Rummanah Aasi

Description: Fifteen-year-old Matt Wainwright is in turmoil. He can’t tell his lifelong best friend, Tabby, how he really feels about her; his promising basketball skills are being overshadowed by his attitude on the court, and the only place he feels normal is in English class, where he can express his inner thoughts in quirky poems and essays. Matt is desperately hoping that Tabby will reciprocate his feelings; but then Tabby starts dating Liam Branson, senior basketball star and all-around great guy. Losing Tabby to Branson is bad enough; but, as Matt soon discovers, he’s close to losing everything that matters most to him.

Review: Awkward high school freshman Matt Wainwright has two goals in life. He wants to elevate his basketball skills from JV to Varsity and get the girl: his longtime next-door neighbor and unattainable best friend Tabby. Unfortunately, life doesn't follow Matt's plans. He systematically chokes and is error prone whenever Tabby is around, which prevents him from disclosing his true feelings for Tabby. After a school tragedy leaves Matt reeling as he risks losing everything important to him.
  I got many flashes to John Green's novels while reading The Short History of a Girl Next Door, but it didn't have the same emotional punch or moments of epiphanies. Where the author does succeed is the authentic voice and the inner monologues. Matt's voice is that of an authentic freshmen teenager filled with insecurity, awkwardness, and self deprecating humor. His infatuation with Tabby feels real and we spend a lot of time with Matt pining Tabby. The second half has a tragic twist that brings out  Matt's grief-induced selfishness, self-pity, and occasional outright cruelty. Matt's warm relationship with his grandfather unveils some surprises and sets Matt on the road to deal with his grief and loss in a positive manner.
  The book's short chapters, brisk pacing, and the in-depth descriptions of basketball will make this book appealing to reluctant readers. I had hoped we would spend more time Matt on his road to recovery, but it ends in an uplifting note.

Rating: 4 stars

Words of Caution: There is strong language throughout the novel and some crude sexual humor. Recommended for Grades 9 and up.

If you like this book try: The Goodbye Days by Jeff Zentner, The History is All You Left Me by Adam Silvera, Looking for Alaska by John Green
Rummanah Aasi
Description: For ten years, figure skating was Tillie Walden's life. She woke before dawn for morning lessons, went straight to group practice after school, and spent weekends competing at ice rinks across the state. It was a central piece of her identity, her safe haven from the stress of school, bullies, and family. But over time, as she switched schools, got into art, and fell in love with her first girlfriend, she began to question how the close-minded world of figure skating fit in with the rest of her life, and whether all the work was worth it given the reality: that she, and her friends on the figure skating team, were nowhere close to Olympic hopefuls. It all led to one question: What was the point? The more Tillie thought about it, the more Tillie realized she'd outgrown her passion--and she finally needed to find her own voice.

Review: Spinning is a quiet, contemplative graphic memoir about competitive ice skating, growing up, and coming out. Walden offers a candid examination of her experiences in figure skating from her passion for the sport and the embarrassments to experiences that marked pivotal moments in her adolescence, and how she eventually came out to family and friends as a young teen.
  Like the subtle text of the graphic novel, the art does not have any bells and whistles. It is very simple and mostly chromatic with a small color collection: indigo, white, and occasional splashes of yellow. The cold tone is reflective of the cold ice skating ring that Walden attended each morning before the sunrises as well as the teenage angst of a young woman trying to find her own place. Instead of focusing on the seedier side of figure skating, Walden focuses her own relationship with the sport and how she fell in and out of love with it. Various relationships are discussed though mostly are held at an arm's length particularly that of her strained relationship with her mother and her first romantic relationship which is both sweet and heartbreaking. Written when she is only 21 years old, Walden has lots of talent and I hope to read more from her.

Rating: 4 stars

Words of Caution: There is some minor language. There are scenes of bullying and of unwanted sexual advances and attempted assault in the graphic novel. Recommended for Grades 9 and up.

If you like this book try: Fun Home by Alison Bechdel, Blankets by Craig Thompson
Rummanah Aasi

Description: After years in foster care, Ginny is in her fourth forever family, finally with parents who will love her. Everyone tells her that she should feel happy, but she has never stopped crafting her Big Secret Plan of Escape. Because something happened, a long time ago – something that only Ginny knows – and nothing will stop her going back to put it right.

