2020 Cybils Awards

The Cybils Awards are given by book bloggers to children’s and young adult authors and illustrators whose work has both literary merit and popular appeal.  I was honored to be a finalist judge for the 2020 Awards for Young Adult Fiction and Young Adult Speculative Fiction. Big thanks to fellow finalist judges Helen Murdoch, Wendy Gassaway, Rachel Patton and Dana Foley for the enjoyable collaboration!

Here are our winners:

Young Adult Fiction

Furia    

Furia
by Yamile Saied Méndez
Algonquin Young Readers
Purchase through IndieBound

Quiet, 17-year-old Argentinian Camila Hassan, lives at home in the shadow of her brother’s soccer career always watching her step so as not to set off her father’s volatile temper. Once she is free of the traditional expectations, she is the star of her futbal team transforming into ‘Furia’ and pushing the boundaries on the field with the end goal to be an American professional futbolera. With her perfect English, killer kick, and a showcasing championship in her sights, what could stop her?

Author Yamile Saied Méndez has created a beautifully complex book. She skillfully wraps issues of sexism, colorism, and violence against women in a story of athletic aspiration, capped off with a touch of romance. Méndez’s own background as a futbolera shines through in her exciting depiction of soccer matches. The compelling narrative is brought to life with strong characters and inclusion of Spanish dialog, which makes the story richer and helps cement the Argentinian setting. Just like the Cybils judges, readers will find themselves rooting wholeheartedly for Furia.

 

Young Adult Speculative Fiction

Cemetery Boys    

Cemetery Boys
by Aiden Thomas
Swoon Reads
Purchase through IndieBound

Deeply steeped in Latinx culture and folklore, Cemetery Boys weaves magic, identity, and family birthright into a compelling coming of age story. Yadriel is gay, transgender, and struggling to be accepted as a brujo by his tight-knit family. Yadriel’s community is diverse and vibrant, peppered with loud and lovable characters like his cousin Maritza. His family is loving, supportive, and complicated. This #ownvoices novel is a tender romance, a ray of hope, and a testament to the power of all kinds of love. Aiden Thomas has written a timely story that readers, both queer and straight, can relate to and see themselves in. The judges strongly felt that readers will enjoy the masterful balance of humor, suspense, and magic achieved in Cemetery Boys.

 

The Cybils honors books for early readers through young adult, picture books and graphic novels, fiction and non-fiction. To see the entire list of 2020 winners,  visit the Cybils blog. Happy reading!

Amari and the Night Brothers

Amari

Amari and the Night Brothers chronicles a quest that literally relies on #blackgirlmagic.

Amari is one of the only Black girls at her private middle school. She’s bullied and gets in trouble for standing up for herself. Amari’s worried about her older brother Quinton who went missing after spending time away from home in a leadership program. After being visited by Quinton in a dream, she is whisked off to join the same program. Amari learns it’s actually the academy where young people train to join the Bureau of Supernatural Affairs.

Each trainee has a natural talent which gets enhanced into a special power; for example, a creative person becomes a mastermind inventor. The Bureau’s specialized departments work together to manage relationships between the known world and the unseen supernatural beings all around us. Amari is determined to become an Agent in the Department of Supernatural Investigations so she can find her brother.

Amari is unsure of her talent and is shocked to learn her power is wielding magic. Magic is illegal and magicians themselves are considered evil  due largely to the Night Brothers. These wicked magicians wreaked havoc on their world in their quest for power. They were also involved in Quinton’s disappearance. Despite having this forbidden skill, Amari is allowed to stay, but finds herself subject to the same shunning and othering she experienced in school. However, thanks to her roommate, an aura-reading weredragon, and some adults who believe in her, she grows in confidence – and supernatural ability – overcoming some big challenges in her quest.

This story deals with real problems but wraps them in whimsy. There’s a lot of silliness which succeeds in making the book fun without side stepping the harder issues. The worldbuilding is solid and plot twists abound. Illustrated chapter headings enliven the story. Amari faces difficulties but also finds friendship and support in this delightful, mystical world. The ending is satisfying but leaves the door open for more adventure. Readers of this middle grade fantasy will be eagerly awaiting the next volume – I know I am!

Find Amari and the Night Brothers (in person or online), at your local bookstore.

 

Happy Holidays!

