Category Archives: award winners

The 57 Bus: A True Story of Two Teenagers and the Crime That Changed Their Lives by Dashka Slater

the 57 busBetween the fact that it is #PrideMonth and the fact that the #BlackLivesMatter movement is shining a light on the racial disparities of the US criminal justice system, I almost felt like it was kismet that I listened to this audiobook this week.  I had added this book to my TBR list so long ago that I honestly forgot what it was about and simply knew it was something about two teenagers who crossed paths on a bus one day.  Yeah…  It was way bigger than that!

Sasha (they/them/their) was a white teen who attended a small private school where their “genderqueer” identity was simply accepted and taken in stride.  The fact that they preferred to wear skirts was not really a big deal to anyone in their family or their circle of friends.  Richard (he/him/his) was a black teen who attended a large public school and, though he wanted to turn around his life and graduate from high school, still hung out with people who made poor choices (like stealing and fighting).  On the day that Sasha and Richard crossed paths, while riding the 57 bus home from their respective schools, Richard made a stupid and impulsive decision.  Egged on by friends, and not knowing how incredibly flammable Sasha’s skirt would actually be, Richard flicked a lighter and held it to Sasha’s skirt.  He thought it would be funny to see the shock and confusion of that “guy in a skirt” waking up to see their skirt had caught fire.  He assumed Sasha would wake up moments after he flicked the lighter, pat out the fire, and that would be that.  In reality, though, Sasha’s skirt enveloped them in flames and caused severe burns to their legs, and Richard was left facing the possibility of life in prison if he was tried as an adult for this “hate crime.”

The story alternates between Sasha’s and Richard’s sides of the story and presents both factual information about the case and the emotional rollercoaster that they and their families experienced.  Not only did this story provide information about this specific case, but it also provided a great deal of background information about the GLBTQ community and the US criminal justice system.  The author presented a primer on GLBTQ terminology people may not necessarily know (along with a disclaimer that terminology often changes and that people should respect the terminology used by individuals when they describe themselves) and included an abbreviated timeline of issues affecting GLBTQ people, particularly those who are transgender or agender.  I really appreciated how the author focused on the vast disparities between the sentences and future outcomes of white juvenile offenders and black juvenile offenders in America from the 1980s through today.  Unless we recognize the inequality within our criminal justice system, we cannot work to change it.

Long story short, this book gives me hope.  Hope that we can move forward to be more accepting of people whose identities do not match our own and that our criminal justic system *can* be fixed if people continue to insist on reform.  The most remarkable thing about this story, in my opinion, is how Sasha and their parents not only forgave Richard for his incredibly stupid mistake but also fought for him to be tried as a juvenile.  That right there says it all.  By responding with forgiveness instead of hate, and working to understand one another better, we can make this world a better place.

Happy Reading!

Frankly in Love by David Yoon

frankly in loveOMG, y’all…  If you have been looking for a book that will give you #AllTheFeels, you can stop looking!  Frankly in Love manages to be both hilarious and deeply touching as it deftly handles topics like coming of age, friendship, love, racism, and grief.  I can’t even tell you how many times I laughed out loud and then turned to my husband and made him stop what he was doing so that I could read him a funny passage aloud.  Though I don’t really share much with the main character, since I am a 40-year-old white woman whose parents were not immigrants, rather than an 18-year-old Korean-American guy who isn’t fluent in the same language as his parents, I still felt a strong connection to Frank on a human level.  Perhaps it’s because I was also an honor student and overachiever, though not quite at Frank’s level.  Perhaps it was Frank’s tendency to feel like he didn’t quite belong that spoke to me.  Or, perhaps, Yoon simply crafted a character who felt so real that my inner-teenager wanted to be his friend and the mama in me wanted to protect him as if he were my own high-school-aged son.  Even though I can’t put a finger on *why* this book was so amazing, I am more than prepared to give this title as a recommendation to anyone who will listen.

Happy Reading!

