Engle, Margarita. Your Heart, My Sky. Simon & Schuster, 2021. 208 pp. 978-1-5344-64964 $18.99 Grades 9-12.
Engle focuses on a difficult time in Cuba’s history lived through by her own relatives. Euphemistically named by the government as “the special period in times of peace,” the 1990s are in reality a time of starvation. Strict rules keep Cubans from growing their own food; U.S. embargo limits trade; and most recently, Russia has dropped its promised support of the Communist nation, leaving commoners struggling for daily food and afraid to speak out, knowing that retribution comes in the form of limited opportunities, fewer rations, prison or death. Two young people, Liana and Amado, find their hunger gives them strength to defy the government-required summer volunteer work, even as they dread the consequences. Amado’s older brother is in prison for speaking out against the government. Liana is befriended by a ‘singing dog’ Paz who becomes her daily companion in search of food, and the dog brings her and Amado together. The two fall in love and consider their limited future options. Leave the island for the dangerous attempt to reach Miami? Or remain in their homeland to share and fight the deprivation with loved ones? Engle’s beautiful verse, and switching between Liana, Amado, and Paz’s voices, gives this novel depth and richness.
THOUGHTS: Moving words bring to life this time of desperation.
Historical Fiction Melissa Scott, Shenango Area SD
Rigaud, Debbie. Simone Breaks All the Rules. Scholastic, 2021. 978-1-338-68172-1. 320 p. $18.99. Grades 7-12.
Simone Thibodeaux is tired of her overprotective Haitian parents, and when they arrange her prom date with a son of a suitable Haitian family, it is the last straw. She decides the end of her senior year at St. Clare Academy, a largely white, all-girls school, is the perfect time to start experiencing life. She enlists two classmates with similar parental issues, Indian-American Amite and Kira, the white daughter of a notorious lawyer. The trio dub themselves HomeGirls, and create a Senior Playlist of challenges and accomplishments, including going to a house party, cutting class, and changing up their style. And then there is prom. Simone works feverishly to keep her parents thinking she is going to prom with Ben, the polite Haitian boy, while lining up her own date with Gavin, a hot guy from the affiliated boys school. But why is it so hard to be herself around Gavin, and so comfortable to be with Ben? Readers will fall for Simone from the first pages. Her voice is fresh, humorous, and authentic. Anyone with parents will relate and sympathize with Simone and her girlfriends. However, along the way to ditching her parents, Simone comes to appreciate her Haitian heritage and culture, and realize how much she does love her mom, as trying as she may be. The book celebrates the value of good friends (and how not to lose them) and the families who love us. Haitian culture and Haitian Creole language are sprinkled throughout the book, deftly adding to the depiction of the New York area Haitian-American community.
THOUGHTS: This delightful rom-com is perfect for middle school as well as high school, with nothing more dangerous than a few chaste kisses, and clubbing occurs as a teen venue serving “mocktails.”
Goffney, Joya. Excuse Me While I Ugly Cry. Harper Teen, 2021. 978-0-006-302479-3. 352 p. 17.99. Grades 9-12.
Quinn, a high school senior, keeps lists. Of EVERYTHING. Boys she’d like to kiss, movies with intense rewatchability, things people assume about her. It’s how she copes with life. The notebook in which she keeps her lists is her most treasured possession, and when it goes missing, she panics. Then it gets even worse. Someone posts one of the lists on Instagram, for the whole school to see, and blackmails Quinn into completing her list of fears, or the whole journal will be released. Hot guy Carter, who has decided he doesn’t like Quinn because she’s an oreo – Black on the outside but white on the inside, was the last person to have the journal; he offers to work with Quinn to complete her list and deduct who is holding the journal hostage. While the romance that ensues between the pair may be predictable, the book is about so much more. Quinn and Carter are two of a handful of Black students at a predominately white private school. Although they share some experiences, Carter is quick to point out that wealthy Quinn has a very different life than he does. The plot examines racial issues and stereotypes from a variety of perspectives, and focuses on the value of true friends, who just might be the people you would least expect. Besides facing her fears, Quinn also has to accept that her beloved grandmother has Alzheimer’s disease, and worries that her parents are headed for divorce. All the characters are well developed, and each story arc is satisfyingly wrapped up. This is a superbly well crafted book that is a delight to read.
THOUGHTS: This will be a huge hit with romance fans, but hand to fans of realistic fiction as well.
Yoon, Nicola. Instructions for Dancing. Delacorte Press, 2021. 978-0-593-43494-9. 285 p. $19.99. Grades 9-12.
