YA – After the Ink Dries

Gustafson, Cassie. After the Ink Dries. Simon & Schuster, 2021. 406 p. 978-1-534-47369-0. $19.99 Grades 10-12.

Trigger warning: sexual assault and abuse; suicide ideation, self-harm, and attempted suicide; bullying and victim-shaming.

It is fitting that this book begins with a trigger warning, for it is much needed. It is difficult to read of the characters’ experiences in this book without a strong emotional and intellectual response.

The opening chapter plunges the reader immediately into Erika’s world as she wakes disoriented in an unknown bedroom to discover herself naked with Sharpie writing all over her body–crude messages from–she sees later–at least four boys who also signed their names. She struggles to remember the events of the night before–a party…she was so happy with her new boyfriend Thomas’s attention…finally feeling more accepted in her new town….the campfire….she must have passed out. She slowly realizes she’s been assaulted and manages to leave the house unnoticed, but not before hearing four boys gloating over their conquest of Erika, attempting to pull in Thomas, whose response is unknown. Her shame and revulsion is absolute, and all she wants to do is retreat home, remove the filthy writing, and undo the entire past 12 hours.

Meanwhile, the perspective shifts to Thomas, who is dazed by the events and slow to admit to anyone–even himself–what happened at the party. He’s on his way to a coveted, much-planned-for audition to music school, arranged by his uncle in the absence of any fatherly support. He bombs the audition, then scrambles to a double lacrosse practice, where the other guys are ready to tell him how to think about the party (and don’t bail on your friends). Erika and her mom have only been in town for a few months, with her mom taking all the overtime she can as a nurse, and Erika making her way in new teenage social circles. Erika seems to have made friends with Caylee and perhaps Amber, and she’s made enemies with Tina, whose interest was in Thomas. Erika needs a friend, and instinctively thinks of Caylee, but how can she talk to Caylee when Caylee is so proud to be Zac’s girlfriend, and when Zac’s name is written on Erika’s body? Erika tries to act as though nothing is amiss, but Tina’s social media posts start rumors which others only fuel. Ringleader Zac texts Erika simply to torment her. Quickly, Erika becomes a pariah: She’s mentally unstable, a nobody, new to town, sl**, must have wanted it, should have known better, and on and on. With nowhere to turn, Erika seeks to end her life. She is resuscitated and held in the hospital while the boys, their parents and lawyers round up to crucify her. Enter Amber, who emerges as a firehouse of a real friend to strengthen and support Erika (and her mom). The police want details, but Erika wavers. If she doesn’t explain, there will be no repercussions, and maybe this could be over. A visit from Caylee, who has only Zac’s best interest in mind, enrages Erika enough to realize she must speak.

THOUGHTS: Gustafson’s first novel, written in alternating voices of Erika and Thomas, is a terribly real book, leaving readers as witnesses to sexual assault, disbelief of survivors, and seeming powerlessness of young women. The novel very importantly shows that although Erika was not raped, this was sexual assault. After the Ink Dries is recommended for mature readers with a support system to discuss its contents.

Realistic Fiction          Melissa Scott, Shenango 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 – Off the Record

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

YA – The Life I’m In

Flake, Sharon G. The Life I’m In. Scholastic Press, 2021. $18.99. 978-1-338-57317-6. Grades 9-12.

