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.

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.

🎉🎉 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.

 

This Poison Heart

poison heartBriseis and her adoptive mothers run a flower shop in Brooklyn where she demonstrates a special a gift with plants. When in her presence, drooping plants perk up, dying plants get healthy again and, when she focuses, Briseis is able to grow an entire plant from just a leaf or seed. Neither she nor her moms understand this ability, but they accept it.

Briseis’s birth mother Selene, who died when Briseis was very young, had a sister, Circe, who no one knew about. The family gets the unexpected news that Circe just died and passed on 40 acres of land in Rhinebeck, upstate NY to Briseis. Briseis and her moms take the plunge and move there.

It seems everyone in town knew Briseis’s late mother and aunt. Briseis discovers that her gifts with plants is a family trait. Selene and Circe ran an apothecary, sourcing plants from their expansive gardens and greenhouses to provide locals with natural medicines. Now the locals expect Briseis to follow in Selene and Circe’s footsteps. As Briseis unravels the mysteries surrounding her new home and her abilities, she learns there is far more to her heritage than she ever imagined. 

Briseis finds messages from her aunt that lead her to a hidden section of the garden, filled with powerful, deadly plants. Though Briseis is immune to them, she is not immune to the danger she faces from people who would stop at nothing to get to them.

This story is inventive and clever, weaving Greek mythology and deadly botany into a tale about family secrets, deceit and power. BIPOC and queer representation is centered in the story. The emerging romance between Briseis and  Marie, a local who seems to know more about Briseis’s family than anyone, enhances rather than distracts from the plot. The narrative twists and turns add even more drama and suspense. The author, Kaylynn Bayron, (who also wrote the extraordinary “Cinderella is Dead”) has created another fascinating world and a moving story that does not disappoint.

Find This Poison Heart at your local bookstore.

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!

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.

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.

The Banks

thebanksRoxane Gay, essayist and author of Hunger, Bad Feminist, and Difficult Women, has also written comics. She started with World of Wakanda, a Black Panther spinoff, and recently returned to comic writing with The Banks. This is the story of three generations of African American women holding down the family business.  Matriarch Clara Banks and her daughter Cora are the best thieves in Chicago. Granddaughter Celia angrily rejects the family’s criminal enterprise and goes into investment banking. Celia is a spoiled diva but she’s smart. An infuriating incident at her firm makes her realize her mother and grandmother’s skills are exactly what she needs to set things right. Although Gay’s narrative has all of the best elements of a heist story – a complex plan, threats arising from an old grudge, detectives closing in on them, surprising twists and lots of tension – the family dynamics are what set it apart. The intergenerational bickering among the three hard-headed women adds humor and gives a fresh spin to a familiar plot. Artist Ming Doyle’s bold, realistic style is just right for this story. She uses an expansive palette to bring the characters to life and illuminate the many changes in time, place and mood. With equal parts competitiveness, cooperation and grudging respect, the three women come together and do what they do best.

Find The Banks at your local comic book store.