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.

 

Artie and the Wolf Moon

ArtieGet ready for a horror story with a heart.

Eighth grader Artemis “Artie” Irvin is one of the few Black people at her school. She gets picked on but doesn’t care. Artie immerses herself in her favorite activity, old school film photography, a hobby she picked up from her late father. She wants to go out at night and take pictures under the full moon, but her mother Loretta says no, worried about Artie’s safety. Of course, Artie sneaks out any way. She sees a wolf and runs home, terrified. The wolf ends up at Artie’s door – and transforms into her mother! Artie demands answers. Loretta explains that yes, she’s a werewolf. Being a werewolf is an inherited trait, but since Artie’s late father was human (making her bi-mammalian), Loretta isn’t sure if Artie will become one. Artie is excited about the idea that she could become an apex predator, but her mom warns her – werewolves are not the scariest things out there.

When Artie’s abilities do emerge she and her mother go to a nearby community of werewolves where Artie learns more about her heritage and how to manage her powers. Finally, she’s in a place where she fits in and is accepted. She even finds romance with Maya, a werewolf she meets there. Things get complicated and scary when Artie learns secrets about her family’s past and how vampires threaten not just the werewolf community, but Artie’s family in particular.

The narrative weaves deftly through time – from the origins of werewolves during slavery, to Artie’s parents’ courtship, to Artie’s coming of age in the werewolf community. Artie and Maya’s queer romance is sweet. The conflicts between werewolves and vampires are dramatic and scary. The art integrates with the story beautifully; color is used skillfully to set time, place, and ominous moods. The werewolves are all Black and the vampires are light skinned.

I enjoyed this graphic novel so much! The narrative and art successfully blend heritage, horror and love into a compelling story.

Find Artie and the Wolf Moon at your local bookstore or comic book shop.

 

Don’t Hate The Player

dont hate the playerDon’t Hate the Player is a fantastic read that explores the challenges a young woman of color faces when she enters the world of competitive videogaming while trying to keep the rest of her life on track.

Emilia Romero has her post-high school future planned with laser precision. She earns top grades, plays the right sports and participates in the right extracurriculars. She even dates the right boy, just to make the package complete. But all this serves as cover for her real passion – Emilia is an elite videogamer who plays for a championship e-sports team. In her game, Guardians League Online, she serves as the team’s DPS, responsible for damaging and killing the enemy. Going against the stereotype that female players should be healers, Emilia takes pride in being the destroyer. She has to keep this hidden; her family would see it as a distraction from her college goals and her friends would never understand. Things get dicey when Jake Hooper transfers to her high school. Emilia and Jake met as 4th graders at a videogame arcade at a mutual friend’s birthday party. They’d meet up at other parties over the years and game together but they never stayed in contact. Jake is the only person who knows both sides of Emilia’s life but he swears to keep her secret. That becomes tricky when Emilia’s team earns a space in a public, high stakes e-sports championship competition. Jake is now both her confidant and competitor, making things even more complicated.

This book is so much fun to read.

Emilia’s struggle to keep the demands of both parts of her life afloat is intriguing. Her relationship with Jake evolves into romance slowly and realistically. All of the teen characters are interesting and do more than just prop up Jake and Emilia’s storyline. Emilia and Jake’s parents are well fleshed out and bring more depth to the story. Overall, it’s a compelling (and funny!) exploration of relationships between friends, complicated romance, and complex family dynamics.

Jake is white, Emilia is Puerto Rican, and their teammates and friends are a mix of BIPOC, queer and trans folks. I appreciated the narrative’s direct confrontation of the harassment players with the latter identities face in the real world of online gaming. They are often the target of sexual and racial harassment, rape threats, and other forms of abuse. The abuse sometimes even comes from their own teammates. Sadly Emilia finds this situation similar to what she experiences at her elite private school, where she has to be “unassailably great” just to be in the same room with mediocre males.

The videogame sequences are fun and exciting. The outstanding descriptions of the in-game action are detailed, cinematic and engaging; they’re enjoyable regardless of your own level of involvement with videogames. Don’t be surprised if you become inspired to pick up a game controller yourself!

Find Don’t Hate the Player at your local independent bookstore.

 

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.

Exploring Culture in Kids’ Comics

I recently had the opportunity to moderate a panel with three amazing graphic novel creators as part of San Diego Comic-Con’s Education Series. Each creator tells their story through the lens of their culture. Rumi Hara created  “Nori” which details the adventures of a mischievous, imaginative 4 year old living near Osaka, Japan. Jose Pimienta‘s “Suncatcher,” set in Mexicali, Mexico, is a  “devil at the crossroads” tale of a girl trying to pay a mystical debt and rescue her grandfather’s soul. In “Displacement” by Kiku Hughes a teen travels through time and memory to witness both her grandmother’s life as a Japanese American incarcerated during World War Two and the resulting intergenerational impact.

All three creators were fascinating and entertaining, as are each of their books!  Here’s the video of  our talk. I hope you enjoy it – then go read their books!

Find Nori, Suncatcher and Displacement at your local bookstore or comic shop.

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.

 

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.