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 – 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 – Just Our Luck

Walton, Julia. Just Our Luck. Random House. 2020,  978-0-399-55092-8. $17.99. 272 p. Grades 9-12.

Leonidas –Leo- quirky knitter and sensitive photographer, has been successful staying under the radar for most of his high school years. Then Drake Gibbons a wise-cracking, hyperactive jock punches him, and their consequences are enduring each others’ company in the counselor’s office until they become amicable. Leo’s mother died years ago and now with his Greek grandmother Yia Yia’s death, the silence in their Greek household is deafening and the relationship between him and his father even more distant. When his father insists his gentle son take a martial arts course to improve his pugilistic skills, Leo gets scared off and signs up for a yoga master certification course. Turns out, the person taking his registration is Evey Paros, from another Greek family who just happened to have cursed Leo’s many generations ago. Though she seems aloof, Evey has her own agenda. She’s been wronged by the biggest, richest, most popular dude at school, Jordan Swansea. After their breakup, Jordan sent out nude pictures of Evey over social media. She enlists Leo as her assistant in wreaking revenge. What ensues is a light romance with a touch of humor. Leo unexpectedly finds love, friends, and self confidence. A bonus is that Evey, too, finds a powerful alternative to thwarting Jordan besides sophomoric pranks.

Realistic Fiction          Bernadette Cooke, SD Philadelphia

THOUGHTS: Librarians should be aware this quick read has a lot of curses and little diversity (Drake’s girlfriend Jenn seems to be Latinx). However, the characters are humorous, and the plot discusses generalized anxiety, a condition today’s teens may recognize. Both Leo and Evey also have an interest in writing, and Leo delivers his first-person narrative in journal format. Pull for reluctant readers.

YA – You Should See Me in a Crown

Johnson, Leah. You Should See Me in a Crown. Scholastic Press, 2020. 978-1-338-50326-5. $17.99. 324 p. Grades 9 and up.

This is not your average prom court story. From Liz Lighty’s motivation to run for queen to her underdog status and even the hype surrounding this rural Indiana town’s epic prom season traditions, this prom plot is anything but trite. When Liz finds out she did not get the scholarship she needs to afford Pennington College, the school of her dreams, she does the only thing she can think of that could quickly replace that money, and it’s the last thing she ever imagined herself doing. Prom in Campbell County, Indiana is an institution, and the king and queen win $10,000 scholarships – exactly the amount of money she needs to make Pennington happen. Now, Liz – who has purposely stayed under the radar her entire high school career – throws herself into the month-long campaign for a spot on the prom court by doing volunteer work and getting as much positive attention as she can on the school’s gossipy social media app: Campbell Confidential. Being an outsider – an unpopular band kid who is one of only a few Black girls at her school – is just one of many hurdles she’ll have to overcome if she wants that crown and scholarship. Aside from her few close friends, no one at school knows that Liz is queer. When a new girl unexpectedly shows up at the first prom campaign meeting, Liz finds herself immediately crushing on this skateboard-riding underdog. Dating Mack – who is also now her competition –  is exactly the type of publicity Liz does NOT want if she’s going to win that scholarship in this very conservative town, forcing her to choose which to listen to: her head or her heart.

THOUGHTS: Leah Johson’s debut novel is laugh-out-loud funny and gosh darn adorable. Novels that tackle serious issues faced by BIPOC/LGBTQ characters are extremely important, but it’s also important to see these characters experience joy in their everyday lives. That’s not to say this book lacks serious moments because it does have them. (Liz’s brother’s health and close-minded faculty/students, for example, make for some weighty scenes). It is a feel-good story overall though with a romance full of “aww”-worthy moments, an amazing supporting cast of friends and family (Liz’s grandparents and her friend Stone are particularly fun), and it is definitely a great addition to any teen collection.

Realistic Fiction          Sarah Strouse, Nazareth Area SD


Liz Lighty dreams of leaving the small town of Campbell, Indiana behind to attend her mother’s alma mater Pennington College and become a doctor. Liz has worked hard to secure financial aid and is devastated to learn that she isn’t getting it. An excellent student and musician, Liz refuses to give up on her dream and put her grandparents into financial troubles. Liz is determined to find another way to Pennington when she is reminded of the annual prom court competition (and $10,000 scholarship for the king and queen). Terrified of the added attention (Liz has anxiety), Liz decides prom court is her best opportunity. Liz isn’t openly out which has never been a problem for her close friends, but Campbell has strict rules for potential prom court members that are steeped in tradition. Adding all of the expected volunteer events to her busy schedule isn’t easy, but spending time with new girl – and fellow prom court competition – Mack is worth it. With the help of her friends, Liz is slowly climbing the Campbell Confidential (social media app) prom court rankings and might actually stand a chance. But falling for Mack might jeopardize everything Liz has worked hard to achieve. Liz knows she’ll find her place at Pennington if she can earn this scholarship, but is getting to Pennington worth not being true to herself?

THOUGHTS: This debut tackles tough topics in a way that will appeal widely to high school readers. Liz has been through a lot in her life, and readers will root for her from the beginning. Highly recommended, this one is a must have for high school collections.

Realistic Fiction          Maryalice Bond, South Middleton SD