fiction · YA

Book Review: Recommended for You by Laura Silverman

It was another of those ‘Jewish authors write Jewish YA with Jewish protagonists’ lists that introduced me to the existence of Recommended for You by Laura Silverman (Margaret K. McElderry Books, 2020), and who am I to pass one of those lists by? Jewish teenage heroine? Check. Set in a bookstore? Check. Cute-but-grumpy Jewish love interest? Check, check! And the story takes place during Christmas time (relevant to the story). How could this not end up on my list???

Shoshanna Greenberg is having a bit of a rough time. Her car has died (again), and her moms aren’t getting along at all. Things are tough and more than a little bit worrisome. But there’s always her job at Once Upon, a wonderful little bookstore, where Shoshanna feels at home and in control of everything. But all that’s about to change with the hiring of the new employee. Not only is Jake Kaplan grumpy and unfriendly, he’s not even a reader!!! How on earth did he get hired in the first place???

But things aren’t quite what they seem, with the moms, Shoshanna’s friends, and Jake. While Shoshanna may want to fix everything, she’s going to have to learn that some things are out of her control, and she’ll need to learn to look a little deeper in order to understand the full truth. When she overhears a conversation she’s not meant to and the future of Once Upon is uncertain, it’ll take teamwork to pull off the plan she’s thinking of.

Super cute YA with an amazing setting. Once Upon is located in a busy shopping mall during the busiest time of the year, which gives the book a certain feel of urgency, definitely adding to the stress Shoshanna’s already feeling about her life. The tension at home, her car and money troubles, and the new stress at work with the hiring of Jake Kaplan force her into a corner, and Ms. Silverman at first highlights Shoshanna’s immaturity, followed by her growth. Super solid character arc here, and I can always appreciate that.

The moms’ fighting and Shoshanna’s reaction to and panic over it is realistic, almost to the point that it’s stressful to read. Jake, annoying as first when seen only through Shoshanna’s initial limited perspective, develops into a thoughtful, insightful, and interesting character, and Shoshanna’s friend group and Once Upon employees are diverse, supportive, and fun to read.

Recommended for You is a fun, quick read with great Jewish and queer rep. And what more could readers ask for than a book set in a charming book store? *swoon*

Visit Laura Silverman’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction · YA

Book Review: What I Like About You by Marisa Kanter

YA about a book blogger? And she’s Jewish??? SERIOUSLY?!?!?? Sign. Me. Up. I was into the idea of What I Like About You by Marisa Kanter (Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, 2020) the moment I learned about it. Because of the pandemic, it’s taken me this long to get to it, but y’all…this was worth the wait. I wasn’t even halfway through when I put Ms. Kanter’s next book, As If On Cue, on my TBR. Her storytelling, her writing style, I loved it all. This is a FABULOUS book and one of the best YA novels I’ve read in a long time.

Halle Levitt is a book blogger, the creator of the well-known One True Pastry, where she pairs YA books with superbly baked and decorated cupcakes (made by Halle, of course). But she blogs under the name of Kels Roth, because Halle Levitt was the granddaughter of well-known YA book editor Miriam Roth. If Halle had started blogging under her own name, she never would have known if any eventual success was hers alone or it came because of her name. As Kels, Halle, who is shy and socially awkward, finally has a group of friends she connects with for the first time, including her best friend, Nash, a graphic novel aficionado and artist.

Grams is gone now, and Halle and her brother have moved in with Gramps while their documentary-making parents are off to Israel for the year. And on her first day in town, Halle is horrified to run into none other than Nash, who has no idea she’s the Kels he’s been talking to for years. As she gets to know the real Nash and gets involved with his friend group, things get more and more complicated and she moves further and further away from being able to tell Nash the truth about her double life. But as Kels’s success grows and her opportunities for in-person events expand, Halle knows she’s going to have to come clean. Especially when Nash starts to fall for her.

OMG, this was SO good. Book bloggers! Jewish rep! Authors behaving badly! I’m absolutely shocked that so many people on Goodreads missed the ENTIRE point of the author-behaving-badly subplot. YA is written for teens. It just is. I enjoy it as an adult, but I realize I’m not the primary target audience and that’s FINE. The YA author in the book being a jerk and acting like her book was too good to be considered YA is an unfortunate page out of real life; as book bloggers, we’ve all come into contact with stories like this, where authors talk down to their audience and insult them. It’s a tough thing to deal with, especially if the art they create is something that speaks so completely to us. That there are so many reviews that don’t seem to understand what that subplot was about shocks me (though, given the state of the world and how badly people misinterpret just about everything, I probably shouldn’t be so surprised…).

