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.

fiction · YA

Book Review: Piecing Me Together by Renée Watson

I don’t remember how Piecing Me Together by Renée Watson (Bloomsbury, 2017) ended up on my TBR. Likely, it was from another book blogger (thanks, whoever you are!), because I had three of her books on there- one down, two to go! The other two are available at my library; I’m pretty sure at least one of them is available only in ebook form- which is totally fine, but I just don’t get to the ebooks as quickly as I do the paper copies. Which is odd; I love ebooks and reading on my kindle, but I guess I enjoy the trip to the library and being able to see that new stack of books even more. 😉

Jade is a Black student at a nearly-all-white private school, a situation that has provided her with a great education, but which has made for some uncomfortable situations, and about which she often feels guilty when she’s hanging out with her neighborhood friends. So often, the opportunities she’s offered at this school feel…demeaning. Like they’re not seeing Jade for who she is, but just someone to help so that someone else can feel good about themselves. It’s not great.

The new program Jade’s been invited to be part of, Woman to Woman, fits into this category. Her new mentor, Maxine, is Black, but she’s privileged in ways that Jade has never been, and that makes it hard to relate to her. The program, if completed, comes with a promise of a college scholarship, but at times, Jade’s not sure it’s worth suffering the microaggressions, the assertions that girls like her need to be different, that who they are isn’t enough already. But Jade comes to understand that there are lessons to be learned in every situation, that her voice is powerful and ready to be used, and that by using it, she can make changes for herself and for other girls that stretch far into the future.

I really enjoyed this. Jade knows herself well, which is always great in a YA character (I sure didn’t have that kind of confidence when I was young, but I was also wracked with anxiety and depression, sooooooo). She just needs a gentle nudge here and there and to be pointed in the right direction. A little encouragement goes a long, long way, and this story is a good reminder not only of that, but of what teenagers are capable of. I really wish our society weren’t so willing to write them off as ridiculous and unformed, because honestly, teenagers are pretty darn awesome.

Something I really enjoyed about this book was Jade as an artist. Her medium is collage, something I’ve come to enjoy after noticing how often it pops up in the children’s books I’ve read with my daughter (Victoria Kann of the Pinkalicious books and Eric Carle, may his memory be a blessing, are some popular ones, but I even noticed it in a nonfiction book we read yesterday). Jade used items like newspapers, with their painful headlines, and turned ugly things into beauty. This kept my brain working, trying to figure out what her pieces might look like. I draw from time to time, but collage is beyond my ability, but I really like the idea of a teenager viewing the world like this and expressing herself through this medium. I’m going to have to keep an eye on the local high school’s art shows when those start happening again, because I’d really enjoy seeing more of how kids like Jade see the world.

This is a quick read, but it leaves the reader with a lot to consider: how are you treating the disadvantaged kids in your life? As full people who have their own ideas and connections to the world, or as empty vessels to pour your own points of view into? What kind of microaggressions have you been responsible for, and how will you work to remedy that? I’m looking forward to reading the other books from Ms. Watson on my list, because, as always, I know I have a lot to learn, and she’s an excellent teacher.

Visit Renée Watson’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

blog tour · fiction · YA

The Write Reads on Tour Presents: Instructions for Dancing by Nicola Yoon

Ahoy, mateys! Welcome to the latest stop on The Write Reads Ultimate Blog Tour for Nicola Yoon’s Instructions for Dancing! Get ready to slam that BUY NOW button on the bookselling website of your choice (support your indie booksellers, folks!), because this book is Nicola Yoon at her very best.

I’ve read Nicola Yoon before; you can read my enjoyment of two of her other books here (if you note the date on that post, you’ll realize I never got to attend Ms. Yoon’s local appearance. THANKS, PANDEMIC!!! I’m crossing my fingers that she’ll make her way back here at some point when it’s safe). So when The Write Reads announced, in conjunction with Penguin Books, a blog tour of her latest YA novel, Instructions for Dancing (Penguin, 2021), I knew I wanted in. Ms. Yoon writes such interesting, multi-dimensional characters and drops them into situations that force their growth in lively and moving ways. Yup. Sign. Me. Up.

