YA – Come Home Safe

Buckmire, Brian. Come Home Safe. Blink YA Books, 2023. 978-0-310-14218-8. 224 p. $17.99. Grades 7-12. 

Reed and Olive are brother and sister, and they’ve heard from their father, a public defender, all about the reality of police interactions with people of color in their city. Their father has schooled them in how to respond to police officers, how to firmly and respectfully stand up for their rights, what is an arrestable offense, how to refuse to speak until their attorney is present, and much more. His overriding message is to stand up for yourself, but know when you’re in too deep, and above all, come home safe. So far, Reed and Olive have had no direct interactions with police, and so far they have been able to come home safe.  But each has an encounter with individuals and police for which they need all of their father’s knowledge and advice. The two-part book offers first Reed’s story, then Olive’s story, both based on real-life scenarios Buckmire himself, as attorney, has experienced or defended. For Reed, the trouble occurs on a day when, after soccer practice, he walks his sister home from school, using the subway for part of their route. As they enter the subway, they notice some loud African-American teenagers sliding through without paying; they offer Reed a joint, and with Olive’s intervention, Reed declines. Reed wonders if the boys will be on their train and bothering passengers. But once he and Olive are seated in a quiet car, Reed begins to watch some captivating soccer videos. Suddenly he finds two police officers questioning him about his friends’ whereabouts, their car-jumping and robbing someone, and asking for his ID. Immediately, Olive begins videoing the interaction, remembering her dad’s instruction that if it’s your word against the police’s word, or if it wasn’t seen by others, it didn’t happen. We experience with Reed the confusion, the fear, and how he tries to remember the rules, the law, and wonders how to stand up for himself or if he’s in too deep… In the second story, Olive buys a soda and takes a seat with her phone outside a coffee shop to wait for Reed. She witnesses a white woman rush into the store frantically looking for her phone, then accusing Olive of stealing and currently using her phone.  As the woman’s insistence escalates, Olive, like Reed, tries to remember her dad’s instruction and advice. Readers experience her fear, anger, and struggle to stay calm. In both stories the facts are clear, the bias is clear, and their dad’s wise advice guides Reed and Olive through troubling police interactions.

THOUGHTS: At a brief 224 pages, this is a quick read about all-too-possible occurrences that can shape a young person’s life in likely negative ways. Readers will be glad for Reed and Olive’s dad’s wise instruction and wish they had such guidance in their own lives–hence this book by attorney Buckmire. Though it can seem a tad didactic, Buckmire packs in the legal assistance through events and through his characters’ thoughts. Readers will be left thinking and debating the choices made as the characters seek to come home safe.  This could be an eye-opener for sheltered young people and an insightful way to open conversations with any generation.

Realistic Fiction

MG – You Are Here: Connecting Flights

Oh, Ellen, editor. You Are Here: Connecting Flights. Allida, 2023. 978-0-063-23908-1. $19.99. 272 p. Grades 4-8.

Linda Sue Park, Erin Entrada Kelly, Grace Lin, Traci Chee, Mike Chen, Meredith Ireland, Mike Jung, Minh Lê, Ellen Oh, Randy Ribay, Christina Soontornvat, and Susan Tan have joined together to bring us one of the most creative stories I have seen in a long time. You are Here: Connecting Flights takes place in O’Hare International Airport. Each chapter is written by a different author. Each chapter tells the story of a young East or Southeast Asian-American tween stuck in the international terminal during a weather-related flight suspension. The story begins with Paul who is helping to guide his grandmother and his two year old sister through security. Paul’s family is traveling to Thailand. Grandma speaks very little English and is stopped when the TSA officers discover she has her husband’s ashes in a coffee can inside her carry-on bag. The language barrier, the confusion, and the unexpected discovery of the ashes leads to a delay in the security line. Fellow travelers – most of whom do not understand what is actually happening – make angry, racist comments. When the weather-delay is announced, many travelers blame Paul’s family, incorrectly assuming “those people” were doing something illegal. In the chaos Paul’s sister wanders off… she is found and returned to her family in the second story by the son of an airport employee who is stuck in O’Hare for the day when his babysitter cancels at the last minute and his mother is unable to take the day off. Lee Chang is traveling on his own with his electric guitar. Armed with only the legal knowledge that instruments can be carried-on if a seat has been purchased to store the guitar during flight, Lee is challenged by Security who don’t believe he is carrying a guitar. Security claims Lee doesn’t look like someone who would play rock music. In one story a young basketball player endures relentless micro-aggressions from his teammates but doesn’t feel he can say anything. In another, Natalie finds the courage to confront her best friend who is designing an elaborate Japanese inspired cos-play costume that is not at all appropriate. A brother and sister traveling with an airline representative encounter criticism when the young boy gets his finger stuck in the mesh of a metal airport seat. Two sisters find understanding when one reveals she wears a hat and face mask to hide her Asian identity. Each story carries a brief encounter with a character or situation depicted in another story. In the final chapter American born Soojin and her mother are moving to Korea after their family business is destroyed by vandals. When a boy shouting racial slurs dumps her popcorn, Soojin and her mother are surprised by the kindness of strangers who witnessed the confrontation and try to make amends.

