Whiteout

 

Two Black teens are kissing against a backdrop of a city skyline and falling snow; it looks like they're in a snow globe.Scientific Question – Can you outromance the most romance-obsessed girlfriend in the world?

Stephanie “Stevie” Williams has to answer this question – and fast. Her girlfriend Sola planned a special dinner to introduce Stevie to her family. Stevie screws up royally and turns the night into a disaster. Sola is heartbroken and has given Stevie a deadline to make things right. Stevie, a scientific, logic-driven person, calls on her network of friends to help her create a grand gesture to win Sola back. They all want to help but it won’t be easy. Each of them are in the midst of dealing with their own romantic issues. To make things more complicated, all the plans get tossed in the air because a snowstorm has hit their city of Atlanta, making it almost impossible to get anywhere.

As the teens’ stories are explored we get to enjoy favorite romance tropes, from “do I dare admit my feelings?,” to “can we get past this misunderstanding?,” to “is my ex is your ex?” Queer romances are front and center serving up plotlines that will appeal to many teens. All the teens are Black but they come from a variety of backgrounds including Nigerian, Muslim, Afro-Latino, and Jewish. Rather than shallow mentions, their assorted cultures are important to the narrative. Collectively their stories blend vulnerability, bravery and swoony affection in a way that feels honest. The teens are all relatable as young people trying to figure things out. Whiteout is written by the same lineup of award winning young adult authors that brought us Blackout. This time around Nicola Yoon, Nic Stone, Angie Thomas, Ashley Woodfolk, Tiffany D. Jackson and Dhonielle Clayton only give clues to who wrote which storylines. In the end it doesn’t matter. The authors work cohesively to bring Stevie, Sola and their friends together in a warm embrace of romance.

Find Whiteout at your local bookstore.

 

The Getaway

Black teen's face in shadow with blood red background and lettering. His eyes and mouth are gruesomely stitched closed.It’s the very near future and the US has been devastated by wildfires, drought and floods. Food shortages and riots have become the norm, with very few places designated as safe cities. Karloff Country Resort  offers the very wealthy an escape from this broken world. It is “the funnest place around,” according to the owners. Once inside the walls of Karloff Country’s theme park, nothing in the outside world matters. The staff – all BIPOC – live onsite in an area separate from the guests and consider themselves lucky. They live and breathe the Karloff Country motto, “service and joy.”

Teens Jay, Zeke and Connie work and go to school there. Seychelle Karloff is part of their friend group. Despite being heir to the Karloff empire, she is more connected to the teens than her family. She has always been treated like an outsider. She’s biracial and her grandfather never forgave her mother for bringing a half-Black child into the family.

Things start to get troubling when Jay and Zeke notice some of their neighbors are going missing. At the same time wealthy families are moving into the Karloff vacation mansions but aren’t leaving. Guests become more demanding and treatment of the staff becomes more callous. Jay tries to find logical answers, while Zeke follows conspiracy chat rooms and realizes they might be on to something. Seychelle uses her Karloff family connections to get more information. As the three friends uncover the startling truth, they work together to find a way out.

It’s clear early on that things aren’t quite right; but as the story progresses, the intensity ratchets up quickly, in a frighteningly believable way. Horror stems from the world the Karloffs and their peers created both inside and outside the walls of Karloff Country. The teens’ relationships aren’t without conflict but each in their own way uses their skills and resources to help each other out.

The most frightening thing about The Getaway is how many storylines in the book are playing out in our world right now.

Clear your calendar because once you start this book you will not be able to put it down. And can we talk about that cover? The book is scary before you even open it!

Find The Getaway at your local bookstore

The Weight of Blood

Black teen girl wearing tiara and Prom Queen sash drenched in blood, set against a black background.A bullied teen, her unhinged parent, a prom and telekinesis. You may think you know where this horror novel is going but trust me, you do not.

A true crime podcast host is looking to uncover the truth about a tragedy that struck a small Georgia town years before. Does the blame really rest on one teen girl, Maddie Washington? Going back and forth in time, the narrative spools out the story in the podcast’s current day interviews with survivors and experts, woven with the events as they happened.

Maddie and her white father live in a small Georgia town where even in 2014 the community continues the tradition of hosting segregated proms – one for white students, another for Black students. Maddie is biracial but has been passing for white her whole life. No one ever knew her mother. Her abusive father keeps her terrorized at the thought of anyone finding out she is part Black.

