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 – Fat Chance, Charlie Vega

Maldonado, Crystal. Fat Chance, Charlie Vega. Holiday House, 2021. 978-0-823-44717-6. 343 p. $18.99. Grades 7-12.

Fat Chance, Charlie Vega is an homage to every brown girl who has experienced fat shaming. The main character of Crystal Maldonado’s debut novel, sixteen-almost-seventeen Charlotte “Charlie” Vega struggles with self-acceptance. An unabashed nerd, the Connecticut teen excels at her studies, likes her after school job, and has a kind and loyal best friend, Amelia. On the down side, she still grieves for beloved Puerto Rican father, butts heads with her recently slimmed-down mother, and feels diminished next to the perfect Amelia. A striving idealist and aspiring writer, Charlie longs for the ever-allusive storybook romance. When popular, athletic Cal invites her to the homecoming dance, Charlie is on Cloud 9 and is humiliated when she discovers Cal expected her to deliver Amelia as his date. She finds a ready ear to share her troubles in her kind and understanding class and job mate, Brian Park, who is Korean-American. As her relationship with Brian develops and deepens, Charlie’s self esteem increases. She and Brian are sympatico; he is a thoughtful boyfriend and even his two moms like her. Bolstered with this newfound confidence, Charlie is able to feel secure about her appearance, despite her mother’s insistence on protein shakes and popularity. Talking (and making out) with Brian feels so good, Charlie neglects her bff who is also in a new relationship with a girl from the soccer team. In a rare argument, African American Amelia reveals Brian asked her out in the past. Charlie once again feels second best and takes steps to guarantee a miserable life and fulfill her belief that she just isn’t good enough. Through listening to the positive feedback from her supportive network of co-workers, family, and friends, Charlie comes to believe that she is deserving of love, no matter what her physical appearance. The casual, almost chummy, tone of the language, the inclusion of references to current celebrities and trends, and the relatable theme will make this novel a winner.

THOUGHTS: No matter what gender one identifies with, Fat Chance, Charlie Vega picks up the despair of rejection and invisibility and the thrill of feeling chosen and desired. Though skirting any graphic description of sex, Maldonado woos the teen reader with the building up of her feelings in the make out sessions with Brian. Charlie’s volatile relationship with her well-meaning but issue-ridden mother can be the script for many students dealing with a parent who mixes up wanting the best for one’s child and creating a safe, accepting space. In addition, Charlie’s devotion to writing and Brian’s interest in art make for interesting reading while the humor-infused narrative makes the serious theme smoother going down. Author Maldonado blends diverse gender roles and races seamlessly in an accessible book.

Realistic Fiction          Bernadette Cooke, School District of Philadelphia

YA – Cheer Up: Love and Pompoms

Frasier, Crystal, and Val Wise, illustrator. Cheer Up: Love and Pompoms. Oni Press, 2021. 978-1-620-10955-7. 128 p. $14.99. Grades 7-10.

Annie Ginter is a stand-out student, but her “lopsided” transcript lacks clubs, sports, and other extracurriculars. In an effort to improve Annie’s teamwork skills, her mom encourages her to go out for cheerleading. Beatrice (“Bebe”) is a very popular, people-pleasing trans girl. Her parents only will allow her to continue her transition if she maintains excellent grades. The two girls, who were close friends as children, become reluctant allies as they realize that they can help each other with their respective problems. Annie tutors Bebe in history, while Bebe assists with Annie’s physical conditioning and interpersonal skills. As they spend more time together, a romance blossoms. This impressive graphic novel delivers a fresh spin on an opposites-attract story arc, and illustrator Val Wise depicts each character in the diverse ensemble cast with unique details and a distinct personality. Cheer Up also addresses issues such as consent, boundaries, agency, and microaggressions organically within the storyline

THOUGHTS: A sports angle, a very Gen Z romance, and a Homecoming Day to remember make this a widely appealing graphic novel!

Graphic Novel          Amy V. Pickett, Ridley SD

YA – The Backups: A Summer of Stardom

De Campi, Alex, et al. The Backups: A Summer of Stardom. Imprint, 2021. 978-1-250-21259-7. 206 pp. $17.99. Gr. 7-10.

In this charming graphic novel, three rising seniors at the Brooklyn Performing Arts High School land the ultimate summer job: singing back-up on tour with pop superstar Nika Nitro. Jenni is a fierce vocalist, Lauren is a dedicated classical cellist, and Maggie is a tough-as-nails drummer. With their very different backgrounds and musical interests, the girls don’t exactly gel as a squad. But life on tour is tough when you’re twenty feet and a world away from fame, and they quickly learn to depend on each other for support and friendship. Add in an accidental beef with an underground punk band, a blossoming (but strictly forbidden) crush on Nika’s supporting act, and a secret that could end the star’s career, and you have all the backstage / onstage drama you need for summer!

THOUGHTS: The different body types represented on the cover of The Backups hint at the delightfully diverse story within, in which characters cope with anxiety, crushes, coming out, lip-syncing disasters, and so much more.

