Tag Archives: realistic

Fifteen and Change by Max Howard

Fifteen and Change by Max Howard. October 1, 2018. West 44 Books, 200 p. ISBN: 0765383756.  Int Lvl: YA; Rdg Lvl: YA; Lexile: 500.

Zeke would love to be invisible. His mother is struggling to make ends meet and stuck with a no-good boyfriend. Zeke knows he and his mom will be stuck forever if he doesn’t find some money fast. When Zeke starts working at a local pizza place, he meets labor activists who want to give him a voice–and the living wage he deserves for his work. Zeke has to decide between living the quiet life he’s carved for himself and raising his voice for justice.

Potentially Sensitive Areas: None



Kirkus Reviews (September 1, 2018)
Fifteen-year-old Zeke gets a job and becomes involved with community organizers who aim to unionize local food-service workers in this novel in verse for reluctant readers. Zeke hates their lives in the city with Paul, his alcoholic mom’s abusive boyfriend, a hypocritical Christian, and he misses his old home in small-town Wisconsin. Spurred to action by the idea of making enough money for them to move back, he takes a job at Casa de Pizza, where he comes to understand the desperate circumstances many of his minimum-wage–earning co-workers face. Zeke keeps the job secret, fearing Paul will try to steal his earnings. Pagelong free-verse poems evocatively describe Zeke’s experiences and quickly propel the story forward. The dynamics between the employees at Casa de Pizza (Zeke and several others are white, Timothy is black, Hannah is originally from Oaxaca) will be recognizable to teens who’ve worked in food service. Readers will easily sympathize with the all-too-true-to-life situations with which the characters are coping—racism and sexual harassment, Zeke’s awful home life, and a co-worker’s eviction with her children among them. Though short, this story develops the characters’ personalities, sketches in the history of the labor movement, and includes a subdued romantic subplot, effectively balancing these various elements. An auspicious ending may seem a bit unlikely to some, but this novel has many appealing aspects that will draw readers in. (Fiction. 12-18)

About the Author

Max Howard loves woods and words and finds them both in books. Max has worked lots of day jobs including pizza delivery driver, fashion show stagehand, and AP test scorer, but still finds the time to write for kids and adults. Currently, Max is writing a picture book called The Book Formerly Known As Barf. This is Max’s first novel.

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The Love and Lies of Rukhsana Ali by Sabina Khan

The Love and Lies of Rukhsana Ali by Sabina Khan. January 29, 2019. Scholastic Press, 336 p. ISBN: 9781338227017.  Int Lvl: YA; Rdg Lvl: YA.

Seventeen-year-old Rukhsana Ali has always been fascinated by the universe around her and the laws of physics that keep everything in order. But her life at home isn’t so absolute.

Unable to come out to her conservative Muslim parents, she keeps that part of her identity hidden. And that means keeping her girlfriend, Ariana, a secret from them too. Luckily, only a few more months stand between her carefully monitored life at home and a fresh start at Caltech in the fall. But when Rukhsana’s mom catches her and Ariana together, her future begins to collapse around her.

Devastated and confused, Rukhsana’s parents whisk her off to stay with their extended family in Bangladesh where, along with the loving arms of her grandmother and cousins, she is met with a world of arranged marriages, religious tradition, and intolerance. Fortunately, Rukhsana finds allies along the way and, through reading her grandmother’s old diary, finds the courage to take control of her future and fight for her love.

A gritty novel that doesn’t shy away from the darkest corners of ourselves, The Love and Lies of Rukhsana Ali provides a timely and achingly honest portrait of what it’s like to grow up feeling unwelcome in your own culture and proves that love, above all else, has the power to change the world.

Potentially Sensitive Areas: Mild language, Mild sexual themes, Racism, Sexual assault, Islamophobia, Homophobia, Homophobic violence, Domestic abuse, Conversion therapy


Book Trailer


Booklist (December 1, 2018 (Vol. 115, No. 7))
Grades 9-12. Rukhsana Ali chafes against her conservative Muslim parents and their hopes for her future. The 17-year-old has her own plans, like going to Caltech for engineering and openly being with her girlfriend, Ariana. But when her parents ultimately find out about Ariana, they’re quick to send Rukhsana to Bangladesh to be married. Can she balance fighting for the life she wants for herself without devastating her family? Khan’s moving novel brings humanity and nuance to the topics of arranged marriage and familial obligations, and her characters are beautifully fleshed out. Rukhsana’s genuine love and respect for her family and culture amplify the stakes of her choice to determine her own path, and Khan’s account of Bangladeshi traditions, food, and various aunties to dodge rings true. While some characters might initially seem very black-and-white, as Khan gradually peels away the layers of their backstories, they become more fully formed. This moving novel offers readers a deep look into Bengali traditions and dreams for a more inclusive future, with a resilient girl at the heart of it all.

