YA – Not My Problem

Smyth, Ciara. Not My Problem. Harper Teen, 2021. 978-0-062-95714-6. $17.99. 359 p. Grades 9 and up.

Aideen Cleary has problems. She’s not doing so well in school, her best friend Holly has been drifting from her for the last couple years, and her mom’s occasional drinking binges that make her unfit to parent have Aideen worrying that social services will come knocking on their door any day now. But when she catches her enemy, Meabh Kowalska, throwing an embarrassing hissy fit in the locker room at school, she sees an opportunity to focus on someone else’s problems for a change. Aideen thinks over-achieving Meabh’s problem of just finding more time in her schedule is an easy problem to fix, but Meabh insists on a fool-proof solution. So she asks Aideen to push her down a set of stairs in exchange for a favor she can call in at any time. Though Aideen hesitates at first, given their history, Meabh is pretty easily able to convince Aideen to give her a good shove. Meabh’s ankle effectively sprained, the problem seems solved. Except for the witness to it all, a classmate named Kavi, who swears to secrecy but sees potential in the exchange he just witnessed. The next day, he brings Aideen a friend of his in trouble and asks her to help solve the problem, much like she did for Meabh yesterday. Thus begins Aideen’s semester of stunts, shenanigans, and some new relationships. Aideen’s life might be spiraling out of control, but fixing others’ lives and collecting favors in return seems like a good deal for her. For now.

THOUGHTS: Aideen is foul-mouthed but laugh-out-loud funny in this sophomore novel from the author of last year’s The Falling in Love Montage. Some Irish colloquialisms might trip up teen readers here and there, but it’s part of the experience of reading this story set in Ireland. A story with romance though not necessarily a book I’d classify as romance, I highly recommend this book for YA collections looking to add  LGBTQ+ representation. Aside from a couple sentences mentioning Aideen’s coming out at a young age as difficult, the characters in this book are, as Aideen says, “super woke,” so this book is not about Aideen’s struggles coming out or dealing with bullying because she identifies as lesbian. Her fading friendship with Holly and budding new friendship with Kavi takes just as much (if not, more) of the narrative as her slow-burn enemies-to-lovers relationship with Meabh. Aideen’s complicated relationship with her mom and her mom’s alcoholism and poverty also dominate much of the narrative. While cliche, it’s definitely accurate to say this book has a bit of everything.

Realistic Fiction         Sarah Strouse, Nazareth Area SD

YA – Muted: A Novel in Verse

Charles, Tami. Muted: A Novel in Verse. Scholastic, 2021. 978-1-338-67352-4. $18.99. 386 p. Grades 9-12.

Author Tami Charles, who once belonged to rhythm and blues girl group, relates a compelling story reminiscent of the R. Kelly scandal. She chooses a real-life small town between the Pocono Mountains in Pennsylvania and the Catskills in New York. Drawn to each other because they are the few persons of color in their predominantly white high school, three talented girls are overwhelmed and overjoyed to get the notice of a leading recording artist and record producer, Sean “Mercury” Ellis. Denver LaFleur, a curvy, African American with a powerhouse voice, her talented friends Dalisay Gomez and Shakira Brown, sneak behind their parents’ backs to meet with Merc. When Shak drops out because she has suspicions about Merc’s intentions, Merc whisks Denver and Dali to Atlanta where he grooms them to be performers separately in his mansion on Pristine Road. Gradually, Denver takes center stage, while Merc tells Dali she is not ready. Though Denver finds Merc’s methods stringent and mercurial (he limits her calories and takes away her cell phone and internet) and he adapts and takes credit for her original songs, she does get the chance to cut a demo record and make money. Both girls stay with Merc with their parents’ permission (they are only seventeen when he takes them under his wing) because of the possibility of fame and fortune. However, not long into the novel, Denver has difficulty sorting out the rigor becoming a lead singer requires from the torture of being blocked from her family and true love, Dali. Thinking Dali has returned home to Sholola, their hometown, Denver makes clandestine phone call to Shak and discovers Dali is not back in Pennsylvania. Where is she? Using her wiles, Denver explores Merc’s mansion, uncovering a maze of rooms, each one holding captive girls Merc kidnapped. Told in verse, the book is not graphic, but it is brutal. The ending brings some resolution, although not happy ones. The realistic subject matter conveys successful people get away with incorrigible acts is troubling, yet highly readable.

