YA – The Vanishing Half

Bennett, Brit. The Vanishing Half. Riverhead Books. 2020. 978-0-525-53629-1. 343 pp. $27.00. Gr. 10+.

In 1954, the morning after Founders Day, the 16-year old Vignes twins disappeared from their tiny town of Mallard, Louisiana. Desiree and Stella made their way to New Orleans, where their lives took two very different directions and identities. Stella began “passing” as white, and Desiree continued living as a black woman. Now, fourteen years later, Desiree has returned to Mallard with a young daughter in tow. Jude’s dark complexion makes waves in Mallard, a town founded on the principle of prizing each generation’s lighter and lighter skin tones. No one has seen or heard from Stella in almost as many years. The narrative shifts between 1968, when Desiree and Jude arrive in Mallard, and 1978, when Jude herself leaves to attend UCLA. There she falls in love with a trans man named Reese. Brit Bennett expertly depicts each time period and setting, weaving in real-world events such the integration of wealthy suburban neighborhoods, the murder of Martin Luther King, Jr., and the early days of the AIDS crisis. She realistically embeds each woman’s story within the timeline, gradually turning up the tension in one plot strand before focusing on another, equally well-crafted, character arc. No jaw-dropping plot twists are required in a historical novel this good, with storylines that converge, draw apart, and come together again with heartbreaking realism.

THOUGHTS: Crisp, unpretentious writing, vivid settings, and characters who genuinely feel real make for one of the best reads of 2020.

Historical Fiction          Amy V. Pickett, Ridley SD

New YA Fiction – The Girls; Essential Maps…


Cline, Emma. The Girls. New York: Random House, 2016. 978-0-8129-9860-3. 355 pp. $27.00. Gr. 10 and up.

In the summer of 1969, California girl Evie Boyd finds herself stuck in between childhood and adolescence, junior high and boarding school, and her recently divorced parents and their new love interests. She’s also bored and looking for something, or someone, to inject a spark into the long summer days. She stumbles into a friendship with an older girl named Suzanne, who soon introduces her to Russell and the makeshift family he’s assembled on a decaying desert ranch. Charismatic Russell brings 14-year old Evie into the fold through lavish attention and sexual initiation. Russell is a fictionalized version of Charles Manson, and The Girls is loosely structured around well-known historical events. But, as the title suggests, Cline’s focus is Evie, her relationship to the other girls on the ranch (especially Suzanne and the “blessed space of her attention”), and how close Evie drifts to life-altering violence. This impending violence filters through the entire narrative, and is also referenced in alternating chapters told from a middle-aged Evie’s point of view. Cline’s writing is atmospheric and inventive; for example, she describes a picture as “the unreal ocean and sky sandwiching a sugary rib of beach.” However, at times her style overwhelms the storyline’s pacing. THOUGHTS: Emma Cline’s debut novel is a compelling portrait of pivotal female connections. The perennially intriguing Manson Family premise will attract readers to this coming-of-age novel, but note that Evie’s sexual encounters (an indelible part of her loss of innocence) make this book most appropriate for very mature teens.  Plenty of books, articles, and documentaries about the Manson Family exist, but for an age-appropriate overview visit Biography.com’s “Charles Manson Biography.”

Historical Fiction (1960s)      Amy V. Pickett, Ridley High School Library



Caletti, Deb. Essential Maps for the Lost.  New York: Simon Pulse, 2016.  978-1-4814-1516-3. 325 p.  $17.99.  Gr. 9 and up.