The Giver: Graphic Novel by Lois Lowry, adapted/illustrated by P. Craig Russell

The GiverI often credit one of my adjunct professors from grad school, Joyce Laiosa, with helping me discover my love for YA books.  Every book on her syllabus was carefully chosen to represent its genre so that we would have an appreciation for the depth and breadth of YA Literature.   In fact, I routinely tell people that I consider Joyce to be my Fairy Godmother in Libraryland because she is also the person who first got me involved with the Youth Services Section (YSS) of the NY Library Association (NYLA).  And though she has technically retired from librarianship, Joyce remains active in YSS/NYLA (and ALA), and I do my best to attend all of the webinars and local workshops she teaches because I want to soak up everything she has to share. I am definitely more of a novel reader, but I appreciate the need to be aware of graphic novels and do my best to stay aware of popular titles and publishing trends, so I recently attended Joyce’s continuing education workshop about graphic novels.  I am so grateful for the extensive list of graphic novels she provided and will do my best to work my way through that list over the next year.  I am happy to report that this graphic novel, the first I chose from her list,  was simply amazing.

Not only did the artist, P. Craig Russell, do a wonderful job of staying true to the original story, but his artwork was absolutely stunning.  There is a note at the end of the book that explains the very conscious choices he made with regard to color palette and style, and I think these choices, though seemingly subtle, made a huge impact on his telling of the story.  The way that he gradually introduced colors, for example, was a great visual representation of the way that Jonah’s perception changed as a result of receiving memories.  This was a fantastic way to revisit the story, and I think it is so well fleshed out that readers who haven’t read the novel will still be able to immerse themselves in the story without missing anything Lois Lowry intended.

Happy Reading!

The Fountains of Silence by Ruta Sepetys

fountains of silenceAlthough this book was only published about a month ago, it has already received a Listening Library Earphone Award for the full cast audio recording.  And I am going to assume that there are all sort of awards that just haven’t been given yet, because Sepetys has received over 40 awards for her other books, like Between Shades of Gray and Salt to the Sea.  Set in Madrid in 1957, this books tells the true story of Spain under the fascist dictatorship of General Francisco Franco. After the Spanish Civil War, many Spainiards were living in both poverty and fear, especially those whose family members had been outed as Republicans, aka Reds.  The American tourists either turned a blind eye or simply didn’t even notice the disparity between their lavish lifestyle, full of parties and shopping sprees, and the abject poverty and subsistence living of the locals.

Daniel Matheson traveled to Spain with his parents; his father, who was a Texas oil tycoon hoping to make a deal with Franco, and his mother, who had grown up in Spain and wanted to visit her home country. Daniel, a photographer and aspiring photojournalist, hoped he might use this opportunity to get some photos that could help with a contest entry. Though his mother supported his love of photography, his father refused to pay for journalism school and insisted that he go to business school instead.  If he won this contest, though, he could win enough money to attend j school without his father’s help. Little did Daniel know the opportunities he would find…

Once again, Sepetys has taken a time and place in history that oft goes neglected in US history classes and written a novel that will stick with readers far better than any simple lesson. Interspersed with vintage media reports, oral history commentary, photos, and more, this book is sure to both educate and entertain.

Happy Reading!

The Unwanted: Stories of the Syrian Refugees by Don Brown

36912588For many people, the realities faced by Syrian refugees are practically beyond comprehension.  It’s not easy to imagine the horror one would face if their neighborhood became a war zone.  It’s hard to imagine having to make a decision about whether to flee your home country when either choice (staying or going) could lead to major suffering and even death. I find that reading about the Syrian refugees is difficult because it requires my brain to translate the words into images that are hard to conjure… and therein lies the power of the graphic novel format for this story. Readers don’t have to try to imagine what a bombed out neighborhood would look like; we don’t have to try to imagine hoards of people attempting to cross unsafe waters in dangerously overcrowded rafts. We can see with our own eyes what it might look like to be in those harrowing situations. This graphic novel is to the Syrian refugee crisis what Maus was to the Jews living in ghettos and concentration camps during the Holocaust. I sincerely hope that a lot of schools will use this book in teaching current events so that young people can fully grasp the situation and better understand the motivations of and problems faced by the refugees who hope to resettle across Europe and in The United States of America.

Happy Reading!