THOUGHTS: Students will draw parallels between this verse novel and R. Kelly, the R & B singer, and similar allegations of captive girls and sexual misconduct. Denver is a sympathetic, authentic character and her involvement in the glittering world of celebrity makes for an interesting, if depressing, read. The setting in Sholola, Pennsylvania, too, is a draw for local readers. The print in the book is extra tiny; hopefully, the published version will be standard size font. Some cursing and descriptions of sexual activity.

Realistic Fiction          Bernadette Cooke, School District of Philadelphia

Best friends Denver LaFleur, Dalisay (Dali) Gomez, and Shakira (Shak) Brown are the trio that make up Angelic Voices, a singing group with hopes of making it big and getting out of their small town Sholola, Pennsylvania. When Denver sees their opportunity to get noticed in front of Sean “Mercury” Ellis (Merc), she grabs her friends’ hands and presses play on a cell phone to cue up the music. Time stands still as the group beautifully blends harmonies, and they begin to see their dreams within reach. Denver is ready to do whatever it takes to make it. But Shak has doubts about Merc who creeps her out, and she has other obligations with her family, church, and basketball. Shak isn’t ready to sneak around and lie to her family to get her big break, so the trio becomes a duo under Merc’s guidance. Denver and Dali leave their families and move into Merc’s Atlanta mansion. Despite small doubts, Denver is mostly okay as long as Dali is by her side (no one else knows of their secret relationship). Merc has rules, though, to keep his legacy safe and keep the creative juices flowing. The girls hand over their cell phones, have no internet access, sleep in separate parts of the house, and only come out of their rooms when permitted, all in the name of getting into the zone. The next time Denver sees Dali, though, Dali has been on a trip with Merc to have a complete makeover including having work done on her teeth so she no longer needs braces. Denver feels a hint of jealousy with the attention Dali’s been getting while she’s been stuck at home with a personal trainer and very limited food. And there’s Merc’s ever present old school camcorder. Fame isn’t quite what Denver thought it would be, and not being in contact with her family starts to get hard. In a few short months Denver’s life looks entirely different, but is it all worth losing herself and everyone she loves in the process?

THOUGHTS: Readers will root for Denver and cringe at the warning signs she misses. This one would pair well with Tiffany D. Jackson’s Grown and is a must have for high school collections.

Realistic Fiction          Maryalice Bond, South Middleton SD

YA – Rise to the Sun

Johnson, Leah. Rise to the Sun. Scholastic Press, 2021. 978-1-338-66223-8. 336 p. $17.99. Grades 9-12. 

Olivia is planning an epic best friend weekend at the Farmland Music and Arts Festival with Imani. Determined to leave a disastrous junior year behind her, self-proclaimed heartbreak expert Olivia has relied on Imani to get her through too many heartbreaks to count. Reluctant about the Festival, Imani – who always supports and goes along with Olivia – thinks Olivia’s mind should be on other things, like an upcoming judicial hearing. But Olivia can’t focus on that right now, even thought the white lie about a youth church retreat she told her mom does make her feel a little guilty. She wins Imani over because her favorite band is headlining the festival, and Olivia promises a hookup free best friend weekend with great music and a ride on the Ferris wheel. Toni is at the festival – like every summer she can remember – with her best friend Peter. Though nothing is the same as last year, Toni is hoping this year’s festival gives her some much needed clarity and life direction before she goes where she’s supposed to next week. When Toni spots a clear festival newbie, donning impractical attire and literally wrapped up by the tent she’s trying to setup, her weekend goes in a completely different direction. Olivia is determined to play matchmaker between Imani and Peter and can’t help but notice her feelings for Toni. She breaks through Toni’s Ice Queen exterior by offering to help Toni enter the Golden Apple in exchange for help with the #FoundAtFarmland contest. Without another option, Toni agrees, and each girl has a weekend like she couldn’t have imagined. Once the magic of the festival wears off, will Olivia be heartbroken, and what about her promises to Imani?

