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Teen Librarian Recommendations

PCCLD"S Teen Librarian Ciara briefly discusses and recommends some YA titles.

 
Obie is Man Enough by Schuyler Bailar
 
 
Description: A coming-of-age story about transgender tween Obie. Obie knew his transition would have ripple effects. He has to leave his swim coach, his pool, and his best friends. But it's time for Obie to find where he truly belongs. As Obie dives into a new team, though, things are strange. Obie always felt at home in the water, but now he can't get his old coach out of his head. Even worse are the bullies that wait in the locker room and on the pool deck. Luckily, Obie has family behind him. And maybe some new friends too, including Charlie, his first crush. Obie is ready to prove he can be one of the fastest boys in the water--to his coach, his critics, and his biggest competition: himself.
 
Recommendation: First, an admission. I “met” Schuyler Bailar at an American Library Association conference back when I was working on my degree to become a librarian, and though I had the book that had his first published short story in it, when I heard he was publishing a novel, I knew I needed to read it. He’s just a genuine, kind man and I immediately liked him. And the book, which I found out he was working on then, is an own voices book. Obie is mixed race – Korean and white. And while he worried quite seriously about whether his Catholic Korean grandparents would reject him, he is profoundly lucky as a trans young man in that his entire family are tremendously supportive. Of course, that doesn’t mean life is easy. What I enjoyed most about Obie’s story is his relationship with his English teacher, a woman many might call odd who works with Obie every week after school to improve his writing, which at novel’s start is less than stunning. Her support of Obie’s growth might be the most important he has, as she is his rock at school, where he must avoid the bully who was once his friend, and watch the girl who was once his best friend abandon both him and herself in an effort to fit in. While Obie’s first passion is swimming, and his drive to excel in swimming against other boys is foremost in his mind and the book, his growth outside the pool is both as well-investigated and as important.
 
Punching Bag by Rex Ogle
 
 
Description: Punching Bag is the compelling true story of a high school career defined by poverty and punctuated by outbreaks of domestic abuse. Rex Ogle here describes his struggle to survive; reflects on his complex, often paradoxical relationship with his passionate, fierce mother; and charts the trajectory of his stepdad's anger. Hovering over Rex's story is the talismanic presence of his unborn baby sister. Through it all, Rex threads moments of grace and humor that act as beacons of light in the darkness. Compulsively readable, beautifully crafted, and authentically told, Punching Bag is a remarkable memoir about one teenager's cycle of violence, blame, and attempts to forgive his parents--and himself.
 
Recommendation: First off, I want to issue a warning. I received the gift of never having an adult lay a hand on me as a child. But those who have experienced abuse and trauma might be triggered by this book. My emotional response was powerful – there were times when I had to stop reading Punching Bag because, like Rex, I felt like I couldn’t take it anymore – living in constant fear that he might inexplicably say or do something, or anything really, to provoke either his mother or his stepfather. That might not sound like a rousing endorsement. But experiencing Rex’s memoir with him (keep in mind I have been called an over-empathizer), was also fascinating, complex, and thought-provoking. What is perhaps most stunning about Rex is his REFUSAL to ever hit anyone. Not in self-defense. Not in anger. And astonishingly, never in a loss of self-control. The presence in his life of his unborn baby sister, grown as she would have had she not died as a result of domestic violence, gives him the resolve he needs, not only to survive and to protect his baby brother, but also never to react with violence. Most fascinating to me is the way that Rex is able to recognize and break the cyclical nature of abuse – he sees his stepfather’s brothers tell him to get sober and stop becoming his father, and  he gathers what little hints he can of all of the trauma that his mother has worked to forget or forced into her twisted definition of love. His step-father does try, though without success, due in part at least to Rex’s mother's fierceness and twisted insistence that he deal with their arguments physically (she has come to define love through pain). Through all of this complex work of honest recognition, Rex must simultaneously remain on guard, and though his sister is a rock of his strength, she is also a symbol of the way trauma twists our relationship to ourselves – he feels guilt at her death. His mother told him, at age seven, that it was his fault, but he also believes her because he was enjoying a brief respite from fear away from home at the time – not there to try to protect his mother. The book raises compelling questions – can you forgive someone if you still fear them? Can you heal from traumatic wounds incurred at the very foundation of your self? 

