Rummanah Aasi
 Catherine House is a school of higher learning like no other. Hidden deep in the woods of rural Pennsylvania, this crucible of reformist liberal arts study with its experimental curriculum, wildly selective admissions policy, and formidable endowment, has produced some of the world's best minds: prize-winning authors, artists, inventors, Supreme Court justices, presidents. For those lucky few selected, tuition, room, and board are free. But acceptance comes with a price. Students are required to give the House three years--summers included--completely removed from the outside world. Family, friends, television, music, even their clothing must be left behind. In return, the school promises a future of sublime power and prestige, and that its graduates can become anything or anyone they desire.
    Among this year's incoming class is Ines Murillo, who expects to trade blurry nights of parties, cruel friends, and dangerous men for rigorous intellectual discipline--only to discover an environment of sanctioned revelry. Even the school's enigmatic director, Viktoria, encourages the students to explore, to expand their minds, to find themselves within the formidable iron gates of Catherine. For Ines, it is the closest thing to a home she's ever had. But the House's strange protocols soon make this refuge, with its worn velvet and weathered leather, feel increasingly like a gilded prison. And when tragedy strikes, Ines begins to suspect that the school--in all its shabby splendor, hallowed history, advanced theories, and controlled decadence--might be hiding a dangerous agenda within the secretive, tightly knit group of students selected to study its most promising and mysterious curriculum.

Review: The promise of a Gothic novel set at an exclusive boarding school is what lured me to pick up Elizabeth Thomas' Catherine House. Unfortunately, it failed to deliver that promise and is yet another classic example in which a book's premise is actually a lot better than the book. To be honest, I am not completely sure what this book is about even after I finished it but I will do my best in trying to give you a synopsis. Students are accepted to the mysterious and prestigious Catherine House only if they agree to give up contact with the outside world for three years in exchange for unimaginable power and influence. Ines arrives at Catherine House because she has nowhere else to go. After months spent partying, she has barely graduated high school and is failing to deal with a traumatic memory that left one person dead. Ines sees Catherine House as her last chance, but she quickly realizes that she doesn't fit in at Catherine House either. She lacks the motivation that drives other Catherine students and she seems to be the only one leery of the cult-like mediation sessions  and the possibility that students are being experimented on at the school.  
  Though I had a difficult time following the plot, I was intrigued enough to keep reading. Ines had the potential to be a fascinating character. I wanted to know more about her back story and learn the truth of the traumatic event. Ines is kept at a distance from the reader, which makes sense considering how hard she tries to bury down her trauma, but she does not make an interesting character to follow. She is constantly drunk (apparently alcohol flows like water at this school) and sleeping in some different stranger's bed constantly. After a while the plot felt repetitive and the mention of the "plasm" experiment was convoluted and confusing. I definitely think this book has a niche audience and I was definitely not a member of that club. 

Rating: 2 stars

Words of Caution: There are many allusions to sex, drug and alcohol usage. Recommended to older teens and adults only.

If you like this book try: The Secret Society by Donna Tart, Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo
Rummanah Aasi
Description: Estefania "Stef" Soto is itching to shake off the onion-and-cilantro embrace of Tia Perla, her family's taco truck. She wants nothing more than for her dad to get a normal job and for Tia Perla to be put out to pasture. It's no fun being known as the "Taco Queen" at school. But just when it looks like Stef is going to get exactly what she wants, and her family's livelihood is threatened, she will have to become the truck's unlikely champion.

Review: Stef Soto, Taco Queen is a delightful quick read that will make you hungry as well as warm you up. Estefania “Stef” Soto is the daughter of hardworking, rule-abiding Mexican-American parents; she is a skilled artist, but at school she’s best-known for Tía Perla, their family food truck. When not stationed at parks or convenience stores, Papi can be found driving it to and from school to chauffeur Stef, which humiliates her. Stef is an only child who speaks Spanish at home and finds herself translating for her dad from time to time. Stef yearns for independence like being home alone and having a cell phone, but her parents argue that she is not old enough. She is aware that her parents work extremely hard. For Papi Tía Perla is his pride and joy, a symbol of his hard work and their American Dream. Mami works evenings as a cashier at the open-all-night grocery store. 
  The book moves from an ordinary middle grade novel into a story with more depth and meaning. The depletion of art-class supplies in art class leads to a student-driven fundraiser. A new city-government rule threatens the family's food-truck business. Both of these plot-lines allow Stef to use her voice and stand up for important issues. Woven through the story are Spanish words and phrases, which gives the book its authenticity and nod to the Mexican culture. There is also diversity among the other characters too. I couldn't help but cheer for Stef Soto, her family, and Tía Perla. The book is so short and I wanted to spend more time with the characters. Just a friendly warning, don't read this book if you're hungry. 

 Rating: 4 stars

 Words of Caution: None. Recommended for Grades 3 and up.

 If you like this book try: The Epic Fail of Arturo Zamora by Pablo Cartaya, The First Rule of Punk by Cecila C. Perez
Rummanah Aasi
 Every week, Tracy Beaumont writes letters to Innocence X, asking the organization to help her father, an innocent Black man on death row. After seven years, Tracy is running out of time—her dad has only 267 days left. Then the unthinkable happens. The police arrive in the night, and Tracy’s older brother, Jamal, goes from being a bright, promising track star to a “thug” on the run, accused of killing a white girl. Determined to save her brother, Tracy investigates what really happened between Jamal and Angela down at the Pike. But will Tracy and her family survive the uncovering of the skeletons of their Texas town’s racist history that still haunt the present?

Review: Every week Tracy has been writing letters to Innocence X, a non-for-profit organization that helps those who are unjustly in jail for a crime they did not commit, on behalf of her father, who has been sentenced to death row in their home state of Texas and wrongfully accused of murder. With less than three hundred days, Tracy is in a race against time to free her father. Tracy holds on deeply to hope that  her father will be exonerated and people will recognize failures in our justice system. As if this was not hard enough, Tracy and her family are thrown for a second loop when her older brother Jamal, a track star, is accused of killing his secret white girlfriend. Could these two cases be connected? 
    Weaving together gripping murder mysteries and a heartfelt narrative about a girl trying to save her family, Johnson explores the systemic, generational effects of police brutality, mass incarceration, and racism on the Black community. The discussion of racism, both explicit and implicit, are not sugar coated  and will be poignant for many readers. My minor qualms of the novel is an unnecessary love triangle that is a bit distracting from the overall narrative. I also wanted a bit more discussion regarding the skeletons in the closet in regards to the big reveals in the book. Nonetheless, This is My America is timely, powerful, thought provoking, and Tracy is a budding activist who demands change.  

Rating: 4.5 stars

Words of Caution: There is some strong language, mentions of lynching, hate crime, and a scene of underage drinking at a party. Recommended for Grades 9 and up.

 If you like this book try: Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson, Dear Justyce by Nic Stone, Punching the Air by Ibi Zoboi and Yusuf Salaam
Rummanah Aasi

 For as long as she can remember, it’s been Robin and her mom against the world. Growing up in the 1990s as the only child of a single mother in Seoul, Korea, wasn’t always easy, but it has bonded them fiercely together.

So when a vacation to visit friends in Huntsville, Alabama, unexpectedly becomes a permanent relocation—following her mother’s announcement that she’s getting married—Robin is devastated. Overnight, her life changes. She is dropped into a new school where she doesn’t understand the language and struggles to keep up. She is completely cut off from her friends at home and has no access to her beloved comics. At home, she doesn’t fit in with her new step-family. And worst of all, she is furious with the one person she is closest to—her mother.

Then one day Robin’s mother enrolls her in a local comic drawing class, which opens the window to a future Robin could never have imagined.