Publishers Weekly (October 15, 2018)
Like many American teenagers straddling two cultures-that of their foreign-born parents and that outside their home-Seattle high school senior Rukhsana has hopes that diverge from her family’s. Though her conservative Bengali-Muslim parents expect her to attend the nearby University of Washington and to marry a young man, she has secretly applied to Caltech in Pasadena, Calif., and is a closeted-to-them lesbian. Her parents eventually give in on Caltech, but when they discover her kissing her girlfriend, Ariana, they furiously spirit Rukhsana away to Bangladesh under false pretenses. Khan skillfully depicts Rukhsana’s mix of emotions toward her family-frustration and anger, love and loyalty-as well as resentment at the differing expectations her parents hold for her and for her carefree younger brother, Aamir. Relationships ring true, including the siblings’ teasingly affectionate relationship and Rukhsana and Ariana’s struggles navigating their romance under difficult circumstances. The complicated plot and the large cast of characters, both in Seattle and in Bangladesh, occasionally overwhelm, but Rukhsana’s voice offers a steady blend of compassion and humor as she schemes-with several likable allies-to follow her dreams, perhaps at the cost of losing her family. Ages 14-up.

About the Author

Sabina Khan is an educational consultant and a karaoke enthusiast. After living in Germany, Bangladesh, Macao, Illinois and Texas, she has finally settled down in beautiful British Columbia, Canada, with her husband and three daughters, one of whom is a fur baby. She writes about Muslim teens who are straddling cultures.

Her website is sabina-khan.com

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Pulp by Robin Talley

Pulp by Robin Talley. November 13, 2018. Harlequin Teen, 416 p. ISBN: 9781335012906.  Int Lvl: YA; Rdg Lvl: YA.

In 1955, eighteen-year-old Janet Jones keeps the love she shares with her best friend Marie a secret. It’s not easy being gay in Washington, DC, in the age of McCarthyism, but when she discovers a series of books about women falling in love with other women, it awakens something in Janet. As she juggles a romance she must keep hidden and a newfound ambition to write and publish her own story, she risks exposing herself—and Marie—to a danger all too real.

Sixty-two years later, Abby Zimet can’t stop thinking about her senior project and its subject—classic 1950s lesbian pulp fiction. Between the pages of her favorite book, the stresses of Abby’s own life are lost to the fictional hopes, desires and tragedies of the characters she’s reading about. She feels especially connected to one author, a woman who wrote under the pseudonym “Marian Love,” and becomes determined to track her down and discover her true identity.

In this novel told in dual narratives, New York Times bestselling author Robin Talley weaves together the lives of two young women connected across generations through the power of words. A stunning story of bravery, love, how far we’ve come and how much farther we have to go.

Potentially Sensitive Areas: Homophobic slur, Mild language, Strong sexual themes, Underage drinking, Cigarettes, Homophobia



Booklist (September 15, 2018 (Vol. 115, No. 2))
Grades 9-12. Not many YA novels contain one lesbian romance, let alone four, but Talley’s newest pulls it off, while creatively spanning time and genre. In the present day, Abby Zimet is out and proud, despite chaffing against the “just friends” label newly instituted by her ex. Breakup stress is compounded by her parents’ crumbling marriage, and Abby finds escape in an unlikely place: vintage lesbian pulp fiction. So much so that researching the genre and writing her own pulp novel becomes her senior project. The book that starts her obsession is Women of the Twilight Realm, by Marian Love, passages of which intercut Abby’s narrative, along with 18-year-old Janet Jones’ story line, set in 1955. Janet’s own discovery of lesbian lit holds many parallels to Abby’s, but her closeted life offers a dramatic contrast. Talley pulls pre-Stonewall history, such as the lavender scare, the gay bar scene, and actual lesbian pulp authors, into this fun but substantive read. As Abby loses herself to her project, she eventually finds firmer footing in her own life and identity.

Kirkus Reviews (September 15, 2018)
Two Washington, D.C., lesbian teens, 62 years apart, each discover classic lesbian pulp fiction—late midcentury paperbacks depicting a shadowy world of forbidden love. For 18-year-old Janet Jones in 1955, A Love So Strange is a revelation: She had no idea “other girls might feel the way she did.” Janet and her friend Marie, who are both assumed white, tentatively explore their growing attraction but face warnings from an African-American lesbian couple that Marie’s government job and reputation are in danger. For high school senior Abby Zimet in 2017, the world is different. She has been out to her accepting white Jewish family since ninth grade. Nursing a broken heart from the breakup with her bisexual classmate Linh, a Vietnamese-American girl, Abby turns to reading pulp novels and researching gay and lesbian life in midcentury D.C. Talley (Our Own Private Universe, 2017, etc.) adds complexity by tying Janet’s and Abby’s storylines together: Both girls write their own pulp novels, creating two additional plotlines. The books within a book are cleverly written to mimic pulp styles, and the superlative pacing will hook readers. The acknowledgments describe the author’s meticulous research and the actual historical events (e.g. the persecution of queer government employees during the Lavender Scare of the 1950s) and literature upon which the book is based. Readers familiar with D.C. may find the liberties taken with geography distracting. Suspenseful parallel lesbian love stories deftly illuminate important events in LGBTQ history. (bibliography) (Fiction. 13-18)

About the Author

Robin lives in Washington, D.C., with her wife, their baby daughter, an antisocial cat and a goofy hound dog. Whenever the baby’s sleeping, she’s probably busy writing young adult fiction about queer characters, reading books, and having in-depth conversations with friends and family about things like whether Jasmine’s character motivation was sufficiently established in Aladdin.