In Sharon G. Flake’s best selling novel, The Skin I’m In, Charlese–Char–Jones is the confident bully wreaking havoc on the life of the diffident and vulnerable Maleeka. In The Life I’m In, African-American Char appears as the main character, still inwardly grieving for the loss of her beloved parents, and continuing to make bad decisions. Her older sister and guardian, Juju, has begun to get her life together–stopping the house parties and securing a job in a bank–and needs Char–sixteen and a seventh-grade drop out–to live with their grandparents in Alabama. At the start of this reluctant bus trip, Char is flippant and rude, comical and outspoken. The passengers are alternately annoyed and amused by her unself- conscious antics. When young, white mother, April gets on the bus with her three-month old biracial baby, Char’s maternal instincts urge her to assist April. Bound for a job, April shows the distressed signs of living rough on the streets. To provide for her child, she sells narcotics and sexual favors to truck drivers; she suppresses suspicion about this new employment that requires she pay for the position. When April disembarks the bus with baby Cricket in tow, naive Char decides she will go out on her own and not continue to Alabama. Thinking it is temporary, she volunteers to take care of Cricket when April’s aunt never shows up at the bus station and well-dressed and smooth talking Anthony arrives as April’s ride to Florida. Char enlists all her resources to persuade a hotel proprietor to rent her a suite; she figures out and procures the necessary baby supplies with the money from Juju; she contacts Juju and even the newly reconciled Maleeka to tell them of her actions if not her whereabouts. Char may talk a good game, but she is young, inexperienced, and a virgin. When Char’s funds dwindle and her efforts to find work are hindered by her motherly duties, she runs into Anthony again and, in an attempt to save Cricket, finds herself a victim of sex trafficking. Author Flake describes the depravity of Char’s existence during this time delicately, but does not stint on the truth. Char receives some solace in the community of other girls in Anthony’s pack, who seem to be of different races and backgrounds. When she eventually escapes and is reunited with Juju, Char needs the help of not only her sister, but also Maleeka, her former teacher, Ms. Saunders, and professionals to survive the trauma and feel truly free. The fluid text reflects Char’s actual voice, and her first-person narration gives an intense look into her complex feelings and her maturity as she tries to survive under egregious conditions. Although the stress and suffering Char conveys is painful to read about, readers will find this a compelling book.

THOUGHTS: This is a harsh story to tell, and Sharon Flake tells it well. The book serves as a mirror for those who have suffered sexual abuse or trauma of any kind as well as a window into the lives of people who have experienced homelessness and poverty. The reader leaves feeling not pity but understanding and an admiration for the resilience and effort exerted by trauma victims. It acts as a call for all to refrain from rash judgements and to be kind. Char’s second escape from Anthony seems contrived (would the driver wait for Char as she says good-bye to Maleeka?); however, readers will be rooting for the happy ending.

Realistic Fiction          Bernadette Cooke, School District of Philadelphia

YA – Grown

Jackson, Tiffany D. Grown. Katherine Tegen Books, 2020. 978-0-062-84035-6. $17.99. Grades 9 and up.

Enchanted Jones wants to sing, so when she auditions for a music competition and catches the eye of artist Korey Fields, her dream seems to be within reach as Korey befriends her and begins singing and recording with her. When Korey proposes Enchanted go on tour with him, her parents refuse, but soon Enchanted is on tour with Korey and begins to learn the truth about him. Now in an abusive relationship, Korey controls Enchanted’s every move – how she looks, what she sings, when she can leave a room, who she can speak to.  Korey swears his love for Enchanted and desire to marry her once she turns 18.  Enchanted believes that everything Korey does is because of his love for her, yet she questions his continued control of her. When she learns of charges filed against Korey for a relationship with an underage girl, Enchanted can’t believe it. Yet, she sees herself in the story. Does Korey truly love her, or does he just love controlling her? Can Enchanted escape the abuse alive, or will Korey be the end to her?

THOUGHTS: Tiffany D. Jackson is a genius. She is a master of suspense, and her ability to tell truth through story is uncanny. I cringed through most of Grown (and was physically nauseous at times), but I also couldn’t put it down. The truth of abuse is so real, and yet Enchanted’s lack of recognition is so real. This novel made me uncomfortable, angry, sad, and so many more emotions. To me, it is the most intense of Jackson’s novels. It does include a content warning at the beginning: “mentions of sexual abuse, rape, assault, child abuse, kidnapping, and addiction to opioids.” This is a phenomenal addition to all HS library collections.

Realistic Fiction          Erin Bechdel, Beaver Area SD
Mystery

MG – Chirp

Messner, Kate. Chirp. Bloomsbury Children’s Books, 2020. 978-1-547-60281-0. 227 p. $16.99. Grades 5-8.