 Review: Almost American Girl is a moving graphic memoir about belonging, family, immigration, and the love of art. Chuna's mother brought her to Albama, United States, under the pretense of another mother-daughter temporary trip. She is shocked and hurt to find that her stay in Alabama is actually permanent when her mother marries a man.  Now grappling with culture shock, bullying, and integrating into a new family, Chuna feels adrift. Her mother is still her hero, and she recognizes the sacrifices she has made in order for them to survive. Despite her attempts to join her new stepfamily, it is not easy and they are not very supportive. Chuna is also having a hard time at a predominate white school and is bullied for being Asian. It’s rough going though, especially when the rest of the Kims, her new stepfamily, are not very supportive. Understandably, Chuna feels isolated and out of place. She misses her friends and life in Seoul. It isn’t until her mother reminds her of her love of comics and drawing that Chuna becomes her own person, going by the name of Robin, and begins to thrive.
    The universal theme of desiring to belong and the common immigrant's plight to adjust to their new life isn't unique to this graphic novel, however, I very much appreciated a peek into the Korean culture. I did not know that there is a strong stigma against single-parent homes in Korea, which is the reason Robin is bullied in Korea. I also liked that Robin's mother, though flawed, was not a frequent stereotype of a quiet, submissive wife. Her mother is fiercely independent and did everything she could to help her daughter. The bond between her and Robin is the core for this graphic novel. Readers who enjoy graphic memoirs will find much to enjoy.

 Rating: 4 stars

 Words of Caution: There is some language, and scenes of bullying and racism. Recommended for Grades 7 and up.

 If you like this book try: Hey, Kiddo by Jarrett Krosoczka, The American Dream? by Shing Yin Khor
Rummanah Aasi
 London, 1888. As colorful and unfettered as the butterflies she collects, Victorian adventuress Veronica Speedwell can’t resist the allure of an exotic mystery—particularly one involving her enigmatic colleague, Stoker.

His former expedition partner has vanished from an archaeological dig with a priceless diadem unearthed from the newly discovered tomb of an Egyptian princess. This disappearance is just the latest in a string of unfortunate events that have plagued the controversial expedition, and rumors abound that the curse of the vengeful princess has been unleashed as the shadowy figure of Anubis himself stalks the streets of London.

But the perils of an ancient curse are not the only challenges Veronica must face as sordid details and malevolent enemies emerge from Stoker’s past. Caught in a tangle of conspiracies and threats—and thrust into the public eye by an enterprising new foe—Veronica must separate facts from fantasy to unravel a web of duplicity that threatens to cost Stoker everything.

Review: A Treacherous Curse is the third installment of the delightfully entertaining Veronica Speedwell historical mystery series. The central mystery has ties to Stoker's painful past which has been alluded to in the first two books. I have been eager and patiently waiting to learn more about Stoker's past. The first two book established his character as someone who is incredibly intelligent, loyal, and overall an upstanding individual, however, his character seen through the eyes of Victorian England is very different. 
 The mystery is solid in this book and there are plenty of red herrings sprinkled throughout to keep the reader on their toes. It is fun to solve the mystery along with our detectives and it was fun to learn about excavations and Egyptian artifacts. What kept me reading however, is slowly learning about Stoker's past.  It was horrible to watch his reputation and name be dragged into the mud by his ex-wife who I absolutely detested. Though I felt terrible for him and it hurt to see Stoker so wounded, it does possibly leave the door open for him to move on. The "will they or won't they" dance between Veronica and Stoker does not distract from the story, but it does leave the reader's on the edge for the next book to see how their "relationship" develops.

Rating: 4 stars

Words of Caution: There is some sexual humor and imagery, slander, and some language. Recommended for older teens and adults. 

If you like this book try: A Dangerous Collaboration by Deanna Raybourn (Veronica Speedwell #4), Merriweather and Royston mysteries by Vivian Conroy
Rummanah Aasi
 The phenomenon of desperate refugees risking their lives to reach safety is not new. For hundreds of years, people have left behind family, friends, and all they know in hope of a better life. This book presents five true stories about young people who lived through the harrowing experience of setting sail in search of asylum: Ruth and her family board the St. Louis to escape Nazism; Phu sets out alone from war-torn Vietnam; José tries to reach the U.S. from Cuba; Najeeba flees Afghanistan and the Taliban; Mohamed, an orphan, runs from his village on the Ivory Coast. Aimed at middle grade students, Stormy Seas combines a contemporary collage-based design, sidebars, fact boxes, timeline and further reading to produce a book that is ideal for both reading and research. Readers will gain new insights into a situation that has constantly been making the headlines.

Review:  Story Seas is a slim book but its impact is strong, harrowing, heart wrenching, and ultimately hopeful. The book is composed of a packs a portrait of five adolescents from different parts of the world who escaped persecution, violence, and repressive regimes in search for a new homes. The timeline is between 1939 and 2006. In 1939 Ruth boards an ocean liner to escape the Nazis in Germany, but the ship is repeatedly turned away from many North and South American countries, including the United States. In the 1960s, José leaves with his family from Cuba, after the rise of Fidel Castro's power. In the 1970s during the aftermath of the Vietnam War, Phu leaves his family behind and flees Vietnam on a crowded boat, which was repeatedly attacked by pirates. About 2001 to 2006, Najeeba and her family flee the Taliban in Afghanistan, while Mohamed endures four horrendous years of being moved around by human traffickers before finally attaining freedom and stability in Italy.  
  Each of these first-person accounts bring immediacy, a personal touch, and urgency to their stories. It was nice to know that four of the former refugees are still alive and have shared their stories with the author. All of the stories have common themes of displacement, desperation, isolation, and persecution. This book will serve as a good introduction to the refugee crisis and readers will quickly realize that the refugee crisis is unfortunately not new. Sidebars provide historical context, and the asylum-seekers' first-person accounts bring immediacy and urgency to their stories. Some of the stories have updates about the individual. The collage-like artwork with magazine-style spreads contain maps, headlines, photos, and evocative images rendered in torn paper and thick ink scrawls is appealing to the eye and makes it an absorbing read. 

Rating: 4 stars

Words of Caution: The author does not sugarcoat the dangers the refugees faced including death and pirate attacks. Recommended for Grades 4 and up.

If you like this book try: In Search of Safety: voices of Refugees by Susan Kuklin
Rummanah Aasi
 There was and there was not, as all stories begin, a princess cursed to be poisonous to the touch. But for Soraya, who has lived her life hidden away, apart from her family, safe only in her gardens, it’s not just a story.

As the day of her twin brother’s wedding approaches, Soraya must decide if she’s willing to step outside of the shadows for the first time. Below in the dungeon is a demon who holds knowledge that she craves, the answer to her freedom. And above is a young man who isn’t afraid of her, whose eyes linger not with fear, but with an understanding of who she is beneath the poison.

Soraya thought she knew her place in the world, but when her choices lead to consequences she never imagined, she begins to question who she is and who she is becoming human or demon. Princess or monster.

Review:  Combining Persian mythology, Zoroastrianism, and using the framework of "Sleeping Beauty", 
Bashardoust has created a feminist, queer fairy tale retelling of her own. For two centuries, the ancestors of the shah of Atashar have ruled under the protection of the legendary magical bird, the simorgh. The simorgh has not been seen for many years, the nobility is losing faith in the young shah, and attacks by monstrous divs are becoming ever more organized. Soraya, the shah’s twin sister, carries poison in her veins and lives, hidden in the shadows of the palace garden. Soraya's poison is lethal and with the slightest touch she can kill any living being. She longs for companionship and a normal life, but feels a growing urge to hurt and kill and has nightmares of transforming into a div. When a handsome young soldier named Azad captures a parik, a female demon who attacks the shah, Soraya finds herself increasingly attracted to both man and monster. The parik may hold Soraya's answer on how to lift her curse, but it will not be easy. Azad eagerly offers help, but can Soraya trust him and will she be willing to betray her family to free herself? 
  Girl, Serpent, Thorn is a slow burn story with a mesmerizing world building steeped in Persian culture. The focus of the story is on Soraya's personal growth and her morally complex quest for identity, asking what she wants of herself rather than what society asks of her. Her character arc is exciting to witness. Soraya is flawed, insecure, and vulnerable but we can understand her position and the predicaments in which she finds herself. I very much appreciated that Soraya is not the only strong female character in the story, but her support is also from strong female allies and secondary characters. Although the romance is present in the story, it is subdued. I wish Soraya's biromantic feelings were a bit more fleshed out. The ending is a bit stretched out, but satisfyingly complete. There are some predictable turns in the plot, but one twist did in fact take me by surprise. Readers looking for more diverse fantasy standalone reads might want to pick this one up. 

Rating: 4 stars

Words of Caution: There is some strong violence. Recommended for Grades 8 and up.

