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.

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reading life

Comforting Reads for Troubling Times…

Raise your hand if you’re having a hard time reading right now, whatever that means to you.

*raises hand, waves it wildly*

Focusing is difficult. I find myself constantly refreshing various open tabs on my computer, looking for someone or something to make all of this better. And I know that too much time online isn’t good for my ability to focus, but…

Time is also a major factor. Herding my daughter through her schoolwork, helping my son learn to cook (and cooking all the rest of the time), cleaning the mess left by four people and two cats who rarely leave the house, daily hour-long walks with the family- exactly where can I shoehorn reading in???

Some of you are struggling through schoolwork, others are worried about bills and lost jobs, others find themselves with the impossible conundrum of how to care for very young children and still manage a full day of working from home, and so many of us are worried about sick friends and family. It’s impossible, these are impossible demands, and yet here we are, persisting, supporting each other, and doing our best every single day.

We all need a gigantic hug right now (or whatever your preferred form of soothing affection is), so today, I’m serving up some of my favorite comfort reads, which are basically hugs in book form, and who doesn’t love that???

Fiction

What it is: Joy in the Morning by Betty Smith

Why it’s a comfort read: Betty Smith is the author of the beloved classic A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, and Joy in the Morning is written in the same clear, fluid style that her fans will instantly recognize. Joy has a similar feel to it. It tells the story of newlyweds Carl and Annie, struggling to make a life together in 1928. Both are young, neither family supports the marriage, and they’re entirely on their own, doing their best to figure things out. Adjust your mindset to what life was like at that time and you’ll find this as charming as I did.

What it is: Fifteen by Beverly Cleary.

Why it’s a comfort read: This is the sweetest romance you will ever read in your life. Fifteen tells the story of a teenage girl’s first love and all the awkward, anxious moments that come along with it. I’ve read this probably more than fifteen times in my life, and each time I appreciate it more. It was first published in 1956 and there are a few bits that are dated (including a friend group trip to Chinatown where Jane is entirely unfamiliar with the food), but it’ll throw you right back into the terrible, wonderful, exhilarating whirlwind of falling in love for the very first time.

What it is: Garden Spells by Sarah Addison Allen

Why it’s a comfort read: Magic! Gardens with edible flowers that will change what you need them to. An apple tree that throws its fruit at people. Women that can whip up delicacies and concoctions that will not only taste great but will cure what ails you. This is a book you can wrap around yourself like a beautiful silk scarf, that will leave you reaching for a notepad and a spade so you can plan, then plant your own magical garden. Along these lines, you’ll also want to pick up Practical Magic by Alice Hoffman and Charms for the Easy Life by Kaye Gibbons.

What it is: Red, White & Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston

Why it’s a comfort read: If you’re sick of politics as they are, this book is politics as it should be, with the addition of one of the most adorable love stories I’ve ever read. International intrigue, love between a British prince and the son of the American president, this gave me ALL the feels and was exactly the antidote to the existential despair that *gestures broadly at everything* was giving me at the time. If you haven’t read this yet, put it on your list immediately.

What it is: Anna and the French Kiss by Stephanie Perkins

Why it’s a comfort read: Along the lines of Beverly Cleary’s Fifteen, this is the story of a very sweet first love set against the background of a Parisian boarding school for international students. Anna is struggling to define herself in an environment she’s not thrilled to be in, but the presence of floppy-haired Etienne helps…a lot. Super adorable and sweet, and a must-read if you love all things French.

What it is: Love and Other Words by Christina Lauren

Why it’s a comfort read: Macy and Elliot’s relationship is charming and will have your heart weeping and soaring through the clouds. It’s a friends-to-lovers-to-strangers-to…well, you’ll have to read it to find out, but there’s not much better than hanging out in the (actual) closet and reading with these two characters.

Nonfiction

Who says all comfort reads need to be fiction? I’m a major nonfiction fan, so here are a few nonfiction titles that gave me the warm fuzzies.

What it is: The Lord God Made Them All by James Herriot (and really, ANY James Herriot book works here)

Why it’s a comfort read: James Herriot’s stories of his work as a country vet in post-World War II England are utterly delightful and will give you renewed faith in humanity and the beauty of the natural world. I usually steer clear of animal stories, but his books are the major exception to that rule, they’re that good. You’ll be ready to pack up your life, head off to Yorkshire, and buy a farm on a rolling green hill, scattered with cows and goats by the end of each book. I’ve heard that his books make for great family read-alouds, if you’re looking for a way to pass the time.

What it is: Shelf Discovery: The Teen Classics We Never Stopped Reading by Lizzie Skurnick

Why it’s a comfort read: If you’re a woman of a certain age or if you’re younger and read all those books your mom or cool aunt saved from her childhood, this book will be a joyride back to those cozy days of your youth. Who doesn’t love to reminisce about their favorite childhood books?

What it is: A Girl From Yamhill: A Memoir by Beverly Cleary (and its follow-up, My Own Two Feet).

Why it’s a comfort read: Beverly Cleary, iconic children’s and young adult novelist, has detailed her childhood in Depression-era Oregon. Times were tough; her relationship with her mother was often strained; opportunity didn’t come often, when it even bothered. But somehow, Mrs. Cleary managed, and her stories of schoolwork, playing outside with friends, reworking clothing to make new-to-her outfits, and making the best of every situation will have you feeling like this, too, is doable.

*****

Book suggestions are great (and fun to make!), but we all know the best comfort read is something that relaxes us, that isn’t difficult, that we can sink into like a soft feather bed, and what that is differs for everyone. So in this difficult time, when reading may be tougher than normal or next to impossible, it’s okay to retreat to whatever brings you a moment of peace. Reread that series everyone else hates. Pick up Harry Potter for the forty-third time. Revisit that book you loved as a kid, or grab seventeen ebooks in a row by your favorite author. If it’s what helps bring some calm and quiet to your worried, scattered mind, it’s exactly what you need to be reading right now.

What are your favorite comfort reads?