YA – Somewhere Between Bitter and Sweet

Kemp, Laekan Zea. Somewhere Between Bitter and Sweet. Little, Brown and Company, 2021. 978-0-316-46027-9, 343 p. $17.99. Grades 8-12.

Somewhere Between Bitter and Sweet hits all the right notes for a young person’s fantasy romance. In alternating narratives, the reader follows the growing romance between talented Mexican-American chef, Penelope (Pen) Parado, and undocumented restaurant worker, Xander Amaro. Nachos Tacos is Pen’s father’s restaurant in Austin, Texas, and the salvation of the neighborhood, providing a handout or employment to many, despite the glaring threat of a ruthless loan shark, J.P. Martello. The restaurant is dear to Pen’s heart–not only because it is there she can express her culinary skills–but also because of the sense of family it represents. She is devastated when she is banished from the restaurant after confessing to her parents that she has not attended a full semester of nursing school. Traditional Mr. Parado expects his older son, Angel, to carry on the business despite Angel’s disinterest. New employee, Xander, enters the wait staff on Pen’s last day, and though some point out her brash, bossy manner, he is smitten. Eighteen-year old, independent Pen finds a cheap apartment with the help of bff Chloe and a wretched job at a Taco Bell-like establishment. In spite of her take-charge personality, Pen suffers from self esteem issues and the narrative alludes to some self-harming; she does take medication for her low moods. In addition to being undocumented, Xander is actively searching for his father who left the family when Xander was a toddler and has never attempted contact with either Xander or his own father, Xander’s guardian. As the narration asserts, each has their own scars. The chapters develop with Pen dealing positively with her complicated love-hate relationship with her father and Xander’s appreciation of his feelings of belonging to the ragtag Nacho crew. Their days revolve around working in their respective restaurants, hanging out with the other Nacho workers, food, and their romance until the restaurant’s future is in jeopardy from the menacing loan shark. This antagonist brings the needed friction for the story, culminating in a predictable conclusion that leaves the reader with admiration for the resiliency of Pen and Xander and their Latinx neighborhood.

THOUGHTS: There is nothing too deep here or too risky (Pen and Xander have some deep kisses and smoldering feelings, but nothing more; some foul language and drinking). Latinx author Kemp tells an old-fashioned love story with the typical tropes but with more interesting words and the addition of some mental health and immigration issues. Her major and minor characters are likeable and developed. One unexpected relationship is Xander’s friendship with the local police officers, despite his undocumented status. Younger teens wanting a romance or older ones looking for an escape novel will be hooked.

Realistic Fiction          Bernadette Cooke, School District of Philadelphia

Teeny Little Grief Machines…a High/Low Novel


High, Linda Oatman. Teeny Little Grief Machines. Costa Mesa: Saddleback Educational, 2014. 978-1-489-84162-9.  $15.99. Gr. 9-12.

“Sexy Lexi” finally finds her voice.  In this novel, Lexi is a caregiver to her 8-year-old brother with autism, a stepdaughter to bipolar, chain smoking Tanya, sister to three-week-old ghost, Carissa Grace, and daughter to an incarcerated-once-again father. Isolated from everyone she loves, Lexi searches for a way to connect.  Grasping, she begins to drown in the isolation, cutting herself, smoking marijuana, and finally, breaking down in front of everyone at school.  Hospitalized after the episode, she begins to come into who she is and own who she is.  Linda Oatman High creates a character who readers are able to invest their empathy and sympathy.  Doubting why people are born to live lives filled with despair, Lexi floats in and out of self awareness, finally fitting into herself.

The novel is a high interest low reading level novel.  The cover shows a girl drowning, and Lexi is drowning in her grief, her isolation, and wanting to be “normal”. Students who are on the edge can easily identify with Lexi, her grief, socioeconomic status, dysfunctional family, and low self-esteem.   Because of these risk factors, the novel does pull in the students who can relate.  That she is enticed by a “bad boy” who is the “King of the Weed”, only intensifies the need to like Lexi.  The author tries to add in a romantic aspect, but does not elaborate, only introducing us at the end.

Novel in Verse     Brooke Gerlach, Manheim Central Middle School

Kiss of Broken Glass


Kuderick, Madeleine. Kiss of Broken Glass. New York: HarperTeen, 2014. 978-0-062306-562 208 p. $17.99. Gr. 7-12.
“So here’s the thing about being Baker Acted…”  This well-crafted novel-in-verse opens with Kenna’s anger about being “Baker Acted” or involuntarily committed for a 72-hour stay in a psychological ward for being caught cutting with the blade from a pencil sharpener in the school bathroom.  She observes and interacts with the others in her midst who impact her deeply.  Her mostly solitary stay leaves time for self-reflection and revelation of the reasons for her cutting: primarily competition and peer pressure from the “Sisters of Broken Glass,” comparisons with an older perfect half-sister, the too-brief high she earns from cutting, and (the worst secret) no reason at all.  Kenna looks to best friend Rennie, leader of the “Sisters,” for support but gets painful rejection instead.  It’s a wake-up call, as is the awareness that she’s lying to younger brother Sean out of shame.  His name pops into her head as “A wish to be a better big sister./A wish to be a halfway decent role model.”  By book’s end, “So here’s the thing about being Released…” Kenna finds that her reasons to cut remain, but her reasons to not cut are more apparent, especially Sean and memories of those during her stay.  Still, she ends with “To tell you the truth, I could go either way.”  Some profanity and descriptions of cutting make this a better read for older teenagers, but anyone who has danced with this addiction will appreciate Kenna’s struggle and insights.  The author’s note explains her research after her own daughter’s episodes with cutting, with a strong list of resources to help.
Realistic Fiction       Melissa Scott, Shenango High School