fiction · YA

Book Review: Today Tonight Tomorrow by Rachel Lynn Solomon

You know that feeling when your TBR is empty and you have absolutely nothing to read, so you’re just wandering around the library listlessly?

Yeah, me neither.

What really happened was this: I had a stack of like five books or so that I needed to read, but my daughter wanted to get some library books, so I took her over, telling myself, “I’m not getting anything for me! I have way to much to read already.”

And then the library had a lovely display of books that included Today Tonight Tomorrow by Rachel Lynn Solomon (Simon Pulse, 2020), whom I LOVE, and, well, it went into my bag, because I have no self-control when it comes to Jewish authors I love. And this was such an excellent moment of weakness, because I ADORED this book.

It’s the last day of high school, and Rowan Roth is ready to finally best Neil McNair once and for all by being awarded valedictorian. She and McNair have been battling it out every single minute of the last four years, each trying to outdo the other for grades, awards, status. The day isn’t starting out great, though; a fender-bender has Rowan slipping into the office late, only to face – who else? – Neil, who works there. Ugh.

The whole last day of school is strange, and when the senior class game – Howl, a Seattle-wide scavenger hunt that will award the last student standing with $5,000 – starts up that evening, Rowan quickly finds herself paired up with Neil, who…maybe isn’t quite as awful as she’s made him out to be the past four years. He’s maybe even kind of cute. And – holy shit- he’s Jewish, too???

What else has Rowan missed???

As the night goes on, Rowan and Neil grow closer, and she learns so much about him that she hadn’t known before, since her focus had been solely on competition. But things change, people change…and with everything else changing at this moment in time, maybe it’s time for Rowan and Neil’s relationship to change as well.

This is such a fun YA novel. Rowan is driven, almost single-minded, and that causes her to miss out on a lot, something she’s only really realizing on this last day of senior year. Her love of romance novels is endearing; I love the growth and openness she attributes to her admiration of the genre, because it makes her a far more interesting character than it would have otherwise. There is one scene I didn’t care for at all; Rowan goes too far and uses something she learned about Neil to lash out and hurt him the way she felt he hurt her, and…it was too far. I was honestly a little surprised Neil moved on from that as quickly as he did. I don’t know that that was a choice I would have made as an author. But really, everything else in this story is perfection; it’s a straight-up love letter to Seattle (a phrase I thought of early on, only to read it in Ms. Solomon’s afterword. *high five*), a city I’ve never been to, but which Ms. Solomon made come alive. I truly felt like I’d spent the day racing around the city with Rowan and Neil.

And Neil! What a great character. Awkward, determined, quirky, hardworking, Jewish – what’s not to love? I had a somewhat similar relationship with a guy friend in high school, though nowhere near as competitive (we were into very different things, for one). This was long before the days of texting, so I had to wonder throughout this book what our texts would have looked like, if they would’ve been as snarky as Rowan and Neil’s (likely worse; we were pretty brutal at times). I enjoyed their friendship and their blossoming romance, and the optimism for the future that this book absolutely bursts with.

Such a great read. Rachel Lynn Solomon absolutely knocked it out of the park with this one.

Visit Rachel Lynn Solomon’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

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fiction · YA

Book Review: Why We Fly by Kimberly Jones and Gilly Segal

A book on high school cheerleading wouldn’t normally appeal to me. I’m not in high school, my one brief foray into cheerleading (seventh grade) did not go well, and while cheerleaders are incredible athletes, it’s generally not a subject that interests me. But the premise of Why We Fly by Kimberly Jones and Gilly Segal (Sourcebooks Fire, 2021), along with its first person, dual-narrative structure, lured me in right away. It only took a few tries to finally find it on a somewhat-local-to-me library! (Always glad to see interest in the books that interest me. I’m never too bummed when I have to wait a little bit!)

Why We Fly begins with Eleanor in physical therapy, where she’s been for months following her second concussion after a cheer accident. It’s affected everything about her life – not just her ability to cheer, but her ability to drive, her memory, even her personality. Concussions are serious business, but Eleanor just wants to get back to cheering. At PT, she runs into Three, the star quarterback from her school who’s on his way to college football and a career in the NFL, and things fire up a little between them.

Chanel, Eleanor’s teammate and best friend, is super-focused on success. Leadership runs through her veins, and she’s determined to succeed in everything she does. When Eleanor is named team captain, Chanel can’t believe it; with as hard as she’s worked, how is this possible???

This will affect everything, because the team needs strong leadership right now. Teams across the country are coming to understand the systemic racism inherent in the US, and Chanel and Eleanor’s school is no different. The fallout from their teammates taking a knee during the anthem will have dramatic effects on their school, their friendship, and their futures, and both girls have a lot to learn.