 
 
 
Description: Darius Kellner speaks better Klingon than Farsi, and he knows more about Hobbit social cues than Persian ones. He's a Fractional Persian-half, his mom's side-and his first-ever trip to Iran is about to change his life. Darius has never really fit in at home, and he's sure things are going to be the same in Iran. His clinical depression doesn't exactly help matters, and trying to explain his medication to his grandparents only makes things harder. Then Darius meets Sohrab, the boy next door, and everything changes. Soon, they're spending their days together, playing soccer, eating faludeh, and talking for hours on a secret rooftop overlooking the city's skyline. Sohrab calls him Darioush-the original Persian version of his name-and Darius has never felt more like himself than he does now that he's Darioush to Sohrab. 
 
Recommendation: Yes, this is an older book. That doesn’t mean it isn’t worth checking out! So yes, Darius suffers from clinical depression, and one thing the book does particularly well is demonstrate how one’s observations, or even deeply held beliefs, about relationships can be colored by that depression. The novel’s exploration of Darius’ relationship with his father, whom Darius calls an “ubermensch” is quietly skillful in this sense. Though Darius suffers from feeling not Persian enough during his visit to Iran, the feeling is not static. Yes, his relationship with Sohrab, a defining one for Darius, contributes to the shift in Darius’ feelings about his fractional self, but his development in Yazd is not tied to one person. Such a story would not be nearly as interesting. Darius’ relationships with his grandparents, as well as with his parents and sister, and to an extent with his more extended family, all play critical roles in how the Darius who arrives in Iran is not the same as the Darioush who returns to the US. The novel, in addition to its skillful and fascinating depiction of complex relationships and development, is also funny and charming! Have a go!
 

African Town by Irene Latham and Charles Waters
 
Description: Chronicling the story of the last Africans brought illegally to America in 1860, African Town is a powerful and stunning novel-in-verse. In 1860, long after the United States outlawed the importation of enslaved laborers, 110 men, women and children from Benin and Nigeria were captured and brought to Mobile, Alabama aboard a ship called Clotilda . Their journey includes the savage Middle Passage and being hidden in the swamplands along the Alabama River before being secretly parceled out to various plantations, where they made desperate attempts to maintain both their culture and also fit into the place of captivity to which they'd been delivered. At the end of the Civil War, the survivors created a community for themselves they called African Town, which still exists to this day. Told in 14 distinct voices, including that of the ship that brought them to the American shores and the founder of African Town, this powerfully affecting historical novel-in-verse recreates a pivotal moment in US and world history, the impacts of which we still feel today.
 
Recommendation: Though African Town, a historical novel in verse, is well-written and impeccably researched, I must admit that it took me quite a long time to read. This is not a critique, but a recognition. The experiences of those who crossed the Atlantic on the Clotile in this novel – in the Middle Passage, during what followed in the swamps of Alabama, and their lives in enslavement – along with the complexly contrasting reactions to and opinions of those experiences by white characters, did not make this an “easy read”. There is much in this book that hits the reader hard, whether the strength (emotional, spiritual, and communal as well as physical) of the kidnapped and then enslaved people of Benin and Nigeria or the moral abyss that defines Timothy Meaher, the man who arranged the Clotilde’s illegal journey in order to win a bet. The shifting and distinct narration, from various survivors of kidnapping and enslavement as well as those responsible for it, allow for the development of readerly relationships with each of them, which run the gamut from love to disgust, thus creating a reading experience that isn’t, as I said, “easy.” But such reading is, in my opinion, worth the extended amount of time it may take, and the challenge it poses to its readers is its greatest strength. I certainly would not give up having read this book. 

 
The Department of Truth by James Tynion, art by Martin Simmons
 
Description: Cole Turner has studied conspiracies all his life, from flat Earth Theory and the Assassination of JFK to modern-day crisis actors, but he isn't prepared to live in a world where collective belief can turn fringe theories into reality. That is the terrible secret revealed to Cole when he is inducted into The Department of Truth, a top-secret branch of the American government that has been tasked for generations with making sure dangerous conspiracies don't gain a foothold in the real world. But as Cole pulls back the curtain on everything he ever accepted as fact, he must ask himself whether this mysterious Department is a force for good . . . or if it has more sinister reasons for wanting to control the truth.
 
Recommendation: So I read the first two volumes of this graphic novel (shelved with adult GN). In days when many of us are hearing about, concerned about, and trying to battle misinformation and disinformation, I was really intrigued when I saw this graphic novel. It takes literally the notion that conspiracy theories, once enough people believe them, manifest as reality. But what is most fun about the series as far as I have read is its exploration of the people (or really the money of rich and powerful people) who are behind the effort to manifest conspiracy theories into reality (and the emotional, as well as physical power that grants believers) as well as the powerful forces behind those fighting to stop them. This focus calls to attention the ethical difficulties in choosing any side in this battle, given the violence and manipulation deployed by each side upon “the people” whose collective, less conscious power  they compete for. Fair warning, this violence and manipulation is portrayed without hesitation by the artists.
 
