After the Fire by Will Hill

after the fireMoonbeam had a hard time adjusting to life on the outside. Ever since she was a small child, she lived inside the fence of Holy Church of the Lord’s Legion and was brainwashed to believe that everyone outside the fence was an agent of The Serpent. Even after she was freed from living in the cult’s compound, though, she could still hear the cult’s leader [Father John] speaking to her, in her mind, any time she felt uncertain about what she should say or do. Though she wanted to believe that the psychologists truly wanted to help her and her “brothers and sisters,” she had a very hard time convincing herself to let go of her long-held suspicions and to trust anyone outside of the cult. To make matters worse, Moonbeam found it particularly difficult to trust anyone in a position of authority since she believed that she held at least some of the blame for the fire.

I really appreciated the way the story alternated between “before the fire” and “after the fire” so that readers could become slowly acclimated to Moonbeam’s story rather than being overwhelmed with everything at once. Especially since that was the way the cult gained people’s trust and took away their freedoms — gradually. The most incredible thing about reading this story was knowing that it was inspired by the true story of the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, TX. Readers who found this book interesting and want to read more YA fiction about teens growing up in religious cults should check out The Chosen One and Sister Wife.

Happy Reading!

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Miles Morales by Jason Reynolds

Miles MoralesMy family is definitely geeky by most people’s standards. Anytime there is a new “comic book movie” in the theaters, you can practically guarantee we will be there opening weekend — if not opening night. We have been anxiously awaiting the release of Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, and I was really excited to see that there is a Miles Morales novel for teens who might not yet be familiar with his character. I was even more thrilled to see that Jason Reynolds was the author who took on this project. My husband asked me why I thought it was so important to have a notable YA author write a book about Spider-Man, since Spider-Man is a pretty popular character in his own right. And it was kind of hard for me to explain at first; I couldn’t quite put my finger on it… But then I realized what it was. Some teens think that comic books are only for the truly geeky people of the world and might have otherwise not even paid attention to this story.  Since Jason Reynolds is more known for his contemporary, urban YA fiction, though, I thought he might help attract some readers who wouldn’t ordinarily give this story a chance. And once those readers give this story a chance, they might find that they have more common ground with geeks than they previously realized.  I’m not sure many non-geeks realize quite how strong the social justice storylines of comic books are, but there are a lot of examples of superheroes standing up for equality.  This Superman comic is one of my favorite examples:

superman-all-american

With funny, relatable characters, Jason Reynolds does a fantastic job syncing Spider-Man into contemporary Urban ya fiction. I liked how Miles Morales was not even close to perfect — with his “wrong side of the tracks” family that has a history of trouble with the law, his trouble controlling his own temper, and even his awkwardness with girls — because it can help teens to see that they, too, can make a difference. You don’t have to be a superhero to stand up for yourself and to help people.  And that is especially evident in the fact that Miles’ best friend, Ganke, often needs to give Miles a pep talk when he is feeling particularly defeated! I think that fans of Spider-Man/Miles Morales will be pleased with how this story turned out, and I can only hope that the Miles Morales comics will gain a little more traction with the help of this novel and the upcoming movie.
Happy Reading!

The Tomb: A Novel by S. A. Bodeen

the tombKiva and Seth believed that they were growing up in ancient Alexandria, but it was pretty clear to me that something was off.  It just didn’t seem very authentic, and I didn’t think it was because Bodeen had been sloppy with her research.  As it turned out, I was right.  The details were “off” because the people who set up the virtual reality program for Alexandria had been a little lazy and didn’t bother making all of the details completely authentic.  As it turned out, Kiva and Seth were actually growing up on board a spaceship and their brains were experiencing life via virtual reality so that they could still learn while their bodies were sustained in torpor chambers.  I don’t really feel like I am giving away any spoilers, though, since this was all revealed fairly early on as Kiva was taken out of torpor and sent along with Seth on board a search vessel, called The Tomb, to try and get a part for their failing ship.

Fans of Across the Universe, Defy the Stars, These Broken Stars, and The 100 should definitely check this one out.  The main “problem” I had with this book, though, is that it has quite a cliff-hanger ending and seems to be the beginning of a series — but Goodreads doesn’t name it as part of a series!  I am hoping that’s just because it’s so new.

Happy Reading!

Refugee by Alan Gratz

refugeeWhat would you do if your home country was no longer safe?  If you were persecuted for your religion, if a lack of food in your country was causing violent riots, or if your neighborhood was being bombed?  If you had to take only what you could carry and try to escape to a place you had never even visited before?  If you had to risk death for the possibility of a better life?  The scenarios faced by our narrators varied because they grew up in vastly different times and places — Josef in Nazi Germany (1930s) , Isabel in Communist Cuba (1990s), and Mahmoud in modern-day Syria (2015) — but all three of these children became refugees when their families felt that escaping their homeland was the only tenable solution.