Her website is www.robintalley.com

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Let’s Go Swimming on Doomsday by Natalie C. Anderson

Let’s Go Swimming on Doomsday by Natalie C. Anderson. January 15, 2019. G.P. Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers, 352 p. ISBN: 9780399547614.  Int Lvl: YA; Rdg Lvl: YA.

Forced to become a child soldier, a sixteen-year-old Somali refugee must confront his painful past in this haunting, thrilling tale of loss and redemption for fans of A Long Way Gone and What is the What 

When Abdi’s family is kidnapped, he’s forced to do the unthinkable: become a child soldier with the ruthless jihadi group Al Shabaab. In order to save the lives of those he loves, and earn their freedom, Abdi agrees to be embedded as a spy within the militia’s ranks and to send dispatches on their plans to the Americans. The jihadists trust Abdi immediately because his older brother, Dahir, is already one of them, protégé to General Idris, aka the Butcher. If Abdi’s duplicity is discovered, he will be killed.

For weeks, Abdi trains with them, witnessing atrocity after atrocity, becoming a monster himself, wondering if he’s even pretending anymore. He only escapes after he is forced into a suicide bomber’s vest, which still leaves him stumps where two of his fingers used to be and his brother near death. Eventually, he finds himself on the streets of Sangui City, Kenya, stealing what he can find to get by, sleeping nights in empty alleyways, wondering what’s become of the family that was stolen from him. But everything changes when Abdi’s picked up for a petty theft, which sets into motion a chain reaction that forces him to reckon with a past he’s been trying to forget.

In this riveting, unflinching tale of sacrifice and hope, critically-acclaimed author Natalie C. Anderson delivers another tour-de-force that will leave readers at the edge of their seats.

Potentially Sensitive Areas: Mild sexual themes, Strong language, Violence, Torture



Kirkus Reviews (December 15, 2018)
Abdi’s feelings of guilt begin when his brother Dahir is kidnapped by the jihadi group Al Shabaab in Mogadishu, Somalia, and he believes it is his fault. When American government operatives capture Abdi and his family and offer him a deal—their freedom in exchange for his infiltrating Al Shabaab—he believes he hasn’t much choice. Dahir has risen in the ranks, making Abdi useful to those hunting the group’s leaders. Abdi’s account shifts between his time undercover and his present in Sangui City, Kenya, following his escape. Sam, a white American working with the United Nations who is grappling with her own guilt over leaving a Christian cult, meets Abdi and finds him a place in a refugee girls’ boarding school by day, allowing him to sleep in her spare room. News of a possible placement in a foster family triggers an emotional deluge in which Abdi reveals all he’s been through. In a dramatic climax, Abdi must decide whether family and trust will triumph over fear. At times the dialogue between Sam and Abdi feels fanciful and the story drags with unnecessary detail, with some characters feeling underdeveloped. However, this is a riveting account of young people living through violence which successfully illustrates the nuance of intent among the jihadi fighters. Greed, guilt, and redemption are layered in a sober yet tender narrative showing the lengths one will go to for loved ones. (Fiction. 14-18)

School Library Journal (January 1, 2019)
Gr 7 Up-Abdi is just 12 years old when his older brother Dahir is kidnapped by Al Shaabab, an infamous Somali militia. Abdi feels guilty knowing that he might be the reason his brother was captured. Three years later, Abdi and his remaining family members are kidnapped by African Union Mission in Somalia. AMISOM is a collaborative effort between U.S. forces and the Somali army. After being brutally beaten by AMISOM soldiers for days, Abdi is brought before Mr. Jones, an American government official. Mr. Jones tells Abdi that Dahir is alive and is now a commander in Al Shaabab’s militia. Mr. Jones offers the possibility for a new life for Abdi and his family in exchange for his infiltration of Al Shaabab’s army. Abdi agrees, believing that with luck, he might save his family and his brother. Abdi infiltrates Al Shaabab only to learn that Dahir has been brainwashed completely. Abdi’s rescue attempt goes awry and he is forced to hideout in a refugee home for girls. The relationship he builds with the girls and his social worker slowly helps Abdi to remember who he is. An intriguing examination of ways familial loyalty and guilt can lead anyone to make desperate choices. Anderson uses the exploration of manipulation and coercion to craft a thought-provoking narrative.