Starfish by Lisa Fipps
 
Description: A Printz Honor winner! Ellie is tired of being fat-shamed and does something about it in this poignant debut novel-in-verse. Ever since Ellie wore a whale swimsuit and made a big splash at her fifth birthday party, she's been bullied about her weight. To cope, she tries to live by the Fat Girl Rules--like "no making waves," "avoid eating in public," and "don't move so fast that your body jiggles." And she's found her safe space--her swimming pool--where she feels weightless in a fat-obsessed world. In the water, she can stretch herself out like a starfish and take up all the room she wants. It's also where she can get away from her pushy mom, who thinks criticizing Ellie's weight will motivate her to diet. Fortunately, Ellie has allies in her dad, her therapist, and her new neighbor, Catalina, who loves Ellie for who she is. With this support buoying her, Ellie might finally be able to cast aside the Fat Girl Rules and starfish in real life--by unapologetically being her own fabulous self.
 
Recommendation: First off, yes, this is technically a juvenile novel. I don’t care. Honestly, I think novels are often categorized these days by the age of  their main character rather than by anything else. The Catcher in the Rye, A Separate Peace, and Lord of the Flies are now YA novels. When I was growing up there was no such thing as YA – readers just had to find their way to the books that they enjoyed and those that meant something to them. This novel in verse is narrated by Elsie, whose nickname is Splash thanks to her older sister, who gave her that cruel nickname at Elsie’s birthday party when she wasn’t even a tween. So it isn’t only Elsie’s mother who makes her homelife near unbearable – her siblings don’t help, and Elsie is bullied at school as well as at home. At home, it is only her father who expresses pure love for her, regardless of her weight or appearance. At the beginning of the school year, things only promise to get worse – her one friend Viv is moving away, and now her parents want her to go to therapy, probably, she thinks, to help convince her to get weight loss surgery! Though Elsie feels betrayed and alone, her father remains a loving support, and somehow, Catalina the new neighbor not only defies Elsie’s fatphobe spidy-sense, but also loves her just as she is. And her therapist doesn’t try to convince her of anything other than Elsie’s own power to respect and love herself. And once Elsie has learned that – how to defend herself without hate or anger. This story might not seem revolutionary, but for Elsie it is, and that makes this a book worth reading

 

Realistic/Dystopian

Summary: "Exceptional...full of distilled knowledge of a marginalized community and awareness of the Deaf." --Cheyenna Clearbrook, star of Deaf U
Winner of the Schneider Family Book Award for Teens 2021
A Kirkus Best Book of 2021
Part coming of age, part call to action, this fast-paced #ownvoices novel about a Deaf teenager is a unique and inspiring exploration of what it means to belong.
Smart, artistic, and independent, sixteen year old Piper is tired of trying to conform. Her mom wants her to be "normal," to pass as hearing, to get a good job. But in a time of food scarcity, environmental collapse, and political corruption, Piper has other things on her mind--like survival.
Piper has always been told that she needs to compensate for her Deafness in a world made for those who can hear. But when she meets Marley, a new world opens up--one where Deafness is something to celebrate, and where resilience means taking action, building a community, and believing in something better.
Published to rave reviews as Future Girl in Australia (Allen & Unwin, Sept. 2020), this empowering, unforgettable story is told through a visual extravaganza of text, paint, collage, and drawings. Set in an ominously prescient near future, The Words in My Hands is very much a novel for our turbulent times.
Recommendation: This book is my favorite so far of the year. Asphyxia captures the isolation and pain of being Deaf but raised “oral” – meaning raised to pass as “normal”. Not simply the psychic pain, but the physical pain that results from working hard all day to lip-read in school, having your hearing aids become intolerable in loud situations, and the discomfort of hearing aids full stop. But worse is the combination of constant effort to understand what is happening around you and the isolation born of having the hearing world make no effort to include you. Piper’s journey from being as invisibly deaf as she can be to being Deaf, proud, and recognized for all of her tremendous gifts is not an easy one, particularly as it dovetails with her political awakening, which similarly seems to set her at odds with her mother. THE WORDS IN MY HANDS is not only beautiful – in its presentation and its content – but profoundly eye-opening. A joy to read.
 