To make matters worse for Maddie, her father has recreated a 1960’s era world in their home with no cable tv or internet. All Maddie sees are videos of “Father Knows Best” type television shows, old movies and whitewashed history lessons. It’s reminiscent of people today who try to recreate a world  where white men rule and no one else matters.

Maddie’s secret is revealed when an unexpected rainstorm sends her hot comb straightened hair back to its naturally coily state. One classmate, Jules, starts launching pencils into Maddie’s hair; other classmates joyfully join into the abuse. A video of the incident goes viral, bringing their school and community unwanted attention. What the video doesn’t show is Maddie begging them to stop. As she gets more and more upset, classroom lights break, windows shatter, and the floor heaves. The viral video causes things to escalate in this divided town, coming to a horrifying climax on prom night.

Each character in this story brings a different point of view, adding complexity to the narrative. Kendrick, the Black football star is  accepted by the white kids because of his talent, but has to live with that pressure and his tenuous relationship with other Black students. Kendrick’s sister Kali founded the school’s Black Student Union and isn’t afraid to stand up against the daily racism Black students endure. Jules, who started the bullying, feels victimized when called on it, blaming Maddie for this new experience of suffering consequences for her actions.  Wendy, Kendrick’s white girlfriend, believes dating Kendrick makes her a good person and will not stand for anything that gets in the way of her self-image.

Tiffany D. Jackson is an incredible writer who skillfully blends issues of racism, pseudo-allyship, entitlement, police brutality and the supernatural into a compelling story. This horror novel asks what’s more frightening, otherworldly powers or the impact of racism on Black people’s everyday lives?

Find The Weight of Blood at your local bookstore.

Swim Team

Black tween girl wearing blue and yellow swimsuit and goggles backed by blue water in a swimming pool.Bree Hanley is a seventh grader who faces a host of obstacles when she and her father move to Florida from New York. Her dad works two jobs so he isn’t around much to offer support as she struggles to make friends at her new middle school. Bree’s new home, Palmetto Shores, is obsessed with competitive swimming. Bree’s first choice elective, Math Puzzles, is full and the only activity with space is Swim 101. Bree struggles with anxiety, so having to participate in the spotlight sport – while navigating the challenges of being the new girl at school – proves to be overwhelming. Despite these hurdles she makes a bold move and agrees to join her friends on the swim team. Can new friends and a surprising connection to her town’s last championship swim team help her get through?

Vibrant colors bring the lively characters and settings to life. Issues of racism and classism are communicated well in both art and text, which is well-suited for the intended middle grade audience. Bree’s struggles with anxiety are powerfully illustrated with dark clouds spelling out her fears. They contrast with the colors of the world outside of her head, showing how oppressive those thoughts can be. Most of the characters are Black, which opens up the conversation about how a history of segregation prevented Black people from accessing public pools and beaches. The inclusion of resources to learn more about these issues is a bonus.

This comic is relatable to a wide audience, regardless of any connection to middle school or swimming. Many of us in new, uncomfortable situations have experienced anxiety. The narrative shows that finding support in friends and community can be the first steps on a path to healing.

Find Swim Team at your local bookstore or comic book shop.

Survive in the Outdoors!

Latinx boy and girl at a wooded campsite building a fire and holding a fish they caught surrounded by camping equipment.Just in time for summer fun, this graphic novel packs an incredible amount of practical, useful, clearly explained information about staying safe while enjoying the outdoors. Tweens Alonso and Sophia are spending the weekend with their Abuelo. Abuelo loves the outdoors and decides to take the children to his favorite remote fishing spot. Alonso and Sophia aren’t excited about this as they aren’t used to being disconnected from their online lives. Abuelo begins teaching them about what to expect as they make and pack the things they’ll need for their trip. As they hike deep into the woods Abuelo twists his ankle and can’t walk. It’s now up to Alonso and Sophia to care for Abuelo and keep themselves safe. 

The story of Alonso, Sophia and Abuelo is a great vehicle for teaching how to be prepared in the outdoors. Since this is a maker project book, it contains fun hands on activities as well as general information. The maker projects include making fishing lures, a compass, and a campfire, all of which are well illustrated and explained in detail. Outdoor safety concerns, e.g. avoiding ticks, administering first aid, making sure water is safe to drink, and creating an emergency shelter are presented in a way that informs rather than frightens. One unexpected and interesting element involves the children’s feelings about fishing for their dinner. Abuelo recognizes their sadness at having to kill a fish to eat it. He explains that feeling sad is normal, but if you’re going to eat meat you should know where it comes from.