Halle is a great character. She’s cute, funny, smart, creative, and awkward in ways that we all remember being (or, uh, still are…). She’s doing the best she can with what she has, and things are tough for her, what with the loss of her grandmother still fresh, and all the stress of college next year. Her reasons for starting One True Pastry under a pseudonym are entirely understandable, and her constant panic about how to tell Nash is realistic. Her brother Oliver provides the voice of reason in this situation, and her real-life friend group is supportive but doesn’t let her off the hook.

Nash is sweet, funny, a little irritating in his devotion to Kels at times, but overall, a great YA love interest. Halle/Kels’s online friends are fun but spare no punches, just like the real-life friends; they’re supportive and enthusiastic about Kels’s success, but they also demand accountability from her (would that we all had friends like this!). Gramps starts off a little harsh; his grief is still raw and he’s not doing well, but his slow return to the land of the living is satisfying and emotionally fulfilling. And the Jewish rep? ON POINT. There are a lot of scenes here set at synagogue; Halle and her brother have never attended, so the reader is able to learn what’s going on right along with them. There are also other scenes set during holiday celebrations, and various Shabbat observance levels are discussed. It’s all fabulous and made me feel right at home.

This is a GREAT book, and I absolutely cannot wait to read more from Marisa Kanter.

Visit Marisa Kanter’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction · YA

Book Review: Meet Me in Outer Space by Melinda Grace

Central Auditory Processing Disorder. I learned about this disorder years ago, when my son’s friend from school had this diagnosis. He was a really cool kid and just needed a little extra help to be successful, and so when I learned about Meet Me in Outer Space by Melinda Grace (Swoon Reads, 2019), in which the main character deals with CAPD, I was interested. What would a YA book that includes this disorder be like?

Edie Kits has dealt with Central Auditory Processing Disorder her whole life. What people say isn’t always what she hears, so things can get confusing, and it absolutely impacts her learning. Nevertheless, Edie has persisted and she’s doing well in college, studying to work in the fashion industry. She’s even planning to study abroad this upcoming summer…but French 102 is proving to be a problem. Not only that, but her professor is completely unwilling to accommodate her disability.

Enter Wes Hudson, the adorable-yet-frumpily-dressed TA. After a few awkward foibles over Edie’s disability in the beginning (hey, everyone needs to learn!), he’s her biggest cheerleader, helping her run interference when necessary with the grumpy professor and becoming her French tutor. Edie’s falling for him hard, but what about Paris? She’ll be gone until next spring; she can’t let a boyfriend get in the way. Better to start pushing Hudson away now…

This was cute, but just kind of okay for me. It’s one of those books where, I felt, the problem could have been solved if the two main characters could have just sat down and talked honestly about their problems (and it’s one thing if, say, some trauma from the past makes it difficult to open up. This wasn’t the case here). If Edie had just said, “Look, a relationship with you would be great, but I’m going to be gone from June until next April. I don’t know how we would handle that; what are your feelings on long-distance relationships? It wouldn’t be forever, but it would definitely be tough,” the book would’ve been about half its actual length. I found myself getting annoyed with her and Hudson because the possibility of a long-distance relationship never seemed to occur to either of them.

Including CAPD in the book definitely added an interesting aspect to the story; Edie’s struggles and frustration with her French professor made her problems incredibly real (the professor and Edie’s jackwagon counselor really ticked me off; I’m not sure some of their actions were actually legal, and Edie definitely could have pushed harder to receive the accommodations she needed – easier said than done, I’m very aware of that. Sigh). I did go into this expecting it would be a bigger issue throughout the story, that it would affect her friendships more and she would struggle more in daily life and not just in school, but Edie seemed to have an easier time of it with friends – possibly the one-on-one or smaller groups aspect helped?

This was okay for me. Not mind-blowing, but mostly enjoyable.