In Instructions for Dancing, we meet Evie as she’s clearing her shelf of romance novels, her favorite genre of book, set on giving them all away. Uh-oh. Turns out Mom and Dad got divorced a while back, and while Mom and sister Danica seem to have moved on from this, Evie can’t, because she’s the one who caught Dad cheating. Yikes. Love is dead, and Evie no longer believes it’s possible. A stop at a Little Free Library to unload her books (and take one home, a strange book entitled Instructions for Dancing) finds Evie in a chance encounter with a mysterious woman who seems to have granted Evie the ability to see how every relationship will turn out- while watching couples in love kiss, she sees the beginning, middle, and end of that love story. Not exactly a great superpower for someone already struggling to believe in love.

After a friend encourages her to visit the dance studio where the Instructions for Dancing book came from, Evie takes a chance and signs up for a trial dance lesson, where she meets X, short for Xavier. Tall, hipstery, and too good-looking for anyone’s good, X, a musician, is trying to ramp up his career in LA while mourning the death of his best friend. His philosophy is nearly the mirror opposite of Evie’s: take chances. Say yes. Live every moment of life and feel it deeply. Before Evie knows it, she’s signed up to participate in a local amateur ballroom dancing competition with X as her partner (the studio seems like it could use the publicity, honestly), and the two of them edge closer to a deep, meaningful relationship.

But, as always, there’s the struggle with Evie’s strained relationship with Dad, along with those visions, which have started to affect her relationship with her best friends. When a vision shows her the truth of her relationship with X, Evie’s not sure how she can go on. But with a little courage, some help from her friends, and a whole lot of heart, Evie learns she has what it takes to keep dancing through life no matter what.

This.

Book.

My God.

I blasted through this in a matter of hours, all in one sitting (with a pause to put my daughter to bed and read some Anne of Green Gables to her). And as I finished, I felt like I’d been gutted with a fish knife. Nicola Yoon has a way of worming inside a reader’s soul and just destroying it, and this is the best piece of writing I’ve ever read from her. This book is everything.

Evie is so fully developed as a character. She’s hurting badly over her parents’ divorce and the way her father betrayed the family. He’s not who Evie thought he was. Infidelity is a tough subject to tackle, especially for younger readers, but Ms. Yoon handles this with delicacy and class. Never does she fully drag Evie’s dad, but she presents him in a way that shows that human behavior and emotion are deeply complex and deserve to be examined on a level that delves far below the surface. Her mother is the same way: while she’s hurting, she puts on a brave front, and this is examined from both Evie’s and her perspective later on in the book. As a child of divorced parents who split in a somewhat similar fashion when I was a teenager, I really appreciated this honest and accurate look at a complicated and painful situation.

X is a beautiful character (and not just physically!). His grief over the loss of his friend is raw, but he lays it all out there and doesn’t try to couch his emotions or pretend to be fine when he’s not. His seize-the-day attitude is exactly what Evie needs at this moment in her life; he provides such a lovely balance to her cynicism and anger. And the dancing! I’m not super into watching ballroom dancing, but I kind of love reading about it, and it was so fun to vicariously twirl across the dance floor with Evie and X and feel the growing tension and attraction between them.

The ending of this book will rip your heart out, stomp it flat like a pancake, and slip it into the paper shredder, then pulp the remains. But after all that, you’ll still be left with a sense of hope, that buried somewhere inside of us all is the strength to keep going, to live deeply, cherish every moment, then take what we’ve learned from everyone we meet- no matter how painful- and keep dancing through life.

This is a book you can’t live without. This is Nicola Yoon’s best.

What a beautiful, soul-stirring book. I’m so glad I signed up for this book tour, and I hope I’ve convinced you to spend some time with this novel. I honestly feel I’m a little bit different now after reading it, and I don’t think it’s something I’ll ever forget. Ms. Yoon has imparted some serious life lessons here.

HUGE thanks go out to Dave at The Write Reads, Penguin Books, and Nicola Yoon for allowing me to participate in this blog tour!

Visit Nicola Yoon’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

Follow TheWriteReads on Twitter.

Follow TheWrite On Tour!

Follow PenguinPlatform for more amazing YA reads!

fiction · science fiction · YA

Book Review: Chaos on CatNet (CatNet #2) by Naomi Kritzer

Imagine a world that seems pretty normal. It’s mostly like ours, with smart phones and computers and people enjoying coffee in cutesy little cafes…and then a drone whizzes by. And after that, a robot dog trots past you, careful to avoid the driverless taxi as it crosses the street. That robot dog is still new enough to the tech scene that a few people turn to stare. That’s the world Naomi Kritzer has created in her CatNet series and in which we find ourselves again in her second and latest book featuring Steph and friends, Chaos on CatNet (Tor Teen, 2021). I’ve gushed in the past about Naomi’s Catfishing on CatNet and Cat Pictures Please and Other Stories (which I read before I started blogging, but seriously, if you read *one* book I recommend, this is it, and I don’t even normally like short stories!), but man, she just keeps getting better and better.