The holidays are upon us and and along with them, colder weather and for many, new shelter in place orders. Now more than ever books make good gifts. They have the ability to carry us away and help us cope with today’s realities. It’s also a good time to support independent bookstores. You can find your local bookstore here, or comic book shop here. Most stores can fulfill online orders, so don’t let not having a shop in your neighborhood stand in the way!

Here are a few suggestions. Click on the titles to find out more about the books and where to find them. In case you need a reminder, there’s nothing wrong with shopping for yourself!

PS Sign up to follow my blog and get more in depth reviews of great books and graphic novels!

For SciFi/Fantasy Fans

Suncatcher, by Jose Pimienta: Beatriz discovers the secret to her grandfather’s musical talent and realizes she must fulfill an unpaid debt. This graphic novel is a “devil at the crossroads” story with a Mexicali punk twist.

A Phoenix First Must Burn: Sixteen Stories of Black Girl Magic, Resistance and Hope, Patrice Caldwell, Editor – Sixteen top YA authors contribute to this anthology of thrilling scifi, fantasy and magical stories.

Seven Deadly Shadows, by Courtney Alameda and Valynne E. Maetani – Kira Fujikawa, keeper of her family shrine, must call upon ruthless shinigami (death gods), to save it from an attack by yokai demons.

Legendborn, by Tracy Deonn – Bree, trying to uncover the truth behind her mother’s death, finds a connection to a college secret society rooted in the centuries old legends of King Arthur. She soon realizes she’ll need to call on her own heritage of magic to find answers.

 

Looking For Romance?

This Is Kind of an Epic Love Story, by Kheryn (Kacen) Callender – Nate doesn’t believe in happy endings, especially after his best friend turned girlfriend breaks his heart. Things change when Nate’s childhood best friend Oliver moves back to town and – maybe – he can tell Oliver his true feelings towards him.

Opposite of Always, by Justin A. Reynolds – When Jack goes on a  college tour, he falls for his tour guide Kate. He learns she has a serious medical condition and tries to save her life. Somehow he finds himself reliving the moment they met and the subsequent weeks over and over. The circumstances are different every time as he tries again and again to save her.

This Is My Brain In Love, by I.W. Gregorio: Jocelyn Wu and Will Domenici are working together to save Jos’s family’s struggling restaurant. Will and Jos are attracted to each other but realize they have to manage their mental health issues before they can have a relationship. Both are children of immigrants; stigmas around dealing with mental health issues in communities  of color make it more complicated.

Bloom, by Kevin Panetta and Savanna Ganucheau – In this sweet graphic novel, it’s summer, and Ari is stuck in the city working in his family’s bakery. He’s tired of it and wishes he could get away. Hector, who loves baking, comes to town and takes a job at the bake shop. Ari begins to see things differently as he and Hector grow closer.

 

Revisiting The Past

Butterfly Yellow, by Thanhha Lai – Hang is separated from her little brother as they try to escape Vietnam during the last days of the war. When she makes it to Texas 6 years later, she finds him but struggles to reconnect when she realizes he doesn’t remember her.

Outrun The Moon, by Stacey Lee – In 1906 San Francisco, Mercy Wong is determined to be admitted to a private school that usually accepts only wealthy white girls. She manages to get in only to have everything upended when the 1906 earthquake wrecks the town. Now on her own, she must find a way forward for herself and other survivors.

Lies We Tell Ourselves, by Robin Talley – Set in 1959, Sarah Dunbar faces serious harassment as one of 10 Black students integrating an all-white high school. When she and white classmate Linda Hairston are forced to work together on a project they try to understand their attraction to each other when there are so many reasons they shouldn’t be together.

 

Realistic, Current Day Stories

Not So Pure and Simple, by Lamar Giles: Del finally gets close to his crush Kiera – by accidentally joining a church group pledging to stay pure until marriage. Barred from getting proper sex education, the teens grapple with conflicting messages about relationships and sexuality while recognizing the toxic behaviors even “good guys” are guilty of.

This Time Will Be Different, by Misa Sugiura – CJ Katsuyama loves working in her family’s flower shop. A developer swindled her grandparents out of the business when they were sent to the camps during World War Two. After years of work, the shop is back in the Katsuyama’s hands.The business is struggling but CJ is determined to fight back when the same developer’s family tries to buy the building out from under them.