This ended up being a really interesting book. I was kind of expecting it to be more about concussions, but it left that behind early on and segued into the Black Lives Matter movement and how that movement plays out in high school sports teams, how high school administrations respond to it, and how it can divide friendships. Eleanor got caught up in a lot of things in this story; I wondered often if the multiple concussions had made it less likely that she would see she was often making the wrong decisions in regards to the leadership of her team (she should’ve known she wasn’t the right leader from the start) and her friendship with Chanel.

Chanel is a dynamic character. She’s complex, driven (maybe sometimes a little too much?), and hard-working. She gets the short end of the stick far too often, but that usually just makes her work harder. She doesn’t let disappointment get in her way; when it tries, she’s able to refocus and continue on. I liked her character a lot; contrasted against Eleanor, who is a little flakier and nowhere near as driven, she felt like a strong role model.

I do wish we had seen more of what made the two girls friends in the first place. I never got a great sense of what drew them together and kept their friendship going. I did really like the information on concussions in the beginning, though. My son had two (mild) concussions during his teenage years; some kids are just more prone to them than others, but they can be really devastating, and I’m glad more attention is being paid to the seriousness of these brain injuries.

Fascinating look at racial injustice and how today’s social movements play out in high schools and among high school students. I enjoyed this one.

Visit Kimberly Jones’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

Visit Gilly Segal’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction · YA

Book Review: Who I Was With Her by Nita Tyndall

Secret time!

In high school, I had a terrible, terrible crush on this guy. It wasn’t something anyone really knew about; while we later became friends due more to circumstance than anything, I couldn’t even speak to him, couldn’t hardly look at him, my anxiety was so terrible. But hoooooooooo boy, did I like him, for years. And, because anxiety is so much fun, my brain worried about how I would cope if the unthinkable happened and he died. How would I manage my grief since no one knew how much I had liked him? How would I get through daily life carrying all that pain that no one had any reason to suspect I had? When I heard about the premise of Who I Was with Her by Nita Tyndall (HarperTeen, 2020), I gasped; someone had written my book, or a version of it! Immediately it went onto my TBR.

Who I Was with Her starts off with a moment of shock: Maggie is dead, a fact Corinne overhears from her cross country teammates, and which throws her into a full-blown nightmare, because Maggie was her girlfriend, a girlfriend no one knew she had. They’d been dating for a year, and, living in the south, Corinne hadn’t been comfortable coming out. She’d already had a lot on her plate, adjusting to living in a new place, her newly divorced parents, her alcoholic mother. Adding her community’s homophobia onto the pile felt like it was too much, so Corinne kept her bisexuality and Maggie under wraps.

But now Maggie is gone and Corinne’s grief is all-encompassing, but what do you do with grief no one knows you have? As Corinne begins to navigate life without Maggie, she gets to know Maggie’s brother and her ex-girlfriend (an ex Corinne had no idea existed), and she begins to confront some hard truths about who she is, what she wants, and what it takes to live authentically.

What a sad, heavy book, one that I’m so glad exists. Corinne is a complicated character; she has a lot going on in her life, and she doesn’t always make the best decisions, for herself or for others, but the decisions she makes are entirely understandable, given the context of what she’s been through the past few years. At times she can be selfish, but that’s what happens when your emotional needs aren’t taken into consideration by your parents; you’re forced to focus on yourself in order to survive. I dealt with some similar issues to Corinne when I was in high school and it still affects me to this day, so Corinne absolutely resonated with me.

The grief in this book is nearly tangible. Compound that with college stress, parent stress, school stress, sports stress, friend-group drama, and you have a main character who by all means should have been on the edge of a complete breakdown, but she does her best to hold it together, with not-always great outcomes. The book ends on a hopeful note; Maggie is obviously gone and never coming back, but Corinne has learned about herself, learned to advocate for herself, and has learned to be more honest, and she’s set for a better future. The pain is still there, but she has more tools to handle it, and the strong writing carries this to a bittersweet conclusion.

Who I Was with Her is a raw, honest book, one that I thoroughly enjoyed.

Visit Nita Tyndall’s website here.

Follow them on Twitter here.

fiction · YA

Book Review: As If On Cue by Marisa Kanter

I was so in love with Marisa Kanter’s What I Like About You that I immediately put her other book, As If On Cue (Simon & Schuster Books for Young People, 2021) on my TBR. She has such a fresh, engaging style and writes such great banter between teens who are complex characters. While As If on Cue didn’t speak to me quite as much as her first novel (likely because the first told the story of a book blogger! Can you blame me?), I still really enjoyed the story and Ms. Kanter’s engaging style.

Disaster has struck Natalie’s high school. Budget woes are everywhere, and the arts program has been cancelled, leaving the theater, choir, and art kids outraged and depressed. Not the band kids, though: the band is a money-maker for the school, and a community favorite; their funding, and thus Natalie’s father’s job as director, is safe.

