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 – Aftershocks

Reichardt, Marisa. Aftershocks. Amulet, 2020. 978-1-419-73917-0. 318 p. $18.99. Grades 8+.

Ruby thought her world ended when her mom informed her she was dating Ruby’s high school water polo coach. But she soon finds out what the end of the world, or her world, really looks like. Skipping practice because she’s too embarrassed to face her coach, Ruby is hanging out at a laundromat, looking for someone to buy beer for her, when an earthquake hits. As a native Californian, Ruby is used to earthquakes, but it quickly becomes apparent that this is no minor tremor. “The ground shakes, the walls fall”, and Ruby is trapped under the rubble of the laundromat, with a young man named Charlie, with whom she had just started talking. The ‘Big One’ has hit. A 7.8 magnitude. She and Charlie can’t see each other, but they work desperately to bolster each other’s spirits. Minutes turn to hours as the pair assess their physical condition and tell each other stories and bits of their lives. Hours roll over into another day, and another, and Ruby and Charlie face the very real possibility of not being rescued in time, before their injuries overwhelm them. Unusually, the eventual rescue occurs halfway through the book and, true to the title, the second half deals with the aftershocks of the rescue and the earthquake. The pain and trauma. Ruby desperately needing her mother, but having no way to locate her in a world twisted and ravaged by the quake, bereft of cell service and internet. Ruby needing to make amends to the people she loves. The book is both edge-of-your-seat compelling and lyrically thoughtful. Reichardt’s writing deftly changes from gripping, gruesome descriptions of the immediate aftermath of the earthquake, to heartbreaking, poetic passages as Ruby drifts in and out of consciousness, ready to embrace death. While character descriptions throughout the book are minimal, context clues imply that Ruby and Charlie are white.

THOUGHTS: This can’t-put-down book delivers it all: a compelling disaster story, with a satisfying ‘after’ that most books neglect. It was lovely to close the book knowing “the rest of the story.”

Action/Adventure          Nancy Nadig, Penn Manor SD

YA – Almost American Girl

Ha, Robin. Almost American Girl. Balzar and Bray, 2020. 978-0-062-68509-4. 228 p. $12.99. Grades 7 – 12.

Almost American Girl is a graphic memoir that follows the author’s real life journey from Seoul, South Korea to America when she is fourteen years old. At the beginning of the book, you learn that Robin is moving with her mother to Alabama, with Robins’ mother not really telling her all the details about the move. Throughout the graphic memoir, you learn more about Robin’s life when she was living in Seoul, her family and friends who still live in Seoul, as well as how she found a way to fit into this new life that her mother basically dropped her into. On the surface, the book feels like it’s just recounting Robin’s life; however, there are moments of racial slurs that Robin deals with at school which were difficult to read about. The illustrations throughout are beautifully done and add the right touch of emotions to the different scenes through the use of color.

THOUGHTS: This graphic memoir is a must have book for any high school library. The themes that are woven throughout are extremely relevant for a wide audience. I loved the ending of this book, and the glossary found at the end was extremely helpful for terms with which I was unfamiliar.

Graphic Memoir          Mary Hyson, Lehigh Valley Charter Academy 

MG – A Thousand Questions

Faruqi, Saadia. A Thousand Questions. HarperCollins Children’s Books, 2020. 978-0-062-94320-0. 225 p. $16.99. Grades 6-8. 

In this East meets West friendship story, A Thousand Questions shows the disparity in lifestyles between the United States and Pakistan told alternately by the two main characters. Eleven-year-old Mimi Scotts and her mother travel from Houston, Texas, for summer vacation to visit her wealthy grandparents, Begum Sahib and Sahiba Ji, in Karachi for the first time. She is awed by the wealth and luxury of her grandparents’ home compared with her tiny apartment and stretched budget back in the United States. While Mimi’s mother reconnects with her school chums, Mimi forms a friendship with the servant girl, Sakina Ejaz. Too poor to go to school, Sakina assists her diabetic father cooking in the Ji’s kitchen. The two girls become fast friends. With the backdrop of the campaign season for new elections, Sakina shows Mimi the sites of Karachi, and Mimi agrees to tutor to Sakina for her English examination so that she can win a school scholarship. Mimi’s narration includes secret letters she writes to Tom Scotts, the father she has never met. When Mimi discovers her freelance journalist father is living in Karachi, she is determined to meet him and Sakina is a willing accomplice. Author Saadia Faruqi captures the richness of the Asian city from the delicious dishes and its atmosphere to the inequity of the caste system as well as the authenticity of the fully-drawn main characters: Sakina, mature beyond her years, cognizant of her integral role in providing for the welfare of her family; Mimi, an ordinary American girl of modest means, getting to know her grandparents and also her own mother in her childhood home and longing to connect with father.

THOUGHTS: This book reminds the reader of When Heaven Fell  by Carolyn Marsden, a story that compares the life of  a struggling Vietnamese family with the life of an adult Vietnamese-American adoptee who visits her Vietnamese birth mother. There’s a part where Sakini asks Mimi if there are poor people in America and Mimi answers, “No,” at first until she remembers a homeless man and the kids at school who qualify for free lunch. Discussion of social justice issues, equity in education, and divorce can ensue.

Realistic Fiction          Bernadette Cooke, School District of Philadelphia

When Mimi and her mother arrive in Karachi, Pakistan for the summer, Mimi immediately misses air conditioning, soccer, and chicken nuggets, all staples of her American upbringing. Mimi is surprised to find that her grandparents live in luxury, employing servants and wearing fancy clothes, while Mimi and her mother can barely afford rent in their tiny Houston apartment. Mimi realizes there is so much she doesn’t know about her mother, her grandparents, and her father who left years ago without explanation. After learning that her father’s job brought him to Karachi, Mimi befriends a servant girl who agrees to help Mimi find him in exchange for English lessons. Sakina, a servant of Mimi’s grandparents, dreams of going to school like Mimi, but her servant status prohibits her from making her dreams a reality. After all, when would she find the time to go to school when she must keep her job to take care of her own family and ailing father? Going to school seems even more impossible when she takes a secret exam and fails the English portion, but when Sakina and Mimi strike up their deal, Sakina starts to hope for her future and a better life for her family. As their friendship blossoms, the inequities of the Pakistani class system are revealed, and the friends determine to make good in both of their worlds despite the challenges.

THOUGHTS: Instead of multiple perspectives from different time periods, this story highlights two contemporary perspectives in a country many readers will be unfamiliar with. Shining light on the class system that still exists today in Pakistan, readers may feel compelled to learn more about the living inequalities and hardships people face who live outside of the United States. This is a good #ownvoices addition to any library seeking to diversity their collection.

Realistic     Jaynie Korzi, South Middleton SD