About the Author

Natalie C. Anderson is a writer and international development professional living in Boston, Massachusetts. She has spent the last decade working with NGOs and the UN on refugee relief and development, mainly in Africa. She was selected as the 2014-2015 Associates of the Boston Public Library Children’s Writer in Residence, where she wrote her debut novel, City of Saints and Thieves.

Her website is www.nataliecanderson.com.

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Speechless by Adam Schmitt

Speechless by Adam Schmitt. November 6, 2018. Candlewick Press, 304 p. ISBN: 9781536200928.  Int Lvl: 3-6; Rdg Lvl: 5.8.

How do you give a eulogy when you can’t think of one good thing to say? A poignant, funny, and candid look at grief, family secrets, difficult people, and learning to look behind the facade.

As if being stuffed into last year’s dress pants at his cousin’s wake weren’t uncomfortable enough, thirteen-year-old Jimmy has just learned from his mother that he has to say a few words at the funeral the next day. Why him? What could he possibly say about his cousin, who ruined everything they did? He can’t recall one birthday party, family gathering, or school event with Patrick that didn’t result in injury or destruction. As Jimmy attempts to navigate the odd social norms of the wake, he draws on humor, heartfelt concern, and a good deal of angst while racking his brain and his memory for a decent and meaningful memory to share. But it’s not until faced with a microphone that the realization finally hits him: it’s not the words that are spoken that matter the most, but those that are truly heard.

Potentially Sensitive Areas: Cruelty to animals, Mild language, Violence, Alcohol


Author Interview


Booklist (November 1, 2018 (Vol. 115, No. 5))
Grades 5-8. Honesty isn’t always pretty, but it courses through Schmitt’s debut in more ways than one. Jimmy, 13, is already uncomfortable at his cousin Patrick’s wake, but that distress escalates to panic when Jimmy’s mother informs him that he has to speak at tomorrow’s funeral. As he stands in the funeral home, he racks his brain for a nice memory of Patrick—the cousin he hated—to use for his eulogy. The narrative dips in and out of the wake to follow Jimmy’s memories of his 13-year-old cousin, none of which is appropriate for a speech. The temperamental boy ruined every toy or occasion he touched, but Schmitt drops clues that place Patrick on the autism spectrum, sadly undiagnosed and untreated. Complex family relationships surface with humor and candor, with adults painted as flawed and prone to delivering sharp words or even a smack. All these elements combine to make the reader as uneasy as Jimmy, who, through his recollections, gains a better understanding of the boy lying in the coffin and, ultimately, of himself.

Kirkus Reviews starred (January 1, 2019)
Even at his cousin’s wake, Jimmy maintains his snarky persona that so irritates his parents and others around him. It is the day before the wake when Jimmy’s parents tell him that he must give a short eulogy for his 13-year-old cousin, Patrick. Immediately, Jimmy resists, as he can’t imagine any positive remarks he can make about Patrick, as Patrick had done nothing but ruin many pivotal moments in Jimmy’s life. “Patrick was the kind of guy who would kick your dog,” Jimmy explains to readers. “And not to see what the dog would do but what you would do.” Leading up to the time of the funeral, Jimmy reflects on different past experiences, times when Patrick always seemed to ruin every occasion. As the family gets closer to the actual funeral, these reflections help Jimmy to gain a more objective perspective of how troubled Patrick really was—not necessarily the intentionally destructive person Jimmy had painted Patrick to be. As Jimmy processes his memories, readers get an ever clearer understanding of a mentally ill child who desperately needs help but doesn’t get it. Schmitt simultaneously paints a realistic picture of a close but flawed family who must navigate the sudden death of a young family member and all the feelings that come with it. The book adheres to the white default. A complicated, hard, and heartfelt look at a child’s mental illness. (Fiction. 10-14)

About the Author

Adam P. Schmitt has lived outside of Chicago his entire life. His family currently lives in Oswego, IL, where the race of suburbia meets the quiet of farm country.

He met his wife on an awful blind date, but since she was after his money and fortune from being a public middle school teacher, they did end up going out again. They have two boys (Aidan, Anderson) who keep them busy with sports, cat videos, and traveling anywhere they can.

His days are spent as an educator, his nights as a husband, father, and writer.

His website is www.adamschmittwrites.com

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Girls on the Line by Jennie Liu

Girls on the Line by Jennie Liu. November 1, 2018. Carolhoda, 232 p. ISBN: 9781512459388.  Int Lvl: YA; Rdg Lvl: YA; Lexile: 720.

A powerful, dual-narrative coming-of-age story set in 2009 China.

Luli has just turned sixteen and finally aged out of the orphanage where she’s spent the last eight years. Her friend Yun has promised to help her get work. Yun loves the independence that her factory job brings her. For the first time in her life she has her own money and can get the things she wants: nice clothes, a cell phone…and Yong, her new boyfriend. There are rumors about Yong, though. Some people say he’s a bride trafficker: romancing young women only to kidnap them and sell them off to bachelors in the countryside. Yun doesn’t believe it. But then she discovers she’s pregnant the same day she gets fired from her job. If she can’t scrape together enough money to terminate the pregnancy, she’ll face a huge fine for having an unauthorized child. Luli wants to help her friend, but she’s worried about what Yong might do…especially when Yun disappears.