If you like this book try: A Thousand Nights by E.K. Johnston, Red Hood by Elana Arnold, Damsel by Elana Arnold 
Rummanah Aasi
 Gene understands stories—comic book stories, in particular. Big action. Bigger thrills. And the hero always wins. But Gene doesn’t get sports. As a kid, his friends called him “Stick” and every basketball game he played ended in pain. He lost interest in basketball long ago, but at the high school where he now teaches, it's all anyone can talk about. The men’s varsity team, the Dragons, is having a phenomenal season that’s been decades in the making. Each victory brings them closer to their ultimate goal: the California State Championships.

Once Gene gets to know these young all-stars, he realizes that their story is just as thrilling as anything he’s seen on a comic book page. He knows he has to follow this epic to its end. What he doesn’t know yet is that this season is not only going to change the Dragons’s lives, but his own life as well.

Review:  Graphic novelist and math teacher Gene Luen Yang is struck with writer's block, but he may have found inspiration for his new project by the Dragons, his high school's men varsity basketball team. Over the years, the Dragons were state championship hopefuls but could not clinch their title, however, given the team's talent and standing this was their year. Though a self-proclaimed nerd, Yang has not had a personal connection to sports, but he is swept away by the passion and hard work of follow alumnus Coach Lou and a diverse squad of young men on their quest for the championship. The graphic novel becomes more than just Yang following the game, its players, and coaches, but an entertaining mixture of journalism, memoir, and action comic. The characters become full human beings rather than cartoon caricatures and I especially loved the one on one interviews of the players and Yang which reveal topics such as assimilation, discrimination, a personal connection to the partition of India and Pakistan, as well as China's century-long quest for athletic recognition. Readers also get to know more about Yang, the individual, as he also talks about his career arc and it does not distract from the story. The action of the basketball court lends itself to quick paced action scenes and were easy to follow. Readers will initially be drawn to the subject of basketball but will leave with learning so much more. 

Rating: 4 stars

Words of Caution: There are mentions of slurs at the basketball games. Recommended for Grades 8 and up.

If you like this book try: Crossover by Kwame Alexander, Becoming Kareem: Growing Up On and Off the Court by Kareem Abdul Jabar
Rummanah Aasi
Oak Knoll, a tight-knit North Carolina neighborhood. Professor of forestry and ecology Valerie Alston-Holt is raising her bright and talented biracial son, Xavier, who is headed to college in the fall. Then the Whitmans buy the property next door. They are a family with new money and a secretly troubled teenage daughter. They raze the house and trees next door to build themselves a showplace. The two families quickly find themselves at odds: first, over an historic oak tree in Valerie's yard, and soon after, the blossoming romance between their two teenagers. What does it mean to be a good neighbor?

Review: A Good Neighborhood is a thoughtful examination of class, privilege, and race. The book's plot is simple, two neighbors dispute over a tree, but Fowler is more interested in the broader scope that features tangled, complex situations and their eventual, heartbreaking consequences. Told through an omnipresent narrator, we are about to witness a tragedy in the making as the Whitmans move next door to the Alston-Holts. 
Valerie Alston-Holt, a widowed African-American woman and ecologist, raises her biracial son Xavier by herself. She is privileged to have a house in a peaceful neighborhood. Valerie feels very strongly about an oak tree on her property. She already has a poor opinion of her new neighbor, local white TV celebrity Brad Whitman, as the house he is having built compromises an oak tree on Valerie’s property. Xavier reminds her to give their neighbors a chance, which she accepts and lends an olive branch by inviting Mrs. Whitman to her book club. After racist and misogynistic microaggressions made by Brad, and learning of his step-daughter Juniper took a purity vow, Valerie is very wary about her neighbors and cautions Xavier.  None of this deters Valerie’s son, Xavier, a gifted musician and honors student who’s headed to college in the fall, attraction and pursuing Juniper. The tragedy is catalyzed when Valerie sues Brad and his builder for the damage to the tree. 
  The plot, though simple, is skillfully executed and allows the reader to delve into each of the characters's complexities and flaws. Though as readers we may not agree with their decisions and choices, we can understand why the characters made their choices and decisions. There are at times when I think the book played it safe, especially when discussing race and class, but just gutsy enough to get the point across. Some readers maybe be puzzled that a tragedy happened because of a tree, but it's important to remember what that tree means to Valerie, Brad, and our social awakening of systemic racism. This book would make a great book club discussion.

Rating: 4 stars

Words of Caution: There is some strong language, including racial slurs. There are also allusions to sex, pedophilia, and suicide. Recommended for older teens and adults.

If you like this book try: Such a Fun Age by Kimberly Reid, Valentine by Elizabeth Wetmore
Rummanah Aasi
 Paloma Marquez is traveling to Mexico City, birthplace of her deceased father, for the very first time. She's hoping that spending time in Mexico will help her unlock memories of the too-brief time they spent together. While in Mexico, Paloma meets Lizzie and Gael, who present her with an irresistible challenge: The siblings want her to help them find a valuable ring that once belonged to beloved Mexican artist Frida Kahlo. Finding the ring means a big reward -- and the thanks of all Mexico. What better way to honor her father than returning a priceless piece of jewelry that once belonged to his favorite artist!

Review: Paloma Marquez is a biracial (Mexican and white) twelve year old girl from Kansas City, Kansas. When her mother is given the opportunity to do a fellowship in Mexico, Paloma isn't too thrilled about spending her vacation in Mexico, but she hopes this trip will connect her to her deceased father, whom she has no memories of, and to reconnect with her Mexican heritage during her first trip to his homeland. While staying in the Coyoacán neighborhood of Mexico City, Paloma explores Casa Azul, artist Frida Kahlo’s childhood home–turned-museum, and instantly becomes a fan of Frida’s artwork. Paloma is supposed to take Spanish classes and art history classes, but there’s a mystery unfolding in Casa Azul. Kahlo’s peacock ring is missing, and it is imperative that Paloma and her new friends, local siblings Gael and Lizzie, find it before it is too late. But Gael and Lizzie, who pose as Paloma’s Spanish tutors from the university, are not who they seem and they might have an agenda of their own. 
  Me, Frida, and the Secret of the Peacock Ring is a fun blend of mystery and art. Though the mystery is not overly intricate and complex, it is engaging. The inclusion of Spanish words adds depth to the story and highlights the rich Mexican culture. Readers who are unfamiliar with Spanish will not feel lost since translations and context clues follow the words. Hand this to budding fans of mystery, especially those looking for diverse detectives. 

Curriculum Connection: Art, History/Culture, and World Language

Rating: 4 stars

Words of Caution: None. Recommended for Grades 4 and up.

If you like this book try: Chasing Vermeer by Blue Balliett, 
Rummanah Aasi
 Sidney and Asher should have clicked. Two star swimmers forced to spend their summers on a lake together sounds like the perfect match. But, it's the same every year -- in between cookouts and boat rides and family-imposed bonfires, Sidney and Asher spend the dog days of summer finding the ultimate ways to prank each other. And now, after their senior year, they're determined to make it the most epic summer yet. But, their plans are thrown in sudden jeopardy when their feud causes their families to be kicked out of their beloved lake houses. Once in their new accommodations, Sidney expects the prank war to continue as usual. But then she gets a note -- Meet me at midnight. And Asher has a proposition for her: join forces for one last summer of epic pranks, against a shared enemy -- the woman who kicked them out. Their truce should make things simpler, but six years of tormenting one another isn't so easy to ignore. Kind of like the undeniable attraction growing between them.

Review: Sidney and Asher have a lot in common and are set up to be friends: their parents are good friends, they are both on swim teams, and they spend summers together at neighboring lake houses. Sidney and Asher are instead something close to enemies after years creating and receiving outlandish pranks. Now they are spending their last summer before heading off to college and in this pivotal summer a prank gets them kicked out of their vacation houses. They are forced to share close quarters in one cottage and to declare a truce while they plot against the woman who had them evicted. Joining forces propels them into a closer relationship, and maybe romance? 
  Meet Me at Midnight is an enjoyable quintessential beach read. The first half of the book, in my opinion, is the strongest where we witness the often hilarious pranks Sidney and Asher create and execute. Both characters are well rounded and likable in their dual points of view. Their relationship from enemies to tentative friends and their fragile romance builds slowly. The second half of the book lost its steam by the constant on-again and off-again romance. Some readers may delight in the "will they or won't they" aspect of the book but I found it tedious and repetitive. Readers looking for complete escapism and low stakes will enjoy this book. 

