Recent Teen Reading: My Lady Jane, Summer of Salt, On the Come Up

My Lady Jane by Cynthia Hand, Brodi Ashton, and Jodi Meadows. Read by Katherine KellgrenMy Lady Jane by Cynthia Hand, Brodi Ashton, and Jodi Meadows. Read by Katherine Kellgren.  HarperCollins, 2016.
Many people whose taste I trust said they enjoyed this book, plus it’s narrated by one of the best narrators ever, Katherine Kellgren, and set in Tudor England – kind of.  This is an alternate England, with conflicts between Eðians, who turn into animals, and Verities, who think this is wickedness itself. Edward is king, and dying. At the request of his advisor, Lord Dudley, he orders his best friend and cousin Jane to marry Dudley’s son, Gifford Dudley, who prefers to be called G.  G has a secret – a rather large one. It took a little bit to take off, but was great fun once it did, filled with snarkiness and quotes from Monty Python and the Quest for the Holy Grail, the Princess Bride, Shakespeare, and more.  There were some historical inaccuracies that bothered me, such as blackberries being available year-round and a running joke about characters hunting for “pants” in an era when hose and slops with stockings would have been worn instead – but I could tell that accuracy wasn’t the goal here. Jane and G have a delightfully slow-building romance, while Edward’s sister Bess and Mary are wonderfully awesome and treacherous, respectively. Katherine Kellgren was just as amazing as I expected, though I am still sad that she is no longer around.  

summerofsaltSummer of Salt by Katrina Leno. Harper Teen, 2018.
This was a Cybils finalist in the young adult speculative fiction category, and also recommended by Charlotte at Charlotte’s Library.  Spoiler/trigger alert: sexual assault. Georgina Fernweh and her sister Mary are almost 18, living on the tiny island of By-the-Sea.  Its economy is sustained by the annual influx of tourists coming to look for Annabella’s bird, a distant Fernweh ancestor if the old stories are true.  It’s the last summer before college. Mary (who can float) has dated almost every boy on the island. Georgina, our POV character, is still waiting for her own power to show up, and has had much less dating success (it’s harder to find girls to date with such a small population), though she does develop a crush on cute tourist Prue.  But something is happening to Mary, and Georgina can’t quite figure out what it is. Colorful characters populate this story, told in dreamy language punctuated by realistic teen cursing. It’s a hard look at toxic masculinity set against the magic of women working together. So beautiful. The dreamy magic paired with horribly real issues is reminding of Fran Wilde’s new book, Riverland (review to come.) 

onthecomeupOn the Come Up by Angie Thomas. Narrated by Bahni Turpin. Balzer + Bray, 2019.
Like the rest of the world, I loved The Hate U Give, so of course I had to read Angie Thomas’s second book.  But as Maureen at By Singing Light said, I am a Nice White Lady without a lot of direct personal experiences relating to the book. On the Come Up is set in the same neighborhood of Garden Heights.  Our heroine, Bri, wants to be a rap star like her father, who was murdered when she was very young.  Now her mother and older brother, Trey, struggle to keep the family afloat. Even though they both tell her to focus on getting to college, Bri feels that the system is rigged against young black people like her and that making it as a rap star would offer her family a better chance of success.  Family bonds are tested by the pressures of the gangs around them, and life at a majority white public school that wants its minority students to conform rather than trying to make them comfortable. This book was really difficult for me to listen to, as Bri’s impulsive nature led her to make choices that had me saying, “Oh, honey! Listen to your mama!” even as I knew that she wouldn’t and couldn’t while staying to true to herself.  Her lyrics and struggles were real, and the tough scenes balanced with ones filled humor, affection, or a bit of romance. Bahni Turpin is an extremely talented narrator, bringing all the characters here to life. Another great book, and one that will be easy to sell to teens.

