YA – All Boys Aren’t Blue

Johnson, George M. All Boys Aren’t Blue. Farrar Straus Giroux Books for Young Readers, 2020. 978-0-374-31271-8. 320 p. $17.99. Grades 9-12.

George Matthew Johnson’s first memory is having his teeth kicked out by a white boy, seemingly for no reason other than his race. His first identity crisis happens in elementary school when he learns that his first name was actually George, not Matthew. From that point on, the author struggles with his identity and how he fits into a world that did not accept Black people or queer people and definitely not a young boy who was both. Johnson realizes at a young age that boys are supposed to be masculine, which means being tough, playing football, and conforming to these ideas without question. But he prefers to jump Double Dutch with the girls and wear cowboy boots to Disneyland. For his own mental and physical survival, he learns to code-switch in elementary school – he can impress the boys with his athletic ability when necessary but also gossip with the girls. While Johnson has a fantastic support system in his family, he knows that not all Black queer teens do – and so he wrote this book to serve as guidance. Each chapter is entwined with the lessons Johnson learned along the way in the hopes that Black queer teens will not have to figure them out the hard way.

THOUGHTS: This memoir manifesto is incredibly timely in light of current events. Johnson’s experiences in his life have made him extremely insightful about society, and his insights should (and do) make the reader think about what behaviors are expected of boys practically from birth. This memoir is a critically essential book to have in a high school library as it can provide two things: a window in which to see how those who are different struggle to find acceptance and a mirror for teenagers who are struggling under the weight of the labels society forces upon them.

306.76 Memoir          Danielle Corrao, Ephrata Area SD

YA – In Focus (Series Nonfiction)

In Focus. BrightPoint Press, 2020. $31.05 ea. $155.25 set of 5. 80 p. Grades 7-12.

Barton, Jen. School Shootings. 978-1-68282-721-5.
Cornell, Kari A. Fake News. 978-1-68282-715-4.
Erikson, Marty. The #MeToo Movement.  978-1-68282-717-8.
—. Refugees. 978-1-68282-719-2.
—. Transgender Rights. 978-1-68282-723-9.

The publisher declares this imprint as young adult nonfiction for struggling and ELL readers. The packaging works for young adults, who will find the physical packaging to visually blend with other on-level resources and may need to be encouraged to use these resources (if they have come to believe they cannot tackle typical young adult nonfiction).  Examples shared in the books cover current issues from worldwide perspectives. The monotony of the writing (subject-verb-complement) to suit the 4th grade reading level stunts the text and at times even deadens or disjoints the issue. For example, “Some colonists wanted to overthrow British rule. They wanted to be independent. This led to the Revolutionary War. Some colonists wrote exaggerated stories. These stories spread rumors about the government. John and Samuel Adams were cousins. They lived in Massachusetts. They wrote anti-government stories” (20). The most helpful chapters come at the end of the books, where tips to see through fake news, or how to support the #MeToo Movement, are shared.  Additional resources are few but useful.

THOUGHTS: Useful where there is a definite need for hi-lo nonfiction for young adults. (Titles reviewed were: Fake News and The #MeToo Movement.)

300s: Social Issues                Melissa Scott, Shenango Area SD

YA – Nowhere on Earth

Lake, Nick. Nowhere on Earth. Alfred A. Knopf, 2020. 978-1-984-89644-5. 292 p. $17.99. Grades 7-10.

Emily would do anything to protect her little brother, Aiden, even stowing away on a bush plane when the men in black start following him around town. But crashing in the Alaskan wilderness wasn’t in the plan. However, the rapid arrival of men with guns, shooting at them, propels Emily into action. She, Aiden, and Bob, the injured pilot, head out across the dangerous landscape, trying to put distance between themselves and the hunters, making their way towards safety. The book opens with the plane crash and the adrenaline doesn’t let down. Emily’s and Aiden’s backstories are revealed as the story unfolds, including Emily’s tempestuous relationship with her parents. Emily does come to appreciate the myriad survival lessons her ex-special-ops father taught her, as well as the beauty of the Alaskan territory, but deeply resents her parents for moving from Minneapolis and forcing her to leave behind her beloved ballet. The book begins as an adventure-survival tale, but then evolves into so much more, including a massive plot-twist and several thought provoking ethical issues. A few threads could have been more fully developed, including a hint that the plane crashed due to sabotage, but readers will be forgiving.

THOUGHTS: This hard to pigeon hole book should find a home with a wide variety of readers. Perfect for those who prefer a book that grabs you from the first page, but also gives satisfaction to readers looking for some depth.

Science Fiction          Nancy Nadig, Penn Manor SD

YA – Kind of a Big Deal

Hale, Shannon. Kind of a Big Deal. Roaring Brook, 2020. 978-1-250-20623-7. 400 p. $18.99. Grades 7-12.