Rating: 3 stars

Words of Caution: There is some language and scenes of underage drinking. 

If you like this book try: Just a Boy and a Girl in a Little Canoe by Sarah Mlynowski
Rummanah Aasi
 Pan's life used to be very small. Work in her dad's body shop, sneak out with her friend Tara to go dancing, and watch the skies for freighter ships. It didn't even matter that Tara was a princess... until one day it very much did matter, and Pan had to say goodbye forever. Years later, when a charismatic pair of off-world gladiators show up on her doorstep, she finds that life may not be as small as she thought. On the run and off the galactic grid, Pan discovers the astonishing secrets of her neo-medieval world... and the intoxicating possibility of burning it all down.

Review: The night Pan helps Princess Tara escape a forced marriage by escaping the planet, she loses the one friend she ever had and gains notoriety. Five years later, she is helping her mechanic father in the shop and groaning as the men watch tournaments on TV. In this space opera the joust features cosmoknights, knights in high-tech space suits, in a battle and the winner marries the hosting planet's princess.  The night after one particularly gruesome battle, a lesbian couple arrives at Pan’s doorstep, asking for her doctor mother’s help. Pan figures out that the wounded woman is a cosmoknight, accompanied by her wife, but what really shocks her is their secret subversion of the patriarchy: When they win, they whisk the princess away to freedom. In hopes of reuniting with Princess Tara and join the fight against patriarchy, Pan stows away on their spaceship to join them. At first they are angry, but Pan proves she is useful at the next joust. 
  This webcomic turned graphic novel is a delightful smash up of Jeremy Whitley's Princeless graphic novel series and the beloved yet short-lived television show Firefly. It is unapologetically feminist and has LGBTQ+ and non-white diverse characters. The jewel-toned, full-color illustrations are bright and bring the story to life. Different palettes mark flashbacks, fights, and the present day, which can be a bit confusing and a minor flaw. Pan’s journey of self discovery and the mission to dismantle the patriarchy has never been this fun. The book does end on a cliffhanger and readers will be eager to find out more. A fun, inclusive ride.

Rating: 4 stars

Words of Caution: There is some language in the book. Recommended for Grades 8 and up.

If you like this book try: Princeless series by Jeremy Whitley, Deep and Dark Blue by Nikki Smith
Rummanah Aasi
 In this deeply inspiring book, Winona Guo and Priya Vulchi recount their experiences talking to people from all walks of life about race and identity on a cross-country tour of America. Spurred by the realization that they had nearly completed high school without hearing any substantive discussion about racism in school, the two young women deferred college admission for a year to collect first-person accounts of how racism plays out in this country every day--and often in unexpected ways.

Review: Tell Me Who You Are is a travelogue with an equity and social justice lens written in a format very similar to the Humans of New York project. The collection is inspiring, jarring, and eye opening, but written in a very approachable and readable format. Before starting college, the young authors Winona Guo and Priya Vulchi spent a gap year traveling across the country asking one hundred and fifty people the same question: “How has race, culture, or intersectionality impacted your life?” Intersectionality means the overlapping parts of one's identity which includes their race, class, gender, sexuality, religion, ethnicity, nationality, ability, age, and physical appearance. Each response includes the interviewee's picture along with their answer and an eloquent, insightful commentary from the authors as well as footnotes and definitions that will help the reader understand the context of the interviewee's response. The book covers a wide range of responses from those who have dealt with some type of ostracism from society due to that individual's identity. Some of the eye-opening chapters include individuals who genuinely believe racism does not exist and those who encountered virulent racism. Another revealing chapter is a Japanese woman who recanted her family's experience in living at an internment camp and accepting that was the way of their life instead of challenging or fighting it. I also very much appreciated the numerous voices of indigenous people's who are often forgotten and ignored.
     An introduction informs the reader that the authors embarked on their own journey learning and talking about race from their own personal struggles with racism. Both authors had founded CHOOSE ( “as a platform for racial literacy,” on which they shared stories from interviewees in the Princeton area; they had spoken at schools; and they had given a TED talk. Their yearlong investigation deepened and widened their perspective. The book's back matter is also important and it includes additional resources and ten conversational norms to help the reader navigate an open and honest conversation. Talking about race, culture, and identity is hard and very uncomfortable for everyone. We have to lean into the discomfort and talk openly, honestly about the United State's systemic racism if we want to see social change. If you are looking for a read that touches upon race and intersectionality, but do not have a lot of time to do a deep dive-in read definitely check out Tell Me Who You Are

Rating: 4 stars

Words of Caution: There is some strong language including racial and homophobic slurs. Recommended for teens and adults.

If you like this book try: American Like Me edited by America Ferrera,  The Good Immigrant by Nikesh Shukla
Rummanah Aasi
Description: The year is 1946, and the Lee family has moved from Chinatown to Downtown Metropolis. While Dr. Lee is eager to begin his new position at the Metropolis Health Department, his two kids, Roberta and Tommy, are more excited about being closer to the famous superhero Superman!

Tommy adjusts quickly to the fast pace of their new neighborhood, befriending Jimmy Olsen and joining the club baseball team, while his younger sister Roberta feels out of place when she fails to fit in with the neighborhood kids. She's awkward, quiet, and self-conscious of how she looks different from the kids around her, so she sticks to watching people instead of talking to them.

While the Lees try to adjust to their new lives, an evil is stirring in Metropolis: the Ku Klux Klan. The Klan targets the Lee family, beginning a string of terrorist attacks. They kidnap Tommy, attack the Daily Planet, and even threaten the local YMCA. But with the help of Roberta's keen skills of observation, Superman is able to fight the Klan's terror, while exposing those in power who support them--and Roberta and Superman learn to embrace their own unique features that set them apart.

Review: I am not a fan of Superman. I find him boring and one dimensional, but I am curious to see what Gene Luen Yang was going to do with this iconic superhero in his retelling of a popular 1940s radio drama. Superman Smashes the Klan takes on racism and white supremacy while also touching about the plight of immigrants' decision to assimilate in order to 'fit' in America. This graphic novel does a great job in explaining these difficult and important topics.
  The Lee family has moved from Chinatown to the Metropolis suburbs in 1946. Mr. Lee is excited to start his new job while Mrs. Lee struggles to remember to speak only English. Siblings Roberta and Tommy are also trying to settle into their new community. Roberta and Tommy face overt and subtle racism and they both have very different ways of dealing with microaggressions. Roberta is an introvert and the constant references to her otherness makes her withdraw further into herself. Tommy, due to his uncanny pitching skills, joins a local baseball team and wins friends, but uses self deprecating humor to deflect racial microaggressions and finds assimilation much easier. The theme of fitting in is a constant source of contention between Roberta and Tommy. 
  Yang does a great job in showing how systemic racism works in various and (unfortunately) authentic ways for instance one of their father's coworkers implies that the Lee family eats dog. A more overt and visual example is the a cross set ablaze on the Lee's front lawn by the Klan of the Fiery Kross (a hate group analog to the KKK) in order to intimidate them and drive them away. Interestingly, Superman's involvement in the Lee's story parallels Roberta's story. Like Roberta, Superman is not using all of his powerful abilities in hopes of fitting in Metropolis. He has a hard time accepting his own alien roots, because of his own fear and the xenophobia of others. The plot moves at a snappy pace full of action and a nice balance of humor and potential romance for Roberta.  
  The artwork of the graphic novel is a blend of manga and western artwork. The backgrounds echo the historical fiction setting and compliments the dialogue well. Superman is larger than life in his physical appearance but he is also approachable and relatable. The back matter which includes historical context and Yang's own family immigrant story is important and gives the graphic novel more depth. If more Superman graphic novels were written like this I may change my mind about him. 

Rating: 4 stars

Words of Caution: There are some racist slurs and racist depictions in the book, which are discussed and explained in the graphic novel's back matter. Recommended for Grades 6 and up.

If you like this book try: Miles Morales by Jason Reynolds, Wonder Woman: Tempest Tossed by Laurie Halse Anderson
Rummanah Aasi
Camino Rios lives for the summers when her father visits her in the Dominican Republic. But this time, on the day when his plane is supposed to land, Camino arrives at the airport to see crowds of crying people. In New York City, Yahaira Rios is called to the principal’s office, where her mother is waiting to tell her that her father, her hero, has died in a plane crash.
    Separated by distance—and Papi’s secrets—the two girls are forced to face a new reality in which their father is dead and their lives are forever altered. And then, when it seems like they’ve lost everything of their father, they learn of each other.