Full disclosure: I’ve known Naomi since around 2002. We’ve been part of the same small online parenting group since then, but my reviews are entirely independent of that. I enjoyed but didn’t love her Fires of the Faithful, which was a little outside of my normal reading wheelhouse at the time- it’s well-written, but fantasy isn’t usually my thing. I’m telling you this so that you’re confident that my review is impartial enough to be trusted. These CatNet books are amazing.

Steph is back, finally settled down in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area with her mother, after a life on the run from her father. Her father is in prison, awaiting trial; things are going well, albeit long-distance, with her girlfriend Rachel; her friends from the CatNet Clowder, including sentient AI CheshireCat, are still supportive; and she’s starting a new school. There’s another new girl there as well. Nell has just left (somewhat unwillingly) the Christian cult she lived in with her mother, who has disappeared. She now lives with her father and his polyamorous wife and girlfriends- it’s a complicated situation, but Steph and Nell find a lot to bond over with their shared unconventional backgrounds.

Not all is well, though. The social media networks Steph and Nell are using are sending bizarre messages, asking them to complete strange tasks that increasingly cause Steph to suspect that these networks are being run by the other sentient AI out there- the one who isn’t her cat picture-loving friend, CheshireCat. CheshireCat shares her fears, and it’s starting to look like Nell’s former cult group (along with Nell’s mother) and Steph’s mother’s dangerous former business partner Rajiv may be involved as well. When the sentient AI-controlled networks begin causing riots and explosions in Minneapolist-St. Paul, will Steph, CheshireCat, and friends be able to intervene in time to stop the chaos from spreading across the country?

My synopsis doesn’t do this near-future YA thriller-with-excellent-queer-rep justice. This is serious edge-of-your-seat reading, one that I didn’t find stressful like I do most thrillers, just deeply intriguing. I blew through this book in less than twenty-four hours, and given my lack of reading time these days, you *know* that means it’s incredible. Steph is mature for her age- who wouldn’t be, after the life she’s led with her mother?- but she’s still subject to the longings of a teenager’s first experience with love. Nell shares in her awkwardness of having been raised in a deeply unconventional way, but hers is more acute, and she’s more wary than Steph. I really enjoyed watching the dynamics of their new friendship play out.

The Minneapolis-St.Paul area, or at least its weather, is as much of a character here as any human or sentient AI, as it features heavily during many of the book’s scenes. Steph and Nell are often out in brutally cold temperatures and this becomes a factor in a lot of their decisions. Nell’s former cult is also another huge part of the book that you know pulled me right in. I may have gasped when I got to that part (Naomi has a degree in religion, so various forms of this often appear in her stories. I love that I know this).

The sci-fi aspects of this aren’t over-the-top; I’m not a sci-fi person, but this was just straight-up interesting. It’s set in the near-future, where technology is just a little more advanced than what we have right now, and all that plays into the plot. It’s not so tech-y that I (who isn’t the most tech-y person out there) was confused, but the story was based in a reality that even I could imagine as stemming from the technology we have now. I never really saw myself as someone who would enjoy- actually LOVE- a series of books where a sentient AI is a main character, but CheshireCat is an utter delight, as is this book, and its companion.

You don’t need to have read Catfishing on CatNet to enjoy Chaos, but both books are so much fun and so enjoyable, why wouldn’t you? I highly recommend this whole series; you won’t regret it.

Visit Naomi Kritzer’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction · YA

Book Review: It’s a Whole Spiel: Love, Latkes, and Other Jewish Stories, edited by Katherine Locke and Laura Silverman

“Read a book from a genre you never read,” ordered the reading challenge from my parenting group, and my heart sank. Not that I’m opposed to reading outside my norms, but usually, if I don’t read something there’s a good reason for it. I don’t read the space opera-type sci fi because space freaks me out, as do aliens and other creepy space creatures like that (exception: I do enjoy Star Wars movies…). I don’t like westerns because…westerns. I don’t like short stories because of the 327847329473892 year-long unit we did on short stories in seventh grade, where I learned that short stories are depressing and formless and just kind of end mid-story with no conclusion (Naomi Kritzer’s Cat Pictures Please and Other Stories is the perpetual exception to this. One of the best books I’ve read and every story was enjoyable. READ THIS BOOK). Without going in and wandering the library shelves, this was a tough category for me to fill in my challenge…and then I remembered a collection of short stories on my TBR, It’s a Whole Spiel: Love, Latkes, and Other Jewish Stories, edited by Katherine Locke and Laura Silverman (Knopf Books for Young Readers, 2019). Something I actually wanted to read AND it fit the bill for the challenge? Sign me up! Thanks, interlibrary loan!