Back in high school, Josie was kind of a big deal. A talented actress, she left school early to take Broadway by storm. Only, it didn’t quite work out the way it was supposed to. Now, a Broadway failure with monumental credit card debt, she’s living in Missoula, Montana, working as a nanny and trying to recapture that magnificent life she remembers, back when she was a big deal. After impulsively purchasing a romance novel one day while taking her adorable charge, Mia, to the park, Josie opens the book (the first she’s read since The Scarlet Letter in school) and shortly finds herself experiencing the plot from inside the story. A la The Wizard of Oz, the story is peopled with individuals she passed around town: customers in the bookstore, the sales clerk, individuals in the park. Josie is both fascinated and terrified by the experience: she likes the take-charge person she is in the story, but struggles to get back to reality and make sure Mia is safe. But the adventure is addictive, and once Josie finishes reading the first book, she’s back for more. As Josie genre-jumps, the experiences work as bibliotherapy, assisting her in assessing her life, and realizing she needs to move on from high school, and let her supportive best friend and her boyfriend move on as well. But, it turns out, the creative muses are not done with Josie, and when she gets wrapped up in one book too many, she will need to rely on all the skills and knowledge she has gained to save herself, as well as others trapped in the world of stories. Hale presents a delightful YA story. Josie is an appealingly sweet character, and her journeys inside the books will be amusing to any reader. Like Josie’s book hopping episodes, the plot refuses to stand still, continually twisting in another direction until the surprise ending. While Josie is on the cusp of adulthood, the book is refreshingly free of sex, profanity, and other vices. Like on the stage, Josie is the star, and she is all the story needs. Readers will cheer for her to realize she is a big deal, in the story of her own making.

THOUGHTS:  Hale’s YA entry is a bubbly read with a deeper message. Dedicated readers will enjoy the genre spoofs (the dystopian ordeal is far and away the best segment), but it will be interesting to see if students not yet through high school can relate to Josie needing to walk away from those years and move on. I hope so! I want more Hale YA books.

Fantasy (Realistic)          Nancy Nadig, Penn Manor SD

YA – Traitor

McCrina, Amanda. Traitor. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2020. 978-0-374-31352-4. 368 p. $18.99. Grades 7-12. 

War is not clean and neat, and McCrina’s Traitor masterfully portrays the emotional and ethical wreckage it causes. The two-pronged storyline begins with Tolya, in July 1944. A young soldier in the Soviet army during World War II, Tolya keeps his head down. With his Ukranian father executed as a traitor, and his mother shot for being Polish, his loyalties do not lie with the Soviets, but he enlisted because he was alone and hungry. When he shoots his unit’s political officer during an assault on a young woman, it’s only a matter of time until the NKVD, the Soviet Secret Police, arrest and shoot him. However, when he is whisked away, it turns out to be an extraction by the Ukranian Insurgent Army, who are looking for a sniper to assassinate a high ranking Soviet officer. The alternate plot line begins in June 1941, following young Ukranian Aleksey who is attempting to break  his Ukranian nationalist hero father out of a Russian controlled Polish prison prior to the arrival of German troops. As life deteriorates in the Polish city, an injured Aleksey and his brother, Mykola, find themselves in the care of the Polish Resistance. Both plotlines highlight the confusing disintegration of loyalties as the Germans advance into Russian territory. While the Russians had allied themselves with the Polish resistance earlier in the war, now they are actively hunting and killing them. Astute readers may pick up on the connection between the two plotlines early in the book; most will unravel it deeper into the story, hindered by the profusion of characters with unfamiliar names. But the ultimate moral of the story is that there are no winners in war. Readers’ hearts will ache for the profound loneliness of both Tolya and Aleksey, as they cannot bring themselves to trust anyone. Ultimately, it seems, everyone’s goal is to just survive. A character list and an outline of military units at the end of the book are extremely useful to readers in keeping the complex stories organized.

THOUGHTS: This outstanding historical fiction story highlights a lesser known corridor of World War II. The era is presented in deeply humanistic terms, highlighting the psychological toll war causes on those caught up against their will. It can be a challenging read with dozens of characters and multiple factions to keep straight, but the reward is magnificent. Hand this stunning book to Alan Gratz fans who are ready for something more mature. 

Historical Fiction          Nancy Nadig, Penn Manor SD

YA – Fable

Young, Adrienne. Fable. Wednesday Books, 2020. 978-1-250-25437-5. 368 p. $18.99. Grades 7-12.