The relationships in this Latinx family are sweet and warm. Sophia and Alonso manage through the crisis in a realistically age appropriate way. The art is colorful and engaging, expressing the characters’ emotions just as well as it diagrams project instructions. As someone whose first choice of activity is not spending time camping or fishing, I have to say this book made me feel like going outside might actually be fun.

Find Survive in the Outdoors!  at your local bookstore.

Personal note: Sorry to be absent from the blog for so long. COVID and other upheavals kept me away – I’m happy to be back!

Wingbearer

Dramatic image of young Black girl accompanied by a whimsical owl and an orc-like creature, running from a large, faceless robed being.Marjorie Liu, the writer behind the award winning adult graphic novel “Monstress,” and artist Teny Issakhanian, who has worked on Disney’s “Encanto” and “Raya and the Last Dragon,” bring their talents to a middle grade audience with this stunning story of adventure and discovery.

The Wings are sacred bird guardians who live in a mystical tree. There, they shelter the souls of birds that have died as they wait to be reborn. Zuli, a dark-skinned child who appears to be human, lives among them. Zuli came to the Wings as an infant but her true origins are unclear. There are no other beings like her in their world. The Wings raised her with love, taught her their ways, and now she helps them in their work. Listening to the stories the birds’ souls tell as they wait to begin their next lives makes Zuli curious about the world beyond the tree, and makes her wonder whether there are any others like her out there. Things change for Zuli when she realizes birds are dying, but their souls are not coming back to the tree. She’s worried and wants to find out what is happening. Joined by her bird companion Frowly, the Wings reluctantly allow her to leave the tree in search of answers. In her travels Zuli encounters mystical creatures and new lands, some beautiful some menacing. As Zuli begin to uncover what happened to the birds’ souls she makes some surprising discoveries about her own beginnings – and realizes that the closer she gets, the more dangerous her search becomes.

I was amazed and excited to see that Liu’s storytelling is just as powerful in this book for younger readers as it is in her adult titles. The engaging narrative is sometimes ethereal and dreamy, other times dramatic and chilling. Teny Issakhanian’s illustrations, which are lush and gorgeous, are a beautiful match for this story. The vibrant colors bring the sacred tree, the Wings and all the worlds and creatures Zuli visits to life. Together, the narrative and art draw the reader deeply into Zuli’s world. This graphic novel will appeal far beyond the intended middle grade audience.

Find Wingbearer at your local indie bookstore your local indie bookstore or comic book shop.

Love Radio

Love RadioCan a teen-aged relationship expert get his laser-focused-on-anything-but-romance crush to fall for him after three dates?

Prince Jones, aka DJ LoveJones, hosts a radio show where he plays music and gives relationship advice. He aspires to be a  professional DJ and branch out into other areas of the music industry. Prince is very talented but his obligation to care for his disabled mother and his seven year old brother make him doubt that he’ll ever reach his goal. Danielle Ford puts all her efforts into preparing for college. She wants to be a writer and is and doing everything she can to get to her dream school, New York University. She loves her hometown of Detroit but NYU is where she wants to be. Danielle is struggling to finish her application essay. She’s hiding something that gets in the way of both her writing and her friendships.  Prince has had a crush on Danielle since they were in sixth grade, but she barely knows who he is. They cross paths in a most awkward way, much to Danielle’s embarrassment. She has no interest in romance but does want to make things right, so she agrees to go out with Prince. As their relationship evolves they find themselves making unexpected choices.

Love Radio is a fun romance with plenty to swoon over, but the story is much deeper. Through the lens of Danielle and Prince’s struggles the narrative explores issues of healthy relationships, friendships, trauma and family responsibility.  Danielle and Prince’s characters have depth – we learn a lot about what writing means to her and what music means to him. Detroit specific references draw readers into the setting. Prince and Danielle’s friends add richness and additional perspectives to the story. Prince’s friends include a teen dad and guy who’s a not-so faithful boyfriend. Danielle’s friends are ambitious and really care for her, though Danielle can’t seem to shake the one who cares only about herself. Author Ebony LaDelle’s gift for writing teen language makes messages about the importance of men holding each other accountable, mutual respect, and trust sound less like lessons and more like advice from a good friend.

Love Radio comes out in May but you can pre-order it now. I try to stick with reviewing books you can get right away, but this was so moving I couldn’t wait. Find Love Radio at your local bookstore.

