Rummanah Aasi

2020 is a year many of us would like to forget. It was a hard year for all of us, but there were a lot great books released this year to help us distract and educate ourselves. Though I have not posted many reviews in 2020, I did read a lot of great books. Here are my favorite books of 2020. As a quick disclaimer, these books may not all be 2020 releases but I did read them in 2020. These books are ranked according to the interest level. 

Favorite Adult Books

I have not read as many adult titles that I would have liked to in 2020 due to the serious content and the ongoing pandemic. I noticed that I read mainly for escapism, especially from the months of March-December, but there were two serious books that I absolutely loved.  

Giovanni's Room by James Baldwin: I read James Baldwin for the first time in the fall of 2019 as part of my library's classic literature book club. I spent the whole day reading and rereading this exquisite book. There is so much to unpack in this book: sexuality, race, masculinity, freedom, privilege, etc. Is it tragic or hopeful? Can it be both? Neither? I don’t know, but I will be thinking about this book for a long time.

My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell:  My Dark Vanessa was by far the hardest book I read this year. The book highlights the complexities of the #MeToo movement. I had so many emotions swirling in me after finishing this book. It is hard to say “I enjoyed” this book because of its content but it has given me a lot to think about and I need to find someone to discuss it. You definitely have to be in the right head space to read this one, but definitely do pick it up. *Review coming soon.

Favorite Children Books

I read quite a few good children/middle grade reads this year, but two books stood out to me this year.

The Prettiest
by Brigit Young: 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.

Three Keys by Kelly Yang: A wonderful companion novel to Yang's debut middle grade novel that covers racism, immigration, privilege, and xenophobia. *Review coming soon

Favorite YA Books

Young Adult books dominate my reading pile. I had a hard time keeping up with all the new releases for 2020. I read a lot of memorable books so it was very hard to narrow down this category. 

Clap When You Land
by Elizabeth Acevedo: My favorite Elizabeth Acevedo novel to date. This is a beautifully written story about sisters, family secrets, toxic masculinity, and grief among other things. 

Last True Poets of the Sea by Julia Drake: The Last True Poets of the Sea is a character driven novel that is loosely inspired by Shakespeare's gender bending comedy play Twelfth Night and invokes so many emotions about family, friendship, and mental health.

Parachutes by Kelly Yang: Parachutes is an insightful look at privilege, power, race, identity, and class.
*Review coming soon

Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You by Jason Reynolds and Ibram X. Kendi: A young adult adaptation of Dr. Kendi's award winning novel Stamped from the Beginning, which traces the history of racism and the many political, literary, and philosophical narratives that have been used to justify slavery, oppression, and genocide.  *Review coming soon

This is My America by Kim Johnson: 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.

This is My Brain in Love by I.W. Gregerio: A great discussion of mental health and the stigma of mental health particularly in communities of color. *Review coming soon

Favorite Graphic Novels/Manga

I read several fantastic graphic novels in 2020. This was another category that was hard to narrow down.

Check, Please! Book 2: Sticks and Scones
by Ngozi Ukazu: A great conclusion to a graphic novel series that will warm your heart. 

Heartstopper Volumes 1 and 2 by Alice Oseman: Two teens sorting out their identities and falling in love.

When Stars are Scattered by Victoria Jamieson and Omar Mohamed: The best graphic memoirs that I have read thus far this year. 

Honorable Mentions

The following books are the ones that left a lasting impression on me that I would also highly recommend reading:

All You Can Ever Know by Nicole Chung
Amazons, Abolitionists, and Activists by Mikki Kendall
American as Paneer Pie by Supriya Kelkar
Black Brother, Black Brother by Jewell Parker Rhodes
Burn by Patrick Ness
Cosmoknights Vol 1 by Hannah Templer
Darius the Great Deserves Better by Adib Khorram
Dragon Hoops by Gene Luen Yang
Felix Ever After by Kacen Callender
Fence Vols 1-4 by C.S. Pacat
Foul is Fair by Hannah Capin
Grown by Tiffany D. Jackson
Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson
Land of the Cranes by Aida Salazar
Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up with Me by Mariko Tamaki
The Pretty One by Keah Brown
Punching the Air by Yusef Salaam and Ibi Zoboi
The Raybearer by Jordan Ifueko
Sigh, Gone by Phuc Tran
Superman Smashes the Klan by Gene Luen Yang
Tell Me Who You Are by Winona Guo and Priya Vulchi
This Book is Anti-Racist by Tiffany Jewel
Tweet Cute by Emma Lord
A Song of Wraiths and Ruin by Roseanne A. Brown
When They Call You a Terrorist (YA Edition) by Patrisse Khan-Cullors and Asha Bandele
Rummanah Aasi
 Jessica and Emily Burnstein have very different ideas of how this college tour should go.