This is a book of YA short stories by a variety of different authors well-known in the YA world- Rachel Lynn Solomon, David Levithan, Dahlia Adler, Hannah Moskowitz, and more. Each story focuses on some aspect of Jewish identity a teenager is facing or struggling with, and the teens range from ‘I’m Modern Orthodox and literally everyone I know is Jewish’ to ‘Couldn’t properly recount the story of Hanukkah to save my life.’ There are kids who are serious about observance, kids who don’t find it especially important, and kids who are trying to decide what it all means to them (basically, they’re like every other group of teens out there who are trying on different cultural and religious identities for size). There are kids who are nervously venturing into the world of dating for the first time, and kids who are traveling the world alone. Each story is different, but each is perfectly crafted.

Hannah Moskowitz’s story is stunning and perfect and an absolute gut punch and worth picking the book up for all by itself. There are stories that are funny and that contain those absolutely mortifying moments of adolescence where you pray a sinkhole opens up under your feet and swallows you whole (I seriously do not miss being a teenager, like, at ALL), and there are stories that ask hard questions about what kind of person the main character wants to be. This book is basically everything good about the best YA writing, condensed into twelve short stories, and crammed into one amazing book. (Also? Excellent queer rep in this book. Fabulous.)

You don’t have to be Jewish to enjoy these stories. Occasionally some background knowledge is helpful, but it’s not necessary. You only need to be a fan of YA, the search for identity, and great writing. I really enjoyed everything about this.

Visit Katherine Locke’s website here.

Follow them on Twitter here.

fiction · YA

Book Review: Little & Lion by Brandy Colbert

I was scrolling through an email from Jewish Women’s Archive about upcoming Book Talks and nearly fell out of my chair to see that Brandy Colbert would be making an appearance at an upcoming talk. I read her Pointe last year and enjoyed it, and it’s always so fantastic when an author you know and have previously enjoyed shows up anywhere you can get to, right???  She’ll be discussing her book, Little and Lion (Little, Brown, 2017), and, wanting to be as prepared as possible, I immediately put the book on my TBR and picked it up on my next library trip. Success! I’m ready! Bring on the book talk!

Suzette is a Black Jewish teen girl who has made her way back to her California home after spending a year at a New England boarding school, and all is not well on either coast. She’s running from a relationship with her female roommate that ended- or didn’t quite end- not exactly in the way that Suzette had wanted. She has a lot of complicated feelings about this. But things are complicated at home, too. The whole reason Suzette had been sent out east in the first place was because of trouble with her stepbrother, Lionel. Lionel had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder before she left, something that had turned everyone’s world upside down. Unsure of how to relate to her brother, who seems to want to push everyone away, and unsure of how to deal with her sexual identity- especially now that she’s home and hello, Emil, childhood friend who has suddenly become super hot, along with Rafaela, the plant shop girl who is on the periphery of Suzette’s friend group- Suzette has a lot on her plate.

Soon after she arrives back home, Lionel confides in Suzette a dangerous secret. Keeping it means maintaining Lionel’s trust, but it also means that things could go bad, quickly, for a lot of people. Love, sexuality, religion, trust, mental health, Ms. Colbert explores how all these intersect to form teenage identity, and how delicate the balancing act is for Suzette, who will have to make a series of difficult decisions in order to decide what kind of person she is, and who she wants to be.

This book felt incredibly real. There are so many things going on at once, so many major problems that so many teenagers face- sexual identity (and the need, or not, to label what we are), relationships (romantic, family, friendships), mental health, trust between friends and family, planning for the future, religious identity…There’s a lot going on in this book, but Ms. Colbert manages to weave everything together so seamlessly that one issue melts right into the next, just as it happens in real life. Suzette is put in several terrible positions, the most jarring by her stepbrother, and while the answer to her dilemma is crystal-clear as an adult, it’s incredibly easy to see why it would be so difficult to keep Lionel’s secret as a teenager. I was deeply able to emphasize with her struggle over this.