Review: Clap When You Land grapples with family secrets, toxic masculinity, and grief among its many themes. The book is in verse and written from alternating perspectives of Camino and Yahaira. In clear and distinct voices we are introduced to both young women who are very different but they have one thing in common: their father. 
    Camino Rios lives in the Dominican Republic and yearns to go to Columbia University in New York City, where her father works most of the year. She works as her curandera aunt's assistant who helps those with medical issues and can not afford hospital expenses. Camino is a well aware that her future is limited in the Dominican Republic and had high hopes that her father would sponsor her to come to the United States. 
    Yahaira Rios lives in Morningside Heights and idolizes her father. She is a chess champion, a game her father had taught her and a metaphor for how Yahaira must act in order to successfully navigate the world. She has not spoken to her father since the previous summer, when she found out he has another wife in the Dominican Republic. Camino and Yahaira do not know of each other's existence and their lives collide when their father dies in an airplane crash with hundreds of other passengers heading to the Dominican Republic. 
  Camino and Yahaira grieve the tragic death of their vibrant father, which also coming to terms with a complex and messy family, which he has kept a secret for almost twenty years. Both girls express the limitations they have when it comes to socio-economic privileges. Interestingly, both girls struggle to confront and defend themselves against toxic masculinity. Camino is stalked like a prey by a local pimp who is waiting for the desperate moment to 'save' her and sell her as a profit. Yahaira also has no control of her body when a stranger sexually molests her on a public train. Acevedo brings their fear, terror, and anger into sharp, clear prose. Though absent in the story, the half sisters' father is three dimensional and flawed but well loved. 
  Some readers have mentioned that it was hard separating Camino and Yahaira's chapters, but I had no such problem. Both girls live in very different environments and have very different upbringings. Camino's verses flows like water using many Spanish words that do not interfere with the rhythm. Yahaira's section is much more urgent with more breaks and spaces to indicate her thought and emotional processes as if she is playing a game of chess. 
  There are two poems that I loved in this book that really struck a chord with me. The first poem is about gender expectations of Yahaira's parents on how she should behave. This poem highlights the dichotomy that girls continue to struggle with today. The second poem is claiming a nationality that you feel in your soul and in your bones though the land may not claim you because you are not native to it.
 Clap When You Land is my favorite Elizabeth Acevedo book thus far. It is emotional, raw, honest, and a must read.

Rating: 4.5 stars

Words of Caution: There is some strong language, a scene of attempted sexual assault, and a scene of groping on a public train. Recommended for Grades 8 and up.

If you like this book try: Turtle Under Ice by Juleah Del Rosario, Untwine by Edwidge Danticat, Under the Mesquite by Guadalupe Garcia McCall 
Rummanah Aasi
When a list appears online ranking the top fifty prettiest girls in the eighth grade, everything turns upside down. Eve Hoffman, ranked number one, can't ignore how everyone is suddenly talking about her looks. Sophie, the most popular girl in school, feels lower than ever when she's bullied for being ranked number two. Nessa Flores-Brady didn't even make the list, but she doesn't care -- or does she? The three girls ban together to find out who made the list but their journey doesn't lead them where they expect.

Review: The Prettiest by Brigit Young brings the #MeToo movement to middle school in an accessible, inclusive, and ultimately empowering story about fighting against toxic masculinity and sexual harassment. 
The eighth grade class is rocked by drama as an online list of the top 50 prettiest girls is released. Bookish and budding poet Eve is suddenly on the spotlight as she is ranked number 1 and her life is thrown into chaos. Popular girl Sophia Kane is second-placed, which threatens her security at the top and being seeing as anything but "less than". Nessa Flores-Brady never had any expectations of being on any kind of list due to her body size. The story is told through these various points of view in alternating chapters. The author does a great job in highlighting the complexities of middle school life, especially when girls are either have gone through puberty or just beginning and how quickly they are seen as objects by boys in their school. Unfortunately and realistically, the author does highlight the failures of adults to address the incident though steps are taken later in the book. 
  What makes The Prettiest a standout for me is how the author is able to create full character arcs for each of the main characters. Eve struggles with self confidence and paralyzing insecurity and even though she is harmed by text messages ranging from Anti-Semitic vitriol to comments about her body, there is a part of her that likes the spotlight especially when the most popular boy in school begins to talk to her and asks her out. She has to come to terms with these conflicting emotions. Sophie Kane is the polar opposite to Eve. She is an ambitious young woman though she too is incredibly fearful of letting know the real her, the poor girl whose mom works as a waitress in a diner. She uses make-up, which ages her beyond her years, as an armor and mask to create an illusion of a perfect girl. She at first does not care about being objectified by the list just so long as it's rewritten with her in first place, but slowly accepts herself and attempts to not objectify her female classmates by their looks. Nessa is confident and has her eyes sight on Broadway, but she too hurts knowing her body type is never going to be an acceptable beauty standard. 
    Along with the personal character journey's, the list highlights the insidiousness of toxic masculinity and targeted bullying. Eve’s father believes there is nothing wrong with the list as it's "boys being boys" and glad that his daughter is ranked number one. Eve's older brother, Abe, and classmate Winston offer insights into the pressures of toxic masculinity and the complacency of being bystanders. I really appreciated how the girls came together and talked about the effects of normative beauty standards and that they come together against the majority boys who enforce them. I would have liked to see the perpetrators' own epiphany and discussion of what they did wrong and the actions by the school administration. This timely and diverse discussion of bullying and sexism is a must read for budding feminists and their parents. 

Rating: 4.5 stars

Words of Caution: There is bullying in the book, which is both explicit and implicit. Recommended for Grades 5 and up.

If you like this book try: Maybe He Just Likes You by Barbara Dee, The List by Siobhan Vivan (for YA readers)
Rummanah Aasi
In a series of personal essays, prominent journalist and LGBTQIA+ activist George M. Johnson explores his childhood, adolescence, and college years in New Jersey and Virginia. From the memories of getting his teeth kicked out by bullies at age five, to flea marketing with his loving grandmother, to his first sexual relationships, this young-adult memoir weaves together the trials and triumphs faced by Black queer boys.

Review: All Boys Aren't Blue is an insightful and honest discussion of the intersections between race, gender, and sexuality. This memoir told in essays are centered in the author's own experiences as he navigates his own self-evolving identity in our world as a black queer young man. The memoir is divided into three sections following the author's childhood, adolescence, and current adulthood as he wrestles his pain and joy through life. He informs his reader that is not self involved to write a memoir at a very young age (33 years old), but had to write one in order to temporarily fill the vacuum of representation for young queer boys of color and to live his own truth. The journey of Johnson's activism is full of highs and lows as he understands the labels placed upon him by himself and by society. His essays and personal experiences touches upon many tough topics such as toxic masculinity, sexual abuse, institutional violence, and the dual fear of being both black and queer when both of these identities are neither safe. Though the topics are serious they add depth and realness to the essays and strengthens his call to all of us to help fight injustices in our society. I really appreciated his stance on the process of coming out to be cyclic instead of being finite and the necessity for inclusive sexual education that will help erase the stigma of queer relationships and ultimately help save lives. This is an important memoir that is a window for many and a critical mirror for black queer individuals. 

Rating: 4 stars

Words of Caution: The author includes homophobic and racial slurs and gives his reasoning for including them. There is also a frank and graphic depictions of sexual abuse as well as consensual sexual situations. Drug use and a friend's death by Recommended for teens and adults.  

If you like this book try: How We Fight for Our Lives by Saeed Jones, No Ashes in the Fire by Darnell L. Moore
Rummanah Aasi
Description: Zoe Washington isn’t sure what to write. What does a girl say to the father she’s never met, hadn’t heard from until his letter arrived on her twelfth birthday, and who’s been in prison for a terrible crime? A crime he says he never committed.
  Could Marcus really be innocent? Zoe is determined to uncover the truth. Even if it means hiding his letters and her investigation from the rest of her family. Everyone else thinks Zoe’s worrying about doing a good job at her bakery internship and proving to her parents that she’s worthy of auditioning for Food Network’s Kids Bake Challenge. But with bakery confections on one part of her mind, and Marcus’s conviction weighing heavily on the other, this is one recipe Zoe doesn’t know how to balance. The only thing she knows to be true: Everyone lies.