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Sal and Gabi Break the Universe by Carlos Hernandez

Sal and Gabi Break the Universe by Carlos HernandezSal and Gabi Break the Universe by Carlos Hernandez. Rick Riordan Presents/Disney Hyperion, 2019.
The story starts with the raw chicken in the locker.  Sal put it there, to get bully Yasmany off his case in hopes of making it through the hallways with his diabetes gear intact.  

They both end up in the office.  Sal is talking the principal out of being mad at him when a girl with curly hair and barrettes with personality of their own shows up, claiming to be Yasmany’s lawyer.  She’s Gabi, and even though they’re on opposite sides of this particular conflict, Sal figures out pretty quickly that she’s a good person to have on his side.

Sal has problems beyond Yasmany, including just having moved to Florida and starting at a new school that doesn’t have experience dealing with a kid with Type 1 Diabetes.  But Sal, his Papi and American Stepmom moved to Florida because of Sal’s difficulties accidentally pulling things and people through from other dimensions. Sal’s trained himself to be really good at traditional magic tricks, but sometimes slips up with the things from other dimensions (the chicken in the locker, though? that was deliberate.)  

This is from the new Rick Riordan Presents imprint, but doesn’t follow the formula.  I kept waiting for Sal and Gabi’s problems to get to the epic scale of a classic Rick Riordan, but it never does.  Somehow, this really worked for me. We have two kids full of personality, lots of delicious Cuban food, an impossible climbing wall in the school gym, and problems that include a dead mother on Sal’s side and a baby brother in intensive care on Gabi’s.  I think it was this more personal focus that kept the story working so well for me, despite the fast pace.

I really, really enjoyed this book.  Even though I read it in print, Sal’s voice was so strong, talking so quickly and full of enthusiasm.  There are some very sad events, but they were balanced by plenty of humor, friendship, and strong family love, both in Sal’s family, and Gabi’s (which included her mom and a whole lot of dads.)  Sometimes the dialogue drifts into Spanish for a bit, sometimes translated, sometimes not- I was mostly able to follow along with my very limited Spanish, though I looked up the occasional phrase – one that charmed me was “buena y sana y brinca la rana,” which my mother and I translated (roughly) to “safe and sound and the frog jumps around.”  

As I said, I passed this on to my mother, who loved it enough to write a thank-you note to the author.  She said it had her in carcajadas (another sign that my mother’s Spanish is much better than mine.) as well as telling him that she would tell me to write a review. (This was not really necessary.)  This funny and heartfelt story is recommended to a broad range of readers.

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New Kid by Jerry Craft

I first saw Jerry Craft’s work illustrating the massively underappreciated Zero Degree Zombie Zone. Now he’s come out with his own graphic novel, which is receiving a lot of very deserved attention.  

newkidNew Kid by Jerry Craft. HarperCollins Childrens, 2019.

Jordan Banks is just starting middle school at the prestigious, private Riverdale Academy Day School. He wanted to go to art school, but his mother is convinced that this school will give him the best possible start in life, even though there are very few other students of color.  Those are the kids he first looks to for new friends, and sitting with them at lunch lets him observe how they are treated in general.

There are multiple microaggressions towards the students and teachers of color, such as the white boy who assumes that Ramon’s mom can make the best tacos, when he’s Nicaraguan and multiple white people not able to tell Black people – kids or adults – apart. The worst is a well-meaning white teacher who can’t remember Black kids’ names and think they’ll all be troublemakers like the one kid she had two years ago, confusing DeAndre and Drew.  

At the same time, Jordan also has to work past his assumptions that other Black kids are the ones he’ll have most in common with.  There’s also a nice plot line involving Alexandra, a shy white girl who always has a sock puppet on one hand that she uses to talk for her.  Unsurprisingly, this makes it very hard for her to make friends. On the humorous side, there’s also a plot line involving the pink or “salmon” colored clothes that are – inexplicably to Jordan – popular among the boys at school.

The art here is top-notch – not just a pleasant accompaniment to the text, but conveying a lot of information.  Every chapter starts off with a clever remake of a movie poster now starring Jordan and his friends – “Upper, Upper West Side Story” , “Jordan Banks: the Non-Winter Soldier”, “The Socky Horror Picture Show”.  Some pages are pulled from Jordan’s own sketchbook, including a hilarious spread of zombie kids from different neighborhoods all headed to their respective schools.