Visit Melinda Grace’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction · YA

Book Review: Playing with Matches by Suri Rosen

There aren’t a ton of books out there set in Orthodox Jewish communities, so finding a really fun one- especially a YA!- is like discovering a twenty-dollar bill in the crispy fall leaves at the edge of the sidewalk when you’re out for a refreshing autumn walk. That’s how I felt about Playing with Matches by Suri Rosen (ECW Press, 2014). I think this one came to my TBR via a suggestion in one of my Facebook groups, possibly one for Jewish women (that would make the most sense!), but I have book suggestions flying every which way at me on every social platform, so I’m not 100% sure. Either way, I was excited to read it and very much enjoyed this fun, spirited story.

Raina Resnick doesn’t have the best track record lately. Kicked out of her last school, she’s been shipped off to Toronto to live with her aunt and uncle, while her parents head to Hong Kong for her father’s job. The message is clear: if Raina doesn’t shape up, both academically and behaviorally, high school will become a Hong Kong homeschool nightmare. Toronto for Raina is lonely; there’s no breaking into the social scene, and her sister’s appearance clues her in that something has gone very, very wrong in their formerly close relationship. It’s this loneliness that pushes Raina to strike up a friendship with the woman who sits next to her on the bus every day, and before she knows it, Raina is setting her new single friend up with a family friend.

It’s a match, but Raina’s excitement is tempered by the fact that this family friend had been meant for her already-heartbroken sister. Whoops. But when word of Raina’s matchmaking gets around, all of lonely Toronto wants her anonymous services…including Leah, her sister. One mishap after another befalls her, but the successes and the potential to repair her relationship with her sister keep her going, despite the hits to her schoolwork. But when her secret comes out…how will everyone around her react???

This was fun. More a comedy-of-errors than I usually enjoy (you know, when everything that can possibly go wrong DOES go wrong, in a way that keeps you cringing and just so, so uncomfortable???), but Raina is so earnest, despite having messed up in the past, that you can’t help but root for her. Her family obviously wants what’s best for her, but they’re seeing her through a very narrow lens, which obviously leads to other problems.

It’s helpful to know a little about the Orthodox Jewish community, but not necessary; Raina does a pretty good job of explaining the ins and outs and why matchmaking is serious business, along with other tidbits that come up. Really, Raina’s just an average teenage girl, wanting friendship, a better relationship with her sister, to help other people and do some good in this world. Her path towards those goals may be a roundabout one, but she gets there and it’s so much fun to watch.

I hope Suri Rosen eventually writes more YA, because her voice is so authentic and enjoyable.

Visit Suri Rosen’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction · YA

Book Review: Love Is a Revolution by Renée Watson

I don’t often read the same author over and over again- not because I don’t have favorites or lack loyalty, just because there are just. so. many. authors out there that I want to read! But Renée Watson is one I’ve read a lot from recently (see here and here); I find her characters to be the perfect balance of flawed, yet aware of it and striving to do better. And the strong Black communities that appear in all of her novels are a fantastic place to spend time. Her Love Is a Revolution (Bloomsbury YA, 2021) is no different, and while it included a trope that usually makes me uncomfortable to read (thanks, anxiety!), the book is a thoughtful glimpse into the mind of a teenage girl that is still figuring out exactly who she is.

Nala’s not thrilled about her cousin Imani’s choice of birthday activity- an open mic night with her leadership group. Inspire Harlem, Nala feels, is filled with pushy do-gooders who make Nala feel like she’s not doing enough, but that’s just not her right now. But at the event, she meets Tye, the cute, idealistic new Inspire Harlem member, and suddenly, without even thinking Nala’s inventing a whole new version of herself, the vegetarian activist that she thinks Tye wants.

And he does. As she and Tye grow closer, Nala’s lies begin to rope in more of her family members and community, including her grandmother and the people at her senior living center. Nala knows she needs to come clean, but how do you admit that your entire relationship with someone is built on lies? When the truth comes out, Nala realizes she can’t love someone else without first loving herself, that knowing who she is and loving herself for it is the revolution she needs, and the only way she can move forward in all her relationships.

Such a powerful novel. The story begins with a lot of tension simmering under the surface. Nala has lived with her aunt, uncle, and cousin for years; her mother was struggling to care for her for various reasons and their relationship was strained, and while Nala gets alone well with her relatives, things have been tense with her cousin Imani, who is rarely at home these days. Nala feels deep pressure to be who her family wants her to be, but she’s not sure that that matches up with who she really is. Tye appears in her life at the perfectly wrong moment, but she’s so attracted to him that without thinking, she lies to him about who she really is, something she knows immediately is wrong, but once those lies are out there, Nala’s not sure how to stop.