Ever since her parents split up, Yvette (“Evie”) hasn’t found romance novels quite as magical anymore. She sees through the happily ever after to the true equation of every love story: “Heartbreak = love + time.” While donating a stack of previously beloved books to a Little Free Library near her L.A. apartment building, Evie finds a book called Instructions for Dancing. Returning home with the book, she sees her younger sister Danica and her boyfriend kissing on the stoop and has a vision of the couple’s love story, including how it began and how it will end. Later that night, Evie realizes that her premonition of Danica’s break-up came true, and it’s the first of many such visions. Pinning her new ability to the secondhand book in her backpack, Evie follows its instructions to return it to a dancing school in La Brea. There, she meets (charming, attractive, talented, and tall) Xavier, or X, whose grandparents own the studio. With a little nudge, in hopes of boosting business, the pair enter the L.A. Danceball competition, Amateur Under 21 category. Genuine feelings develop as Evie and X master elements of ballroom including footwork, artistry, showmanship, and chemistry. But can Evie truly open her heart to love when she knows that it will inevitably end?
THOUGHTS: Nicola Yoon’s latest promises (and skillfully delivers) romance, ballroom dancing, a hint of magic, and one girl’s quest to answer that age-old question: is love worth the risk?
Ostertag, Molly Knox. The Girl from the Sea. Graphix / Scholastic, 2021. 978-1-338-54058-1. 256 p. $24.99. Grades 7-10.
Morgan Kwon likes to keep her life tucked neatly into boxes: family, school, and friends. She also has a secret box, full of her plans for the future: moving to a city, going to college, and coming out. One night, seeking refuge on the cliffs of her family’s tiny island home, Morgan falls into the ocean. Just as the contents of her boxes seem to intermingle and slip away, she is rescued by a girl with large, expressive eyes. Believing she’s experiencing a near-death hallucination, Morgan decides it might as well be a romantic one and she kisses Keltie in the moonlight. The next morning, Keltie reappears. She’s a selkie, and a kiss from her true love has allowed her to transform from a seal into a human. Morgan requires some convincing, though she’s undeniably charmed by her freckle-faced new girlfriend. Meanwhile, Keltie is frustrated by Morgan’s unwillingness to reveal her true self to her family and friends. An environmental threat adds urgency and drama to this magical, fantastic first love story. The beautifully sunny artwork perfectly captures a fleeting but unforgettable season.
THOUGHTS: The Girl from the Sea, the latest graphic novel from Molly Knox Ostertag (author of the Witch Boy trilogy), is enjoyable on so many levels: as a queer romance, a story of transformation, and a version of selkie lore. The full-cast audiobook production, complete with scene-setting sound effects, complements and illuminates the source material.
Preto, Nicki Pau. Wings of Shadow. Margaret K. McElderry Books, 2021. 978-1-665-90762-0. 617 p. $21.99. Grades 9-12.
Wings of Shadow picks up right where Crown of Feathers left off, with Veronyka having to face her sister Val, along with all the new responsibilities that come with being the last queen of the Golden Empire, and none of it is as easy as it looks. Everyone is treating her differently, except for Tristan, but he is still a hostage of Lord Rolan, which means Veronyka feels very alone when the book starts. Veronkya is determined to bring back Tristan, even if that means putting herself onto a throne that she never wanted. However, she is also faced with the revelation that her sister has bonded with a strix, a creature that was made from darkness and evil. Val is willing to do whatever she needs to in order to get her revenge on Veronyka and anyone else that Val thinks did her wrong. Will Veronyka be able to face her sister and bring peace to the world?
THOUGHTS: This was an amazing conclusion to one of the most fast paced young adult fantasy trilogies that I have picked up. Nicki Pau Preto does an amazing job with world building and character development. Honestly there could have been more books in this series, and I would happily read them and recommend them!
Fantasy Mary Hyson, Lehigh Valley Regional Charter Academy
Smith, Eric. You Can Go Your Own Way. Inkyard Press, 2021. 978-1-335-40568-5. $18.99. 336 p. Grades 9 and up.