THOUGHTS: With a loveable, Black bisexual protagonist, readers will root for Olivia to find herself, without losing herself. This whirlwind romance is a must have for high school collections to add more romance or LGBTQ+ titles.

Romance          Maryalice Bond, South Middleton SD

YA – Sweet & Bitter Magic

Tooley, Adrienne. Sweet & Bitter Magic. Margaret K. McElderry Books, 2021. 978-1-534-45385-2. $19.99. 359 p. Grades 9 and up.

It is Tamsin’s seventeenth birthday, a day which is supposed to bring a monumental life choice: Stay Within and serve the coven of witches in which she’s grown up, or leave them to go Beyond and live with common folk. Tamsin’s fate was already decided for her five years ago though when, after practicing dark magic to try to save her twin sister from death, she was banished from Within and cursed to never again feel love. Now she spends her days healing the common folk’s ailments and taking some of their love as payment, just so she can feel SOMETHING, for as long as that little bit of love lasts. Wren spends her days peddling eggs at the market and caring for her father. Everything she does is for him – including keeping her magic a secret. Wren realized at an early age that she is a source – she houses pure magic and would be very valuable to the coven – but magic tore her family apart when she was young, and so Wren keeps this secret from her father. A chance encounter with Tamsin at the market one morning changes all of that. As a plague born of dark magic spreads throughout their village afflicting her father, Wren reveals her talents to Tamsin in hopes that she’ll take her on the hunt for the source of the plague. Tamsin says she’ll hunt the witch responsible – only if Wren offers her love for her father in return. Wren agrees, and thus begins their journey to Beyond, a dangerous journey filled with twists and secrets and a romantic tension almost as dangerous as the dark magic they’re hunting.

THOUGHTS: Though many of us living in 2021 may not want to read a book involving a plague, this is a magic-induced plague, so it feels just escapist enough to not be particularly upsetting; it feels more like a dark spell being cast. It’s also an excellent addition to YA fantasy collections because in a genre flooded with series and duologies, this is a rare standalone, perfect for readers not looking to commit to reading several books.

Fantasy (Witches)          Sarah Strouse, Nazareth Area SD

YA – Cool for the Summer

Adler, Dahlia. Cool for the Summer. Wednesday Books, 2021. 978-1-250-76582-6. $18.99. 255 p. Gr. 9 and up.

Larissa Bogdan returns to her New York suburb school on the first day of her senior year after a whirlwind summer in the Outer Banks, and before she even heads to her first class, her obsessive crush for years, popular football player who never knew she existed, Chase Harding, saunters over to her locker and suddenly starts talking to her. He claims she looks different, and so does her best friend Shannon. She’s got a new haircut and a tan, sure, but her fresh glow is more likely coming from within. Afterall, she just had an unexpectedly amazing summer-long fling with Jasmine Killary, her mom’s boss’s daughter who she shared a house with over the summer. But now out of nowhere, Chase Harding seems interested in her, and before she can even process it, who walks into her school but Jasmine. They haven’t spoken since the last night they spent together in the Outer Banks. Larissa can’t figure out why she’s suddenly going to her school, or why she’s pretending not to know her, and there’s no time to dwell on it while Chase Harding is flirting with her and asking her out. Larissa SHOULD be on Cloud Nine dating Chase, but everywhere she goes, there’s Jasmine, reminding her of last summer. How can she enjoy finally dating Chase, the boy of her dreams since middle school, when she can’t stop thinking about Jasmine?