Potentially Sensitive Areas: Abortion, Strong language, Strong sexual themes, Underage drinking, Underage smoking, Graphic birth scene



Booklist (October 15, 2018 (Vol. 115, No. 4))
Grades 9-12. Sixteen-year-old Luli has just aged out of the Chinese orphanage where she’s been living for eight years since her grandfather died. Her fellow orphan and friend Yun, who left the orphanage a year earlier, gets Luli a job at the electronics factory where she works. In alternating chapters, the girls relate the dramatic story of Yun’s unplanned pregnancy, her human trafficker boyfriend’s plans to sell their baby, and Luli’s loyalty to Yun despite Yun’s growing coldness. Liu’s debut novel, based on her immigrant parents’ past and her own trips to China, is set in 2009 and offers an insider’s view of the very real plight of young women affected by China’s one-child policy. The unusual setting and focus provide a much-needed look at the people who produce the goods we rely on worldwide and the hardships they face. Liu provides an authentic voice and portrayal of young Chinese women in difficult situations. Readers will learn much from this absorbing and realistic tale.

Kirkus Reviews (September 1, 2018)
It is 2009 in the city of Gujiao, China: 16-year-old Luli and 17-year-old Yun, best friends, have aged out of their orphanage and are now enjoying the exhilarating independence of factory work. Their wages and dorm life offer an exciting taste of freedom, as does Yun’s handsome new boyfriend, Yong. Yun’s jealous ex-boyfriend says that Yong is illegally trafficking brides to the countryside, but Yun refuses to believe it. When she becomes pregnant, however, Yun, Luli, and Yong each have their own agendas, and their decisions and deceits result in a compelling, action-packed chain of events. During this time, China’s One-Child Policy made unmarried and multiple pregnancies illegal for most: Mothers would be fined for unauthorized pregnancies, and without an official permit would not even be allowed into a hospital to give birth. Told in the first person from the two girls’ alternating points of view, readers will be drawn into their emotional lives through sharing both their quiet, day-to-day routines and the moments of high drama, all of which are direct results of policies that trapped ordinary citizens and forced them into making terrible decisions. An affecting and original thrill ride highlighting the bond between two friends put in a horrible situation by actual Chinese government policies. (author’s note) (Fiction. 14-18)

About the Author

Jennie Liu is the daughter of Chinese immigrants. She has been fascinated by the attitudes, social policies, and changes in China each time she visits. She lives in North Carolina with her family.

Her website is www.jennieliuwrites.com


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The Benefits of Being an Octopus by Ann Braden

The Benefits of Being an Octopus by Ann Braden. September 4, 2018. Sky Pony Press, 256 p. ISBN: 9781510737488.  Int Lvl: 3-6; Rdg Lvl: 6.0.

Some people can do their homework. Some people get to have crushes on boys. Some people have other things they’ve got to do.

Seventh-grader Zoey has her hands full as she takes care of her much younger siblings after school every day while her mom works her shift at the pizza parlor. Not that her mom seems to appreciate it. At least there’s Lenny, her mom’s boyfriend—they all get to live in his nice, clean trailer.

At school, Zoey tries to stay under the radar. Her only friend Fuchsia has her own issues, and since they’re in an entirely different world than the rich kids, it’s best if no one notices them.

Zoey thinks how much easier everything would be if she were an octopus: eight arms to do eight things at once. Incredible camouflage ability and steady, unblinking vision. Powerful protective defenses.

Unfortunately, she’s not totally invisible, and one of her teachers forces her to join the debate club. Even though Zoey resists participating, debate ultimately leads her to see things in a new way: her mom’s relationship with Lenny, Fuchsia’s situation, and her own place in this town of people who think they’re better than her. Can Zoey find the courage to speak up, even if it means risking the most stable home she’s ever had?

This moving debut novel explores the cultural divides around class and the gun debate through the eyes of one girl, living on the edges of society, trying to find her way forward.

Potentially Sensitive Areas: None


Book Trailer

Author Interview


Booklist (September 1, 2018 (Vol. 115, No. 1))
Grades 4-7. Seventh-grader Zoey doesn’t think she’s as good as other kids at school who have nice things. She also doesn’t have the inclination to do homework because she’s too busy taking care of her siblings—Bryce (four), Aurora (three), and baby Hector—all offspring of different fathers. They and their mother live in a trailer with Mom’s fussy bully of a boyfriend, Lenny, and his cantankerous father. When Zoey’s social-studies teacher makes her join the school debate club, she begins to see situations with fresh eyes and from both sides—an ability she courageously applies to the gun debate after a school lockdown occurs. She also comes to understand that instead of succumbing to Lenny’s intimidation, Zoey’s mother has choices, including moving out and getting a protection order. This engrossing debut novel, narrated by the resourceful Zoey, takes the reader on her journey from the dire side of the class divide to a life of cautious hope as she learns the world is big enough for choices, actions, and results.