 

Fantasy

BITTER by Akwaeke Emezi
Summary: From National Book Award finalist Akwaeke Emezi comes a companion novel to the critically acclaimed PET that explores both the importance and cost of social revolution--and how youth lead the way. After a childhood in foster care, Bitter is thrilled to have been chosen to attend Eucalyptus, a special school where she can focus on her painting surrounded by other creative teens. But outside this haven, the streets are filled with protests against the deep injustices that grip the city of Lucille. Bitter's instinct is to stay safe within the walls of Eucalyptus . . . but her friends aren't willing to settle for a world that's so far away from what they deserve. Pulled between old friendships, her artistic passion, and a new romance, Bitter isn't sure where she belongs--in the studio or in the streets. And if she does find a way to help the revolution while being true to who she is, she must also ask: at what cost? This timely and riveting novel--a companion to the National Book Award finalist Pet --explores the power of youth, protest, and art.
Recommendation: I am now officially a fan of Emezi. I adored Pet, and I think I might have enjoyed Bitter even more. This is a brilliant, tremendously imaginative novel that investigates the power of art and protest undertaken by youth as well as the necessary costs of a true liberatory movement, calling upon the work in both realms in the history of the black liberation struggle. 
 
 

Graphic Novel

A GAME FOR SWALLOWS by Abirached, Zeina
Summary: When Zeina was born, the civil war in Lebanon had been going on for six years, so it's just a normal part of life for her and her parents and little brother. The city of Beirut is cut in two, separated by bricks and sandbags and threatened by snipers and shelling. East Beirut is for Christians, and West Beirut is for Muslims. When Zeina's parents don't return one afternoon from a visit to the other half of the city and the bombing grows ever closer, the neighbors in her apartment house create a world indoors for Zeina and her brother where it's comfy and safe, where they can share cooking lessons and games and gossip. Together they try to make it through a dramatic day in the one place they hoped they would always be safe--home.
Recommendation: A beautiful black and white rendering of what life was like for a child whose entire life has been nothing but war, and the shrinking reality that survival demands. Despite the fact that Zeina and her family have had to move entirely into their foyer for their safety, that foyer is so much more. It is home to a larger family – a family birthed by war, which includes a young couple and the old woman who has worked for their family for generations (a teta of sorts to Zeina and her brother), the son of the building caretaker (who disappeared while outside), and a dapper former French teacher who had lost his dearest brother to a sniper, and an elegant couple whose penthouse apartment was unlivable in the war. Each of these people brings something different to the group, and each is beloved by the children. What one might imagine as an evening of terrible fear for two children whose parents are out of the home when bombardment starts, is rendered more as an evening of varied delights, thanks to a diverse and odd family.
 

Contemporary Novel

Summary: A TIME Magazine Best YA Book of All Time
A Stonewall Honor Book
A Reese's Book Club YA Pick
Liz Lighty has always believed she's too black, too poor, too awkward to shine in her small, rich, prom-obsessed midwestern town. But it's okay -- Liz has a plan that will get her out of Campbell, Indiana, forever: attend the uber-elite Pennington College, play in their world-famous orchestra, and become a doctor. But when the financial aid she was counting on unexpectedly falls through, Liz's plans come crashing down . . . until she's reminded of her school's scholarship for prom king and queen. There's nothing Liz wants to do less than endure a gauntlet of social media trolls, catty competitors, and humiliating public events, but despite her devastating fear of the spotlight she's willing to do whatever it takes to get to Pennington.The only thing that makes it halfway bearable is the new girl in school, Mack. She's smart, funny, and just as much of an outsider as Liz. But Mack is also in the running for queen. Will falling for the competition keep Liz from her dreams . . . or make them come true?
Recommendation: Leah Johnson’s debut novel is hilarious and lovable, as is its heroine Liz Lighty. There are a couple of things I want to point out about this novel that I really enjoyed. One: the lesbian part of Liz’s identity does not overwhelm all of the other parts of her identity, whether those parts are being black, a musician, a great student, a daughter who has lost her mother and whose brother suffers from Sickle Cell, or countless other things. Two: this book does a fantastic job capturing the way miscommunication, whether intentional or not, can have giant consequences on lives, particularly in high school, and also the power of deep friendship to recover from injury. Three: the romance in this book is excellent – and I generally don’t like to read romance! So, it is hard to believe that this is a debut novel – it is a great read and I adored it.

