The Lost Girl

by Anne Ursu
First sentence: “Once upon a time, there were two sisters, alike in every way, except for all the ways they were different.”
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Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There are some scary moments. It’s in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

Iris and Lark are identical twins. And they’ve always been together, from the very start. They’re stronger together, and even though they are different, they help each other out. That is, until this year, their 5th grade year, when their parents (darn them!) decide that it would be better if Iris and Lark are in two different classes. That shakes both girls to their core, but Iris, who’s nominally our main character, is really having a tough time of it. And things get a lot more complicated when she starts frequenting a strange new antique store in town with an odd owner who says there is magic in the world.

I swear I read a tweet by Anne Ursu (who, if you don’t follow on Twitter, you should!) that this book was about girls and friendships and smashing the patriarchy, and I am totally here for all of that. It’s a seriously good book; the parents create conflict by being good parents (which is incredibly unusual) and by trying to stretch their twins in new ways. And it’s uncomfortable (do I really listen to my kids the way they want to be listened to?) and challenging and amazing and wonderful all at the same time. I adored Iris’s loud strength and courage and prickliness and Lark’s whimsical nature and quiet strength. But what I really loved was the way the girls banded together to overcome the conflict. Seriously. Usually in middle grade fiction, it’s the main character Facing the Challenge and Overcoming (maybe with a little help), but very rarely is it a group of kids who work together and are Awesome. Don’t underestimate the power of kids working together.

It’s such a fantastic, wonderful, gorgeous middle grade book.

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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.

Flocks

by L. Nichols
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Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There is some mild swearing and two f-bombs, plus some drinking and self harm and illusions to sex. It’s in the graphic novel section of the bookstore.

I’ll be up front: Nichols is a transgender man who was assigned female at birth in Louisiana and raised in a very religious Southern Baptist family.This is his story.

It’s not just a story of feeling out of place in a religious society — he tried very very hard to pray the gay away from the time he was young — but also feeling out of place in his own body. The only place he felt at home and at peace was in nature. He graduated from high school and went to MIT (the first in his family to go to college) where the sense of displacement both increased and decreased. Decreased because he was among friends who accepted him and cared about him for who he was; increased because he loathed his body — he began cutting himself — and couldn’t figure out why (that is, until he had a realization that it was because he wasn’t male enough). It’s a very personal story, as one would expect from a memoir, but one that raises some interesting questions about religion and community.

I loved Nichols’ art as well. Everyone is drawn fairly realistically except him, and he’s in this doll-esque shape, which I loved because it allowed him to not only be the gender he was assigned at birth (while simultaneously demonstrating his obvious discomfort with himself) but it allows the reader to empathize more with him as a character. It’s quite clever, and I loved it.

I also loved that this made me think, not just about trans people, but about how communities include and exclude others and the benefits and disadvantages of that. I appreciated his (inadvertent) critique of religion vs. God and it made me want to be more open and kind to others. We’re all struggling here, why add hate to the pile?

Excellent.

Dear Mr. Henshaw

by Beverly Cleary
First sentence: “Dear Mr. Henshaw,  My teacher read your book about the dog to our class.”
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Content:  It’s simple without being simplistic, and deals with some tougher themes like bullying and divorce. It’s in the Newbery Medal section of the bookstore.

Even though I was the perfect age when this came out (I was 11 in 1983), somehow I missed it. Maybe I didn’t pick it up because by the time I was 11 I was reading Agatha Christie and trying to read War in Peace, and this would have seemed too simplistic for me. (Also, maybe the boy on the cover turned me off? I don’t know.) But, having read it now (for the first time!), I’m sorry I missed out on it.

It’s the story of a boy, Leigh Botts, who writes to his favorite author, and over the course of the book, figures out a bit about himself. His parents are divorced; his dad’s a trucker and his mom works at a catering company. He doesn’t see much of his dad at all, and because he’s in a new school, he’s finding it difficult to make friends. And so he turns to Mr. Henshaw, his favorite author, writing him letters. Eventually, those letters become a journal, and eventually that journal helps Leigh figure out things. At least a little bit.

This is the sort of book I needed when I was 11. We had just moved and I was starting a brand-new school in sixth grade, one where everyone had grown up together and I was most definitely the outsider, so I could completely empathize with Leigh. No, my parents weren’t divorced, but I understood his loneliness and his desire to be accepted and loved. I loved that there was a teacher who was good to Leigh, but didn’t play the “inspiring teacher” role. Leigh did figure things out by himself, with just a bit of guidance by the author and his teacher and his mom.  It was delightfully different from the other Cleary books I read this summer, more weighty and less, well, simplistic. It ended hopefully but not happily, and it gave me things to think about. And I think it definitely deserved the Newbery Medal it won.

Excellent.

Lifesaving Lessons

by Linda Greenlaw
First sentence: “Confrontation was imminent.”
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Content: There’s some swearing, including a number of f-bombs. Plus some discussion of sexual abuse of an adult and a minor.

I read a few of Linda Greenlaw’s books way back when and although I didn’t keep up with what she was doing, when I found that she was coming to the store for the paperback version of her latest memoir, I snagged at the chance to both see her and read the book.

This one is a memoir of how she became a mother, of sorts. It’s the story of a girl who came to the island from an abusive family, with an uncle who was seen as a savior. That is, until she escaped one night, and the truth came out: her uncle was sexually and emotionally abusing her. It’s not a pleasant story to read; Greenlaw pulls no punches when talking about the abuse. She’s not graphic either, but rather giving us the full emotional heartache that her daughter — and the island — went through because of this. And how she ended up the legal guardian — and eventually feeling like a mother figure — of the girl.

It’s a hopeful book in the end, though. It’s not an easy road, with a lot of ups and downs, but Greenlaw takes us along for the ride in her frank, yet engaging way. I was drawn into her island way of life again, and worked through her problems with her. I wanted things to work out the best for Greenlaw and her ward, and it was that desire that kept me plugging through what usually would be considered Other People’s Problems.

I’m not sure it’s a book for everyone. But I did find the journey interesting.