Graphic Novel          Amy V. Pickett, Ridley SD

YA – Follow Your Arrow

Verdi, Jessica. Follow Your Arrow. Scholastic Press, 2021. 978-1-338-64046-5. $18.99. 308 p. Grades 9 and up.

Life seems perfect for Cece Ross. She’s only a junior in high school, but she’s a successful social media influencer with several sponsorships. She and her girlfriend, Sylvie (also a social media influencer), have been together for two and a half years; sure, they bicker sometimes, but that’s normal when you’re in a relationship that long, right? Apparently Sylvie doesn’t agree; out of nowhere, after they finish a live stream unboxing video together, Sylvie breaks up with her. Not only is this devastating as Sylvie is her first love, Cece also wonders how this will affect their commitment to speak as the Grand Marshals of the upcoming Cincinnati Pride parade in just a couple months. She’s also not used to doing the whole social media thing without Sylvie, and Cece constantly worries about how she is being perceived through the app. Not long after the break-up, Cece meets Josh, a sweet and friendly violin player who avoids social media entirely. Cece has always known she’s bisexual, and Josh definitely has boyfriend potential, but he doesn’t realize who Cece is or how famous she is. Josh has expressed disdain for social media influencers though, so she decides it’s best to keep him out of the loop for now. But how long can she keep this secret from Josh as he becomes more than just a friend and social media gossip starts running rampant?

THOUGHTS: This is a mostly light-hearted and fun romance, but it also tackles some important topics we cover in schools: bullying, homophobia, digital citizenship, and pressures of living life online, and most importantly, biphobia. Cece deals with a lot of the latter in the final third of the book as her relationship with Josh becomes public. A Junior Library Guild selection, this book is great addition to YA collections to expand bisexual representation.

Realistic Fiction         Sarah Strouse, Nazareth Area SD

YA – The Sky Blues

Couch, Robbie. The Sky Blues. Simon & Schuster, 2021. 978-1-534-47785-8. $19.99. 325 p. Grades 9 and up.

Senior year for Sky Baker hasn’t exactly been smooth sailing. He’s the only gay student out at his small-town northern Michigan high school. The looks and comments from homophobic classmates cause him to feel he can’t be himself – he has to walk “straight” and carry his books “straight.” His mom and brother don’t accept him for who he is either, so he is forced to move in with his best friend Bree and her family over the holidays. Then there’s the scar on his chest he calls “Mars” (because that’s what it looks like), a scar from a burn he got in a car accident when he was small, a car accident that killed his father. Not feeling comfortable taking his shirt off in front of anyone else is difficult when you live with someone else’s family in a house on the beach. Despite these struggles, Sky has Bree, yearbook, and his crush on Ali. Though he’s not sure if Ali is gay, Sky plans to make the most of his senior year by promposing to Ali in an extravagant way in 30 days at their senior beach bum party, and he and Bree are documenting their ideas on his dry erase wall in his bedroom. All his plans are dashed though when a hacker exposes Sky’s promposal plans in a homophobic and racist email message that goes out to the entire school community from the yearbook account. Priorities shift from promposal to revenge as Sky, Ali, and their friends hunt the hacker. But what about prom? Will Sky still pull off an epic promposal? Or has his entire senior year become about something more?

THOUGHTS: An excellent addition to any YA LGBTQ collection, this debut novel has it all – humor, friendship, family, and serious topics such as bullying and homophobia. Despite the “small-town” setting, there is diverse representation among Sky’s friend group. And Sky and Bree’s yearbook teacher Ms. Winter is a pleasantly surprising important supporting character that readers young and old will love.

Realistic Fiction         Sarah Strouse, Nazareth Area 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

MG – Other Boys

Alexander, Damian. Other Boys. First Second,  978-1-250-22282-4. 208 p. $21.99. Grades 5-8.

Damian always has felt different from other boys, preferring activities like playing with dolls, reading fairy tales, and sewing to GI Joes and superhero movies. He was teased and bullied relentlessly for being “gay” and a “homo” long before he knew what those words meant. Although it’s not discussed in detail, the reader learns that Damian’s mother was murdered by his father when Damian was a small child. Now, he lives with his brother and grandmother in a small apartment. Tired of being the “dead mom” kid and a target for bullies, Damian stops talking on the first day of 7th grade, after moving to a new town and entering a new school. After months of silence and loneliness, Damian finally shares his feelings with a kind therapist, who helps normalize his crushes on boys. Friendly peers, including a couple of cute boys, begin to draw him out of his protective shell, lending a hopeful note to an often heartbreaking graphic memoir. Inspired by colorful cartoons, funky arcade decor, and VHS tape boxes, Damian Alexander’s artwork is both firmly rooted in his childhood era and as timeless as a child’s secret pain.

THOUGHTS: Other Boys is a heartfelt graphic memoir about the loss of a parent, coming out, bullying, and self-acceptance. It’s an excellent addition to shelves that already include options for slightly older readers, such as Hey, Kiddo by Jarrett J. Krosoczka and Brave Face by Shaun David Hutchinson.

Graphic Memoir          Amy V. Pickett, Ridley 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