THOUGHTS: In a recent interview Ellen Oh described the style of this book as being an “episodic novel.” The connections between the stories are intricate and intriguing and make for a fascinating plot study. Though each chapter is fairly short, the amount of micro-aggressions, negative backlash and racist comments depicted over the course of all 12 chapters borders on feeling heavy – and yet, that is the point. In the span of a few hours each character only encounters a momentary comment or confrontation, but strung together we are able to see the relentlessness of the racism endured by Asian-Americans on a daily basis. We also see the immense courage of tweens as they navigate each separate situation. Importantly, we feel the immense pride each young character expresses in being an American. In the end Soojin and her mother come to the realization that there are more good people in the world than there are bad. An important book with a unique structure that will encourage Asian-American tweens, while hopefully bringing the challenges they face to light for their non-Asian peers.

YA – Your Plantation Prom is Not Okay

McWilliams, Kelly. Your Plantation Prom is Not Okay. Little, Brown Books for Young Readers. 2023. 978-0-316-44993-9. 320 p. $18.99. Grades 9-12.

Harriet Douglass lives with her historian father at Westwood, an enslaved people’s museum in Louisiana. Her parents built the museum together on an old plantation, but since her mother died, Harriet has been more consumed with her “rage monster” than with fulfilling her mother’s dream of fighting racism through education. Harriet is frustrated and disheartened by her inability to remember her final conversation with her mother. Adding fuel to the fire, a B-list actress and her influencer daughter purchase the plantation next door, with plans to turn it into an event venue for weddings and (yes) proms. Which is not okay. Teen influencer Layla Hartwell turns out to be an ally and maybe a friend to Harriet, but it remains to be seen if she will come through when Harriet needs her most. Harriet has to get through to key decision-makers before an actual red carpet is delivered for a wedding at Belle Grove, and she has to do it without her anger taking over. Meanwhile, Harriet gets butterflies whenever her childhood friend Dawn Yates shows up at Westwood with his smooth but sincere presence. Dawn is skilled with a camera; can he help Harriet produce the potentially viral video she needs to cancel Belle Grove for good?

THOUGHTS: Kelly McWilliams’ latest young adult novel is fresh, of-the-moment, and real. The Author’s Note references Whitney Plantation, a Louisiana museum that “educates the public about the history and legacies of slavery in the United States.” A visit to their site will help orient readers to the fictional Westwood and the Douglass family’s work there.

Realistic Fiction

YA – We Deserve Monuments

Hammonds, Jas. We Deserve Monuments. Roaring Brook Press, 2022. 978-1-250-81655-9. 375 p. $18.99. Grades 9-12.

Avery Anderson’s family has just relocated from Washington, DC, to rural Bardell, Georgia, and she is none too happy about it. The pandemic robbed Avery of many classic high school moments, and she has recently broken up with her first serious girlfriend. Now her maternal grandmother has terminal cancer, and over Mama Letty’s objections the Andersons are moving in to be present for her final months. Avery starts her senior year at Beckwith Academy and quickly bonds with her next door neighbor, Simone, and her bestie, Jade. Meanwhile, things remain tense at home. Avery’s mom and grandmother clash constantly, and Avery has questions about her grandfather that no one will answer. Avery’s motto (“Get in, get out, no drama, focus forward”) becomes more difficult to maintain as a crush on Simone blossoms into a secret romance. Brief interstitial chapters from an omniscient point of view add depth of perspective on Bardell and its inhabitants throughout the years. Add in two unsolved murders and this debut novel undeniably has a lot going on, but Jas Hammonds pulls it off beautifully. 

THOUGHTS: We Deserve Monuments offers a timely commentary on racism and homophobia as well as the unparalleled joy of first love, intergenerational connections, and the cost of keeping secrets. 

Realistic Fiction          Amy V. Pickett, Ridley SD

MG – The Tryout

Soontornvat, Christina, and Cacao, Joanna. The Tryout. Graphix, 2022.  978-1-338-74126-1. 255 p. $12.99. Grades 5-7.