The strength of Nala’s relationship with her grandmother and the residents of her senior living community was really sweet to read. She lies to Tye that she’s a volunteer coordinator there, but she’s really just visiting and spending time there out of love, and that alone was touching. And for all Nala’s disdain for Inspire Harlem, the group’s enthusiasm and dedication really got me thinking. What groups are like that where I live? How can I get involved in something like that? A group focused on creating an environmentally sound community, while creating teen leaders who will feel confident enough to take charge on a larger scale in the future? Absolutely! What an amazing idea, and I hope there are plenty of groups out there exactly like this.

I’m usually not a huge fan of books that use lying as a means of furthering the plot, but this worked well; Nala’s clearly anxious about constantly having to scramble to mold her real life around the lies that she’s told, and when she’s forced to come clean, she realizes the implications of everything and makes the right decisions about taking a step back and working on herself. She makes mistakes, but she owns them, and she’s a fabulous example of thoughtfulness and strength for teen (and adult!) readers.

Visit Renée Watson’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction · YA

Book Review: Jack of Hearts (and Other Parts) by Lev AC Rosen

There’s been a lot going around lately about censorship- parents getting their drawers in a twist about the books available to their kids, folks calling for book burnings (I wish I were exaggerating there). BookRiot has a great article on how to fight censorship; I’ve started virtually attending my library’s board meetings because of this, just so I can be up to date with everything that’s going on and be prepared to lend a hand if needed (because yup, this is in my area as well). It was in that BookRiot article that I learned about Jack of Hearts (and Other Parts) by Lev AC Rosen (Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, 2018). The article’s description of how a Christian group challenged the book piqued my curiosity and I put a hold on it at my library that day.

Jack Rothman is seventeen and the resident sex expert of his friend group. He’s queer, confident, and not afraid to be himself, whether that’s sporting a new shade of eyeliner, suggesting a one-time hook-up with another guy, or putting his very active sex life out there for everyone to read about in his new advice column for a not-school-sponsored website published by one of his best friends. He’s unapologetically himself at all times, which often makes him fodder for the school gossip mill, and which doesn’t always sit well with him, but he never lets it stop him from being who he is.

But Jack is getting letters- secret admirer letters, it seems at first, but then they take on a creepier bent. The author of the letter claims to love Jack, but they want to change him and everything that makes him him…and that’s not okay. When the letters start threatening his mother and the emotional health of his friends, Jack knows he has to figure out who’s sending these, and fast.

It’s easy to see why more conservative parents are clutching their pearls over this book. Jack is openly gay, loves sex of all kinds, and bends gender norms in order to most fully express himself- all things that sort of people dislike. (Cry me a river, folks. How other people choose to express themselves has, quite literally, NOTHING to do with you.) To be fully honest, when I first started reading this book, I was a little surprised as well- Lev Rosen doesn’t hold back at all. There are open, frank discussions of sex of all sorts- gay, straight, group, oral, and more- and reading this with my 41-year-old-parent-of-a-7-year-old-and-a-19-year-old eyes, my first instinct was to go, “WHOA.”

And then I stopped and thought about it.

What was I doing when I was Jack’s age, after years of attending a religious school?

OH YEAH. Working in a video rental store that also had a room for adult videos.

At 17, I was listening to hallway gossip about who slept with whom at weekend parties, and what dating couples at my school did and didn’t do sexually (to be fair, this kind of stuff started when I was like 13, at my very small religious school). Between that and the titles of the adult movies I rented out to various customers (including one man who later turned out to be very religious- which I learned because I started dating his son. Awkward), there wasn’t much in this book that I hadn’t heard about as a teenager, the intended audience of this book. How much more is this true for today’s teens, who have grown up as digital natives, with the internet and all its various contents piped directly into their homes and sometimes bedrooms 24/7?