Natalie is not okay with this, and she sets off trying to right this wrong, desperate to show her principal and the community that the arts are worth funding. Staging a performance of the play she and her best friend have written, a retelling of Frozen called Melted (focused on – what else? – climate change) will prove how serious the arts students are about their crafts. Seemingly standing in Natalie’s way at every turn is Reid, Natalie’s lifelong frenemy, family friend, and the clarinet protégé of her father, the reason why she and her father have never been as close as she wants. Holy frustration all around, Batman.

As Melted becomes more of a reality and turns into a musical instead of just a play, Natalie finds herself thrown together with Reid more and more…and she’s not hating it as much as she figured she would. But after so many years of hating Reid’s guts, can she really trust that he’s not just here to sabotage everything? When push comes to shove, Natalie lets her worst instincts take over…only to find that she may have inadvertently ruined not just Melted and any chance the arts program had of ever being funded, but Reid’s future as well.

Phew, this was a tense one! As If on Cue starts out with a problem that will, unfortunately, be familiar to far too many teens: the slashing of school budgets, particularly of the arts (always the first to be cut, of course). But instead of wallowing and complaining, Natalie takes action…though not always in the most appropriate or mature ways. Her determination to reinstate the arts program is both a blessing and a curse, as her single-minded focus tends to get in the way, a lot, but it provides for some amazing plot points. Natalie’s a great character; she’s fierce, determined, and creative, but she’s also lacking a little maturity, something she realizes later on. I really appreciated her complexity.

Reid is also a fabulous character. His musical prowess could make him snobby and unlikeable, but although Natalie sees him as such through much of the story, he’s never actually that guy. His determination is quieter; it’s only Natalie’s perspective of him that’s off, and this makes for amazing conflict.

The friends, the friends! Marisa Kanter is great at writing fleshed-out side characters who are so chill and so human. Can she write me a friend group, do you think? Is that a thing? (Please say yes.)

I really enjoyed As If on Cue. While I never had experience with a community who felt its school arts programs were expendable, I know far too many places that have had that exact experience, so this is a story that should speak to teens who understand the fragility of community support for their creativity. And Ms. Kanter’s delightful, fresh style makes the story come to life. I *really* want to attend a stage performance of Melted now…

Visit Marisa Kanter’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

book review · fiction · YA

Book Review: The Survival List by Courtney Sheinmel

Content warning: suicide

Sometimes a book has sat on my TBR long enough for me to forget what it’s about, but I usually just trust past me to have made the right choice in putting it on there and check it out from the library regardless. That happened with The Survival List by Courney Sheinmel (Katherine Tegen Books, 2019); it was at a different branch than my local one, so I hadn’t been able to get to it during the height of the pandemic. Restrictions have eased, and I’m back to being able to visit other libraries (we’ll see for how long. Looking at you, monkeypox…), so I was finally able to check this book out this past week, and hooboy, what a heartbreaking read.

Sloane’s older sister Talley has died by suicide, and Sloane and her father are left heartbroken, not understanding why, but unable to connect after such a devastating loss. When Sloane discovers a mysterious list in the pocket of the jeans Talley was wearing when she died, she’s confused, yet intrigued: what do all these things mean? She begins a quest to learn what these items and phrases meant to her sister, eventually leading her on a plane and out of state, in order to discover more about her beloved Talley.

Joining Sloane on this adventure is Adam, a boy whose number mysteriously ended up on the back of the list (but who claims to know nothing about Talley). Together, they go on a journey that leads to discovery of not only more about Sloane’s sister and the life she lived before she ended it too soon, but about Sloane as well.

Get out the box of tissues, friends. Once I realized what The Survival List was about, I was unsure if I could keep reading (even when I don’t remember what a book is about, I almost always just dive in without reading the inside flap. I like to live on the wild side…). Sloane’s pain in the beginning is raw and deeply felt; some of the passages in the first few chapters had me setting the book down for a few in order to take a few breaths while scrolling through social media (and with social media being the cesspool that it is these days, for that to be less emotionally taxing is saying something). I’m fortunate enough to have never lost anyone close to suicide, but I’ve supported friends who have lost friends, family members, and, devastatingly, children this way, and Ms. Sheinmel expertly nails the devastation and emotional fallout of the survivors.

While Sloane’s journey may be a little unattainable for most grieving teens (she’s able to travel to California due to the funds of a wealthy friend; her father thinks she’s out there attending a writing camp on an all-expenses-paid scholarship), the emotions here are strong and accurately portrayed, and the discoveries she makes about her sister are enlightening. Boy, do families need to up their communication games as a whole.

The Survival List is a gut-puncher of a novel wrapped in grief and devastation. It’s a heavy read, but it’s worth the emotional energy you’ll spend on it.

Visit Courtney Sheinmel’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

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.

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