This is a novel of the search and struggle for identity, but it also asks a lot of questions. Why do we insist on putting our identities into so many separate boxes? We shouldn’t have to be this but not that, when by now we should all realize that we can be this AND that, simultaneously, and that the overlap is beautiful and brings so much to the table. And why do we insist on concrete identities, when we’re all really works in progress? Why can’t we be this at one stage, until we grow and mature and realize that we’ve blossomed into that– maybe with a little of this coloring the edges? Little & Lion explores all of this; Suzette’s journey encourages brave exploration but also deep contemplation and full acceptance of the all things that make us who we are.

There are so many places where this book could have gone off the rails or gone too far, and it just never did. It’s a gorgeous tapestry of the search for self, of what it takes to forge a connection with someone who is struggling and how far we should let that go, of who we are and the kind of person we want to be. I’d be lying if I didn’t mention that I thought often of Marra B. Gad’s The Color of Love: The Story of a Mixed-Race Jewish Girl multiple times, since her memoir dealt with identity and intersection of a similar-yet-different type (and was also an amazing book that is never far from my mind).

There are content warnings for descriptions of untreated mental illness and a forced outing of sexual orientation; if these are uncomfortable subjects for you at this time, be kind to yourself and wait until you’re ready.

I’m so excited for JWA’s Book Talk featuring Ms. Colbert, and I can’t wait to hear what she has to say about this book (and, well, about everything, honestly!). Suzette and Lionel had such a deep friendship, and I felt Suzette’s distress as Lionel pulled away from her, and her urgency to cling to what they once had. I’m so looking forward to hearing about her thought processes as she wrote this, and hearing what’s next for her. What a fabulous book.

Visit Brandy Colbert’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction · YA

Book Review: Moxie by Jennifer Mathieu

Time for something lighter! I was scrolling through Twitter the other day when I came across Jennifer Mathieu retweeting the trailer for a new Netflix movie out next month, Moxie, based on her book by the same name (and directed by and starring Amy Poehler!). My jaw dropped. The movie looked awesome- and there was a book??? I skedaddled off to the library website and immediately requested their copy of Moxie (Roaring Brook Press, 2017). I had to wait a few days to begin it- first, because I was finishing up The Lost, and then because I was plagued by an awful, hideous migraine, the kind that blurs your vision and makes you entirely sure your head is going to explode in a gelatinous shower of goo and various bodily fluids all over the living room wall. Yeah. It wasn’t great. But Moxie? Moxie is fantastic!!!!!!

Vivian Carter lives in one of those small Texas towns where football is king, the girls’ soccer team is still wearing uniforms from the 1990s, guys can get away with whatever gross behavior they want, and girls are routinely inspected by male staff in front of the entire class in order to ensure their clothing meets some nebulous, never-really-stated standard. Viv is over it, but what can she do? Two more years and she’s out of there. But going through her mother’s shoebox full of Riot Grrl stuff from when she was a teenager lights a fire under her. Maybe things don’t have to be this way. Maybe she can help change things.

Her 90s style zine, Moxie, distributed in the girls’ bathrooms before class, slowly begins to awaken the girls to the fact that things aren’t fair at their high school, to give them confidence to speak out and stand up for themselves. Before long, Moxie is something that’s even bigger than Viv- it’s everyone at the school who’s sick and tired of of the girls being treated as lesser than the football players, and being treated as less than human. But when people Viv care about start getting in trouble for things they didn’t do…that’s when the true power of Moxie shines.

This is an amazing book. Viv transforms from a rule-follower, a quiet mouse who wouldn’t dream of rocking the boat, to someone who’s not afraid to put on her big girl shoes and stomp around. The girls around her grow as well, and they learn that, despite what the boys and their school have been telling them, they don’t have to compete with each other for resources and attention. They can work together to demand the things they need, deserve, and are owed. The messages in this book- girls’ bodies are not there for decoration and they’re not to be policed, boys are responsible for their own behavior, equality is the goal and feminism is still deeply necessary- are woven in throughout an entertaining story, one that far too many teenage girls will recognize as having taken place in their own high schools’ halls.