Review:  From the Desk of Zoe Washington is a timely and accessible read about institutionalized racism and injustice in the justice system for young readers. On her twelfth birthday, pastry chef Zoey gets a letter from her biological father, Marcus, whom she has never met and has been in prison her entire life. Despite her mother and step-father's wishes, Zoey is curious to learn more about Marcus and with the support of her grandmother writes back. Soon a tentative bond between Marcus and Zoe grows and Zoe's interest to learn more of Marcus' crime grows. After doing a brief search on the interest, Zoe uncovers that Marcus has been accused with murdering a college classmate. Marcus believes he is innocent and so does Zoe's grandmother, but what about Zoey and her parents? 
  I really appreciated how gracefully and sensitively this book handles a story about an incarcerated parent. Zoe is a compassionate heroine and though she is well aware her age is a barrier to finding the truth about Marcus, she becomes an activist by using her research skills, asking the tough questions that make adults around her uncomfortable, and utilizing her support network to the fullest extent. Zoe's frustrations with her best friend Trevor, who acts differently when he is with his friends, and her parent's differing viewpoints on Marcus make her relatable. I also loved the inclusion of the bakery aspect of the story as it highlights Zoe's creativity and balances out the serious topics with some lightness. I would definitely recommend this title to young readers who want to learn more about race and our flawed justice system.  

Rating: 4 stars

Words of Caution: There is mention of murder but no graphic descriptions and details are described. Recommended for Grades 4 and up.

If you like this book try: Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson (Adapted for young readers edition), Harbor Me by Jacqueline Woodson, A Good Kind of Trouble by Lisa Ramee, The Season of Styx Malone by Kekla Magoon, and All Rise for the Honorable Perry T. Cook by Leslie Connor
Rummanah Aasi
 During this past school year I participated in a seminar called Seeking Educational Equity and Diversity (SEED) in an effort to educate myself about the social inequities and the systemic racism in our nation. SEED awakened a part of me that lay dormant due to the lack of vocabulary of how to express my frustrations and the shockingly repetitions of gas-lighting and internalized racism. I also discovered my own biases that I need to address. If you ever have an opportunity to participate SEED in the United States, I highly, highly recommend it. 

  I want to continue my journey of anti-racism. First to educate myself on the topic and then to find ways to implement it in my school curriculum. As our nation struggles to acknowledge that #Black Lives Matter, it is now evident that we have a lot of work to do to make our nation better and the work starts with us. There are tons of book lists created that offer suggestions on how to learn about race and racism and I urge you to take note of them and seek them out for yourselves. I really do hope these books remain in our forefront and in our social conscious. 

  I wanted to create a list for myself and hold myself accountable while I am on this journey. Given the fact that race is hard topic and we are still grappling with the Covid pandemic, I also want to practice self care. My goal is to read at least one anti-racist book per month. This is not a complete list as I am always adding more titles but a start. I hope you can join me.

Rummanah Aasi
Description: London, 1887. At the Curiosity Club, a ladies-only establishment for daring and intrepid women, Victorian adventuress Veronica Speedwell meets the mysterious Lady Sundridge, who begs her to take on an impossible task--saving society art patron Miles Ramsforth from execution. Ramsforth, accused of the brutal murder of his mistress, Artemisia, will face the hangman's noose in a week's time if the real killer is not found.
But Lady Sundridge is not all that she seems, and unmasking her true identity is only the first of many secrets Veronica must uncover. Together with her natural-historian colleague, Stoker, Veronica races against time to find the true murderer. From a Bohemian artists' colony to a royal palace to a subterranean grotto with a decadent history, the investigation proves to be a very perilous undertaking indeed.

Review: If you are looking for an entertaining, well written historical mystery with large dashes of humor and a promise of romance then I would highly suggest picking up Deanna Raybourn's Veronica Speedwell series. There are currently five books out in this series and while you can read them independently you will miss out on character backstories and development.
  In this second installment, Veronica is sought out by Princess Louise to help exonerate Louise’s friend who is about to be hanged for the murder of his mistress, but Louise knows he is innocent. She tasks Veronica and her working partner cohort/roommate/potential love interest?, Stoker, to identify the real culprit. Though Veronica has unpopular feelings towards royalty, her intrigue and desire for adventures propel her to take the case. The investigation leads them from London’s competitive art community to a covert paradise for sexual deviants. Although this mystery includes classic suspicious characters and unexpected twists, Veronica’s modern attitude and disregard of Victorian social mores along with her humorous banter with Stoker are the biggest draw to this series. It is highly entertaining in seeing Veronica and Stoker assess their mystery just as they were working on their own fields of interest, for Veronica that would be studying butterflies and for Stoker taxidermy. With each book we peal more layers to the Veronica and Stoker's backstories. Another exciting installment in Raybourn’s promising historical-mystery series. I think this series will get better and better with each new book and I can't wait to read them.

Rating: 4 stars

Words of Caution: There is strong sexual content in the book, which includes sexual humor and imagery, scenes of an opium dens, and some language. Recommended for older teens and adults. 

If you like this book try: A Trecherous Curse by Deanna Raybourn (Veronica Speedwell #3), Merriweather and Royston mysteries by Vivian Conroy
Rummanah Aasi
Description: Madrid, 1957. Under the fascist dictatorship of General Francisco Franco, Spain is hiding a dark secret. Meanwhile, tourists and foreign businessmen flood into Spain under the welcoming promise of sunshine and wine. Among them is eighteen-year-old Daniel Matheson, the son of an oil tycoon, who arrives in Madrid with his parents hoping to connect with the country of his mother's birth through the lens of his camera. Photography--and fate--introduce him to Ana, whose family's interweaving obstacles reveal the lingering grasp of the Spanish Civil War--as well as chilling definitions of fortune and fear. Daniel's photographs leave him with uncomfortable questions amidst shadows of danger. He is backed into a corner of difficult decisions to protect those he loves. Lives and hearts collide, revealing an incredibly dark side to the sunny Spanish city.

Review: After reading a slew of glowing reviews and learning that Ruta Sepetys' latest novel takes place during the Spanish Civil War, I had high expectations and looked forward to reading it. Unfortunately, I had a really hard time with this book and encountered many issues which distracted me from enjoying it.
 Aspiring photographer Daniel Matheson is visiting Spain with his Texas oil tycoon father. Daniel is eager for the opportunity to flesh out his portfolio for a photography contest, perhaps an insider look at the daily life in Franco's Spain, but he gets repeated warnings, some quite aggressive, against looking too closely. Daniel is also ill prepared to start a possible relationship with Ana, a beautiful and overly qualified maid at the Castellana Hilton, where he’s staying with his parents. As their relationship starts to grow and their affection for one another deepens, so do their stark differences: Ana, daughter of executed anti-Fascists, lives a tightly constrained existence, while Daniel has privileges and is unaware of the harm he puts Ana in. 
  While I overall liked the plot of The Fountains of Silence, I had a very hard time getting into the book. The book moves very slowly despite the multiple points of views of different characters pinging from page to page. The constant shifts from character to character did not allow me to connect to any of them. I liked Daniel and Ana just fine, but I was not invested in their story as I should be and did not get emotional as their romance hit bumps. This book would have been much better if it limited the number of point of views and expanded on them to show the reader their slice of life under Franco's dictatorship. There is a subplot of the story that eventually intrigued me and I was eager to learn more about it as Sepetys slowly unspools the plot, but it only skimmed the surface which made me frustrated as I stuck with this page through all of its 512 pages and sighed, "that's it?"
 There is no doubt Sepetys did her research thoroughly and painstakingly as evidenced by quotes, photographs in between chapters and an extensive bibliography list found at the end of the book. This book will appeal to die hard historical fiction fans, but might not work for the average reader who will likely find its slow pace, length, and writing style to be too daunting.

