Salazar has a talent for poetry, and I loved how she effortlessly she worked the Xicana traditions in the book. It was a bit hippy-dippy for even me (a lot of moon lore and nature tradition), but I didn’t mind that. What I did mind was the mom. Chalk this up to years of reading middle grade and YA books, but I get really annoyed when parents just barrel ahead, not listening to the desires of their kids, and do what they want to do, thinking it’s the Best Thing. Sometimes it is (in this case, it turned out well), but often, it isn’t. And it frustrates me. Children, pre-teens, and teenagers have desires too. And wants. And they need to feel like they can talk to adults about them. And the mom, in this book, just didn’t listen. Which really annoyed me.

But that’s me. There is much to appreciate in this book, and perhaps there are kids out there who probably have parents like this who can relate to Celi and her struggles.

Pitch Dark

by Courtney Alameda
First sentence: “The wake up shock hits like a sledgehammer to the chest.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy provided by the publisher for the Cybils.
Content: There is a lot of violence and gore, and some mild swearing. It’s in the YA section (grades 6-8) of the bookstore.

I’m going to be up-front with this: I really liked this book. A lot. But I have NO idea how to describe it succinctly. See, it’s kind of Ready Player One meets Indiana Jones meets Battlestar Galactica plus Aliens with a tad bit of Firefly thrown in. It really doesn’t quite know what it wants to be — a space adventure? A horror story? An archaeological adventure? Stopping a terrorist plot? Yes, to all of those — but HEY, it’s an incredible amount of fun while it’s trying to figure it out.

Let’s try with the plot. In the late 21st century, Earth sent people out into space in stasis, with samples of earth, in the hopes that they’d find another habitable planet and be able to terraform it into something livable. They were sent off, and never heard from again.

Fast forward 400 (!) years, and one ship, the USS John Muir, has just woken up out of stasis, and realized that Things Didn’t Go Quite To Plan. Like, most of the crew is dead, and while there were some survivors, many have turned into mutant beings who terrorize the rest of the survivors. Thankfully, Tuck, the son of one of the premier scientists, was a survivor, and has Things Figured Out.

Enter the ship Conquistador, captained by the Cruz family, who are archaeologists in search of the lost ships from the Exodus. Their daughter, Laura (lao-ra, please, not law-ra) is passionate about history and is excited to see what there is when they discover the Muir. But then a hacker gets into the ship’s systems (and frames Laura) and crashes the Conquistador into the Muir. And suddenly everyone is fighting for their lives.

So, yeah. Hot mess of a plot — things just kept happening and happening and happening and while it kind of made a weird sort of sense but not really — but it was all just so much dang fun that I couldn’t put it down. So, I liked it, in spite of the fact that I can’t figure out a really simple way to make it sound appealing aside from it’s just a fun read!

Bruja Born

by Zoraida Cordova
First sentence: “This is a love story.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy provided by the publisher for the Cybils.
Content: There is some mild swearing and a few f-bombs. There is also a lot of violence. It would be in the Teen section (grades 9+) if the bookstore had it, but I think a 6-8th grader who was interested could read it. 

I’ll be forthright: this is a second in a series. And no, I haven’t read the first one (yet). But this one worked as a stand alone; Cordova gives enough information that it kept me in the loop with the backstory (though I do wonder if it was too much, if you’ve already read the first one?) but didn’t really get in the way of this story. 

Lula has been growing distant from her boyfriend, Maks, for many reasons (most of which have to do with book 1, but also because she’s a bruja – a witch) and he decided that he was done trying to make this work. So, on the way to a soccer game — he’s a player, she’s part of the cheer/dance team — he did. And then the bus got into a fatal accident. Lula’s family — who are all brujas — was able to save her through magic, but Maks, well, died. Except Lula, when she recovered, wasn’t able to accept that. So, she and her two sisters — Alex and Rose — performed a canto (a spell) to save him. Which… worked. Sort of. What it actually did was trap Death (the Lady de la Muerte) in between realms and created a whole hoard of casimuertos — zombies who eat hearts instead of brains — that quickly took over Brooklyn. 

What Lula (and Alex and Rose by extension) need to do is figure out how to get the Lady back to her realm and figure out a way to stop the casimuertos before they kill everyone. 

I’ve already addressed how nice it was that this was its own story rather than a continuation of a story that began in the first book, but it’s also a lot of fun. I enjoyed the Latinx flair that Cordova brought to witches (and zombies) and I thought the story was just a lot of fun. There was romance gone wrong, consequences to choices, some fun sidekicks, and a great family relationship. 

I’m going to try and go back and get my hands on the first book in the series. It’s really a LOT of fun. 

Not Even Bones

by Rebecca Schaeffer
First Sentence: “Nita stared at the dead body lying on the kitchen table.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: There is a LOT of violence, and some of it is gory. There is also swearing, including a couple of f-bombs. It’s in the teen section (grades 9+) of the bookstore. 

First off: this is being billed as a horror novel, and in some ways, I guess, it is. I was wary about starting this one, mostly because I really don’t do horror, but it’s more surgical gross/violent. And I do better with that in print than I do on the screen. So, if there is ever a movie made of this one (and it’d be a cool movie), I probably wouldn’t see it. 

Nita’s parents — her mother, mostly — deal in the black market. Body parts of supernatural beings, specifically. And for as a long as she can remember, Nita has been doing the dissecting. Until one day, Nita’s mother brings home a live “specimen” and Nita decides that she has some ethics, and refuses to dissect a non-dead body. However, that ends up badly: Nita is kidnapped and finds herself on the wrong side of a cage, in a parts market along the Amazon river. Which means, since she really doesn’t want to die, she needs to find a way out. 

It was one part moral dilemma — all of Schaeffer’s characters are “bad”, ranging from despicable to just morally questionable — and one part suspense novel (will Nita make it out alive and in one piece? How did she end up kidnapped? Who sold her out?). But it was immensely readable, and highly unputdownable. I thought Schaeffer had a very clever take on mythical creatures; unicorns, for example, were men who preyed on virgins, but whose bones, once ground up, were more addictive than crack. It was a unique and interesting world, one I definitely would like to learn more about. I also liked that this book is compact: Nita has one goal, to get out, and while questions are raised, Schaeffer doesn’t spend a lot of time chasing them down. 

It’s a first in a series (at least two), which means Nita will have more adventures as she tries to figure out the answers to her questions, and I think I might be willing to follow her there.

Blanca & Roja

by Anna-Marie McLemore
First sentence: “Everyone has their own way of telling our story.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content:  There are some references to sex and some swearing (including a few f-bombs). It’s in the teen section (grades 9+) of the library.

For their whole lives, the del Cisne sisters — Blanca and Roja — have known that one of them would live and one of them would be turned to a swan.

All their lives, Blanca and Roja — named so because Blanca was blond and fair, and Roja had red hair and darker skin — tried to thwart the swans. They weren’t going to be divided, one of them was not going to be left behind. Then, the swans came. And behind them, two boys: Page and Barclay. 

One part fairy tale retelling (Snow White and Rose Red) and one part love story, Blanca & Roja is incredibly lyrical. I love the way McLemore writes, with spare chapters and magical language. I loved the way she used the fairy tales, and the way she was exploring the consequences of racism and white preference. It was a fascinating story, incredibly well-told, and thoroughly enjoyable!