Christina and her best friend Megan are about to embark on a journey that will be certain to change their middle school years for the better: cheerleading tryouts! As two of the only students of color in their school, they are desperate to fit in – and what better way than to join the squad? Christina and Megan know it is not always easy to be different in suburban Texas, but cheerleading will change that. After all, the cheerleaders are the face of the school and being in the squad is sure to boost their popularity. When Megan decides to pair with someone else for the first round of tryouts, Christina tries not to let it bother her, especially after they both make it to the next round. Unfortunately, the second round of tryouts means performing in front of the entire seventh grade! As Christina practices for the big day, she thinks back to some of the comments others have said that made her feel like an outsider. Some teachers refuse to learn how to pronounce her last name. Classmates ask her if she is worried about going to heaven since she is Buddhist and not a baptized Christian. Tobin, the school bully, calls Christina  “rice girl.” To perform her best at the tryouts, Christina must block out all of the negativity and focus on what is most important to her, although she is about to find out that cheerleading is not what is most important to her after all. 

THOUGHTS: Based on the author’s own experiences as a teenager, The Tryout is a heartwarming story that will resonate with anyone that has ever been a middle school student, no matter what color their skin. This graphic novel will circulate well in libraries where The Babysitters Club and Click series fly off the shelves.

Graphic Novel          Danielle Corrao, Manheim Central SD

YA – Some Kind of Hate

Littman, Sarah Darer. Some Kind of Hate. Scholastic Press, 2022. 978-1-338-74681-5. 336 p. $18.99. Grades 7-12.

Content Warning: “The contents include white nationalist ideas based on antisemitic conspiracy theories, Islamophobia, racism, misogyny, and violence.”

Declan Taylor is at the top of his game – literally. His school baseball team just won the state tournament, and he was their star pitcher. If Declan just could figure out how to talk to his longtime crush, Megan, he would be set. When an attempt to impress Megan during an end of the school year celebration goes horribly wrong, Declan’s summer plans derail. No more baseball means no future for Declan, at least not the future he was envisioning. Drowning in self-pity while the rest of his family is working long hours, Declan spends most of his day gaming. His baseball friends, including his best friend and longtime teammate Jake, are too busy with summer league and don’t understand Declan’s situation or his anger. Plus Jake seems to be spending more time with his friends from synagogue than worrying about how Declan is doing. With their family’s finances crumbling, Declan is forced to get a summer job. Now he’s spending more time away from home and with his co-workers. Finn and Charlie introduce Declan to a better way to escape the lack of acceptance from his family and friends. It’s in the game world that Declan is able to avoid reality and find understanding: The world needs to wake up to the globalists who are tipping the scale in their favor and stealing opportunities from families like Declan’s. Though his twin sister and baseball friends question some of the things Declan has been saying, Declan’s anger surfaces and he writes them all off, opting to join his new friends in fighting back. Will Declan lose himself to his anger, or is there hope that he can crawl back and redeem himself?

THOUGHTS: Told in alternating chapters between Declan and Jake, this novel explores how, given the right conditions, one’s hate can blossom. Haunting and at times difficult to read, this story will stay with readers and belongs in every YA collection. It would pair well as a modern tie-in to Night, To Kill a Mockingbird, and other classics that deal with social issues. Highly recommended.

Realistic Fiction          Maryalice Bond, South Middleton SD

Elem./MG – The Marvellers

Clayton, Dhonielle. The Marvellers. Henry Holt and Co, 2022. 978-1-250-17494-9. 416 p. $16.99. Grades 4-8. 

The Marvellers introduces us to Ella, the first Conjurer to attend the Arcanum Training Academy, which should be the most exciting thing. However Ella’s excitement quickly changes when she learns that her magic is looked at as “unnatural” and “bad.” Ella makes friends with 2 other students who don’t quite fit into the school either, and things seem to be looking up. That’s when the Ace of Anarchy, an extremely dangerous person, escapes prison with the help of a Conjurer. Now Ella is a target of suspicion, and she is forced to try to clear her family’s name and prove that all Conjurers aren’t awful. Will Ella be able to with the help of her friends, or will she be forced to leave the Arcanum Training Academy in shame?

THOUGHTS: This was a highly fast paced middle grade fantasy with some great commentary on society’s opinions of individuals who don’t fit into the “norm.” Readers will enjoy the nods to other popular authors sprinkled throughout the book as characters. This book is a must own for any upper elementary or middle school collection.

Fantasy          Mary McEndree, Lehigh Valley Regional Charter Academy

YA – The Weight of Blood

Jackson, Tiffany D. The Weight of Blood. Katherine Tegen Books, 2022. 978-0-063-02914-9. 306 p. $18.99. Grades 9-12.