Rating: 3 stars

Words of Caution: There are disturbing images including mentions of torture and execution, allusions to sexual harassment, and scenes of bull fighting,

If you like this book try: The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafron
Rummanah Aasi
 I hope you are all are healthy and safe. Since Illinois has been on lock down due to the pandemic, my school has shifted to remote learning. Virtual schooling has its challenges, one of which is screen fatigue. After spending eight hours a day, five days a week, I couldn't bring myself to write blog posts. I'm still working on fitting the blog into my schedule so I apologize in advance for the sporadic posts. 

Description: Tai Pham lives in the apartment above his grandmother's store, where his bedroom is crammed with sketchpads and comic books. But not even his most imaginative drawings could compare to the colorful adventure he's about to embark on.
  When Tai inherits his grandmother's jade ring, he soon finds out it's more than it appears. Suddenly he's being inducted into a group of space cops known as the Green Lanterns, his neighborhood is being overrun by some racist bullies, and every time he puts pen to paper, he's forced to confront that he might not be creative enough or strong enough to uphold his ba's legacy. Now Tai must decide what kind of hero he wants to be: will he learn to soar above his insecurities or will the past keep him grounded?

Review: In this graphic novel, Green Lantern is reimagined as a thirteen years old Vietnamese boy named Tai Pham who wakes from a dream to see his Bà Nội's, (grandmother’s) jade ring by his side. Though he tries to return the ring, it reappears at his side. Confused, Tai learns from Bà Nội that the ring has chosen him and then the next day she’s passed. Suddenly, Tai unbeknownst to him has been a superhero overnight and is introduced to the existence of the Green Lantern Corps, an “intergalactic peacekeeping force.”
  I have read a few of DC imprints for middle school and YA audiences and for the most part they are a mixed bag. Green Lantern: Legacy is a solid graphic novel that blends old and new traditions. All of the superhero journey: origin story, training montage, introduction of the villain, etc. are nicely done and well paced. I liked the nods to the familiar faces and references to the Green Lantern universe but it's not necessary to know them in order to enjoy this installment. What I loved most about this graphic novel is its infusion of Vietnamese culture, diverse cast, and the emphasis on community and compassion. The superhero, though very present in the story, does take a back seat to activism. Tong’s energetic panels, dominated by greens, oranges, steel blues, and purples, keep the visuals dynamic, and cultural details are a delight. Overall, a solid graphic novel and a great pick for younger readers who are anxiously awaiting to see the next superhero movie or tv show.

Rating: 4 stars

Words of Caution: None. Recommended to Grades 3 and up.

If you like this book try: Zatanna & the House of Secrets by Matthew Cody
Rummanah Aasi
Description: Keah Brown loves herself, but that hadn’t always been the case. Born with cerebral palsy, her greatest desire used to be normalcy and refuge from the steady stream of self-hate society strengthened inside her. But after years of introspection and reaching out to others in her community, she has reclaimed herself and changed her perspective.
   In The Pretty One, Brown gives a contemporary and relatable voice to the disabled—so often portrayed as mute, weak, or isolated. With clear, fresh, and light-hearted prose, these essays explore everything from her relationship with her able-bodied identical twin (called “the pretty one” by friends) to navigating romance; her deep affinity for all things pop culture—and her disappointment with the media’s distorted view of disability; and her declaration of self-love with the viral hashtag #DisabledAndCute.

Review: The Pretty One is an entertaining, informative, and candid collection of essays on the intersectionality of race, gender, and disability. Keah Brown is an activist for disabled representation in media and the creator of the viral campaign #DisabledAndCute, which empowers people with disabilities to own their cuteness and fight back against the daily able bodied microaggressions they face daily.
  Brown's tone is welcoming and her essays honestly reveal her own insecurities, shortcomings, and her strengths. Her desire to be beautiful, her angst about not yet knowing romantic love, and her longing for designer clothes are interwoven with stark realities of living with cerebral palsy. While reading these essays I was constantly reminded of my own abled bodied privileges that I took for granted. I was also taken aback about the lack of representation by disabled people by the media and even if they are present, almost all of them are acted by abled bodied people who act as if they had the disability (i.e. Glee, Daredevil). By discussing pop cultural alongside experiences of physical pain and encounters with the world's disregard for her disabled body, Brown presents herself as a complex person who is not defined by her labels. By far my favorite aspect of this collection of essays is Brown's insistence that she is continuing on her journey of self-love and it is not easy. There is much to love and learn in this memoir. I highly recommend it to readers who are looking to further their knowledge of social justice, disability rights, or simply want to read a story featuring a strong, beautiful young woman who wants to change the world for all of us.

Rating: 4 stars

Words of Caution: There are mentions of an eating disorder, mental illness, self harm, and suicidal thoughts. Recommended for teens and adults.

If you like this book try: Being Heumann by Judith Heumann, Such a Pretty Girl: A Story of Struggle, Empowerment, and Disability Pride by Nadina LaSpina
Rummanah Aasi
Description: The haunted season has arrived in the Antler Wood. No fox kit is safe.

When Mia and Uly are separated from their litters, they discover a dangerous world full of monsters. In order to find a den to call home, they must venture through field and forest, facing unspeakable things that dwell in the darkness: a zombie who hungers for their flesh, a witch who tries to steal their skins, a ghost who hunts them through the snow and other things too scary to mention.

Featuring eight interconnected stories and sixteen hauntingly beautiful illustrations,Scary Stories for Young Foxes contains the kinds of adventures and thrills you love to listen to beside a campfire in the dark of night.

Review: Young readers who like scary stories without the blood and gore will love Scary Stories for Young Foxes. The book begins as seven fox kits are eager to hear some scary stories. For “a story so frightening it will put the white in your tail,” their mother sends them to “the old storyteller,” an elderly fox in a cavern, who proceeds to spin a tale of vulpine horror. At first the stories seem unrelated and anti-climatic to the kits considering the warning the adults give them; Mia is separated from her loving family, while Uly is exiled. Soon the kits’ stories intertwine as the horrors they survive increase and multiply.
  The book moved slowly for me at first as the narratives and its characters found their footing, but soon the stories begin to pick up. These scary stories are definitely creepy and are borderline disturbing. The menacing tone and horror ratchets up with each story and the author does not spare its characters. There are domestic horror stories in which Mia barely survives an encounter with her beloved teacher, who’s gone rabid, and Uly is terrorized by his sisters and father because he’s disabled. The most menacing story that gave me goose bumps is when Mia is trapped by Beatrix Potter, who murders animals after using them as inspiration for her stories, which gave me flashbacks to button eyes in Neil Gaiman's Coraline. There are sixteen, beautiful and gothic sketches that add to the atmosphere, with appealing fox kits set against menacing backgrounds. The stomach-clenching fear and suspense are resolved by a happy ending, but this might be a hard read for sensitive readers, especially those who are animal lovers. Definitely a must read for budding horror fans.

Rating: 4 stars

Words of Caution: There are some disturbing images such as the process of taxidermy and cruelty to animals. Bullying and references to domestic abuse are also mentioned in the stories. Recommended for strong Grade 4 readers and up.

If you like this book try: Coraline by Neil Gaiman, The Jumbies by Tracey Baptiste, Fearsome Creatures of the Lumberwoods by Hal Johnson
Rummanah Aasi
Description: When Frankie’s mother died and her father left her and her siblings at an orphanage in Chicago, it was supposed to be only temporary—just long enough for him to get back on his feet and be able to provide for them once again. That’s why Frankie's not prepared for the day that he arrives for his weekend visit with a new woman on his arm and out-of-state train tickets in his pocket.
Now Frankie and her sister, Toni, are abandoned alongside so many other orphans—two young, unwanted women doing everything they can to survive.
   And as the embers of the Great Depression are kindled into the fires of World War II, and the shadows of injustice, poverty, and death walk the streets in broad daylight, it will be up to Frankie to find something worth holding on to in the ruins of this shattered America—every minute of every day spent wondering if the life she's able to carve out will be enough.