School Library Journal (August 1, 2018)
Gr 5-8-Zoey is a seventh grader in rural Vermont. Her mother works a low-wage job and the family is impoverished. Zoey must care for her three younger siblings, there often isn’t enough food to eat, and her clothes are almost never clean. Completing homework is often impossible. On top of all this, they live with her mother’s boyfriend, Lenny, who is moody and sometimes mean. Zoey knows that if she could be like an octopus, her favorite animal, she would be better able to handle all these demands, as well as camouflage herself when necessary. Zoey’s English teacher reaches out and convinces her to join the school debate club. While the protagonist is reluctant at first, she finds she enjoys it. Over time, she learns about debate tactics, like discrediting your opponent, and realizes that Lenny has been manipulating her mother. Another plot point involves gunshots in the school parking lot, which are blamed on a student who lives in the same trailer park as Zoey. This heartbreaking, beautifully written book about finding one’s voice will offer some readers a relatable reflection and others a window that can help build empathy and understanding. VERDICT Braden’s story raises many thought-provoking and timely questions about the difficulty of escaping poverty and the prevalence of gun violence. Highly recommended.-Laura Gardner, Dartmouth Middle School, MA

About the Author

Ann Braden writes books about kids struggling to find their voice amidst the realities of life. She founded GunSenseVT, a grassroots group focused on championing the common ground on the issue of guns in Vermont, which recently helped pass landmark gun violence prevention legislation. She also founded the Local Love Brigade, which now has chapters all over the country sending love postcards to those who are facing hate. Ann is the co-host of the children’s book podcast, “Lifelines: Books that Bridge the Divide,” along with Pakistani American author Saadia Faruqi, and is a former middle school teacher. She lives in southern Vermont with her husband, two children, and two insatiable cats named Boomer and Justice.

Her website is www.annbradenbooks.com

Teacher Resources

The Benefits of Being an Octopus Educator’s Guide

Around the Web

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The Benefits of Being an Octopus on Goodreads

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The Benefits of Being an Octopus Publisher Page

Dear Sister by Alison McGhee

Dear Sister by Alison McGhee. October 2, 2018. Atheneum/Caitlyn Dlouhy Books, 192 p. ISBN: 9781481451420.  Int Lvl: 5-8; Rdg Lvl: 3.4; Lexile: 560.

What do you do when you have an incredibly annoying little sister? Write her letters telling her so, of course!

Whininess, annoyingness, afraid of the darkness, refusal to eat lima beans, and pulling brother’s hair. This is the criteria on which little sisters are graded. Inspired by the notes Alison McGhee’s own kids would write each other, this heavily illustrated collection of letters and messages from an older brother to his little sister reveal the special love–or, at the very least, tolerance–siblings have for each other.

Potentially Sensitive Areas: None


Book Talk


Booklist (October 15, 2018 (Online))
Grades 4-7. When an eight-year-old boy gets a baby sister, his true feelings emerge in a series of letters and drawings addressed to her. At first, there’s a lot of antagonism: the narrator draws over-the-top pictures of his sister (“Even though it is not my fault that you look like this, they decided not to put my picture of you in your baby book”), writes her a regular progress report (“whininess: world class”), and sends her birthday cards (“Happy sixth birthday to someone who is still obnoxious”). But 10 years go by, and his attitude gradually softens. The epistolary format is comically complemented by Bluhm’s cartoon drawings, appearing in heavy pencil scrawls in the beginning chapters, and in a more refined hand as the narrator’s drawing skills steadily improve. Glimmers of plot appear, mostly about the boy’s best friend moving away, but more endearing is the slow-but-steady growth of affection. The ending might be a touch schmaltzy for the target audience, but the dry humor and clever format should nevertheless appeal to any kid with a sibling.

Kirkus Reviews (August 1, 2018)
Over the years, a boy’s letters to his younger sister reveal his changing impressions of her and their relationship in this epistolary graphic novel. For the unnamed 8-year-old boy, life was less complicated before his baby sister was born. Now his parents (aka “the wardens”) ask him to write cards and letters, sometimes with accompanying drawings, to his new sibling. Beginning each note with “Dear Sister,” the boy recounts his life with honesty, expressing his frustration with her incessant crying, having to read her the same book for “the 763rd time,” and his lack of privacy. Mixed in are several apology letters that reveal that the wardens fail to understand his perspective. Only his friend Joe offers diversion. Signing his initial letters “From, Brother,” he informs his sister that he’s holding out on the love part until he’s made up his mind. During a 10-year-period, however, his letters gradually reflect his growing affection for her. When Joe moves away, it’s the sister, who’s always adored her big brother, who understands his pain. And as their friendship and affection grow, perhaps the brother enjoys connecting with—and yes, reading to—his sister after all. While books on sibling rivalry abound, this volume brings freshness to the topic with McGhee’s gentle humor and poignant scenarios (though adults may respond more strongly than kids). Bluhm heightens both with childlike sketches for the brother’s drawings and emotive illustrations for the storyline. Dear indeed for preteens facing big changes and adults with fond memories. (Graphic fiction. 10-13)

About the Author

Alison McGhee writes novels, picture books, poems, and essays for all ages, including the #1 New York Times bestseller Someday, illustrated by Peter H. Reynolds. Her work has been translated into more than 20 languages. She lives in Minneapolis, California and Vermont.