The False Prince by Jennifer A. Nielsen

12432220[1]I hadn’t before heard of The Ascendance Trilogy, but I stumbled upon it doing an advanced search for YA audiobooks that were “available now” on OverDrive.  (Man, I love that search feature!)  As it turns out, I so enjoyed this book — and had so much yard work to do in recent days — that I managed to listen to the *entire trilogy* in under two weeks!  When an audiobook is filled with so much action and adventure, after all, it can be hard to shut off the story and return to real life.  😉

One of my favorite things about this series was that there were just so many mysteries to unravel.  There were layers upon layers of secrets and lies.  Just when I thought I finally had things figured out, there would be another twist and yet another secret revealed.  Looking back through what had happened, these secrets always made sense… but they were just so darn well hidden that it sometimes floored me to think the author got me YET AGAIN!  Aside from the action and mystery, I was also a big fan of Nielsen’s character development.  Even the secondary characters were so well developed that it felt almost as if they were new friends with whom I was becoming acquainted.  And whether it was a friendship, a romance, or a rivalry that was forming, the interactions between characters were very compelling.  Even better?  These tales of knights, kings, warring kingdoms, conspiracies, and deceit are perfectly suited for advanced middle grade and young YA readers.

Happy Reading!

 

Darius the Great Is Not Okay by Adib Khorram

darius-the-greatDarius might not be okay, but this book was fantastic!  Aside from Darius’ humor-filled blunt honesty, I loved that his story taught me so much about Iranian/Persian culture without being didactic.  I was particularly intrigued by the celebration of Nowruz  — the Iranian/Persian New Year — which just so happened to be this week.  I thought it was interesting that they visited and tended the graves of the dead, went on picnics, did “spoon banging” for treats, and jumped over fires/had fireworks on the holiday eve.  It was like Memorial Day, 4th of July, Halloween, and Dia de los Muertos all rolled into one!

Aside from the cultural education, I appreciated the way Khorram presented Darius’ depression so realistically. It is important for readers who don’t have depression to understand that there isn’t always a huge inciting event that triggers a depression.  A simple chemical imbalance can be all it takes for a person to retreat inside him/herself. And though taking medication for brain health should be no different than taking medication to assist any other organ, like using an inhaler for asthma, there is still a stigma surrounding mental health.

This book is so much more than a primer on Iranian/Persian culture and depression, though, so I would hate for people to walk away from my review with that impression.  Regardless of their heritage and mental health status, I think plenty of readers will be able to relate to Darius.  Some readers might relate to Darius on account of his geeky obsessions (most notably Star Trek and The Lord of the Rings). Others will surely see themselves in his struggle to find his place, both within his peer group and in his family.  There are also some very subtle hints about Darius questioning his sexual identity, but nothing overtly sexual, so I am not sure if it even warrants the GLBTQ category but am checking it off just to be thorough.  No matter the reason you choose to read this book, nevertheless, I have full confidence that Darius will teach you that it’s okay to not always be okay and that admitting you aren’t okay is the first step to getting better.

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!

Far from the Tree by Robin Benway

Far from the treeGrace was an only child who had been adopted at birth. Her parents were open about the fact that she was adopted, but that didn’t mean they told her everything. Like, for instance, the fact that she had two biological siblings.  So, what was it that drove them to make such a stunning revelation?  Well…  It was the fact that Grace got pregnant and put her own baby up for adoption.  Although she knew she had chosen a very capable and loving couple to adopt her baby, she was still completely heartbroken to see that piece of herself taken away.  So heartbroken, in fact, that it made Grace start to question the conditions under which her own mother had given her up for adoption and whether her biological mother would be interested in meeting up with her.  Though Grace’s parents didn’t have any way to get in touch with her biological mother, they were able to tell her that she had an older brother, Joaquin, and a younger sister, Maya, who were located relatively close by! 

I loved how Benway was able to create such unique voices for each of the three siblings so that their alternating narratives didn’t get too confusing or too redundant.  I also appreciated how she was able to present such a depth and breadth of experiences for these teens, who had been adopted or spent a long time in the foster care system, without making it sound like she was merely ticking off items on a list.  The problems that faced each of the siblings, both personal and interpersonal, were both realistic and varied.  I think what I liked the most about this story was the fact that there was just so much *stuff* for readers to grab onto.  It is so important for YA books to present a variety of characters and situations so that readers can both relate and learn to empathize with situations they have never faced.  I am not the least bit surprised that this book won the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature.

Happy Reading!