If anything, this book exists not only to give kids the message that it’s a good thing to be yourself, no matter what that is, but to give kids correct information. All the advice Jack gives in his column and to his friends is safe, medically sound, and ethical. He speaks a lot about consent, respect, and not doing things unless you truly want to. He’s there to empower his readers in order for them to make the best decisions for themselves, with as much information possible. Kids are going to be getting information about sexual topics- they’re coming from all angles at kids these ages: friends, movies, the internet, the media. This book is, at the very least, unbiased and accurate in its information, and that’s what teenagers deserve. Teenagers have questions about sex. In the best-case scenario, they’ll come to us as parents with these questions, but it’s no surprise if they feel they can’t (and it’s our fault for not fostering the kind of relationship with them in which they feel they can come to us with those questions). If your kids don’t come to you, where do you want them getting that information? Because, guaranteed, they’ll get it, and the source might not be accurate, putting your child at risk.

Jack is a great character. He doesn’t waver in who he is, though he is spooked into toning it down a bit when his stalker ramps up their game and gets really creepy. He’s supportive of his friends (and knows when he’s hogging the limelight and needs to allow them space to shine). He’s honest, both with himself and with the people around him, and he does his best to bridge that awkward gap that exists between teenage boys and their mothers, even though it’s tough.

My only complaint with the book is the ending felt a little anti-climactic. The identity of Jack’s stalker felt a little out-of-nowhere for me. It left me just the tiniest bit deflated, after what was a truly excellent book about a teenager who exists outside most of what’s considered the norm and is entirely comfortable with that.

If you’re reading this book as an adult, my suggestion is to put your adult eyes away and dig out your teenage eyes, the ones you used when you were full of questions about life and sex and identity. Read it with the eyes of a teenager constantly bombarded with messages about what they’re supposed to do and who they’re supposed to be, with people shaming them for who they are and what they feel. My guess is that there are a lot of kids who will feel validated by this book, who will see that having questions and feelings about sex doesn’t make them bad or disgusting or sinful, it makes them developmentally normal.

If your instinct is that this book doesn’t belong on the shelves at all, that no one’s kids should be reading it, that’s a you problem. If you don’t want YOUR kids reading it, that’s on you as a parent. BE A PARENT and monitor your kid’s reading materials- that’s your prerogative as a parent and I fully support your right to allow or not allow this book in your home. But your rights end there, and the availability of this book at local libraries has nothing to do with you. If you don’t like it, don’t check it out. If you don’t want your teenager reading it, monitor what they’re bringing home from the library. But parent your own child, not everyone else’s. That’s not your job, and you’re not making the world any safer by ensuring that other teens have less information.

I commend Lev Rosen for the bravery it took to write this book and put it out there, knowing the kind of stir it would cause. Thank you for being the voice teenagers need and answering the questions a lot of them have nowhere else to ask.

Visit Lev AC Rosen’s website here.

Follow him on Twitter here.

fiction · historical fiction · YA

Book Review: They Went Left by Monica Hesse

When I was in my early 20s, I picked up a copy of After the War by Carol Matas, about a group of Jewish teenagers and children making their way to Palestine after surviving the Holocaust (this is an excellent book; I highly recommend it). Upon reading this, I realized that most books about the Holocaust focus on the horrors of the concentration/death camps; they mostly end when the camp is liberated, and few books talk about what happened next. What happened to those people who lost everything, who witnessed unspeakable nightmares every day for years? How did they move on with their lives? Could they even move on? This period of history, post-WWII for the survivors, has intrigued me ever since, and that was how They Went Left by Monica Hesse (Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, 2021) ended up on my list. I was glad to learn of its existence.

18 year-old Zofia Lederman has survived- survived the war, survived the Gross-Rosen concentration camp, and survived most of her family. Separated upon arrival at the camp, she was sent to the right; the rest of her family went left. But Zofia is broken; her body has been ravaged by starvation and brutal workloads, and her mind has fractured as a result. She can no longer remember the last time she saw her younger brother Abek, and so she leaves the hospital early and begins to search for him, her only remaining family member.

Her search leads her across multiple countries, to orphanages and displaced persons camps, where people are struggling to rebuild shattered lives, some with more success than others. Zofia marvels at the ones who have picked up and moved on so easily; how is it that they are able to keep living, when she’s barely hanging on? After a while, it seems Zofia is one of the lucky ones…or is she? With the help of her new friends and the lessons she learns from them, Zofia is able to find a future in the unexpected, even if it does mean heartbreak and coming to terms with everything’s she- and everyone else- has lost.