Review: Ginny Moon is a much darker read than I had first expected. It is a bracing coming of age novel, but also an examination on what makes a family. When Ginny Moon was nine, she was removed from her abusive mother Gloria's custody and placed in foster care or as Ginny calls them "forever homes". Due to her autism, Ginny has never found a perfect forever home until her fourth forever home with a well meaning couple who are having problems having a child on their own. Ginny is approximately satisfied but she needs to rescue Baby Doll who left in a suitcase 8 years ago in at Gloria's apartment to keep her safe. Now Ginny is 14, how can she be comforted when her Baby Doll is not safe? What is Baby Doll and is Ginny's cherished possession still in the suitcase? This is the central mystery of the book.
  Ginny's first-person narration reveals the gulf between her internal life and her ability to communicate with the outside world. I felt a wide range of emotions both for Ginny and her loving foster parents. On the one hand, I couldn't help but feel frustrated for Ginny as she is constantly misunderstood and at odds with those around her. I knew what she was referring to as Baby Doll and it pained me to see her inability to communicate what she really means. On the other hand, it was heartbreaking to see Ginny's tunnel vision on rescuing Baby Doll while seemingly oblivious to the protections in place that prevent her from returning to Gloria, creating turmoil within her new family. Ginny isn't completely ignorant of Gloria's abuse as she mentions it constantly with her urgency to find Baby Doll.
  I wouldn't necessarily call Ginny an unreliable narrator, but the details of the story are spread out evenly in the book and gradually coalesce and make sense while upping the suspense. What I found interesting after I read the book and remarked on how accurate it feels is that the author incorporated his own personal experience as the adoptive father of a teen with autism.
  Ginny Moon is a heartfelt and often heartbreaking debut novel that has adult and YA crossover appeal, especially with readers who enjoy character driven stories.

Rating: 4 stars

Words of Caution: There is some strong language in the book. Allusions to child neglect, child abuse, drug abuse and death of an animal are made in the book. For the mature themes I would recommend this book to older teens and adults.

If you like this book try: The Curious Incident of the Dog in Night-Time by Mark Haddon
Rummanah Aasi

Description: JOSEF is a Jewish boy living in 1930s Nazi Germany. With the threat of concentration camps looming, he and his family board a ship bound for the other side of the world . . .

ISABEL is a Cuban girl in 1994. With riots and unrest plaguing her country, she and her family set out on a raft, hoping to find safety in America . . .

MAHMOUD is a Syrian boy in 2015. With his homeland torn apart by violence and destruction, he and his family begin a long trek toward Europe . . .

All three kids go on harrowing journeys in search of refuge. All will face unimaginable dangers -- from drownings to bombings to betrayals. But there is always the hope of tomorrow. And although Josef, Isabel, and Mahmoud are separated by continents and decades, shocking connections will tie their stories together in the end.

Review: With immigration being a hot topic and feverishly discussed and debated in the news, Alan Gratz's stirring middle grade novel, Refugee, is timely and important. It is focused on the different reasons why immigrants flee their native homelands. The book is told in three parallel stories of three different tween refugees from different eras, Josef from Nazi Germany in 1938, Isabel from 1994 Cuba, and Mahmoud from 2015 Aleppo, Syria, that eventually intertwine for maximum impact. 
  Although these countries, time periods, and three brave protagonists are very different, Gratz shows us how they share many things in common. Josef, Isabel, and Mahmoud traverse a landscape ruled by a dictator and must balance freedom, family, and responsibility. Each initially leaves by boat, surviving at sea, struggles between visibility and invisibility in fear of safety, experience heart-wrenching loss, and ultimately gaining resilience in the process. In each alternating chapter we get a snapshot of being on their perilous journey with the people involved. What I found interesting is that the behavior of the children remained constant, however, the adults were unpredictable. There were many adults who exploited the vulnerabilities of the refugees, others who were constrained by their obligations not to help either due to their own safety being endangered or those dictated by their law or government, and a few who were driven by kindness and sincerity.
    Though Refugee is written for the middle grade audience, Gratz does not sugar coat the disastrous living conditions of each setting. He manages to be poignant, respectful and historically accurate in the book without resorting to shock value or making one dimensional characters. The chapters are short and fast paced. You can either read one narrative all the way through to the end, but I would suggest to read the book as it is formatted to get the full effect of how these stories are interwoven and effect each other. Though they are plenty of dark moments in the book, the ending does show us signs of hope for the future. The powerful author's note explains why Gratz wrote this book. Refugee is an excellent book for book discussions for older middle grade and above in classrooms, book groups, and/or communities looking to increase empathy at time when it is most needed.

Rating: 4.5 stars

Words of Caution: There is mention of bombings, gunfire, and other war violence in the book. Recommended for Grades 6 and up.