The Perfect Escape, by Suzanne Park – Scholarship student Nate Kim meets wealthy Kate Anderson when they both work at the Zombie Laboratory escape room. Nate’s family struggles financially and although Kate’s does not, her father uses money to keep Kate on a leash. Kate asks Nate to be her partner in the Zombiegeddon weekend-long survival challenge; the big cash prize could change both their lives. 

Turning Point, by Paula Chase – Best friends Rashida and Monique are both straining under imposed structures – Monique in a predominantly white, traditional classical ballet program, Rashida in her very rigid, conservative church. Both girls must figure out how to fit into the world around them without being completely stifled by the constraints.

 

HAPPY HOLIDAYS!!

Fights: One Boy’s Triumph Over Violence

47493017Joel Christian Gill is the creator of the graphic novels Strange Fruit Volumes I & II, which tell the stories of unsung African Americans. He turns the focus on himself in his powerful graphic memoir Fights: One Boy’s Triumph Over Violence. His recounting of his young life is both brave and heartbreaking. He does not hold back in exposing the abuse and neglect he suffered and shows how it impacted the way he moved through the world. He admits how painful it was to recall these childhood memories – I can only imagine what it was like to live them, given how painful it was to read about them.

His father died when he was young, and his mother struggled to take care of him. He often had to stay with his mother’s friends or relatives, where he was sexually abused and neglected. School provided no refuge as he was also bullied by other children and mistreated by teachers. He was drowning but there was no one to throw him a life-line.  He had to swim his way out on his own. He shows how children subjected to violence in words and actions absorb it all; then, like sponges, they get filled up and start to “leak” that same behavior. Eventually he became like the children around him, a full vessel leaking abuse onto others.

He was kept afloat by the library, art and a few key friendships. Once he discovered how much he enjoyed drawing, he could lose himself in it. He struggled but made his way through middle school and high school. A decision he made at age 18 was surprising, but turned out to be life-saving.

Gill’s dramatic art, with saturated colors and expressive characterizations, brings you deep into his story and doesn’t let go. The scenes where he depicts his mistreatment manage to be simultaneously subtle, infuriating and devastating. Photographs from his early life through present day bring the story even closer. The language is as evocative as the visuals. In addition to imagining children as sponges, he uses fire to represent harm. Some people are arsonists, deliberately causing pain, while others are accidental fire starters.  There are also those who do controlled burns — looking for the best place to start the fire. Although this book is difficult, it shows how young people, living under dire circumstances, can still find their way out to a healthy life. He leaves us with hope.

I don’t know what it took to create this memoir, but I admire Joel Christian Gill for doing it. I appreciate his note saying he didn’t do this as a catharsis.  Instead, he is speaking to young people who are experiencing trauma, sending the message that they can think for themselves and can choose a different path. He is also speaking to adults who witness young people acting as he did; he hopes they can recognize the roots of this behavior and seek to learn that child’s story.

Find Fights at your local bookstore or comic book shop.

The Magic Fish

magic-fish-1Tiến is a 13 year old who lives with his Vietnamese immigrant parents in the Midwest. He and his mother Helen read fairy tales together to help bridge the gap between their primary languages. Tiến grew up speaking English and Helen Vietnamese. Tiến is gay; he is out only to a classmate. He wants to come out to his mother, but he doesn’t know the right words in Vietnamese or where to find them.  To make matters worse, adults at his parochial school suspect he might be gay, and the “counseling” they subject him to just leads to more fear and shame. The fairy tales Tiến and his mother read together are more than a way to help them communicate; the stories they share parallel their life experiences. For example, The Little Mermaid becomes an immigration story, where the price of moving to a new place for a different life comes at a big price — losing the ability to communicate.

When Helen has to go back to Vietnam because of a family emergency, her aunt tells her a story which Helen had heard before.  This time the story has a different ending.  Her aunt explained: stories change, details change, and with those changes the story becomes yours. Helen returns home and comes to understand the truth about Tiến’s sexuality in an unexpected and, for Tiến, scary way. Once again, stories provide an avenue for them to communicate what matters and, most importantly, express their love.

The art in this graphic novel is stunning. The lush line drawings are powerful and express the fantasy of the stories just as vividly as the reality of Tiến and his family’s lives. Different monochrome palettes are used to distinguish between Tiến’s current day, his mother’s memories, her time in Vietnam and the stories they tell each other.  The creator, Trung Le Nguyen, includes details on the influences for the artistic styles of the settings and characters in this lovely, heartwarming, graphic novel.