Mirror Girls

MirrorGirls_CVR_Sketch.inddMirror Girls deftly blends historical fiction with the supernatural in this story of twin girls and the powerful forces affecting their lives. Soon after Charlene (“Charlie”) and her twin Magnolia were born, their Black mother and white father were murdered. Daring to be an interracial family in Georgia in 1936 was unacceptable and met with extreme violence. Upon their parents’ deaths, fair-skinned Magnolia was spirited away by her paternal grandmother and raised in Georgia as a white Southern belle. Brown-skinned Charlie was taken to New York and raised by her maternal grandmother Jeannette.

The girls’ separation broke a powerful spiritual bond leaving them cursed. Before taking infant Charlie to New York, Jeannette visited a man who had the power to appease the spirits who could undo the curse. She makes a devastating sacrifice to set in place a way to heal the broken bond and save the girls.

In 1953, Jeannette is nearing the end of her life and takes Charlie back to Georgia to reunite with the sister she didn’t know existed. At virtually the same moment, Magnolia’s grandmother is on her deathbed and she tells her granddaughter the truth about her parentage  She demands that Magnolia keep this secret so she can marry well and preserve the family status.

Charlie, wanting nothing more than to get back to New York, and Magnolia, reeling from the news of her true identity, finally meet. As they try to set things right, they are forced to confront powerful spiritual and social forces both pushing them together and pulling them apart. Growing conflicts between the Black and white communities make it even more difficult. Grandma Jeannette paid a heavy price to heal Charlie and Magnolia’s bond; the cost of failing to heal it will be even higher.

Once I started Mirror Girls I could not put it down. This is a tightly wound story with no shortage of twists and turns. The horror rises as much from people’s actions as from anything otherworldly. The characters and situations feel so real, the fantastical elements are also believable. Though issues of racism, social strictures, family secrets and supernatural powers are at the forefront, other potent forces come into play. This compelling story will keep you on the edge of your seat – don’t sleep on this one.

Find Mirror Girls at your local bookstore.

Allies: Real Talk About Showing Up, Screwing Up and Trying Again

allies

Allies: Real Talk About Showing Up, Screwing Up and Trying Again is the guide we all need to help us do better. Though written for preteen and teen readers, adults will also get a lot from this book. As we head into the new year, we continue to face social, political and medical challenges. While there are many things we can’t control one thing we can do is take better care of each other. Who doesn’t want to be an ally? A better question is, how do we do it right?

This collection contains essays and one comic from a diversity of authors telling their own true experiences with allyship, whether from the perspective of needing allies or being allies. They’re honest about their own mistakes, offering a non-judgmental look at how even with the best of intentions we can (and probably will at some point), get it wrong. It provides insights on what to do to get it right.

Brendon Kiely, who co-authored “All American Boys” with Jason Reynolds, admits that he was once the “@$&” and reveals how he learned to stand up for people – even when they aren’t in the room. Shakirah Bourne writes about “glitches in the Matrix.” These are times when we gaslight ourselves because facing the reality of what we’re experiencing is too painful. Adiba Jaigirdar tells about how people who believed themselves to be powerful allies didn’t even recognize how dismissive they were of her experiences. I.W Gregorio, a doctor and author, writes about her evolution from ally to co-conspirator with intersex people. Marietta B. Zacker writes from the other side by talking about what it means to have someone stand up for you. One of the most fascinating essays is from Kayla Whaley. As a child she was featured on Jerry Lewis’s telethon for muscular dystrophy. Even then she understood how important it was to be both charming and strategic in how she answered questions when being interviewed on TV. Looking back on that time she considers whether she was acting as an ally (raising funds for research), an exploiter (manipulating the audience) or the exploited (used as a visual aid to help generate cash.) As she thinks through these questions she raises issues we all should consider.

The book also contains practical advice and a wide variety of resources, including websites, books and podcasts, all recommended by the authors. I was surprised at how many different experiences and situations the book covered, all presented in a relatable and informative manner. Allies deserves a place on every bookshelf.

Find Allies at your local independent bookstore.

🎉🎉 Happy Holidays! 🎉🎉

I’m doing my holiday post early because, as you’ve probably heard, supply chain issues, paper shortages and general uncertainty mean it’s not too soon to shop for those book you’d like to give as gifts. It’s still important to support independent bookstores and comic shops. Even if there aren’t any in your community, most are doing mail order. You use these locators to find independent bookstores and comic book shops.

Here are a few recommendations for the readers in your life (or for yourself!!) Click on the titles to learn more about the books and where to buy them. Are there books you’ve loved this year? Let me know!