In the main art, there’s an evocative scene where Jordan is trying to connect with fellow Black student Maury – first little Black angels appear over Jordan’s shoulders, only to fall away as the background turns black and Jordan and Maury are depicted on separate planets, completely failing to connect.  I also really appreciated scenes from Jordan’s bus ride across multiple neighborhoods and the changes he has to make to his appearance and activity to fit in through all of them, starting off with hoodie up, sunglasses and earbuds in place and ending with hood down, accessories off, working on math homework.  

I’ve focused a lot here on Jordan’s difficulties specifically as a Black student in a mostly white school.  But there’s a lot of universal appeal here, as well – middle school is a tough time for everyone – and the humor is spot-on.  My daughter read this book through daily for a couple of weeks, and even started to write a review of it to post here. I was interested to note that Jordan’s problems with prejudice didn’t feature in her review at all.  She also didn’t know any of the original movies that the chapter headers are based on. Though I’m guessing she’ll get even more out of this as she gets older, this book gets very high marks from her.  It would pair well with All’s Faire in Middle School or be a nice step up for notebook novel readers.  

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3 Fantastic Graphic Novels for Kids

Here are three recent fantasy and science fiction graphic novels for kids

Aquicorn Cove by Katie O’NeillAquicorn Cove by Katie O’Neill. Oni Press, 2018.
I’m really fond of Katie O’Neill’s beautiful art style paired with woman- and queer-power storylines and couldn’t resist getting this one for my daughter for Christmas.  In this story, young Lana is visiting the tiny island fishing village where her aunt lives and where her mother died. Ever-worsening storms are threatening the village, though.  It’s up to Lana and the magical aquicorns she meets to help find a new balance. As usual with O’Neill, the story itself is short but heartfelt, and paired with stunning art. An author’s note explains more about current threats to the ocean and how they affect both humans and ocean life.  

Sanity & Tallulah by Molly BrooksSanity & Tallulah by Molly Brooks. Disney-Hyperion, 2018.
Two kids living on a space station have to save it in this fun science fiction story.  Sanity is the inventor, and Tallulah her slightly crazy but loyal friend. Sanity has done some definitely against the rules experimentation to create an adorable three-headed kitten, Princess Sparkle, Destroyer of Worlds.  When it escapes and things start to break on the ship, it’s up to the girls to find the kitten before the angry adults do. But on the way, they find that things are much worse than they originally thought. There are some side plots with other characters, but the main focus here is on the two girls and their awesomeness as well as mistakes.  The art is cheerful and straightforward and will appeal to fans of Raina Telgemeier or Ben Hatke. I’m still waiting for some graphic novels for Black girls by Black women or girls, but this is a fine and entertaining story that I will happily pass on to kids. The kids in school in space element here also reminded me of the Astronaut Academy books by Dave Roman. 

The Hidden Witch by Molly Knox OstertagThe Hidden Witch by Molly Knox Ostertag. Graphix/Scholastic 2018.
The story from Cybils-award winning Witch Boy continues here.  Aster won the right to get witch lessons with his female cousins, but it’s hard when the aunts who teach it clearly don’t want him there.  Meanwhile, his best friend Charlie meets a new girl at school, Ariel, a foster child who is convinced that she can’t make friends and who has grown bitter from all the rejections she’s faced, making this as much Charlie’s story as Aster’s.  Then, Aster’s grandmother asks him to work with his great-uncle Mikasi, who’s been stuck in dragon form for decades. That will require a lot of courage on Aster’s part. The book has themes of secrets, and the power of stored and amplified negativity to hurt, versus that of friendship to heal.  The art includes some very creepy depictions of misused magic, as well as a stunning spread in which melting candle wax holds scenes from the past. My daughter reread this many times before we could take it back to the library.