THOUGHTS: Told in an alternating timeline from the present to the previous summer, readers follow Larissa along in the present while also seeing her summer with Jasmine unfold in the past tense. This is a laugh-out-loud yet also emotional story of love and self-discovery. A good addition for YA LGBTQ collections as Larissa thinks she is bisexual, but she’s still figuring herself out and doesn’t necessarily ascribe to a label by the story’s end, which is an important thing for young readers to see.

Realistic Fiction          Sarah Strouse, Nazareth Area SD

YA – I Think I Love You

Desombre, Auriane. I Think I Love You. Underlined, 2021. 978-0-593-17976-5. $9.99. 309 p. Grades 9 and up.

Emma loves love, particularly romantic comedies. She wants to make film her life’s work, and winning the NYC-LA Student Film Festival and a full scholarship to study film would convince her parents that it’s a worthwhile pursuit. The fact that the love story she wants to tell is a female-female relationship is also important to her as it might finally help her come out to her parents as bisexual. Just as she enlists her friend group’s help and is prepared to start making the gay rom-com of her heart, their friend Sophia comes back from spending a year in Paris and messes it all up. Not only have they never gotten along, as two of the only queer girls at school, classmates constantly try to pair them up, which is super annoying and cliche. Now Sophia, also a film geek, wants to enter the film festival too, but with an artsy, angsty film a-la Paris because she hates love, which is understandable after her parents divorced. The friend group splits into two film-making teams, and a rivalry ensues, but when the filming stops and Emma and Sophia are thrown together in social situations – some orchestrated by their friends – they can’t help but see each other through a different lens… pun intended.

THOUGHTS: A loose retelling of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, this is a mostly lighthearted and fun queer romance told in alternating points of view. While some readers may find the subplot drama unnecessary and the way these friends treat each other frustrating at times, the main plot involving Emma and Sophia and the laugh-out-loud moments redeem its status as a solid choice for your LGBTQ+ students.

Realistic Fiction          Sarah Strouse, Nazareth Area SD

YA – The Girls I’ve Been

Sharpe, Tess. The Girls I’ve Been. Putnam, 2021. 9780593353806. $18.99. 356 p. Grades 9 and up.

Two armed men enter a bank in a sleepy rural California town assuming they’ll find the bank manager and easily coerce him into taking them to their target – a safe deposit box. The manager hasn’t arrived yet though, and who they DO find is teenager Nora O’Malley. She’s not just any teenage girl. She’s not even Nora O’Malley – depending on how you look at it. Nora spent most of her life playing the roles of different girls with her con-artist mother until her half-sister extracted her from the situation four years ago. As she tries to adjust to a “normal” life and put her past behind her, her biggest problem has been the current awkwardness between her and her ex-boyfriend but now best friend Wes because she’d been lying to him about her new relationship with their other friend, Iris. Thrust into a serious hostage situation with her friends, Nora is forced to resurrect her old identities if she wants any chance of getting them out of this alive.

THOUGHTS: A wild page-turner for fans of the thriller genre. The well-crafted plot alternates from Nora’s past to the present, and it all ties together in the end. It also tackles domestic abuse from multiple angles as all of the three teenage main characters have struggled with it in some form.

Realistic Fiction          Sarah Strouse, Nazareth Area SD

YA – Late to the Party

Quindlen, Kelly. Late to the Party. Roaring Brook Press, 2020. 978-1-250-20913-9. 297 p. $17.99. Grades 9-12. 

Codi is comfortable in her bubble, content to do her own thing with the same friends she’s had since elementary school, Maritza and JaKory. That is until her little brother almost has his first kiss before she does. Realizing that she is already seventeen and about to enter her senior year of high school, Codi fears her chance to be a ‘normal’ teenager is slipping away. Hesitant at first, she begins to break out of her comfort zone little by little, meeting new friends, going new places, and even experiencing her first party. All the while tensions with Maritza and JaKory continue to rise. Can Codi be the friend she once was while still discovering new things? Can she be two people, the quiet artistic girl and the social teenager, at once? Will there be room enough in her life for life?