Many readers will be able to relate to this moving story. Finding the right words for a difficult conversation can be hard even if language isn’t a barrier. The beautiful artwork carried me away, and I admit there may have been a tear in my eye at the end.

The Magic Fish comes out on October 13th; find it at your local independent bookstore.

Turning Point

turning point

Rasheeda and Monique live in the Pirates Cove Housing Projects and are best friends. They just finished 8th grade and for the first time won’t be spending the summer together.

Monique has earned a spot in a competitive, intensive ballet training program along with Jamila, another Cove resident. Monique loves ballet but is nervous about the program. Will she measure up? Will there be other Black girls there? How will she handle being away from home?

Rasheeda is staying in Pirates Cove this summer. She lives with her Aunt Deandra who took her in when she saw the squalid conditions under which Rasheeda and her mother were living. Rasheeda’s aunt keeps her on a tight leash.  She is on a mission to make sure her niece Rasheeda doesn’t go astray and stays safe.  Their entire lives are centered around church.

Though in very different worlds Rasheeda and Monique are faced with challenges of being in very structured environments. For Monique, the expectations in this traditional, predominantly white ballet program are quite different from her local ballet school. She is a talented dancer but does not have the traditional ballet body that seems to be the norm. She feels off balance in this setting, where everyone seems to know the system except her.

The structure in Rasheeda’s life comes from her Aunt. Even normal things like having a crush or wanting to join activities not connected to church are judged harshly. Rasheeda is never given the opportunity to learn how to make her own decisions. With no experience in handling herself on her own, Rasheeda finds herself in troubling situations and has no idea what to do.

Monique and Rasheeda’s situations are realistic, as are their responses. While structure can be good, it can also be suffocating. I think young readers will relate to Monique’s and Rasheeda’s feelings of confusion and isolation as they try to understand how to fit in to the world around them.  The girls believe they have to figure out everything on their own. Young people often experience the same feelings as Monique and Rasheeda, even if the settings are different. I hope readers will be inspired by seeing both Monique and Rasheeda demonstrate agency.  They find a way to manage, but not completely succumb to, the constraints they are under.

There are two other books, So Done and Dough Boys, set in Pirates Cove. Some characters will be familiar but Turning Point works fine as a stand alone.

Turning Point will be available on September 15th but you can preorder it now.

Cinderella Is Dead

cinderellaForget everything you think you know about Cinderella and prepare to learn the truth. Cinderella is Dead takes place generations after Cinderella’s “happily ever after” with Prince Charming.  Now the monarchy rules the kingdom based on their approved version of the Cinderella story.    The kingdom’s rules require that girls attend a ball when they turn 16 so wealthy men of the kingdom can choose mates.  The young women essentially become their property. All the girls in the kingdom are forced to comply, many unwillingly. If they refuse, they and their families will be punished, so they see no other way. Sophia resists at first, because she wants to spend her life with her girlfriend Erin.

Sophia ultimately attends the ball to protect her family.  She witnesses the leering men and the open abuse of a friend and decides to escape. She finds herself at Cinderella’s tomb, where she meets Constance, a descendant of one of  Cinderella’s stepsisters. Sophia learns how the royal patriarchy falsified the original Cinderella story to enable the oppression of women and queer erasure. Sophia and Constance plot to expose the truth and smash the patriarchy.

This re-imagined fairy tale centers queer Black women. Rather than remixing a few elements, author Kalynn Bayron dismantles the entire legend and creates a completely new story. She skillfully describes how different people throughout the society respond to the rules and regimentation. The characters are well crafted and have clear motivation. The plot moves at a good pace and serves up a few twists. The story is both political and magical, effectively showing how oppression of women negatively affects all people.

Find Cinderella Is Dead at your local bookstore.

Dragon Hoops

dragon hoopsDragon Hoops follows two fascinating narratives.  It’s the tale of a storied high school’s quest for a state championship and the author’s own journey as a graphic novelist.

Bishop O’Dowd High School, located in Oakland, CA, is renowned for its strong athletic program. Gene Luen Yang taught computer science at O’Dowd, while balancing a demanding career as a graphic novel creator. Yang had just wrapped up one project and was in the market for his next book idea.  He was a self-admitted lifelong hater of sports, but he couldn’t ignore his students’ excitement about the Dragons upcoming basketball season. His curiosity led him to sit down with basketball coach Lou Richie.  Before long, Yang had his next project.