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

FANTASY

The Hazards of Love by Stan Stanley- Non-binary Amparo, often in trouble at school, has a crush on their classmate, the quiet and studious Iolanthe. Amparo’s wish to be a better person is granted with unexpected and dangerous consequences. This dramatic graphic novel centers Latinx characters and is enhanced by gorgeous, lush artwork.

Six Crimson Cranes by Elizabeth Lim  – Princess Shiori’anma’s stepmother has turned Shiori’s brothers into cranes and put Shiori under a curse; any time she speaks single word one of her brothers will die. Shiori, now banished from the kingdom, must find a way to save her brothers and make her way back home. Set in an Asian inspired fantasyland, the tale of Shiori’s quest is full of magical twists and turns.

Amari and the Night Brothers by B.B. Alston – Amari, a young Black girl, is worried about her brother Quinton who went missing after spending time away from home in a leadership program. She is recruited to the same program and learns it’s actually a training academy for agents who manage the supernatural world. With the help of her weredragon roommate and a few adults who believe in her, Amari finds the confidence to embrace her own supernatural skills and go on a quest to find Quinton. Read a longer review here.

NON-FICTION

Maker Comics: Survive in the Outdoors! by Mike Lawrence – Using a story about Sophia and Alonso going camping with their abuelo, this graphic novel gives lots of  practical, useful, clearly explained information for staying safe while enjoying the outdoors. The book is especially helpful because it gives information, including about handling emergencies, without being scary.

All Thirteen: The Incredible Cave Rescue of the Thai Boys’ Soccer Team by Christina Soontornvat  – This recounting of the 2018 rescue of the Thai boys’ soccer team trapped in a cave by rising waters is riveting. The dramatic, engaging narrative is enhanced with amazing photographs and maps. Together they detail how, over the seventeen day process, people worked on keeping the boys physically and mentally safe while overcome the challenges of getting them out.

The Black Panther Party: A Graphic Novel History by David F. Walker and Marcus Kwame Anderson – This graphic novel goes beyond accepted knowledge (and myths) about the Black Panther Party to tell a complex, well researched history. The narrative highlights the Panthers’ accomplishments but doesn’t shy away from more difficult issues. The art’s realistic renderings bring the people and their experiences to life. An extensive bibliography with resources for further reading is included. Read a longer review here.

ROMANCE

A Pho Love Story by Loan Le – Linh Mai and Bao Nguyen’s families own competing Vietnamese restaurants. The families are so antagonistic teens are forbidden from talking to each other.  As they secretly connect, Linh and Bao slowly uncover the truth behind a decades old grudge that causes the hostility. This sweet romance involves sad family secrets, restaurant culture, and lots of food!

Instructions for Dancing by Nicola Yoon – After seeing many relationships end badly, Evie renounces love. Nothing will change that, not even training for a dance competition with kind, handsome Xavier. The author injects magical realism into the story and has a meta approach – she calls out romance tropes while having fun indulging in them.

Last Night At The Telegraph Club by Malinda Lo – Lily is a queer Chinese American teen living in San Francisco’s Chinatown in the 1950’s. Lily and white classmate Kathleen cautiously move toward facing, examining and understanding the feelings they have for each other. After visiting The Telegraph Club with Kathleen, Lily connects with women who aren’t afraid to express themselves and their queerness and is inspired to face the challenges of living her truth. Read a longer review here.

THRILLERS

Time Will Tell by Barry Lyga – Liam, Elayah, Jorja, and Marcie dig up a time capsule that was buried in 1986 and find evidence their parents may have committed a murder.  Going back and forth in time, the narrative unwinds the story as the parents lived it in 1986, while tracking the current-day the teens’ hunt for answers. Themes of racism, homophobia and privilege are central to this compelling, powerful thriller. 

White Smoke by Tiffany D. Jackson – The story revolves around Marigold, a teen with a troubled past who’s part of an interracial blended family that’s struggling to come together. The narrative takes the “family moves to a creepy house in new town” trope in a new direction. Frightening things are happening both in her house and in the community, and Mari feels targeted. The shocking resolution to this chilling story will stay with you long after you’re done reading.

This Poison Heart by Kalynn Bayron – Briseis and her adoptive mothers run a flower shop in Brooklyn where she demonstrates a special gift for growing and reviving plants. When she moves to the town where her late birth mother lived, she learns she inherited this trait. As she learns more about the true extent of her abilities she slowly discovers she’s in danger from those who seem to know more about her gifts than she does. Read a longer review here.