Four years ago, the day after a storm wrecked his ship and drowned his wife, Fable’s father, legendary sea-trader Saint, abandoned his 14-year-old daughter on the barbaric island of Jeval, leaving her to fend for herself on the brutal colony. Because she inherited her mother’s abilities as a gem sage, someone who can communicate with jewels, Fable survived as a dredger, mining gems from the sea, and making enough money to eventually purchase passage off the island, find Saint, and claim her place with his crew. But once she forces her way onto a trading ship, the Marigold, she wonders what secrets the small, young crew are keeping, even while being drawn in by their tight bond. When Saint refuses her appeal, sending her away with an unexpected inheritance, Fable has nowhere to turn but back to the Marigold and hope they will take her in. This lyrical novel, packed with adventure, quickly grabs the reader and doesn’t let go. Fable was raised on the sea, and she inherently loves being on board a ship. Young vividly conveys the routine of sailing a ship and the rhythm of the sea. Her world building is exquisite, and the port towns come alive, in their grandeur and squalor. Her characters are finely limned, and the hint of romance will satisfy. However, Fable has a flaw of always pushing the limit, and eventually she pays for a momentary slip, leaving readers hanging, awaiting the sequel.

THOUGHTS: This novel should find a wide audience, pleasing both action-adventure and romance fans.

Action/Adventure          Nancy Nadig, Penn Manor SD

YA – It Sounded Better in My Head

Kenwood, Nina. It Sounded Better in My Head. Flatiron Books, 2020. 978-1-250-21926-8. 260 p. $18.99. Grade. 8-12.

Natalie had a good grip on her life until her parents jovially announce they’re getting a divorce. They’ve known this for months but waited until the Christmas holidays and high school graduation (which coincide in Australia, where the book was first published). A rarity for literature, Natalie has a great relationship with her parents and is devastated by the news and hurt by their deceit. She turns to her support network, her best friends Lucy and Zach. But since they started dating, Natalie sometimes feels like a third wheel. Having suffered through severe, scarring acne during puberty, Natalie has a shattered self image and has not dated. At a party, she connects with Alex, Zach’s older brother, but quickly convinces herself Alex’s interest was an act of kindness perpetrated by Zach. But an accidental case of musical bedrooms at a beach house over New Year’s brings Natalie and Alex back into close proximity, and as they talk they again feel a positive connection. However, Natalie’s lack of confidence and poor self image quickly threaten to sabotage the burgeoning relationship. This engaging book covers a topic not discussed in YA literature, the trauma of severe teen acne, and the scars it leaves, both physical and psychological. Natalie is a bright teen with caring parents and friends, but the long term effects of her acne are evident in her image, (styling her hair to cover which side of her face looks worse) confidence, and self-worth. American readers will need to translate Australian terms and references but will recognize themselves in the three friends as they shakily navigate through the next phase in their lives.

THOUGHTS: A welcome addition to YA realistic fiction collections. While some characters have sex off-page, Natalie and Alex discuss the issue and decide they are not ready.

Realistic Fiction          Nancy Nadig, Penn Manor SD

YA – If These Wings Could Fly

McCauley, Kyrie. If These Wings Could Fly. Katherine Tegen Books, 2020. 978-0-062-88502-9. 385 p. $17.99. Grades 9-12.

Crows. Hundreds and then thousands of them arrive in Auburn, Pennsylvania seemingly overnight. Are they a sign of the unease and anger that lays just beneath the surface of this tiny town? Leighton is your typical senior in high school – struggling with the advances of classmate Liam, applying to college, and balancing school and family. She is also her sisters’ protector – as her father is a violent and abusive man. Leighton’s father was a high school football star until an injury took him out. Holding this against the town and struggling with a failing family business leads to him destroying their home with his words and fists. Leighton is terrified to leave her sisters to go to college, her mother will not leave him, and every day the crow population grows. The girls show an interest in one particular crow, Joe, who seemingly knows what to bring and steal at their home. As the town grapples with how to remove the crows, Leighton and Liam attempt to finally remove the family from the domestic violence in their home. It’s not easy as it seems though…

THOUGHTS: A gripping story of survival amidst a small town, this is a book you will want to devour in a single sitting. The story does a fantastic job of showing what an abusive home can do to children, but still provides hope that there is a way out. The author does a remarkable job of balancing the influence of the crows on the mood throughout, and it brings the story together beautifully.

Realistic Fiction        Jillian Gasper, Northwestern Lehigh SD

YA – When You Were Everything

Woodfolk, Ashley. When You Were Everything. Delacorte Press, 2019. 978-1-524-71591-5. $17.99. 385 p. Grades 9 and up.

Cleo hasn’t spoken to her best friend, Layla, in 27 days. Everywhere she goes in her hometown of New York City, the ghost of their friendship lurks. Tired of torturing herself, Cleo comes up with a plan to erase all memories and associations of Layla by creating new memories surrounding her triggers like the park where they first met and the diner they frequented. A good plan in theory, all of Cleo’s meticulous plotting is rendered moot when she is not only forced to see Layla at school but also – even worse –  assigned to tutor her in English. Cleo tries desperately to figure out Life-After-Layla, but being forced to see her makes it difficult. It seems like her memory erasure plan might work when she decides to go back to Dolly’s Diner alone and runs into Dom – a cute boy she met at a party a few months ago with Layla – and Sydney – another girl in her class. However, Cleo explains, “My faith in friendship has been shaken, and I’m not sure if I’ll ever get it back.” This novel is written in an alternating timeline from the present to the months leading up to Cleo and Layla’s break-up, revealing that Cleo is not completely innocent in the unraveling of their friendship.