This is a powerful book. Monica Hesse cuts no corners in painting pictures of the brutality suffered during this period of time. Mass graves, murdered babies, horrific medical experiments, survivors committing suicide after Liberation, sexual favors exchanged for survival or better work details, she leaves nothing out. This is not a light and easy novel; this is an in-your-face exposé of all the ways Jews were tortured and reaped of their dignity and their lives throughout the Holocaust. There is suffering and pain on every page, and it’s all thoroughly researched and well-woven into this story.

I appreciated that Zofia wasn’t just another strong character. She’s deeply broken at the beginning of the story, losing time and lapsing into what she’s not sure are memories or just wishful fantasies. The search for her brother is a nightmare in and of itself; we’re so spoiled today with the internet and cell phones, with such instant communication. All families had back then were unreliable phones, letters (likely with a slow, unreliable post at the time), and placing names on lists of organizations (none of whom communicated with one another). Imagine trying to find one person out of millions in that manner, when millions of your people had been slaughtered. The desperation of this method of searching is highlighted throughout this book, and the whole thing just broke my heart.

I’m not sure any book about the Holocaust can truly have a happy ending- even the few whole families who managed to survive still lost homes, friends, communities, their entire way of life. The best, most powerful books end with resolve, and that’s what They Went Left offers: the digging deep and reaching out to find what one needs to keep living. Monica Hesse has created a novel that offers exactly that.

Visit Monica Hesse’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction · YA

Book Review: This Side of Home by Renée Watson

I don’t often read the same author’s books too close together- I’m more of a space-them-out-to-make-an-author’s-works-last kind of gal- but it just so happened that not too long after I read Renée Watson’s Piecing Me Together, her This Side of Home (Bloomsbury USA Childrens, 2015) came up on my TBR and was in (still working through a bunch of ebooks), so onto my kindle it went. I spent a lovely Saturday on my backyard patio swing, chilling and swinging and enjoying this book, which has given me a lot to think about.

Maya and her twin sister Nikki are identical and have always done everything together, including sharing a best friend and making plans together for the future. But things are changing. Best friend Essence is moving 45 minutes away, thanks to her landlord selling the house she lives in. Their new neighbors are a white family Maya’s not so sure of, but Nikki becomes fast friends with Kate, and Tony…seems okay (and he’s super cute). The neighborhood is gentrifying, and although Maya’s glad it’s safer, the racial tension is hard to deal with and she’s got a lot of justified resentment about the hows and whys of it, and the feelings like all the changes in her neighborhood aren’t meant for its longtime residents.

School is changing too. The new principal seems hellbent on making sure the school isn’t focused on Black history. Inclusion is great, but it doesn’t mean erasure, and Maya’s going to fight like hell to ensure that doesn’t happen. When things get serious between her and Tony, Maya’s not sure how to tell everyone about their new relationship- and not just because Tony’s dad is fluent in microaggression. Senior year is a year of changes, and Maya engages in a lot of self-examination in order to come to terms with who she is and wants to be in this new world.

This is a quick read, but it’s one that makes you think, like really think. About identity, about racial and cultural expectations, about microaggression and racism, about gentrification and the costs and benefits of it, and who it’s really for. It was really interesting to read the perspective of a narrator (especially a teenage narrator) who lived in the neighborhood both before and after gentrification, and to feel her ambivalence about what happened to the place she’s always called home. There’s a lot to be angry and frustrated and resentful about, and Maya is- her best friend was pushed out of her home because of this, and she never feels welcome in most of the white-owned businesses that have taken up residence down the street- but there end up being some good parts to it all as well, as she learns. Does the good outweigh the bad? It’s not an easy question to answer, but hopefully you’ll read deeply enough to come away with an understanding of what our responsibilities are to our fellow human beings and the work it takes to make sure everyone knows we’re truly all in this together.

Maya grows a lot throughout the novel. She comes to understand that things change, and she has to be able to give a little as she fights for what she wants and needs. She’s easy to empathize with: change is hard, especially big changes, especially when they upend the way things have been your whole life. But she has excellent role models in her life- her father, teachers, people in her neighborhood- to give her an idea of what the work looks like to create a true community and to be a responsible adult (being a teenager and learning these lessons is hard; I wouldn’t go back to that age for anything!), and her growth is truly admirable.