 

Thriller

THIS IS WHERE IT ENDS by Marieke Nijkamp
Summary: The reviews are in! This Is Where It Ends, the #1 New York Timesbestseller and one of the Best Books of the Decade (Buzzfeed, Paste Magazine, BookRiot), "could break you." "I am speechless." "The saddest book I have ever read." "Literally tore my heart out."
Go inside a heartbreaking fictional school shooting, minute-by-terrifying-minute. Everyone has a reason to fear the boy with the gun...
10:00 a.m.:The principal of Opportunity, Alabama's high school finishes her speech, welcoming the entire student body to a new semester and encouraging them to excel and achieve.
10:02 a.m.:The students get up to leave the auditorium for their next class.
10:03 a.m.:The auditorium doors won't open.
10:05 a.m.:Someone starts shooting.
Over the course of 54 minutes, four students must confront their greatest hopes, and darkest fears, as they come face-to-face with the boy with the gun. In a world where violence in schools is at an all-time high and school shootings are a horrifyingly common reality for teenagers, This Is Where It Ends Is a rallying cry to end the gun violence epidemic for good.
 
Praise for This Is Where It Ends:
A Buzzfeed Best Young Adult Book of the Decade
A Paste Magazine Best Teen Book of the Decade
A Book Riot Biggest YA Book of the Decade
A Professional Book Nerds Best Book of the Decade
A Bustle.com Most-Anticipated YA Novel
A Goodreads YA Best Books Pick
A Goodreads Choice Award Finalist for Young Adult Fiction
Kids Indie Next List Pick
"Marieke Nijkamp's brutal, powerful fictional account of a school shooting is important in its timeliness." --Bustle.com
"A gritty, emotional, and suspenseful read and although fictionalized, it reflects on problematic and harrowing issues across the nation." --Buzzfeed
"A compelling, brutal story of an unfortunately all-too familiar situation: a school shooting. Nijkamp portrays the events thoughtfully, recounting fifty-four intense minutes of bravery, love, and loss." --BookRiot
 
Recommendation: Yes, this novel is about a school shooting. And I found the book unutterably sad, though not in the way I thought I would. The setting, with all of its intensity and brutally short time frame, serves to give the reader a view into relationships of profound complexity between siblings, friends,unlikely friends, lovers, ex-lovers,and  families torn apart by grief and illness. All of these relationships would possess this complexity without the school shooting – the pain and confusion of lost closeness, the agony of losing a parent, the impossible experience of watching a parent destroy himself in grief. What made this book most compelling to me was the way Nijkamp revealed so much about these young people, and allowed the reader to attempt to examine all of the reasons (not those that provoke guilt among some characters – those narratives speak to the complexity of those characters) that Tyler, the shooter, had lost his mind. Did I like Tyler? No. He was a homophobic ahole. But before he lost his mind, he had also been a devoted brother and a caring boyfriend capable of real listening. I also loved how certain stereotypes were flauted. Who were the students who risked everything to save lives? The pranksters who had been sent to the principal’s office, therefore missing the assembly. 
 

Thriller

AT THE END OF EVERYTHING by Marieke Nijkamp
Summary: From the #1 New York Times bestselling author of This Is Where It Ends comes another heartbreaking, emotional and timely page-turner that will keep you on the edge of your seat. The Hope Juvenile Treatment Center is ironically named. No one has hope for the delinquent teenagers who have been exiled there; the world barely acknowledges that they exist.
Then the guards at Hope start acting strange. And one day...they don't show up. But when the teens band together to make a break from the facility, they encounter soldiers outside the gates. There's a rapidly spreading infectious disease outside, and no one can leave their houses or travel without a permit. Which means that they're stuck at Hope. And this time, no one is watching out for them at all.
As supplies quickly dwindle and a deadly plague tears through their ranks, the group has to decide whom among them they can trust and figure out how they can survive in a world that has never wanted them in the first place.
 