Madison “Mads” Murray is spending the summer with her aunt and uncle in Seattle in order to finish up her real estate courses.  Despite the fact that she wants to go to college, her future has already been decided for her; she will pass her exams and then go into business with her extremely needy mother.  Everything changes, however, when she goes for a swim one morning and discovers the body of a woman who committed suicide. Unable to forget the woman’s face, Mads begins to research the woman, and when she discovers that the woman left a son, Billy Youngwolf Floyd, behind, she is unable to contain her curiosity.  What she doesn’t know is that the friendship she is about to begin with Billy will turn into so much more, and by not being honest with him about his mother, she might just destroy herself and everyone she cares about.  Told in alternating chapters from Mads’s and Billy’s points of view, this love story will give readers hope that even when the world seems dark and cruel, there is always love and beauty in it.  THOUGHTS: This book would pair well with From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, as there are multiple references to this title throughout the book.  It is also a great addition to any high school collection on depression and suicide, as both main characters struggle with bouts of depression and thoughts of suicide at some point in the book.  Because of these heavy topics and because of a few steamy love scenes (“Mouths on mouths, hands shoved down pants, if he doesn’t get them a bed soon, he’ll go crazy”), I would recommend this book to older students.

Realistic Fiction        Julie Ritter, Montoursville Area High School

Full Cicada Moon


Hilton, Marilyn.  Full Cicada Moon.  New York: Dial, 2015.  978-0-525-42875-6.  $17.99. 400 p.  Grades 5-8.

It’s 1969, and Mimi Yoshiko Oliver and her mother are finally moving to Vermont to be with Mimi’s father.  Mimi’s father is a college professor, but their new neighbors are not used to living with people who are “different”, especially with someone like Mimi, who is half black and half Japanese.  Mimi’s father tells her to, “Be kind, be respectful, and persist.”  Mimi takes his advice to heart.  In spite of continued bigotry, she begins to make good friends.  She grows close to a girl named Stacey (another professor’s daughter) and Timothy (the boy next door who lives with his bigoted uncle). She does well at school and dreams of being an astronaut when she gets older.

Mimi is angry when she discovers that she will not be allowed to take shop. Only boys are able to take shop; girls need to learn how to sew and cook.  She decides to calmly and politely protest the school’s policy and ends up getting suspended.  During the time that she is away from school, her classmates show their support by staging a sit-in.  This is all happening during a time of tremendous social change; protests over the Vietnam War are raging on, and the Apollo Space Program is putting a man on the moon.  Change is also beginning to take place in Mimi Yoshiko Oliver’s corner of Vermont, and her life will never be the same.

Historical Fiction (1960s); Novel in Verse         Susan Fox, Washington JSHS

This is a wonderful book.  Mimi is a likeable heroine, and you can’t help rooting for her.  The verse format manages to convey Mimi’s frustrations, sadness, and ultimate joy in only a few words.  The author is also able to capture the ethos of a turbulent period in American history within the limits of this format, and it is beautiful.  This book is highly recommended for middle and junior high school students.

I’m Glad I Did


Weil, Cynthia. I’m Glad I Did. New York: Soho Teen, 2015. 978-1-61695-356-0. 264p. $18.99. Gr. 7 and up.

Justice Jeanette “JJ” Green was born into a family of lawyers and is expected to follow in her parents footsteps, but JJ is not interested in law.  She dreams of being a songwriter!  As a teenage girl in 1963, this is no easy task.  JJ manages to land a job in the music business as a secretary thanks to her estranged Uncle Bernie.  JJ meets Luke in the Brill Building elevator.  He becomes her song-writing partner, and maybe something more?  Can they write a song and record a demo by summer’s end?  Or will JJ’s dreams of working in the  music business be over?  JJ gets the chance to record a demo with Dulcie Brown, a legendary singer who has fallen on hard times and is working as a custodian in the building.  I’m Glad I Did has secrets, a tragedy, hidden identities, and a mystery.  This book will keep you reading to find out what happens to all of the characters.

Historical Fiction    Rachel Gutzler, Wilson High School
JJ is a great character.  She is smart, driven, and follows her passion for songwriting.  I always look for books that have music as a theme, and music was central to this book.  I particularly enjoyed the cultural references of the early 60s and the knowledge that the author had of the recording industry.  Cynthia Weil, although she is a first time YA author, was a songwriter at the Brill Building in the 1960s, and the story seemed very authentic because of her knowledge. It took a little while for the mystery/event to occur, so I kept reading, thinking that something bad was going to happen, but the story really picked up pace during the last half of the book and kept me very interested right up to the end. Great job to this first-time author.