Mia and her family leave Boston to move back to Vermont in order to help Mia’s Gram sell her failing cricket farm. Strange things have been happening at Gram’s cricket farm, and Mia suspects sabotage by the man interested in buying the farm. Mia joins two summer camps, Launch Camp & Warrior Camp, at her mother’s request to keep her busy during the summer. At Launch Camp, Mia meets Clover who is instantly invested in helping Mia figure out what is going on at the cricket farm and in building a business plan to help the farm. Along with Anna, the girls create a robot to harvest crickets, a social media campaign (with the #ChirpChallenge), and a plan to pitch to several local businesses to hopefully gain investors. Clover decides to join Mia at Warrior Camp where Mia’s past gymnastic experience impacts her ability to perform. Each week Mia builds her confidence and strength up in order to confront an uncomfortable situation from her past. The girls form a strong friendship and work together to solve the mystery of who is trying to kill Gram’s cricket farm.

THOUGHTS: Messner does it again! This beautifully written, coming of age story is timely and offers readers a glimpse into the struggle kids face with speaking up. The story approaches the #metoo topic with grace and is appropriate to middle grade readers. Filled with plot twists, red herrings, and other elements of mystery, this book is a quick read and sure to delight fans of Messner’s work!

Mystery          Jillian Gasper, Northwestern Lehigh SD

Mia’s family moves from Boston to Vermont to be near her grandmother, and Mia is glad for the change. Since she broke her arm at gymnastics, and despite her skill and enjoyment of the sport, she is relieved to give it up. She hasn’t told anyone about Coach Phil’s uncomfortable attention. If it wasn’t all right, wouldn’t an adult have stepped in? And besides, everyone likes Phil. Mia did, too, until hugs became too tight, his texts became personal, and finally, he gave her a friendly back rub she didn’t want. Mia felt “icky” around Phil, but nothing was wrong, was it? Now in Vermont, she finds an old photograph of herself and wonders if she can ever again be the brave girl who smiled as she jumped from the rocks into Lake Champlain with friends. In the meantime, she helps with her grandma’s cricket farm, caring for the crickets, working on advertising, and more. However, as more problems occur, her grandma is worried about sabotage and keeping the business afloat. Mia knows her mom wonders about her grandma’s memory and wishes her grandma would slow down.  But as Mia learns more, she and her friends begin to look into the problems. Could an outsider be trying to put her grandma out of business? Mia has spent time lately learning to be quiet, unnoticed, and unquestioned. But finding out the truth, and sticking up for another girl, helps her to find her voice. Mia learns that it’s not about finding her way back to the brave girl she once was, but finding her way forward, and she gets to decide for herself who she will be.

THOUGHTS: Messner expertly molds the serious issue of grooming and abuse into a coming of age mystery appropriate for upper elementary and middle school readers. Mia is a likeable personality, and readers will cheer for her as she stands up for herself and others and uses her voice once more.

Realistic Fiction          Melissa Scott, Shenango Area SD

Mia’s family is moving back to Vermont after living in Boston for a few years. Mia, a seventh grader, is happy about this move, as she gets to spend more time with her entomologist grandmother who owns a cricket farm. Mia is recovering from a gymnastics accident, but we learn that there was more damage than a broken arm from Tumblers Gymnastics in Boston.  With her parents making her choose two camps to participate in over the summer, Mia chooses Launch, an entrepreneurship camp that helps Mia save her Gram’s farm, and Warrior Camp, a parkour camp that helps Mia come to grips with her inner athlete. In her camps she makes lasting friendships that help her solve the mystery of who is sabotaging her Gram’s cricket farm and gives her the strength to face the secret she has been hiding from her parents.

THOUGHTS: This book is a must purchase for any middle grade library. Addressing all of the controversy surrounding gymnastics recently in a very appropriate way for middle schoolers (Mia’s male coach massages her shoulders and sends “friendly” texts and is generally just a bit too friendly in a creepy way), this novel focuses on female relationships and empowerment.

Realistic Fiction          Krista Fitzpatrick, Waldron Mercy Academy