THOUGHTS: Cleo narrates, “Girls wage endless wars with their voices, tearing you apart without touching you at all.” So many YA novels feature these epic female friendships, but for many girls this is not reality. In our culture where the expression “BFF/Best-Friends Forever” is thrown around like an expected fact of life, this book is an extremely important read for all girls. Female friendship break-ups can be just as heartbreaking – if not worse – than a romantic break-up, especially as teenagers when talk of the friendship lasting “forever” occurs much more frequently than in a high school romantic relationship. Woodfolk’s narrator is not perfect, but she is real, and her narration is raw and emotional. There are tons of songs and poems to help with the catharsis of emotions after a romantic break-up; Ashley Woodfolk has written a rare one for the friendship break-up with this novel.

Realistic Fiction          Sarah Strouse, Nazareth Area SD

YA – You Should See Me in a Crown

Johnson, Leah. You Should See Me in a Crown. Scholastic Press, 2020. 978-1-338-50326-5. $17.99. 324 p. Grades 9 and up.

This is not your average prom court story. From Liz Lighty’s motivation to run for queen to her underdog status and even the hype surrounding this rural Indiana town’s epic prom season traditions, this prom plot is anything but trite. When Liz finds out she did not get the scholarship she needs to afford Pennington College, the school of her dreams, she does the only thing she can think of that could quickly replace that money, and it’s the last thing she ever imagined herself doing. Prom in Campbell County, Indiana is an institution, and the king and queen win $10,000 scholarships – exactly the amount of money she needs to make Pennington happen. Now, Liz – who has purposely stayed under the radar her entire high school career – throws herself into the month-long campaign for a spot on the prom court by doing volunteer work and getting as much positive attention as she can on the school’s gossipy social media app: Campbell Confidential. Being an outsider – an unpopular band kid who is one of only a few Black girls at her school – is just one of many hurdles she’ll have to overcome if she wants that crown and scholarship. Aside from her few close friends, no one at school knows that Liz is queer. When a new girl unexpectedly shows up at the first prom campaign meeting, Liz finds herself immediately crushing on this skateboard-riding underdog. Dating Mack – who is also now her competition –  is exactly the type of publicity Liz does NOT want if she’s going to win that scholarship in this very conservative town, forcing her to choose which to listen to: her head or her heart.

THOUGHTS: Leah Johson’s debut novel is laugh-out-loud funny and gosh darn adorable. Novels that tackle serious issues faced by BIPOC/LGBTQ characters are extremely important, but it’s also important to see these characters experience joy in their everyday lives. That’s not to say this book lacks serious moments because it does have them. (Liz’s brother’s health and close-minded faculty/students, for example, make for some weighty scenes). It is a feel-good story overall though with a romance full of “aww”-worthy moments, an amazing supporting cast of friends and family (Liz’s grandparents and her friend Stone are particularly fun), and it is definitely a great addition to any teen collection.

Realistic Fiction          Sarah Strouse, Nazareth Area SD


Liz Lighty dreams of leaving the small town of Campbell, Indiana behind to attend her mother’s alma mater Pennington College and become a doctor. Liz has worked hard to secure financial aid and is devastated to learn that she isn’t getting it. An excellent student and musician, Liz refuses to give up on her dream and put her grandparents into financial troubles. Liz is determined to find another way to Pennington when she is reminded of the annual prom court competition (and $10,000 scholarship for the king and queen). Terrified of the added attention (Liz has anxiety), Liz decides prom court is her best opportunity. Liz isn’t openly out which has never been a problem for her close friends, but Campbell has strict rules for potential prom court members that are steeped in tradition. Adding all of the expected volunteer events to her busy schedule isn’t easy, but spending time with new girl – and fellow prom court competition – Mack is worth it. With the help of her friends, Liz is slowly climbing the Campbell Confidential (social media app) prom court rankings and might actually stand a chance. But falling for Mack might jeopardize everything Liz has worked hard to achieve. Liz knows she’ll find her place at Pennington if she can earn this scholarship, but is getting to Pennington worth not being true to herself?

THOUGHTS: This debut tackles tough topics in a way that will appeal widely to high school readers. Liz has been through a lot in her life, and readers will root for her from the beginning. Highly recommended, this one is a must have for high school collections.

Realistic Fiction          Maryalice Bond, South Middleton SD