Brantley-Newton, Vanessa. Becoming Vanessa. Knopf Books for Young Readers, 2021. 978-0-525-58212-0 p. 40. $17.95. Grades K-3.
The first day of school still gives most of us butterflies in our stomachs. We most likely remember the anticipation, the excitement, and the desire to put our best face forward in making a good impression. Vanessa, the main character in Becoming Vanessa, written by Vanessa Brantley-Hewton, feels all of these emotions on her first day of school as well. Vanessa puts on her fanciest outfit and her best smile for her first day of meeting her new classmates; however, she receives the attention she wasn’t expecting. Vanessa definitely stands out and begins to feel that her clothes are too bright, her boa has too many feathers, and her shoes are too shiny. Her classmates don’t seem to appreciate her bold outfit choice as much as she was hoping. Vanessa’s self-confidence begins to dwindle, and she begins to believe that she should blend in with her classmates and not stand out.
After a tough day at school, Vanessa has a conversation with her mother that helps rebuild her confidence and gives her a new perspective on how to be herself AND share her fabulous self with others. Becoming Vanesa is inspired by the author’s real childhood and is full of self-love.
THOUGHTS: Vanessa Brantley- Newton has become a favorite author (and illustrator too!) of mine! She is the author and illustrator of Grandma’s Purse and Just Like Me, two other fabulous picture books for young readers. Her stories burst with positivity by lifting up young girls around the world with her stories and placing girls of color at the center of the story. I cannot wait for more beautiful work from her!
Tokuda-Hall, Maggie, and Lisa Sterle. Squad. Greenwillow Books, 2021. 978-0-06-294314-9. 224 pp. $14.99. Grades 9-12.
Becca’s single mom recently moved to Piedmont, California, so Becca could graduate from an outstanding high school and enjoy a safe, upper-class community. To her own surprise, Becca is befriended by Piedmont High’s most elite “squad” of girls, led by ultra-rich Arianna. But these girls have a secret, alluded to in the graphic novel’s vibrant cover art: they are werewolves. Becca loves belonging to a tight clique, but their collective hunger has a price. On the full moon they must feed, usually on the overly aggressive boys they meet at parties. When Becca accidentally kills one of Piedmont’s own (Arianna’s unfaithful boyfriend Thatcher) the squad risks exposure, and everyone’s loyalty is put to the test. Squad features ethnically diverse characters (Becca is depicted as Asian American, fellow squad member Mandy is Black), a healthy dose of camp, and delightful snark. Arianna helpfully informs Becca, for example, “You’re way too pretty to be dressing like a Santa Monica basic.” Comparisons to Heathers, Teen Wolf, and Riverdale are all well-earned!
THOUGHTS: Beneath Lisa Sterle’s fabulous jewel-toned artwork readers will discover powerful messages about consent and the perils of following the pack.
Gould, Courtney. The Dead and the Dark. Wednesday Books, 2021. 978-1-250-76201-6. 371 pp. $18.99. Grades 9-12.
What could possibly go wrong in a town called Snakebite? That’s what celebrity TV ghost-hunters Brandon and Alejo are back in their hometown to discover, with their daughter Logan in tow. Unfortunately, Brandon’s recent arrival for location scouting coincided with the disappearance of local teen Tristan, and many in Snakebite suspect his involvement. Hoping to resolve the town’s suspicion about her dads, Logan teams up with local girl Ashley (Tristan’s girlfriend). Not everything in Ashley and Tristan’s relationship was quite as it seemed from the outside looking in, and there are clues that her partnership with Logan (who is gay) may become something more. Meanwhile, their investigation leads them to an abandoned cabin in the woods, where Ashley receives vivid visions of both Tristan and Brandon. Someone, or something, is hunting the teens in this remote Oregon town, and the race to solve this chilling situation is on. So are the ghost-detecting gadgets, which provide both important clues and light-hearted satire of programs such as Ghost Adventures.
THOUGHTS: Intergenerational, small-town secrets abound in this supernatural horror novel. Debut author Courtney Gould is a writer that horror fans will want to follow; she’s delivered a compelling brew of elements for spooky book season!
Goodman, Jessica. They’ll Never Catch Us. Razorbill, 2021. 978-0-593-11432-2. 330 pp. $17.99. Gr. 9-12.
Did Stella Steckler do something to Mila Keene? That’s the question at the heart of Jessica Goodman’s taut sports mystery set in New York’s Catskill Mountains. In Edgewater, the cross country team reigns supreme, and Stella is the star. Her main competitor is her younger sister, Ellie, who is more of a “people person” than Stella. In fact, Stella has a history of violence; she hurt another runner in an incident that is alluded to and fleshed out throughout the novel. But, after spending the summer at Breakbridge Elite Track and Field Center, Stella is back on a good path and clocking her best times yet. Ellie, meanwhile, is in a relationship with another runner’s boyfriend, and dealing with her complicated feelings about the abortion she had over the summer. When champion runner Mila Keene transfers to Edgewater High, both sisters are drawn to her kindness and ability to listen without judgment. When Mila disappears, the town is plunged back into its years as “Deadwater,” when three girls disappeared from the local resort’s running trails and were later found, murdered, with their shoelaces missing. The cases were never solved, and with a fresh missing person’s case, everyone is a suspect … and Stella isn’t the only one with secrets (and first place finishes) to protect.
THOUGHTS: With chapters alternating between Stella’s and Ellie’s points of view, They’ll Never Catch Us is both a fast-paced mystery and a nuanced portrayal of sisters who fiercely protect each other’s secrets despite their deep mutual distrust. Fans of Karen McManus will run to this one!