I live in a fairly diverse neighborhood, which I love. But it’s still majority white, and I fully admit I don’t know all that much about gentrification, so I’m very glad I read this nuanced take on it, that showed the many sides of it and what it could be like (at one part near the end, a very positive part where the neighborhood comes together after an unfortunate chaotic incident). One of the reasons I read so much is to understand the world, to understand the perspectives of people whose lives aren’t like mine, who have lived in different places and in different ways and who have different takes on issues. Seeing the gentrification of Maya’s neighborhood through her eyes clued me into an angle that I wouldn’t necessarily have been able to consider on my own, simply because her life and my life are different. The best books do that, and This Side of Home showed me what a neighborhood looks like when it doesn’t quite work for everyone, and what it takes to make it work for everyone. This has given me a LOT to think about, and Ms. Watson’s book is something I’m going to be carrying with me forever.

This is an excellent, timely novel. Highly recommended.

Visit Renée Watson’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction · YA

Book Review: Sick Kids in Love by Hannah Moskowitz

I’ve enjoyed Hannah Moskowitz since she first blasted onto the YA scene with Break in 2009. Her addition to It’s a Whole Spiel blew me away, and so I was thrilled that the next book on my TBR (ebook edition, since that’s what I’m focused on now) was her Sick Kids in Love (Entangled: Teen, 2019). The tagline for this book is, ‘They don’t die in this one,’ which was a relief to read (you know, having been traumatized by all the Lurlene McDaniel tragedy porn I read growing up, and then again by John Green with The Fault in Our Stars). I still stressed out while reading this excellent book, though.

Isabel is sick. She’s had rheumatoid arthritis since she was eight (not diagnosed until age nine), so she knows pain and what it’s like to live with a debilitating illness, what it’s like to have to plan your entire life around your unpredictable body, what it’s like to have no one around you really get what it’s like to live with this always hanging over you, what it’s like for an illness to just be part of who you are. She doesn’t date- for a lot of reasons- but then she meets Sasha, another chronically sick kid, and her life turns upside down. Sasha gets it. Sasha understands what it’s like to have a body he can’t trust. And dammit, he’s cute with a capital CUTE.

When she decides to let go and jump in with both feet, things are…good. There are the usual romance ups and downs: they annoy each other; they like different things; Isabel can’t make up her mind about anything; both of them have struggles with their conditions. And then the little things become big things, and things get tough. Isabel needs to learn to make decisions, to speak up for herself and maybe learn to make the necessary changes that come when you’re no longer alone and have to compromise to get along.

I loved this. I loved this a lot. Hannah Moskowitz (who is indeed a sick kid; she has ankylosing spondylitis, a type of spinal arthritis- I’m familiar with it because it shares a lot of symptoms with my back/pelvis issues and is often misdiagnosed as what I have for years. Which makes me wonder a lot, but doctors don’t seem to want to investigate further, so whatever) is wise beyond her years and shows it all over the place yet again. Life with chronic pain is so eloquently explained in this book; if you live with chronic pain or you love someone who does and want to understand, you NEED this book. NEED. I’m going to quote a section below that made me gasp. I read it, read it again, reread it, and then copied it down, because it summed up what chronic pain is like so, so well:

You stop noticing pain, is the thing.

You notice it when it’s really bad, or when it’s different, but…on the rare occasion someone asks me what it’s like to live with RA, I don’t ever know what to say. They ask me if it’s painful, and I say yes because I know intellectually it must be, because the idea of doing some of the things that other people do without thinking fills me with dread and panic, but I always think about it mechanically. I can’t do x. I don’t want to do y. I don’t continue the thought into I can’t do that because it would hurt. I don’t want to do that because then I would be in pain.

You can’t live like that. There’s only so much you can carry quietly by yourself, so you turn an illness into a list of rules instead of a list of symptoms, and you take pills that don’t help, and you do the stretches, and you think instead of feeling. You think.

And you don’t soak in hot water and feel the tension bleed out of your joints because it’s just going to remind you that it will come right back.