If you like this book try: Shooting Kabul by N.H. Senzai, Escape from Aleppo by N.H. Senzai
Rummanah Aasi

Description: Classic movie fan Bailey “Mink” Rydell has spent months crushing on a witty film geek she only knows online as Alex. Two coasts separate the teens until Bailey moves in with her dad, who lives in the same California surfing town as her online crush.
 Faced with doubts (what if he’s a creep in real life—or worse?), Bailey doesn’t tell Alex she’s moved to his hometown. Or that she’s landed a job at the local tourist-trap museum. Or that she’s being heckled daily by the irritatingly hot museum security guard, Porter Roth—a.k.a. her new arch-nemesis. But life is whole lot messier than the movies, especially when Bailey discovers that tricky fine line between hate, love, and whatever it is she’s starting to feel for Porter. And as the summer months go by, Bailey must choose whether to cling to a dreamy online fantasy in Alex or take a risk on an imperfect reality with Porter. The choice is both simpler and more complicated than she realizes, because Porter Roth is hiding a secret of his own: Porter is Alex…Approximately.

Review: Alex, Approximately is the perfect summer romance read and an updated homage to You've Got Mail with some depth. Bailey Rydell, aka "Mink," is a self-described "habitual evader" and an "artful dodger" who lives far away from her online friend "Alex." Bailey and Alex have never met in real life. When Bailey moves across the country to the California town where Alex lives, she is afraid her online chemistry with Alex won't translate into the real world. Nonetheless, she begins to adapt to her new surroundings, lands a job, makes a friend, and faces an adorable nemesis named Porter.
  I am a huge movie fan and I loved how Bennett included classic films into the story whether it is from Bailey's vintage fashion with nods to Lana Turner and Roman Holiday to quotes from iconic movies that frame each chapter. Bailey's reserved, introverted personality is pitted with Porter's easy going surfer attitude quite well and effectively creates tension to the antagonistic romance trope. Both Bailey and Porter have personal issues and complicated tragic backstories that give their characters depth without dragging the book into teen angst and melodrama. I also appreciated the inclusion of diverse characters such as Porter, who is half Polynesian/Chinese and half white, and important secondary characters like Bailey's friend Grace who is half Nigerian and half British. I would have loved to know more about Porter's ethnic background and his family. 
 I also appreciated that the author didn't confine Bailey and Porter's relationship to just the emails, but that their relationship grows organically. The fact that they met and clicked online is just an added bonus for the reader and also opens to the door to misunderstandings and missed opportunities that drive the plot further. Once I started this book I had a very hard time putting it down because I was enjoying Bailey's and Alex's banter. Bailey is resilient, introverted yet vulnerable and it was so fun watching her come out of her shell. Likewise Porter is so utterly charming but also wary of putting himself out there. This is a book that should top every romance reader's reading list.

Rating: 4.5 stars

Words of Caution: There is some strong language, mentions of drug abuse and underage drinking, and a fade to black sex scene. Recommended for Grades 9 and up.

If you like this book try: P.S. I Like You by Kasie West

Description: Lara Jean is having the best senior year. And there’s still so much to look forward to: a class trip to New York City, prom with her boyfriend Peter, Beach Week after graduation, and her dad’s wedding to Ms. Rothschild. Then she’ll be off to college with Peter, at a school close enough for her to come home and bake chocolate chip cookies on the weekends. Life couldn’t be more perfect! At least, that’s what Lara Jean thinks…until she gets some unexpected news. Now the girl who dreads change must rethink all her plans—but when your heart and your head are saying two different things, which one should you listen to?

Review: I have absolutely adored Jenny Han's To All the Boys I Loved Before series and was so sad to see this series end. Lara Jean Song Covey embarks on her senior year of high school and is faced with lots of unknowns about the future. Lara Jean has never embraced change, but when her dream college plans go awry she needs to be honest with herself about what she truly wants. Throughout this series we have watched Lara Jean slowly evolve from a sheltered girl to that of a confident girl. She is still thoughtful, crafty, and an adorable girl next door. Some readers complain that she still acts like she is a tween, but I disagree and find her wholesomeness refreshing.
  The book's pacing matches quite nicely with what it feels like as a high school senior. The first half moves along with little to no conflict as Lara Jean applies to colleges and waits to hear back. Her widowed father is also moving forward and plans to re-marry which brings a little tension in the Covey household. The second half of the book is where the action kicks off with lots of big life choices to think about such as the discussion of taking her relationship with Peter Kavinsky to the next level and their anxieties of maintaining a relationship as they go to college.
 I will admit that I wasn't crazy about Peter Kavinsky. I was more of a John Ambrose McClaren kind of gal, but I have to say that Peter Kavinsky won me over in this book. He is patient with Lara Jean and respects her decisions. While Peter and Lara Jean's romance is a big part of the book it does not overshadow Lara Jean's growth to a confident young woman who learns to choose for herself, which is refreshing.

Rating: 4.5 stars

Words of Caution: There is some language, underage drinking, and references to sex. Recommended for Grades 9 and up.

If you like this book try: Hello, Goodbye, and Everything In Between by Jennifer E. Smith, The Moon and More by Sarah Dessen, Saint Anything by Sarah Dessen, Everything, Everything by Nicola Yoon
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