There’s a romance in here- Viv’s newfound relationship with Seth, the new boy, is sweet and adorable and full of all the thrills of first-time love, but what’s amazing is that Viv never lets Seth off the hook for some of his less-informed comments. Seth is one of the good guys, but everyone has some blind spots, and he’s not immune to ‘not all guys’ing her. Viv takes him to task and doesn’t back down from insisting he can do better. Despite her starting off as a bit of a goody two-shoes who isn’t interested in making waves, she becomes the kind of person who stands up for what she knows is right, and she’s a character that would have given me confidence to read about as a teenager (and God knows I could have used some extra confidence…or any confidence).

What a fun, empowering story of young women working together to create a better, more productive environment. I truly hope the movie does this book justice, because Moxie is one of the best contemporary YAs I’ve read in a long time.

Visit Jennifer Mathieu’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

blog tour · fiction · YA

TheWriteReads OnTour Presents Bad Habits by Flynn Meaney, Ultimate Blog Tour!!!

Back today with another amazing Ultimate Blog Tour from TheWriteReads OnTour! This time in association with Penguin Random House (many thanks to them!). I’m pretty picky about my books, but as you all know, there are certain subjects that I absolutely leap at the chance to read, and as soon as I read the blurb for Bad Habits by Flynn Meaney (Penguin, 2021), I signed up. Religion in a YA? Check. Feminism? Check. SET IN A BOARDING SCHOOL? Oh yes. Hit me, Flynn Meaney! Pour that book directly into my brain, Penguin!

And the choice to be part of this tour was an excellent one, because I was laughing out loud within about three pages. Seriously. This book is hilarious! (If you’re sensitive to language, Bad Habits has quite a colorful vocabulary! But to be fair, I heard worse in the passing periods of my public high school hallway, and I learned to swear like a sailor while in Catholic grade school, so this was a bit like reliving my childhood.)

Alex doesn’t exactly fit in at St. Mary’s Catholic Boarding School, where she was sent after her parents divorced. She’s not exactly the prim and proper, plaid-wearing Catholic girl of their dreams; her purple faux-hawk, motorcycle boots, clove cigarettes, and ability to pick out even the slightest whiff of misogyny anywhere she goes (and it’s woven in deeply at St. Mary’s) have her constantly warming seats in the office, and this time, she’s close to the end. Deciding to finish things off once and for all, Alex decides to pull something St. Mary’s won’t be able to forgive her for: staging a school production of Eve Ensler’s award-winning play, The Vagina Monologues.

Easier said than done. The school isn’t exactly bending over backwards to help her make this happen. Her roommate, buttoned-to-the-neck-yet-boy-obsessed Mary Kate, is mortified to even whisper the word ‘vagina.’ Her fellow students’ more conservative manners don’t make them terribly receptive to Alex’s headstrong messages. But Alex has a lot to learn beyond how to make a proper scene…

Guys, I spent SO much of this book laughing. Alex is a LOT- she’s brash, crass, irritable, stubborn, and incredibly forward. She’s no-holds-barred, which frequently gets her in trouble- not that that worries her. But beyond being foul-mouthed and ill-tempered (quite often with good reason!), Alex is smart and quick on her feet. She’s the sharp, quick-witted YA character we all wished we could be, with cultural and literary references at the ready for every retort. I’m going to age myself here, but she would have fit in well on Dawson’s Creek. While at times she was a bit much, overall, I enjoyed her edge and her ability to eventually take a hard look at herself and grow where she needed to.

Her roommate Mary Kate is fun- boy-crazy in a sweet way, but there’s more than meets the eye there, as there is to every other character, something that Alex struggles to see in her dismissive efforts to caricaturize her classmates and school staff. Major props to Alex’s goody-goody classmate for making a killer Biblical argument at the end. Seriously, watch for this, it’s brilliant. The messages here- look deeper, understand where other people are coming from, notice what you have in common before you notice what divides you- aren’t heavy-handed, but woven into the narrative in a way that makes this book full of life lessons just a fun, funny, entertaining read. I laughed out loud so frequently while reading this that my husband was wondering what on earth I was doing upstairs.

I would’ve picked this up on my own if I hadn’t been part of the TheWriteReads Ultimate Blog Tour, but I’m glad I was so I can sing its praises early! Flynn Meaney has penned a sharp, thoughtful novel bursting with life and liveliness, and one that deserves its place on today’s YA shelves.

Huge thanks to Dave from TheWriteReads and the folks at Penguin Random House for including me in this blog tour!

Visit Flynn Meaney’s website here.

Follow Dave @ TheWriteReads on Twitter here.

Follow TheWriteReads OnTour here.