For Emily, it’s a preview of freedom, exploring the possibility of her new and more exciting future. Not that she’s sure she even wants to go to college, but let’s ignore that for now. And maybe the other kids on the tour will like her more than the ones at school. They have to, right?

For Jessica, it’s a chance to bond with the daughter she seems to have lost. They used to be so close, but then Goldfish crackers and Play-Doh were no longer enough of a draw. She isn’t even sure if Emily likes her anymore. To be honest, Jessica isn’t sure she likes herself.

Together with a dozen strangers–and two familiar enemies–Jessica and Emily travel the East Coast, meeting up with family and old friends along the way. Surprises and secrets threaten their relationship and, in the end, change it forever.

Review: Abi Waxman's I Was Told It Would Get Easier attempts to capture the mother-daughter relationship like the television show Gilmore Girls but does not quite succeed. The book's plot is pretty simple: Jessica Burnstein accompanies her daughter, Emily on a week-long bus tour of top-notch colleges. The two women have a strained relationship and do not meet eye to eye on a lot of things.  Jessica, a successful lawyer and single mother, wants the best for Emily, which includes getting her into a top college. Jessica purchased a pricey package deal to tour big-name colleges up the East Coast from Georgetown to Columbia with all the bells and whistles including the inevitable tension and arguments. 
   Emily is unsure if she wants to go to college and is constantly aware that she is an utter disappointment to her ambitious and workaholic mother. Emily's dialogue tries too hard to be hip, but shes does act like a teenager, pushing her mother away; Jessica does the parent act, managing her emotions without drowning in them. The college tour is not really exciting and features the typical peppy tour guide, hectic schedule, anxious parents, and annoyed kids. Waxman does try to make her story timely with subplots such as a #MeToo sexual harassment incident at Jessica's job and a nod to the college admission scandal at Emily's school in Los Angeles; of course neither of which mother or daughter has shared with the other. There is nothing that wowed me with this book and I did get a few chuckles here and there. Overall an easy read, but it will not leave a lasting impression once you have finished it.  If you wanted to pick up a book by Waxman, skip this one and read The Bookish Life of Nina Hill instead.  

Rating: 3 stars

Words of Caution: There is strong language, crude humor, and sexual situations. Recommended for adults and older teens only.

If you like this book try: Today will be different by Maria Semple
Rummanah Aasi
 After eleven-year-old Ollie's school bus mysteriously breaks down on a field trip, she has to take a trip through scary woods, and must use all of her wits to survive. She must stick to small spaces.

Review: Small Spaces is Katherine Arden's debut middle grade novel. This spooky tale follows Ollie who is still reeling from the death of her beloved mother. Ollie has drawn inward, grieves on her own, and does not socialize with any of her classmates. When she has a strange encounter with a distressed woman and retrieves the book the woman is trying to discard, Ollie finds herself captivated by its tale of two brothers; Beth, the woman they love; and a sinister “smiling man.” 
    On a school field trip the next day, a series of eerie mishaps strands Ollie and a busload of her classmates near a farm exactly like the one in the book. Only two other students, Coco and Brian, believe her when she insists they are all in danger. Ollie knows that the smiling man’s army of once-human scarecrows can attack them if they’re found out in the open. She has been told to stick to small spaces as the book title suggests. The entire class is doomed to be the victims of an age-old bargain unless Ollie, Coco, and Brian can save them. 
    Not only does Small Spaces have a captivating plot that will keep the pages turning, the characters make this story pop. Ollie, Coco, and Brian are an unlikely trio but they help one another overcome their fears and learn to trust while breaking down their preconceived notions of each other. The characters come off as likable and believable, hinting at self actualization along with making mistakes due to their immaturity. While the book concludes nicely with an uplifting ending, there are indications that the story is not over. Small Spaces is a great Halloween pick or if a young reader is eager to read a creepy but not overtly scary book. I look forward to seeing what adventures lie ahead for Ollie, Coco, and Brian.

Rating: 4 stars

Words of Caution: There are some disturbing and creepy images. Recommended for Grades 5 and up.

If you like this book try: Dead Voices by Katherine Arden, Scary Stories for Young Foxes by Christian McKay Heidicker, Coraline by Neil Gaiman, and Nightbooks by J.A. White
Rummanah Aasi
 1800, Joseon (Korea). Homesick and orphaned sixteen-year-old Seol is living out the ancient curse: “May you live in interesting times.” Indentured to the police bureau, she’s been tasked with assisting a well-respected young inspector with the investigation into the politically charged murder of a noblewoman.
  As they delve deeper into the dead woman's secrets, Seol forms an unlikely bond of friendship with the inspector. But her loyalty is tested when he becomes the prime suspect, and Seol may be the only one capable of discovering what truly happened on the night of the murder.