This is it. This is it entirely. This is what I live with, and Hannah Moskowitz has put it into words. All hail our new leader! Long live the queen! Seriously, this put my feelings and frustrations into words far better than I can at this point (it’s been a really bad year for pain for me; I’ve been on steroids four times since the pandemic started- my doctors don’t think that’s at all a problem, apparently- my neuropathy is going wild, my gabapentin doses have increased 300% and still aren’t covering it all, the Celebrex doesn’t work at all anymore so I’ve stopped taking it…). The tests coming back normal when you’re barely able to function- when that happened to Isabel, I nearly wept, because that’s something I so understand (right along with being blown off by doctors. It’s like there’s a giant belief of, “It’s just pain, why do you care so much?” attitude in the medical community. Quality of life means nothing, and it’s so, so good to hear someone else talk about this. THANK YOU, HANNAH MOSKOWITZ.

(Also? Two Jewish main characters, THANK YOU, HANNAH MOSKOWITZ. Truly. Long live the queen!)

So I loved this. It was a fun, sweet love story about two kids who get each other, but who are also still trying to get themselves, because they’re teenagers, and on a large level, it drops some serious truth bombs about life with health problems that aren’t ever going away. This book got me- as a forty-year-old woman, it got me, and I am so utterly grateful for that.

Follow Hannah Moskowitz on Twitter here.

Check out her Wikipedia page here.

fiction · YA

Book Review: The Henna Wars by Adiba Jaigirdar

A while back, there was an epic Twitter thread on all of (or at least, a LOT of) the books by South Asian authors coming out in 2020, and hoooooooooooooo boy, did a lot of books get added to my TBR that day! One of those books included The Henna Wars by Adiba Jaigirdar (Page Street Kids, 2020). This book has it all: South Asian characters. LGBT rep. Strong sister relationship. Drama with the parents. Set in…Ireland??? NEAT! It’s been a while since I read fiction set there. Anyway, I finally got to it on my TBR and enjoyed the long days of reading it on my backyard swing (while sweating half to death, of course, because it’s super gross out here right now).

Nishat has come out to her parents, with less-than-stellar results. While there’s no screaming, no threatening, no plans to send her away, they’re cool, chilly, unable to understand why she can’t just change everything about who she is. Unexpectedly, Flávia, a friend she hasn’t seen since early grade school, shows back up in her life, and suddenly, Nishat’s in love. Only there’s a slight problem: Flávia turns out to be the cousin of Nishat’s archenemy at school. Ugh. No worries, though. Nishat’s not even sure if Flávia likes her that way, although signs are pointing to yes…

A business class project has the students forming their own businesses and competing over whose is more successful. Nishat decides, as a nod to her culture, to begin doing henna (painting henna designs on hands). She’s horrified to learn that Flávia, who is not Bengali (she’s Brazilian and Irish), has planned to do the same. Holy cultural appropriation, folks! Sabotage. Theft. Underhandedness. Destruction. Things get a little out of control in this competition, and Nishat isn’t always the person she wants to be. Nishat and her classmates have a lot to learn about and from each other, and maybe Mom and Dad will learn a few things as well.

There’s a lot going on in this story- Nishat’s relationship with her sister Priti, the pressure of exams at school, trying to maintain a relationship with a grandparent over Skype, race-based bullying, fighting with a friend group, a strained relationship with parents over cultural issues, cultural appropriation- but somehow, it all works. Nishat is a typical teenager who doesn’t always make the best choices; she’s impulsive under pressure, a little selfish at times, and occasionally leaps to conclusions. But she’s also dedicated and optimistic, and all of this makes her a well-rounded character.

Her relationship with younger sister Priti, who is sometimes the more mature of the two, is the kind that will make you wish you had a younger sister (if you don’t. I do not). Priti stands by her side no matter what, is always there to support her and offer up whatever Nishat needs, and calls her on her selfish behavior when the situation warrants it. Priti is very much the voice of reason here, and I loved her.

The bullying is painful to read. There are obvious content warnings here for racism and homophobia, and one for a forced outing, which can be upsetting (kudos to Ms. Jaigirdar, who has this warning written into the opening pages. I love that these kinds of heads-ups are becoming the norm). When you’re able to handle these topics, this is a kaleidoscope of a novel, with all the issues moving and sliding around each other to become one colorful design that fits together perfectly.

Super fun YA with great multi-dimensional characters in an interesting setting. I’m looking forward to reading more from Ms. Jaigirdar.

Visit Adiba Jaigirdar’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.