THOUGHTS: Late to the Party is a satisfying exploration of what it means for interests and relationships to grow as you get older, a reflection of an utterly relatable internal conflict.

Realistic Fiction          Samantha Helwig, Dover Area SD

Cori’s summer before her senior year of high school starts just like every other summer for the last several years – a trip to the community pool with her two best friends, Maritza and JaKory, followed by movies in her basement. Cori wonders what it must be like to be one of those normal “wild teenagers” and if she and her socially awkward friends will ever actually act like teenagers before they graduate. She and JaKory haven’t even had their first kiss yet, and not being straight makes navigating dating even more tricky for this trio. When they pick up Cori’s younger brother from what looks like a date at the movie theater, the thought of him getting his first kiss before any of them is too pathetic to handle. To remedy this, Maritza and JaKory decide they should crash a party in their neighborhood. Cori, true to her predictably boring norm, decides not to join them. But when Maritza and JaKory get drunk and text her for a ride home, Cori begrudgingly shows up to rescue them. Little does she know, this sets a summer’s worth of events into action. Walking up to the house, Cori catches Ricky – host of the party and “normal” popular jock teenager – kissing a boy behind some bushes. Cori’s promise to Ricky not to tell anyone forges an unlikely friendship that introduces her to a whole new group of friends, “normal” teenager activities, and maybe, hopefully, her first kiss. Cori finally feels like a “normal” teenager… and Maritza and JaKory have no idea it’s happening because Cori never tells them.

THOUGHTS: This book has it all: family, friendship, and romance. Readers who identify with Cori’s shyness and insecurities will appreciate her honest, revealing, and authentic voice as she grapples with many internal struggles faced by both gay and straight teens. Speaking of authenticity, it would be difficult to explore typical “wild teenager” behavior without instances of alcohol and marijuana use. While this does occur in Late to the Party, the characters are not typically reckless about it. Cori is not out to her parents, but this is not a coming out story. It’s a story of emotional growing pains and self-discovery, but in a very non-cliche way. This is a must-have for the YA readers looking for LGBTQ+ books.

Realistic Fiction          Sarah Strouse, Nazareth Area SD

YA – We Unleash the Merciless Storm

Mejia, Tehlor Kay. We Unleash the Merciless Storm. Katherine Tegen Books, 2020. 978-0-062-69134-7. $17.99. 388 p. Grades 9 and up.

This sequel to last year’s We Set the Dark on Fire switches gears from Daniela’s point of view and instead follows Carmen as she returns to La Voz’s rebel base outside of Medio’s walls and has to re-establish her loyalty to the found family she has been removed from since being placed in the Medio School for Girls as a spy years ago. Her fellow La Voz members question her loyalty because Daniela, Mateo’s other wife and Carmen’s true love, still lives with him in the capital, and though Dani also pledged allegiance to La Voz’s rebellion, the other members aren’t as convinced of her loyalty as Carmen, especially Ari, a new La Voz member who rose to the ranks quickly while Carmen was on her mission outside the rebellion. Carmen wants to extract Dani; Ari and La Voz’s leader, El Buitre, worry her feelings are getting in the way and see Dani as a liability that should be eliminated. As Mateo prepares to take over the presidency – and squash La Voz’s rebellion once and for all – Carmen must decide whether to trust her fellow rebels, the only family she’s ever known, or follow her heart and save the woman she loves… all while trying to keep the rebellion alive and not let tyrannical Mateo win.

THOUGHTS: We Set the Dark on Fire was my personal favorite read of 2019, but this sequel starts out a little slow, which may just be due to an adjustment to the change in point of view and setting. However, once Carmen makes a certain critical decision, the book becomes unputdownable. The latter two-thirds are fast-paced, action-packed, full of unexpected twists and turns, and satisfying for fans of these characters. Mejia has crafted a refreshing and timely fantasy duology full of strong female characters. Highly recommended for fans of the genre.

Fantasy          Sarah Strouse, Nazareth Area SD