The narrative includes details on the history of the men’s and women’s games, including how they were impacted by racism and sexism. For example, there was so much concern about the effects of basketball on their “womanhood,” women were not allowed to run the full length of the court until 1971. Profiles of the diverse team members and Coach Richie, himself an alum of O’Dowd and its basketball team, enrich the story. Some difficult history in the program is handled thoughtfully.

Yang elevates an already powerful story by weaving his own journey with sports and his career as a graphic novelist into the narrative.  The concept of taking steps – taking risks – is a recurring theme.

Yang’s art brings the story to life with depictions of the basketball games which are so compelling you feel as if you’re there, watching. He uses a full range of colors, which are muted in historical sections and more vibrant in the time of the story. You don’t have to love basketball to love this book. Find Dragon Hoops at your local bookstore or comic book shop.

Felix Ever After

FelixFelix is a queer Black trans teen who is still struggling with identity. Though certain he is not female, he doesn’t always feel 100% male. He’s a talented artist whose dream is to attend Brown University. Felix enrolls in a summer art program to help improve his chances. He has close friends in the program but has difficult relationships with other students. Felix arrives at his art school one day to find someone has posted a photo gallery of his pre-transition self, complete with his deadname (his pre-transition name). Felix is devastated and decides to catfish the person he thinks is responsible. In going after the person he targeted, Felix is forced to face some truths about that person and about his own relationships. This powerful story does not shy away from the harassment and misconceptions trans teens face. The narrative deftly explores the idea of continuing to question identity, even beyond the binary, given the complex experience of gender. The characters vary in culture, gender identity, and gender expression, and have depth. The resolution of the mystery and Felix’s arc are both handled in a satisfying way.

This is an #ownvoices story, meaning the author, Kacen Callender, is writing from their lived experience. Callender experienced much of what Felix is subjected to in the book. It was interesting to learn about the many identities between male and female as Felix searches for the one that feels right. The author intentionally makes the point that it’s OK to keep questioning identity – or to reject labels altogether.

Many independent bookstores are set up for online shopping, and this is an important time to support them. Find Felix Ever After at your local bookstore.

This Is My Brain In Love

45170387Jocelyn “Jos” Wu is a child of Chinese immigrants. Her family’s restaurant, which is located in a central New York strip mall, is struggling. Jocelyn talks her father into giving her one chance to help the business before he decides to close it and move back to New York City. Jocelyn’s ad for a management intern is answered by Will Domenici, who hopes to draw on his experience as a business manager for his school newspaper.  He and Jos hit it off and begin to see success with their marketing plans. Despite that, Jos can only focus on things that didn’t go right. Will has been struggling with anxiety since he was in middle school. Years of therapy have helped him manage it, but there are still challenges. Will recognizes signs of depression in Jos. He wants to help, but understands the limits, including those growing from his own anxiety. Will and Jos have much in common, including having immigrant parents (Will’s mother is Nigerian), and there’s a spark.  They grow to care about each other, but have to keep their brains from standing in the way.

Jocelyn, Will and the other teen characters are realistic and complex. There are no easy answers or heroic rescues. Jos and Will’s parents are allowed complexity too; each brings a perspective to the question of overcoming the shame associated with recognizing, accepting and managing mental health issues. For example Jos’s father believes these conditions don’t affect Chinese people and were created by pharmaceutical companies. Will’s mother, despite being a doctor, felt addressing Will’s anxiety would just be pathologizing issues that could be resolved with guidance. We learn Jos’s mother and Will’s father see things differently.

The writer, an Asian American doctor also raised by immigrants, includes a powerful author’s note. She is very straightforward in describing her struggles in coming to terms with her own depression.  She also addresses the stigma that exists in the medical community as well as in immigrant communities and communities of color. Managing mental health is important for all of us. We may see more people needing help given the current state of the world. I hope this book will help people overcome shame not only to take care of themselves, but to avoid being an obstacle to others who need care.

Right now, going to a bookstore is not an option but many are still filling online orders. I’d like to recommend Books Inc., an independent bookstore that will ship This Is My Brain In Love (and any other books you order), free of charge.