Adam Stillwater’s family pinball arcade, Old City Pinball, is in trouble. Since his father passed away, it’s been just Adam and his mom trying to keep the business afloat, and with the popularity of esports rising, people just aren’t interested in playing the old machines anymore. Adam still has a passion for pinball though, and he spends most of his time maintaining the machines at the arcade and continuing to build a custom Philly-themed machine his father began designing and building before he passed away. Whitney Mitchell runs the social media for an esports café – West Philly esports – owned by her father. As her father looks to expand business, there is talk of him buying Old City Pinball – which would be bad enough on its own but is doubly troubling for Adam since he and Whitney were childhood best friends. Adam’s father’s death and Whitney gravitating towards new friends in high school separated them, but when Whitney’s dad started a rival business, the two of them occasionally sparred on social media, effectively freezing what was once a warm and fuzzy relationship. Now it’s their senior year, and an incident with Whitney’s brother at Old City Pinball bring Adam and Whitney together again. Being forced to interact in the weeks that follow help to thaw their icy feelings for each other, and Whitney finds talking to Adam comforting after her boyfriend breaks up with her and she begins to drift from her toxic friends. Their banter on social media and in person is even bordering on flirtatious, which is confusing given how public their dislike of each other has been for the past several years. Adam can fix a pinball machine, and Whitney can nurse just about any plant back to health, but fixing feelings isn’t quite as simple. They can’t escape trying though as a blizzard overtakes Philadelphia leaving Adam and Whitney trapped inside Old City Pinball for a night.
THOUGHTS: Fitting that the pinball arcade is in the “Old City” section of Philly since the theme of this lighthearted romance is very much about old vs. new, letting go and moving on, and focusing on what’s most important. You can put this book in the hands of any of your regular library patrons as it involves several library-adjacent activities like gaming, makerspaces, and coffee bars, even though it doesn’t actually take place in a library. Set in Philadelphia and full of fun Philly references, this book is geographically relevant for our Pennsylvania readers and makes for a fantastic winter break read. A bonus for readers of Eric Smith’s previous YA novel, Don’t Read the Comments: its main characters make a quick cameo appearance. Final thought – author Eric Smith is also a literary agent, and his website contains some super educational tips and information on the publishing field, an area aspiring writers are often left to figure out on their own.
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.
Ali, S.K. Misfit in Love. Salaam Reads / Simon Schuster Books for Young Readers, 2021. 978-1-534-44275-7. 320 p. $19.99. Grades 9-12.
It’s two days before her older brother Muhammad marries Sarah, the love of his life, and Janna is looking forward to the arrival of Nuah, who she finally is ready to tell “yes, I like you back.” They’re at her father’s Mystic Lake, IN estate, though Janna has had her own strained relationship with her dad. Due to Sarah finishing her Master’s degree and her family throwing their own official reception next year, wedding plans have been left up to Dad and Muhammad which means Janna has been there helping for weeks. It’s been nice to spend time away from home, even with stepmother Linda and the laddoos, Muhammad and Janna’s half siblings. Janna is excited to see her mom again, however awkward this huge family event may be, but she didn’t count on an attraction to Sarah’s gorgeous cousin, her mother’s distraction with an old friend, and a brooding sad guy who seems to get Janna. Still, she’s determined to reconnect with Nuah who, despite Janna’s best efforts, seems distracted himself. As friends and family arrive for the celebration, Janna experiences a whirlwind of emotions.
THOUGHTS: With appearances by beloved characters from other Ali books, this is a must have addition to high school romance collections.
Garrett, Camryn. Off the Record. Knopf Books for Young Readers, 2021. 978-1-984-82999-3. 320 p. $17.99. Grades 9-12.
Josie, a high school senior, film aficionado, and journalist, has had her heart set on Spelman College since middle school. She has a great resume and is just waiting for her official early decision acceptance notice. She’s also waiting to hear if she won Deep Focus‘s (her favorite major magazine) talent contest. Josie knows winning will help launch her journalism career. In the meantime, she owes Monique, her freelance gig editor from Essence magazine, an op-ed, but Josie’s anxiety is distracting her. Josie’s parents casually mention that they worry she’s putting all of her eggs in one basket. Josie thinks they just don’t get her, especially since her mom always is pushing her to try a new diet. They try to talk about the “hard time” Josie had in middle school after which Josie switched schools, but Josie insists she’s fine. Josie proves just how fine she is when she is selected as the winner of the Deep Focus talent search. The grand prize will send her on a five city tour for a new film with interview access to the cast and crew. Her parents aren’t so sure about this and only agree if Josie’s older sister Alice – home for winter break from Spelman – can be her chaperone. Alice reluctantly agrees, and Josie leaves for an experience unlike any other. Nothing, however, could prepare Josie for the story a young actress asks her to tell or the feelings Josie develops for the film’s teen star. Is Josie the right person to tell this story, and will it do more harm than good?
THOUGHTS: Readers will empathize with Josie as she struggles to overcome her anxiety and focus on the story she was hired to write. A must purchase for high school libraries.
Realistic Fiction Maryalice Bond, South Middleton SD