Her website is alisonmcghee.com

Around the Web

Dear Sister on Amazon

Dear Sister on Barnes and Noble

Dear Sister on Goodreads

Dear Sister on LibraryThing

Dear Sister Publisher Page

Even If I Fall by Abigail Johnson

Even If I Fall by Abigail Johnson. January 8, 2019. Inkyard Press, 352 p. ISBN: 9781335541550.  Int Lvl: YA; Rdg Lvl: YA.

A year ago, Brooke Covington lost everything when her beloved older brother, Jason, confessed to the murder of his best friend, Calvin. Brooke and her family became social pariahs, broken and unable to console one another. Brooke’s only solace remains the ice-skating rink, where she works but no longer lets herself dream about a future skating professionally.

When Brooke encounters Calvin’s younger brother, Heath, on the side of the road and offers him a ride, everything changes. She needs someone to talk to…and so does Heath. No one else understands what it’s like. Her brother, alive but gone; his brother, dead but everywhere. Soon, they’re meeting in secret, despite knowing that both families would be horrified if they found out. In the place of his anger and her guilt, something frighteningly tender begins to develop, drawing them ever closer together.

But when a new secret comes out about the murder, Brooke has to choose whose pain she’s willing to live with—her family’s or Heath’s. Because she can’t heal one without hurting the other.

Potentially Sensitive Areas: Mild language, Mild sexual themes, Violence


Book Trailer


Booklist (November 15, 2018 (Vol. 115, No. 6))
Grades 9-12. True to form, Johnson (The First to Know, 2017) brings to life a family in distress along with a tantalizing mystery in her latest novel. Brooke Covington is trying to be the glue her family needs her to be in the wake of disaster. With her older brother, Jason, in jail for murdering his best friend and her parents and younger sister each isolating themselves in their own way, Brooke is prepared to give up her dream of ice-skating professionally to keep everyone from spiraling apart. But a burgeoning relationship with Jason’s late best friend’s younger brother makes things even more complicated. Captivating and emotional, this story creates a beautiful tapestry of secrets and lies and explores how a family goes on when the unthinkable is a coldhearted reality. Brooke’s story is a real page-turner, with fully fleshed-out characters and naturally flowing dialogue. Johnson’s latest is a great choice for fans of character-driven stories and complex family dynamics, with a mystery that readers will try to uncover right alongside the protagonist.

Kirkus Reviews (November 1, 2018)
The one person who completely understands what Brooke is going through is the one person she’s not supposed to talk to. After her brother, Jason, is convicted of murdering his best friend, Cal, life has stopped for Brooke and her family. Ostracized throughout their small Texas town, the only person she socializes with is newcomer Maggie, a half-Korean, half-white beauty vlogging teen. But Brooke doesn’t tell Maggie the cause of her mother’s hypervigilance, her father’s retreat into work, or her sister’s reticence. Brooke too, has let Jason’s conviction imprison her, derailing her dream of ice skating professionally. When she sees Heath, Cal’s younger brother, stranded on the side of the road, she gives him a ride into town and chances a connection with someone she knows is just as, if not more, broken. Through a mix of emotions, Brooke and Heath continue to meet in secret and slowly develop a friendship that threatens to become more even though they both know it cannot be. And when Brooke learns that there may be more to Cal’s murder than they all know, she can’t let this knowledge go even though it has the potential to cause even more pain to their families and shatter Brooke and Heath’s fragile understanding. Johnson (The First to Know, 2017, etc.) spins a tale of broken people and stirring complexity. With the exception of Maggie, characters are white. Emotional page-turner. (Fiction. 12-18)

About the Author

Abigail was born in Pennsylvania. When she was twelve, her family traded in snow storms for year round summers, and moved to Arizona. Abigail chronicled the entire cross-country road trip (in a purple spiral bound notebook that she still has) and has been writing ever since. She became a tetraplegic after breaking her neck in a car accident when she was seventeen, but hasn’t let that stop her from bodysurfing in Mexico, writing and directing a high school production of Cinderella, and becoming a published author.