Review: The Silence of Bones is an intricate and gritty historical mystery set in gritty mystery, set in the Joseon dynasty of 1800. Our main protagonist is Seol, a teen, indentured servant to the Hanyang police. When the daughter of a high-ranking government official is found dead with her nose sliced off, Seol's curiosity and keen observational skills lead the enigmatic Inspector Han to recognize her natural sleuthing skills and promise post-investigation freedom if she cooperates. As in any mystery, nothing is what they seem. Through bits and pieces of Seol's memories we learn of her backstory: her father's death, her mother's suicide; and of her kind older brother who has been missing for several years-keep interfering with her duties. These two narratives eventually collide. 
  This book requires patience as the pacing is a bit slow as Hur builds suspense carefully while offering a noir-tinged atmosphere of late nights, mist-shrouded streets, and clandestine meetings. I had not heard of the Korean concept of han before reading this book so this part of the book fascinated me and kept me turning the pages. The customs, language, and politics, are woven flawlessly into the narrative, which is firmly grounded in the novel's historical basis: looming Catholic persecution, the Shinyu Bakhae of 1801, another element that I had never learned of and was intrigued by in the book. Some readers may solve the mystery ahead of Seol, normally a pet peeve of mine when reading mysteries; however I was so drawn in by the historical and cultural elements that I did not mind. The author does not shy away from cruelty in the book so sensitive readers may need to skip the abuse and torture scenes. I would recommend The Silence of Bones to readers who are eager to learn about cultures outside of Western-centric countries and a well written mystery. I look forward to reading more from Hur in the future. 

Rating: 4 stars

Words of Caution:  There are scenes of abuse and torture sometimes graphic, including attempted rape. 

If you like this book try: The Forest of Stolen Girls by June Hur (April 2021), The Agency series by Y.S. Lee, Steeplejack by A.J. Hartley
Rummanah Aasi
 Omar and his little brother, Hassan, arrived in Dadaab, a refugee camp in Kenya, seven years ago. Their father was killed the day they left home, and they haven't seen their mother since they joined their neighbors who were fleeing to Dadaab. Now Omar is eleven and Hassan is nine, and Omar has quit school to look after his brother, who has an intellectual disability.
     When Omar is given the opportunity to return to school and carve out a future for himself and Hassan, he feels torn. He loves school and could have the opportunity to earn a coveted scholarship to a North American university--and with it a visa for himself and Hassan. But is it worth the risk and heartache of leaving his vulnerable brother for hours each day?

Review: When Stars Are Scattered is one of the best graphic memoirs that I have read thus far this year. We follow the day in the life of Omar Mohamed and his younger brother, Hassan, who live in the Dadaab Refugee Camp in Kenya and their dreams of being resettled in a new land like the United States. We learn early on that Omar has to take care of Hassan, who has a seizure disorder and is unable to talk. Both boys are looked after by their foster mother, Fatuma, an elderly woman assigned to them in their parents’ absence. The boys’ father was killed in Somalia’s civil war, prompting them to flee on foot when they were separated from their mother. They desperately hope she is still alive and looking for them, as they are for her. 
   The graphic memoir covers six years, during which Omar struggles with decisions about attending school, juggling his responsibilities as an older brother along with his personal desire to want more for his future. True to life, the graphic memoir depicts the highs of learning and making new friends along with the lows and the difficulties of keeping hope for a future when the present time is so dark and grim. Through Omar’s journey, and those of his friends and family members, readers get a close, powerful view of the trauma and uncertainty that attend life as a refugee as well as the faith, love, and support from unexpected quarters that get people through it. I would have loved to see Omar's new life in the United States, but we are told in a narrative of his achievements. When Stars Are Scattered is another personal and human story to a much controversial topic of immigration. Jamieson's illustrations and panels are easy to read and follow. She captures the emotions of Omar and his friends so effectively. If you have not picked up this graphic memoir yet, I highly recommend it.  

Rating: 4.5 stars

Words of Caution: Horrors of war are mentioned and most of the violence occurs off the page. There are a few instances of bullying portrayed. There are allusions to drug abuse and domestic violence. Recommended for Grades 5 and up.

If you like this book try: Stormy Seas by Mary Beth Leatherdale and for older readers The Unwanted by Don Brown
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
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