Madison “Maddy” Washington, who lives with her controlling and abusive father in their small town of Springville, Georgia, has spent her whole life “passing” as white. She straightens her hair, dutifully applies sunscreen, and stays home if there’s any chance of rain. An unexpected spring shower curls her hair and reveals that she is black, closely followed by a racist incident of bullying that is captured on another student’s cell phone. As the students at Springville High attempt damage control to prove to the world that they are not a racist community, they consider ending the tradition of segregated proms for black and white students and holding the school’s first All-Together Prom. One of the popular black students asks Maddy to prom as part of a stunt to keep up appearances, and readers familiar with Stephen King’s Carrie will suspect where things are headed. Author Tiffany D. Jackson mixes Maddy’s point of view with transcripts of a podcast called “Maddy Did It,” press coverage of events in Springville, and the perspectives of several other students. The climactic prom chapters are gleefully, horrifically over the top.

THOUGHTS: Jackson’s second foray into horror (after last year’s White Smoke) is the work of an author at the top of her game. The Weight of Blood is a standout, from the cover image of a blood-soaked prom queen to the foreboding tagline: “Uneasy lies the head that wears the tiara.”

Horror          Amy V. Pickett, Ridley SD

The town of Springville, Georgia still is recovering from a tragedy everyone knows Maddy Washington is responsible for causing. In fact, there’s now a podcast “Maddy Did It.” But before the climactic event that changed the town forever, Maddy Washington is a high school student who keeps to herself and generally is considered a loner. At home Maddy lives in fear of her father, who owns an antique shop and enjoys reruns of favorite classic movies. Maddy, who secretly is biracial, has passed for white her entire life. Under the glare of her father’s watchful eye, she can’t imagine anyone finding out her secret and works hard to hide the truth. Avoiding the sun, wearing long clothes – even in the summer – Maddy stays home on rainy days and has a strict beauty regimen. When Maddy’s gym class gets stuck outside in a sudden rain storm, she is devastated that her secret is out. Her peers are shocked, and Maddy’s father is furious. When racist bullying, played off as a “simple joke,” is caught on camera, Springville is labeled a racist community. Hoping to prove the world is wrong about them, student leaders attempt some damage control. But with a history of segregated proms, this small town seems to be stuck in the 1950s instead of modern day.

THOUGHTS: With masterful skill, Jackson gives an updated take on a Stephen King classic, incorporating racial tensions and teenage drama into a modern day setting. Highly recommended for high schools seeking to add new titles to their mystery/horror genre.

Horror          Maryalice Bond, South Middleton SD

YA – The Summer of Bitter and Sweet

Ferguson, Jen. The Summer of Bitter and Sweet. Heartdrum, 2022. 978-0-06-308616-6. 360 p. $17.99. Grades 9-12.

Lou spends her summer, before she heads to university, working at her family’s ice cream shack. She works with her friends and her ex-boyfriend. She is living with her two uncles while her mother spends the summer traveling solo in the United States. Lou is an indigenous person who lives on the Canadian prairie where she has experienced horrible racism, physical and sexual abuse, and betrayal. This summer she received a letter from someone she never imagined she would hear from–her father. The letter starts the unraveling of a plethora of lies that have surrounded her life. Lou must find the strength to trust those close to her and trust herself. 

THOUGHTS: This is a powerful, intense, and emotional book. The characters in this book are dynamic and real. It is a heavy book with serious content and triggers.    

Realistic Fiction          Victoria Dziewulski, Plum Borough SD

YA – The New Girl

Sutanto, Jesse. The New Girl. Sourcebooks, 2022. 350 p. $10.99 (paper) 978-1-728-21519-8. Grades 9-12. 

Thanks to her running speed on the track, Lia Setiawan has been given a full scholarship to prestigious Draycott Academy, and she is determined to prove she deserves it. But the school is full of extremely wealthy young people–think private jets, designer drugs, and racist, elitist attitudes. Because she begins mid-year after the dismissal of the outspoken drug-addicted Sophie, she finds few people to welcome her.  Draycott’s dirt app closely follows every student, and students anonymously post about everyone and everything (which isn’t about to end well). It turns out that Sophie had complaints about unfair grading practices of English instructor Mr. Werner, and Mr. Werner very pointedly informs Lia she does not belong in his class. Lia insists on staying in the class only to find herself failing dismally despite extreme diligence to the classwork.  She begins to suspect that some students have paid Mr. Werner for their grades, and she knows she’ll never be able to do that, and her track scholarship depends on her grades. Lia instantly connects with the drool-worthy Danny, who is another reason to fight for her place. But the dirt, the revenge, and the drugs begin to take their toll, and when Lia is the one to find Sophie dead in Mr. Werner’s office, she realizes that she needs to play the game even harder if she’s going to win–or live.

THOUGHTS: Like Sutanto’s The Obsession (2021), this novel features characters who can and will go to extremes to hide, succeed, and get revenge. By the novel’s end, nearly every character has a twisted secret revealed. And after the death Lia causes, tension rises to see if she will be revealed, too.  A good choice for suspense addicts.  

Mystery          Melissa Scott, Shenango Area SD
Realistic Fiction