Recommendation: As the summary notes, the ironically named Hope Juvenile Treatment Center houses “delinquent teenagers” as determined by the juvenile justice system. Of course, what makes a one a “delinquent teenager” is an interesting question, and one that Nijkamp explores in this novel, following primarily how the group of teenagers who do NOT follow the “alpha male” of the institution’s population out into the world following their abandonment by the entire staff. 
Nijkamp explores the identities of a large number of the teenagers left in Hope, but focuses on the three who trade off narration: Logan, Emerson, and Grace. Each lacks the ability to trust, and this lack is tied to what led them to Hope. Logan is mute, and initially communicates only with her sister and only friend Leah – through a sign language known only to them. They were foster children who had run away, and what landed them in Hope was a combination of ableism towards Logan and their attempt to destroy a place rife with danger for young people like themselves. 
Emerson is a trans male who was thrown out of his religious household when he came out. Emerson is lost – he has lost his home, his community, and his God, and his family refused to help him when he was arrested. He trusts no one, and feels bitterly alone. 
Grace is full of anger – she came to Hope for intervening to stop a man who was sexually assaulting a girl. Her ability to trust is almost entirely destroyed, though she does trust one person – her friend Casey, to whom she felt drawn immediately once in Hope. 
While the plague is what drives the action in this book, what I most enjoyed was the gradual growth of the characters in Hope – particularly Logan, Emerson, and Grace, though they face challenges that are clearly at the very edge of their capacity. When Leah falls sick to the plague, Logan must not only develop ways of communicating with other youth, she must also figure out how she, without her sister, can contribute to her sister’s care and the group’s survival. For the first time, everyone in Hope sees her intelligence, bravery, and empathy. 
Almost by accident, Grace becomes the leader of the youth who stay at Hope, ensuring that necessary jobs are meted out, that the food is properly rationed, and leading parties to find more food when it threatens to run out. She shoulders immense responsibility, and often seems at a breaking point, especially since Casey has taken on the job of caring for the sick and dying. But while Grace has been misunderstood and wronged, and her anger is often dangerous, she learns how to channel it into action, and indeed into an act of selflessness that saves those who have become her family.  
Emerson’s life, with the arrival of the plague, seems to simply have gone from bad to worse. But he too finds strength within the past that has been so painful to contemplate, playing his violin for the suffering and the dead, and claiming the job no one else would ever want – gravedigger for those lost to the plague. Having experienced intense loneliness, Emerson wants no one to be alone, even in death, and sits with each grave, talking to its inhabitant. He, who has been so painfully abandoned by those closest to him, eventually finds trust and love in the challenges met by Hope’s youth.  
This book, though I suppose it is a thriller, is most attractive to me as an investigation of the intense resilience that young people possess.
 

Graphic Novel

ORACLE CODE_ by Marieke Nijkamp
Summary: The #1 New York Times bestselling author Marieke Nijkamp and artist Manuel Preitano unveil a graphic novel that explores the dark corridors of Barbara Gordon's first mystery: herself.
After a gunshot leaves her paralyzed below the waist, Barbara Gordon must undergo physical and mental rehabilitation at Arkham Center for Independence. She must adapt to a new normal, but she cannot shake the feeling that something is dangerously amiss. Strange sounds escape at night while patients start to go missing.
Is this suspicion simply a result of her trauma? Or does Barbara actually hear voices coming from the center's labyrinthine hallways? It's up to Barbara to put the pieces together to solve the mysteries behind the walls.
In The Oracle Code, universal truths cannot be escaped, and Barbara Gordon must battle the phantoms of her past before they consume her future.
 
Recommendation: Alright, the summary gets most right, but misses a couple of key points. Before being shot, Babs and her best friend Benjamin are doing what they do best – hacking. This is Babs’ go-to way of solving puzzles, though a binary puzzle is just a puzzle in one form, and puzzles are what she does best, with some help from friends. The puzzle she faces at ACI is significantly different from those she’s solved in the past. Babs, despite her denial, has been traumatized, and her confidence has plummeted. She knows only that she doesn’t want to be at ACI, and it is nightmares that kickstart the puzzle, since they attract the mysterious Jena to her room. It is Jena, who no one else believes, that gives Babs the clues she needs to solve the disturbing puzzle unseen by everyone else at ACI. But it is also her friends, both new and old, and the knuckling of her stubborn refusal to recognize both that she is still Babs and that the new Babs has some things to learn, that allow her to break open the dangerous truth that resides hidden in ACI. Really fun graphic novel – with great use of black and white vs color. However, I was a little annoyed about how and why Jena gives Babs the clues in the way she does. Is it because of trauma? While looking over Babs’ shoulder as she figures out that Jena’s stories have critical clues is fun, Jena’s motivation for hiding these clues in this way is never entirely made clear.

 

FUNNY HORROR

EAT YOUR HEART OUT by Kelly DeVos
 
Summary: Shaun of the Dead meets Dumplin' in this bitingly funny YA thriller about a kickass group of teens battling a ravenous group of zombies. In the next few hours, one of three things will happen. 1--We'll be rescued (unlikely) 2--We'll freeze to death (maybe) 3--We'll be eaten by thin and athletic zombies (odds: excellent) Vivian Ellenshaw is fat, but she knows she doesn't need to lose weight, so she's none too happy to find herself forced into a weight-loss camp's van with her ex-best friend, Allie, a meathead jock who can barely drive, and the camp owner's snobby son. And when they arrive at Camp Featherlite at the start of the worst blizzard in the history of Flagstaff, Arizona, it's clear that something isn't right. Vee barely has a chance to meet the other members of her pod, all who seem as unhappy to be at Featherlite as she does, when a camper goes missing down by the lake. Then she spots something horrifying outside in the snow. Something...that isn't human. Plus, the camp's supposed "miracle cure" for obesity just seems fishy, and Vee and her fellow campers know they don't need to be cured. Of anything. Even worse, it's not long before Camp Featherlite's luxurious bungalows are totally overrun with zombies. What starts out as a mission to unravel the camp's secrets turns into a desperate fight for survival--and not all of the Featherlite campers will make it out alive. A satirical blend of horror, body positivity, and humor, Kelly deVos's witty, biting novel proves that everyone deserves to feel validated, and taking down the evil enterprise determined to dehumanise you is a good place to start.