Review:  Laura Ruby's latest is an ambitious historical fantasy that tackles the cruelty and injustices in American history witnessed by the eyes of its female characters. The story is narrated by a ghost and it seems to mainly follow the story of Frankie, a girl who is placed in a Catholic Orphanage because her father could not afford to take care of her and her siblings after her mother allegedly tries to harm her family during the Great Depression. When her father remarries, Frankie realizes the real truth, she and her sister and brother are abandoned. Frankie suffers under the nuns' strict regime, but she also makes friends, grows up, and, eventually, falls into forbidden, passionate relationship that is tested by America's entry into World War II. As Frankie's story is well underway our ghostly narrator imbues her own ongoings as she floats, haunts around Chicago, and unveils her own story.
 The book's narrative structure will be the deciding point on whether or not you will enjoy this book. While I liked how the story was told through the ghost's omnipresent voice, it did lack consistency. If the ghost seems to only haunt Chicago, then why does it have world weary knowledge outside of the city such as the atomic bomb and the Nazi death camps. The narrative structure also distracted me from Frankie's story just when I got invested in it and wanted to know more. Though I was also curious with the ghost's identity and its past, I did not think it was well developed as Frankie's story. There is a lot important themes packed into this book such as misogyny, racism, and socio-economic inequities many of them remain surface level. I wanted the book to dig a little deeper than it did. Despite these issues, I did enjoy reading about the history of Chicago that was not about crime and the mob. Ruby is a skillful writer and she clearly shows us that the issues we are dealing with today about social injustices are not new, but have been part of American history for a really long time.

Rating: 3.5 stars

Words of Caution: There are mentions of sexual content including pregnancy, attempt of sexual assault, violence and some disturbing images in the book. Recommended for Grades 10 and up.

If you like this book try: The Book Thief by Markus Zusak (for omnipresent narrator structure), Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein
Rummanah Aasi
Description: What does it mean to lose your roots—within your culture, within your family—and what happens when you find them?

Nicole Chung was born severely premature, placed for adoption by her Korean parents, and raised by a white family in a sheltered Oregon town. From early childhood, she heard the story of her adoption as a comforting, prepackaged myth. She believed that her biological parents had made the ultimate sacrifice in the hopes of giving her a better life; that forever feeling slightly out of place was simply her fate as a transracial adoptee. But as she grew up—facing prejudice her adoptive family couldn’t see, finding her identity as an Asian American and a writer, becoming ever more curious about where she came from—she wondered if the story she’d been told was the whole truth.

Review: All You Can Ever Know is a candid and insightful memoir about growing up as a transracial adoptee. Chung writes about identity, race, motherhood, and her journey to find her true self. Chung writes openly about constantly felt like an impostor both within or outside her family. She ruminates how she had to learn how to defend herself against racial microaggressions from a very young age that her white family will never face. Chung also has felt no ties to her Korean heritage either since she can not speak the language or had no references to it in her predominately white suburb. Until her own pregnancy, Chung has debated on whether or not to find out about her birth family. Would finally getting her questions answered be worth it if the answer is that her birth parents simply did not want her? The book digs deeper as Chung takes the leap in finding out about her birth family which sometimes unveils difficult and hard topics. I also appreciated that Chung does not show her adopted parents as villains but as humans who also had flaws. 
  As someone who is constantly trying to identity herself, I found much to enjoy in All You Can Ever Know. The racial microaggressions felt familiar and I, too, lacked the language to deal with it. Though the answer to "who am I?" might not be answered fully, Chung has a better understand of herself and the book ends on a hopeful note. I would recommend this memoir to readers who enjoy stories that intersect race, gender, and motherhood.

Rating: 4 stars

Words of Caution: Racial microagressions, including racial slurs, are addressed in the book and mentions of physical abuse. Recommended for older teens and adults.

If you like this book try: Minor Feelings by Cathy Park Hong, Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng, Not Quite White by Sharmila Sen
Rummanah Aasi
Description: Lucy Callahan was struck by lightning. She doesn't remember it, but it changed her life forever. The zap gave her genius-level math skills, and ever since, Lucy has been homeschooled. Now, at 12 years old, she's technically ready for college. She just has to pass 1 more test — middle school!
   Lucy's grandma insists: Go to middle school for 1 year. Make 1 friend. Join 1 activity. And read 1 book (that's not a math textbook!). Lucy's not sure what a girl who does calculus homework for fun can possibly learn in 7th grade. She has everything she needs at home, where nobody can make fun of her rigid routines or her superpowered brain. The equation of Lucy's life has already been solved. Unless there's been a miscalculation?

Review: When Lucy was struck by lightning at age eight, her brain was damaged, resulting in her acquired savant syndrome. She becomes a mathematical genius and develops obsessive-compulsive disorder. She has been homeschooled ever since the accident. Though Lucy feels safe at home with her uncle and grandmother and wants to enroll in college math courses, her grandmother wants Lucy to get real life experience such as having a real friend, participate in one new activity, and read a book that isn't about math. With all of this in mind, her grandmother enrolls her in seventh grade, but fails to prepare her about the growing pains of middle school and about bullying in particular. Lucy hides her math abilities to blend in by making answering a certain number of questions wrong on her tests, and she's bullied by popular girl Maddie, who dubs her "cleaning lady" because of Lucy's obsessive-compulsive need for cleanliness, but when she and another student, Windy, team up with classmate Levi for a community service project, a true friendship grows.
  The three help out at the Pet Hut, a no-kill shelter where Lucy, who has never liked animals, bonds with a dog named Cutie Pi. After Cutie Pi is diagnosed with cancer-which means that she will likely be transferred to a state shelter and put down-and Windy betrays Lucy by revealing a secret, Lucy must learn how to solve problems of the heart. The Miscalculations of Lightning Girl is a quick read that manages to realistically portray Lucy's OCD and her struggles in middle school. Lucy's voice rings true, highlighting her own insecurities and strengths. I loved watching Lucy embrace her strengths, stand up for herself, and realize that she is worthy to have friends. Her journey is full of hope, wisdom, and even a love for math which is rarely seen in literature.

Curriculum Connection: Math, STEM

Rating: 4 stars

Words of Caution: There are scenes of bullying and talks of pets being put down to sleep. Recommended for Grades 4 and up.

If you like this book try: Each Tiny Spark by Paolo Cartaya, Roll with it by Jamie Sumner, Insignificant Events in the Life of a Cactus by Dusti Bowling, Rules by Cythnia Lord
Rummanah Aasi
Description: Reiko loves the endless sky and electric colors of the Californian desert. It is a refuge from an increasingly claustrophobic life of family pressures and her own secrets. Then she meets Seth, a boy who shares a love of the desert and her yearning for a different kind of life. But Reiko and Seth both want something the other can't give them. As summer ends, things begin to fall apart. But the end of love can sometimes be the beginning of you.

Review: Reiko seems to have it all: she is popular, pretty, smart, and comes from an affluent family. Reiko also secretly hides her grief for her lost beloved sister Mika and still has frequent imagined conversations with her. Reiko has a hard time talking to anyone else about her loss and the idea of going back to the ocean where Mika died is unbearable.
  Reiko is haunted by survivor's guilt and tries to live her life for both Mika and herself, but is failing to do so. She tries to fill this emotional void by starting a secret relationship with Seth, a poor boy live in a trailer from her school who she has never really noticed before. Reiko claims that her rationale for keeping a secret relationship has to do with her uncertainty of being a romantic relationship rather than being unsure about how to handle their very different social and class statuses. As Seth's social status at school rises due to Reiko's association,  Reiko feels more uncertain about her own position and privilege.
 The publisher has marketed this book as a story of grief and romance, but Reiko's grief provides the emotional backbone for this uneven novel. The author does a good job in showcasing Reiko's journey of grief; however, I wanted the epiphany moment to be much stronger and personal. It is actually Reiko's best friend, Dre, who makes the discovery instead of Reiko. I also had issues with Reiko who comes across as conceited and self absorbed. The author mentions that Reiko is biracial-her mom is white and her father is Japanese, but this adds nothing to her character and comes across as a diversity checklist.
  Readers who might pick this book up in hopes of a sweet romance will be disappointed. The romance is non-existent. Seth teeters on the verge of being an abusive boyfriend who pouts and whines when Reiko wants to spend her time with her friends though he does have a point in being used by her. Similarly, Reiko also uses Seth as an emotional band-aid. One can argue that the lack of romance emphasizes the point of the author: nothing can fix you unless you fix yourself. I agree with that statement, but I think book would have been more efficient and stronger if this book centered on a full character arc of self-discovery without the romance subplot.

Rating: 3 stars

Words of Caution: There is some minor language, scenes of underage drinking, and a scene of making out that goes too far. Recommended for Grades 9 and up.

If you like this book try: The Beauty that Remains by Ashley Woodfolk
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