I think that books like this are extremely important, since they often provide a better perspective than news stories.  News stories about refugees tend to focus on the current situation, such as which countries might take them in, but not so much about how the situation escalated to the point that they sought refuge in the first place.  One of the moments that really struck me in this story was when Mahmoud’s family was talking about relocating to Germany.  Someone commented that it would be cold there and his father responded by singing, “Do You Want to Build a Snowman?”  The inclusion of a song from such a popular/recent movie as Frozen will surely help readers to recognize that refugees are not only people from some time “before.”  By humanizing these narrators and showing how they were normal kids up until they had to run for their lives.  I can only hope that this story will help to cultivate better empathy for the plight of refugees and the realization that “there but for the grace of God, go I.”

Happy Reading!

If I Was Your Girl by Meredith Russo

If I was your girlI agree with Meredith Russo when she says that Amanda’s story was simplified (since Amanda was overtly feminine, liked only boys, and decided to use both hormones and surgery to help her body to match her gender identity).  I also agree with Russo’s *reason* for simplifying Amanda’s story — to remove some of the barriers that might keep readers from understanding and empathizing with the struggles of a young trans girl.  Despite the fact that the story was more simplified than it could have been, nonetheless, I think it still has the potential to really open some people’s eyes to the more hidden struggles of trans youth.  How most trans youth grow up hating their bodies because they don’t match what their brains are telling them.  How they have to worry whether their friends and family will support or abandon them when they try to live as their authentic selves.  And, especially, how they have to worry about whether this sensitive information will be leaked to people who would make them a target of hatred and violence.  My heart was broken when Amanda’s dad tried to explain how hard it was for him to think about what could happen if the wrong people learned the truth.  But this book was not all heartache and pain.  There was also a good amount of love, both friendly and romantic.  Yeah.  This book had #AllTheFeels!

After the end of the audiobook, there is a note from the author that she reads herself.  Meredith Russo provides a plea for suicidal people to seek help.  She even provides hotline information for transgender- and GLBTQ-sensitive hotlines.  Since this story might be triggering to people who have felt suicidal, especially if they are a member of the GLBTQ community, I think this was a very important addition.  I also appreciated how Russo goes on to talk about how every person is entitled to his/her/their own choices in how to reflect (or not) their gender identity.  Every trans person is a valid trans person, whether they choose to have surgery or not.  To take hormones, or not.  Whether they are gay, straight, bisexual, or asexual.  There is no one “right” way to be trans, just as there is no one “right” way to be human at all.  Every person needs to be true to his/her/their identity and should feel safe enough to live life as his/her/their authentic self.  I hope that young trans people will find and read this book to know they are not alone… and I hope that young people who are not trans will find and read this book to better understand the struggles of the trans community and so they can become allies.

Happy Reading!

Being Jazz: My Life as a (Transgender) Teen by Jazz Jennings

Being JazzJazz Jennings has been in the public spotlight since she was interviewed by Barbara Walters — when she was only 6 years old.  At the time, her parents had asked that their real name not be used so that they could better protect their daughter from people who would be upset by the interview.  Why?  Because Jazz was transgender.  Though she was born with the anatomy of a boy, Jazz always knew she was *really* a girl.  When she was 5 years old, her parents helped her to transition to life as a girl.  And a year later, the famous interview with Barbara Walters took place.  In the 11 years since that interview, Jazz has continued her brave work as an activist for the LGBTQ community by accepting high-profile interviews and speaking engagements, maintaining a social media presence, and writing memoirs to help transgender youth feel less alone while educating people who don’t truly understand the struggles of transgender youth.

I thought this would be a particularly relevant book to review during #BannedBooksWeek because her children’s picture book, I Am Jazz, is listed as the 10th most challenged book of 2017.  I listened to the audiobook, which was narrated by Jazz herself, and I really enjoyed hearing Jazz tell her own story.  She spoke with such courage and fortitude about her battles with bullying and depression.  Though the picture book goes into much less detail than this YA memoir, many people are uncomfortable discussing gender identity with children.  Hopefully, the tenacity and bravery of transgender people like Jazz Jennings will help to open the dialogue necessary to create better understanding so that transgender youth will no longer feel so much sadness and confusion as they evaluate how they want to express their gender identity.

Happy Reading!

The Last Magician by Lisa Maxwell

the last magicianEsta is a talented thief and a powerful Mageus who, though she can travel through time, is stuck in New York City.  Why?  Because the Order, a group that despises Mageus, has manipulated magic to created something called the Brink.  Any Mageus who end up inside the Brink become stuck inside because crossing the Brink essentially drains their powers and kills them.  And because of this Brink, magic is dwindling and dying out.  But Esta is working on a way to take down the Brink.  All she needs to do is travel back in time to steal a particular magical book.  The problem, of course, is that she needs to get that book from 1902, when not only the Order but also powerful gangs and corrupt politicians hold quite a bit of power over the Mageus in New York City.  This book felt almost as if it were the marriage of Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them and Gangs of New York… Fantastic fun!  (I can’t wait until the second book in the series, The Devil’s Thief, is released in October.)

Happy Reading!