 

Recommendation: This book (available only as an e-book and e-audiobook) is a fun, rollicking read, balancing snark, fear, and the development of real friendships despite what might otherwise be socially impossible barriers. Each of the characters in the “pod” alternates in narrating the book, so the reader gets to know each intimately, including their secrets, senses of inadequacy, resilience, and personality quirks. The book riffs with humor on teen horror movie types – the OUTCAST, the NERD, the JOCK WITH A HEART OF GOLD, the JERK, the COURAGEOUS CAPTAIN, the BASKET CASE, and the ACTION GIRL. But as we read, we recognize each of the characters as far more than such types – each an individual with great strengths as well as what are better called senses of doubt/inadequacy than flaws, which have been manipulated by a culture without time or patience for the resolution of such human complexities. The evil enterprise mentioned in the summary is both terribly familiar to anyone who has been alive and paying attention and indicative of an insidious, equally evil enterprise that exists within our culture – one that values money and power far above the beauty and grit of human beings.
 

MYSTERY/THRILLER/ “CLASSIC YA”

 
Summary: Since its publication in June 2011, this offbeat blend of supernatural fantasy and vintage photography has dominated the YA best-seller lists-and with a Tim Burton adaptation arriving in 2016, Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children shows no sign of slowing down. A mysterious island. An abandoned orphanage. And a strange collection of very curious photographs. It all waits to be discovered in Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children, an unforgettable novel that mixes fiction and photography in a thrilling reading experience. As our story opens, a horrific family tragedy sets sixteen-year-old Jacob journeying to a remote island off the coast of Wales, where he discovers the crumbling ruins of Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children. As Jacob explores its abandoned bedrooms and hallways, it becomes clear that the children who once lived here-one of whom was his own grandfather-were more than just peculiar. They may have been dangerous. They may have been quarantined on a desolate island for good reason.
 
Recommendation: I admit to not having read this book OR seen the movie until very recently, despite the fact that this book has long been celebrated, and generally speaking I can’t quite understand how it took me so long given the fact that “peculiar children” is in the title and the author’s name is Ransom – two things I find quite irresistible.But on to the book! It’s tremendously fun, while remaining all the while full of compounding mysteries. Our main character, Jacob, at the beginning of the book has such a dreadfully ordinary life that he is bored to tears. The one figure in his life who has fascinated him is his grandfather, who has lived an extraordinary life – growing up an orphan who escaped the Holocaust, when of age fighting in WWII, and then engaging in wild adventures of mysterious consequence through the rest of his life. Abraham, Jacob’s grandfather, tells him wonderful, wild stories about the children he grew up with in the orphanage. But as Jacob grows older, he begins to doubt the reality of these stories, despite the pictures that seem to verify the peculiar things his grandfather tells him these children could do. When Jacob finds his grandfather slayed in the jungle behind the house, and he alone sees the monster that did it, his family begins to think he is crazy. They send him to a psychiatrist, who thinks he cannot tell fact from fantasy. Though Jacob doesn’t agree – he stopped believing Abe’s stories long before he saw the monster, eventually Jacob is convinced that he didn’t see a monster at all – it must have just been a dog. Secretly, though he outwardly tells his family that he is better, and that he no longer believes he saw that monster, Jacob remains primarily concerned with Abe’s mysterious last words to him – a puzzle he is determined to solve. He begins to solve it at home, but when he gets the chance to accompany his father (a pathetic ornithologist)  to the island upon which Abe grew up in the orphanage, he doesn’t miss the chance, and his psychiatrist actually encourages it. On the island, Jacob discovers more and more mysteries – at first it is all delightful, then concerning, and finally terrifying when he realises the full truth of his involvement in a nightmarish scenario.