Her website is abigailjohnsonbooks.com

Around the Web

Even If I Fall on Amazon

Even If I Fall on Barnes and Noble

Even If I Fall on Goodreads

Even If I Fall on LibraryThing

Even If I Fall Publisher Page

Dear Evan Hansen by Val Emmich

Dear Evan Hansen by Val Emmich. October 9, 2018. Poppy, 368 p. ISBN: 9780316420235.  Int Lvl: YA; Rdg Lvl: YA; Lexile: 590.

From the show’s creators comes the groundbreaking novel inspired by the Broadway smash hit Dear Evan Hansen.

Dear Evan Hansen,

Today’s going to be an amazing day and here’s why…

When a letter that was never meant to be seen by anyone draws high school senior Evan Hansen into a family’s grief over the loss of their son, he is given the chance of a lifetime: to belong. He just has to stick to a lie he never meant to tell, that the notoriously troubled Connor Murphy was his secret best friend.

Suddenly, Evan isn’t invisible anymore–even to the girl of his dreams. And Connor Murphy’s parents, with their beautiful home on the other side of town, have taken him in like he was their own, desperate to know more about their enigmatic son from his closest friend. As Evan gets pulled deeper into their swirl of anger, regret, and confusion, he knows that what he’s doing can’t be right, but if he’s helping people, how wrong can it be?

No longer tangled in his once-incapacitating anxiety, this new Evan has a purpose. And a website. He’s confident. He’s a viral phenomenon. Every day is amazing. Until everything is in danger of unraveling and he comes face to face with his greatest obstacle: himself.

A simple lie leads to complicated truths in this big-hearted coming-of-age story of grief, authenticity and the struggle to belong in an age of instant connectivity and profound isolation.

Potentially Sensitive Areas: Drugs, Mild sexual themes, Strong language, Suicide, Suicidal thoughts


Book Trailer


Booklist (September 1, 2018 (Vol. 115, No. 1))
Grades 9-12. Evan Hansen, a teen crippled by anxiety, starts each day by writing a letter of encouragement to himself. When loner Connor Murphy finds one of the letters at school and dies by suicide days later, his parents deliver the “Dear Evan Hansen” to Evan, who lies about being Connor’s best friend. As the Murphys embrace Evan, his lie goes viral, giving comfort to the grieving family and making him a social media darling. But as the lies build, Evan’s guilt forces him to admit the truth. In this stage-to-page adaptation, characters’ back stories offer depth only hinted at by the Tony Award–winning musical. Connor’s posthumous narration offers insights into his mental state, while Evan’s voice and interior monologues reveal the intensity of his own. The ending eases some of the rockiness of Evan’s life, and while there are no overt consequences for his deception, he is seemingly left to ponder his actions. Readers who long for acceptance will welcome this opportunity to experience Evan’s story.

Kirkus Reviews (August 15, 2018)
Emmich (The Reminders, 2017) joins the team behind the Tony-winning musical to create this novel adaptation. Awkward high school senior Evan Hansen has zero friends and a debilitating mixture of depression and anxiety. As a coping mechanism, his therapist assigns him to write letters to himself to reframe his thinking. When one of those letters is found on the body of Connor Murphy, a loner classmate and brother of Evan’s crush, Zoe, the Murphys assume that Connor addressed a suicide note to Evan and that the boys were secretly friends. Evan does nothing to dissuade this notion, and soon his lies build as he experiences belonging and acceptance for the first time. But as his anxiety winds ever tighter and others notice loopholes in his story, Evan begins to unravel as he fears exposure. Evan’s first-person narration is simultaneously sympathetic and frustrating, female characters feel underdeveloped, and the story’s representation of mental health issues is at times underwhelming. Inserted interludes of Connor’s ghostly first-person, post-death perspective provide marginal insight into his character, although it is here that readers learn of Connor’s fluid sexuality. Whether or not they’ve seen or listened to the musical, many readers will latch on to the story’s message that “no one deserves to be forgotten.” Evan presents as white, and other major characters are African-American and Latinx. Without the rich music and stage performance it’s a middling story with themes better handled elsewhere; impeccably timed for the musical’s national tour, however, teens will clamor to read it. (Fiction. 14-18)

About the Author

Dubbed a “Renaissance Man” by the New York Post, Val Emmich is a writer, a singer-songwriter, and an actor. His first novel, The Reminders, was a Barnes & Noble Discover New Writers selection and his follow-up, Dear Evan Hansen: The Novel, based on the hit Broadway show, was a New York Times bestseller. He’s had recurring roles on Vinyl and Ugly Betty, as well as a memorable guest role as Tina Fey’s coffee-boy fling, Jamie, on 30 Rock. Emmich lives in Jersey City, New Jersey.

His website is valemmich.com

Teacher Resources

Dear Evan Hansen Educator’s Guide

Dear Evan Hansen review on Common Sense Media

Around the Web

Dear Evan Hansen on Amazon

Dear Evan Hansen on Barnes and Noble

Dear Evan Hansen on Goodreads

Dear Evan Hansen on LibraryThing

Dear Evan Hansen Publisher Page