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The First 10 Books I reviewed for Top Ten Tuesday

It’s Tuesday!  Posting without pictures in the interests of getting this up.

Top Ten Tuesday is hosted by Jana at That Artsy Reader Girl. 

Top Ten Tuesday from

Here are the first 12 books I reviewed on my blog, all the way back in February and March of 2004. I started off reviewing multiple books every post, with much shorter reviews, so these were my first four posts.  

Sunshine by Robin McKinleyI started off strong with a trio of fantasy books by authors I’m still a fan of:

Then I wanted a baby.  I bought and have since given away all of these books:

I still think fondly of Pirates! and remember that one of my good friends went to college with Suzan-Lori Parks, though I’ve not read anything else of hers:  


I have no memory at all of these first two books. I still dream of reading more of the Elizabeth Peters books, though – I read the first several and enjoyed them lots.  

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Queer as a Five Dollar Bill

I’d heard of Lee Wind’s blog, I’m Here, I’m Queer, What the Hell Do I Read before, but it took me a little bit to put this together with the nice guy I was chatting with at KidLitCon.  He told me a story about his publishing experience – how he’d written both a novel and a nonfiction book about the evidence he’d found that Abraham Lincoln was in love with another man.  The nonfiction book was scheduled to be published with a mainstream publisher, but was cancelled in 2016 because of the political climate. He self-published the novel, which I bought at KidLitCon (though my library also has it.)

Queer as a Five-Dollar Bill by Lee WindQueer as a Five Dollar Bill by Lee Wind. I’m Here, I’m Queer, What the Hell do I Read?, 2018.
As the book opens, Wyatt is up before school, aging copies of the Emancipation Proclamation to sell in the gift shop of his family’s Civil War-themed B&B, Lincoln Slept Here, in Lincolnville, Oregon.  He’s a target at school – even though he has decoy pictures of swimsuit models in his locker and hasn’t told even his best friend that he’s Gay. When she kisses him at school to save him from the major aggressor, Jonathan, she’s sure it’s the start of something real and he is just miserable.  

Then, everyone is assigned to read a different book on Lincoln and start a blog, to be graded both on the content and the blog traffic.  Wyatt is given the book (it really exists) Joshua Fry Speed: Lincoln’s Most Intimate Friend, which contains letters between Lincoln and his best friend, letters that Wyatt is sure prove that Lincoln and Speed were in love.  Believing that someone as important and beloved as Lincoln could have been Gay is transformative for Wyatt. He writes his first blog post about it, still trying to look straight himself.  

But he didn’t predict the backlash in the town that relies on Lincoln tourism.  Everything that he hoped would be solved gets much, much worse, putting him in worse danger at school and both his parents’ incomes on the line.  When he reaches out for legal help, it comes along with Martin, a very cute boy who posts his own Gay songs online. But does Wyatt like him for himself, or just because he’s the first openly Gay boy his age he’s met? 

The traditional narrative here is interrupted with related bits of information – Wyatt’s video and blog posts for school, signs for the Lincolnville parade, transcripts of the radio and TV shows he ends up on, as well as polls, blog stats, and way his story is spreading. I’ll also note, for adults looking for books for teen, that there isn’t any content here that would be inappropriate for middle schoolers – though sexual orientation is a big issue, sexual activity is limited to a single kiss on the lips.  

This is a really solid book with well-drawn characters.  I was really rooting for Wyatt as he struggled with everything on his plate – much more than issues of whether or not to come out. As I read this, I was thinking about a post on Rachel Neumeier’s blog, referencing an article by Kelly Jenson on Book Riot – basically saying that if we consider YA a genre that adults read, we can take out many of the things that make the books work for actual teenagers.  Here, Wyatt does some pretty believably dumb teenage things, from deliberately shorting out his laptop to hide his browsing history to believing that his best friend would dump him if he came out. (I’m a little afraid here that those fears might have been justified.) I loved him all the more for it. Here’s hoping this book finds the wide audience it deserves.