REALISTIC

NOT SO PURE AND SIMPLE by Lamar Giles
 
Summary:"Hysterical. I couldn't put it down." (Nic Stone) "I laughed, I gasped, I church grunted through every chapter." (Tiffany D. Jackson) "Heartfelt and hilarious on every page!" (Justin A. Reynolds)
4 starred reviews! * An Indie Next List Pick! * Named one of Bank Street College of Education's Best Children's Books of the Year!
Two-time Edgar Award finalist Lamar Giles spotlights the consequences of societal pressure, confronts toxic masculinity, and explores the complexity of what it means to be a "real man."
Del has had a crush on Kiera Westing since kindergarten. And now, during their junior year, she's finally available. So when Kiera volunteers for an opportunity at their church, Del's right behind her. Though he quickly realises he's inadvertently signed up for a Purity Pledge.
His dad thinks his wires are crossed, and his best friend, Qwan, doesn't believe any girl is worth the long game. But Del's not about to lose his dream girl, and that's where fellow pledger Jameer comes in. He can put in the good word. In exchange, Del just has to get answers to the Pledgers' questions...about sex ed.
With other boys circling Kiera like sharks, Del needs to make his move fast. But as he plots and plans, he neglects to ask the most important question: What does Kiera want? He can't think about that too much, though, because once he gets the girl, it'll all sort itself out. Right?
"With true-to-life characters and a straightforward handling of sex, including often ignored aspects of male sexuality, Giles's thoughtful, hilarious read offers a timely viewpoint on religion, toxic masculinity, and teen sexuality." (Publishers Weekly, "An Anti-Racist Children's and YA Reading List")
 
Recommendation: This coming of age novel written in the first-person is funny, with moments in which Del’s ad-libbing is both hilarious and painful. What makes this book really worth reading is its combination of realism and subtlety. Del’s behaviour is often immature and reactive, but he is eminently likeable. In other words, though he thinks he knows who he is and what he is doing, Del is close to clueless. But his narration makes this both endearing and hilarious. It is ultimately Giles’ remarkable skill at imagining and capturing Del’s voice that makes the book's building critique of a dominant form of toxic masculinity – a form that can just as easily exist in the boy next door as it does in the bully.  I know I can always get a bit serious in these recommendations, but remember, this book is also funny!

GRAPHIC NOVEL

BITTER ROOT Vols. 1 and 2 (This is an adult graphic novel series with a lot of violence, focused on racist violence)
 
Vol. 1 Summary – Once known as the greatest monster hunters of all time, the Sangerye family specialised in curing the souls of those infected by hate. But those days are fading. A terrible tragedy has claimed most of the family, leaving the surviving cousins divided between by the desire to cure monsters or to kill them. Now, though, there's a new breed of monster loose on the streets of Harlem, and the Sangerye family must either come together or watch the human race fall to untold evil.
Vol 2 Summary – Monster-hunting has been the Sangerye family business for generations as they battle the jinoo-hideous creatures born out of hate and racism. But now, the Sangeryes face a different threat-the deadly inzondo, a new kind of monster born out of grief and trauma. With one of their own turning into an inzondo, and an army of tortured souls on the attack in 1920s Harlem, the Sangerye family must once again fight to save the world, unless their own pain and suffering transform them into monsters as well!
 
Recommendation: Bitter Root won the 2020 Eisner Award for Continuing Series for a reason. This series brilliantly turns the racist trope of black Americans as monstrous and dangerous on its head, taking deep care to contextualise all of its work properly in the traumatic history of the early 20th century. Set during the Harlem Renaissance, the Sangerye family guard Harlem against the Jinoo – white people whose souls have been infected by fear and hatred (racism) such that they have become murderous monsters. The family fights these Jinoo, capturing them and healing them via the ancient rootwork of Ma Etta, an elder possessed of tremendous wisdom and power. Critically important is the fact that the Sangerye family lost many of its members in the Red Summer of 1919 to vicious attacks from Jinoo and other devils that seemed much stronger. The family’s work becomes more complex when they must face off, not only against Jinoo, but Inzondo – souls corrupted into monsters by pain and grief. Leading the charge of the Inzondos are Miss Knightsdale and Dr. Sylvester, bodily survivors of the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921. Both lost their children, and became Inzondos through their pain and grief. While at first they seek the Sangeryes to help them develop a cure for their condition, Sylvester changes his mind, and believes his monstrous self to be the road to the liberation of his people, as he executes retribution on those who have caused them harm. But Sylvester’s seeming calling quickly shows itself to be monstrous itself, as he calls upon devils, loosed upon the world from a tear in the separation, to exact violence unmoored by any sense of retribution for evil done. The rift in the separation between life and after lets loose a terrifying number of devils, but also members of the Sangerye family sucked into the space between life and death, who have become remarkably skilled fighters. BITTER ROOT fascinatingly upends any number of racist cultural tropes with deft intelligence. In addition to its diligently drawn illustrations and fascinating text, the graphic novels include fascinating resources at the end of each book.