Category Archives: book review

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!

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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!

One of Us is Lying by Karen M. McManus

32571395[1]Addy, Bronwyn, Cooper, Nate, and Simon all ended up in detention because they were caught with cell phones in their bags during class.  The weird thing is that they all swore they didn’t own the phones with which they were caught.  Even weirder is that only one of these kids seemed a likely candidate for detention.  Nate was already on probation for dealing drugs, but the rest of these kids just didn’t fit.  Addy was a popular girl and homecoming queen who didn’t do much besides follow her boyfriend around like a puppy.  Bronwyn was a brainy, “good girl” who had never been in trouble before.  Cooper was an all-star baseball pitcher and Southern gentleman.  And though Simon was a jerk who ran an app that acted as their school’s gossip column, even he wasn’t considered a trouble maker where teachers were concerned.  But then Simon died in the middle of their detention and the other four ended up becoming murder suspects!

I think this book will appeal to a wide variety of readers. Some might enjoy it because they like stories that are told from a variety of perspectives — especially since these narrators help to provide insight into how the high school experience might vary depending on one’s cliques, socio-economic status, gender, and sexual orientation.  Some might like the angle of the unlikely friendships and romance that develops as a result of this strange new bond.  And others might simply like this story because it was a good mystery with some interesting twists.  I was pleased to see that I had guessed some of the ending before I got there, but there was plenty more I hadn’t been able to guess on my own.

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!

All Rights Reserved by Gregory Scott Katsoulis

all rights reservedSpeth was nervous about giving her Last Day speech.  She had to do it right or her sponsors could back out on her, or maybe even sue her.  Another lawsuit was the last thing her family needed.  Her parents were already sent into servitude because of the National Inherited Debt Act and the Historical Reparations Agency when it was “discovered” that one of their ancestors had illegally downloaded a song.  And now that Speth was turning 15, she would be given a Cuff so that she could be charged for every word she spoke and every gesture she made — or have her eyeballs shocked if she couldn’t pay.  Speth knew it would be tough to scale back on what she said after 15 years of free speech, but she had no idea she would be tested so soon, or so horribly.  As she was walking across a bridge to give her Last Day speech, her best friend, Beecher, jumped and killed himself.  She literally could not react before giving her Last Day speech or she would be in breech of her contract.  She couldn’t imagine how she would give that speech after what she had just seen, so she decided she just wouldn’t talk.  Ever again.

But how could Speth possibly keep her vow?  She didn’t really consider how she would finish her education.  Get a job.  Or even communicate with friends and family.  It was clear that the corporations and lawyers had taken things too far by copyrighting words, gestures, and even physical likenesses… But how could Speth fight back, let alone lead a revolution, without speaking?    Much like MT Anderson’s Feed, this story challenges readers to consider the consequences of giving corporations and technology too much control over our daily lives.  I can’t wait to see what happens next in the Word$ trilogy.

Happy Reading!