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Rainy Day Reads for Top Ten Tuesday

Top Ten Tuesday from

Once again, the Top 10 Tuesday topic intrigued me enough to make me ignore the pages of notes on books I’ve read waiting to be written up.  I’d been putting together a list over the course of a couple weeks. Then I read Brandy’s post, and decided to interpret this as books I would read if I didn’t have my massive pile of library books with their ever-looming due dates.  I restructured it into two parts – the first, beloved books for rereading, and the second, books from what amounts to my home TBR pile.  Thanks again to Jana at That Artsy Reader Girl for hosting Top Ten Tuesday, and to Shayna @ Clockwork Bibliotheca for coming up with this particular topic. 

Beloved Re-Reads

  • Kat, Incorrigible or The Dragon with the Chocolate Heart  by Stephanie Burgis
  • Where the Mountain Meets the Moon series by Grace Lin

  • The Merlin Conspiracy by Diana Wynne Jones
  • Beauty or Rose Daughter or Chalice  by Robin McKinley
  • The Scorpio Races or others by Maggie StiefvaterBrown Girl Dreaming
  • Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson

Books I Own and Haven’t Read

The Agency: A Spy in the House

  • The Agency series by Y.S. Lee – rescued from the library discard pile, though I read the first one when it came out.squirrelgirl1
  • The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl series by Ryan North and Erica Henderson – another series my love frequently gets friends hooked on that I haven’t read myself.  Don’t judge me!daughteroftheforest
  • Sevenwaters Series by Juliet Marillier – I rescued these from the library discard shelf and still need to get around to reading them.runawayspride&joy.jpg
  • Runaways series by Brian K. Vaughan and Adrian Alphona – my love and son both really enjoy these, but I haven’t yet gotten around to reading them.  Yes, it has been over a decade. exit strategy.jpg
  • Exit Strategy by Martha Wells.  I got this for my son for Christmas, partly so I could read it too, but it’s now vanished into the depths of his room.  I may have to borrow it from the library after all. (I also have an older paperback of hers from a friend, but I don’t remember the title.)

What are your rainy day books?

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Undead Girl Gang by Lily Anderson

I suddenly realized that though I always have an audio book going and get through quite a lot of them, I haven’t been reviewing them.  Here, have an audio book!

Undead Girl Gang by Lily AndersoUndead Girl Gang by Lily Anderson. Narrated by Rebecca Soler. Listening Library, 2018.

Mila Flores never felt like she needed any friends besides her BFF, Riley.  Mila dressed in combat boots and unabashedly called herself fat, while Riley called out anyone at their high school who was disrespectful of their Wiccan beliefs.  (I didn’t check about whether the author considers herself Wiccan, but both author and narrator are Latinx, as is Mila.) Mila herself might not have been a truly devout Wiccan so much as disenchanted with the Christianity the conservative town espouses. Then Riley is found drowned in the creek just days two of the meanest girls at school, June Phelan-Park and Dayton Nesseth, were found hanged in the park.  Her family urges her to accept the police’s ruling of suicide – but Mila can’t. She’s sure they were all murdered, and wants to find the murderer before he strikes again. When an ancient grimoire with a spell for resurrecting the wrongfully dead appears at Mila and Riley’s hideout, she knows she has to try it, whatever the cost,even as the aging hippie owner of the town occult store, Lucky 13, warns her against it.  She’s shocked when she raises not just Riley but June and Dayton as well – and none of them can remember their deaths. Even worse for Mila, it seems like they’d rather just hang out and enjoy their extra few days of life while the spell lasts than try to figure it out. Can Mila convince them to help her in time?

Rebecca Soler has always been a solid narrator (she also did Marissa Meyer’s Lunar Chronicles), and here she does quite well with various teen voices, including Mila’s attempts at the Spanish she should know but isn’t really comfortable with. It did take a little while for this to gel into the girl gang the title promised.  But I loved Mila, so unshakable in her belief that her best friend wouldn’t have left her like that deliberately that she’s willing to put everything else in her life on the line to figure it out.  Her Wicca felt a lot like the Wicca of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, a little bit of genuine Wicca blended with storybook magic for better, well, story-telling.  I loved when someone accused her of being a bruja, and she said that the brujería had been stamped out of her family generations ago – she was a straight-up New Age witch. (Not an exact quotation, as I was listening while driving.)   Though I often chafe at revenge stories, this had enough learning more about classmates she’d made assumptions about that there was a lot of self-discovery, along with the ever-present snarky humor, to balance it out.  It also had a nice twist that I did not see coming.  This is a lot of fun, with deeper themes of looking beyond the personas we all present to the world and the deep wounds of patriarchy.  

Other teen books that have reminded me of Buffy include Rampant by Diana Peterfreund, Hex Hall by Rachel Hawkins, The Demon Catchers of Milan by Kat Beyer, and The Rest of Us Just Live Here by Patrick Ness.

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Pride by Ibi Zoboi

This was on my want-to-read list from the time it first came out, but it was Maureen at By Singing Light posting about it that finally pushed me into actually reading it.

pridePride by Ibi Zoboi. Balzer + Bray/Harper Collins, 2018.

“It’s a truth universally acknowledged that when rich people move into the hood, where it’s a little bit broken and a little bit forgotten, the first thing they want to do is clean it up… What those rich people don’t always know is that broken and forgotten neighborhoods were first build out of love.”

Zuri Benitez is proud of her Afro-Latinix heritage and her neighborhood, the Bushwick area of Brooklyn.  Her family is just getting ready to welcome the oldest sister, Janae, the heart of the family, back from her first year at Syracuse University.  But as she’s arriving, a new family is moving in across the street. They’ve remodeled an old house into a mini-mansion – something Zuri distrusts to start with.  When she and Janae meet the two handsome brothers, Ainsley and Darius, that are moving in, both sisters have instant reactions. Janae is attracted to Ainsley, while Zuri feels a deep distrust, especially for Darius, whose skin may be as dark as hers, but whose manners and dress just don’t fit in.

This says on the cover that it’s a Pride and Prejudice remix, and it is.  The major characters are all here, including younger sisters Marisol and twins Layla and Kayla, as well as Zuri’s best friend and a romantic rival.  Mrs. Benitez is notably a much more sympathetic character than Mrs. Bennett in the original, doing her best with a family of seven in a tiny apartment, and famous for feeding the neighborhood with her excellent cooking.  And just as Vodoun played an important role in Zoboi’s American Street, an apartment neighbor, Madrina, follows the traditional religion and leads ceremonies in the basement, a spiritual practice that is key to Zuri’s character arc.  

But while this starts with Pride and Prejudice, Pride goes beyond to look at the roles of class and money and the social forces in modern America, backed by strong and sympathetic characters.  I am in awe of Zoboi’s skill following the plot and the basic characters from the original so closely, while making them authentic characters of today, with very modern concerns and deep love for the neighborhood and the people who live there.  Sometimes, there are books that work so well that I just don’t feel like I’m able to do them justice with my reviews, and this was one of those cases.  Just go read it if you haven’t, and share your thoughts if you have.  

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KidLitCon 2019 – Saturday


This is part two of my notes on KidLitCon 2019 in Providence.  You can take a look at my notes on Friday if you missed them.  There were so many good sessions and I really wished I could have gone to them all!

Keynote – Varian Johnson – If It Were Easy, Everyone Would Do It


Varian Johnson at KidLitCon 2019

Varian Johnson is the award-winning author of many books for kids and teens.  I’ve read the four most recent, including last year’s Coretta Scott King honor book, The Parker Inheritance. He was coming straight off another trip and getting sick, but did his best anyway, giving writing tips based on his career, as well as sharing his social media philosophy.  This boils down to “You don’t always have to share your opinion.  Think about who you might be silencing.”  Other gems include

  • Give yourself a chance
  • Do the work
  • Set a schedule
  • Show up even when the muse doesn’t
  • Have a support group
  • Find the thing that ignites your passion

Continue reading

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