Ronit & Jamil – Pamela L. Laskin

alternating narration, biracial couple, diversity in YA, families, love, Middle Grade Romance, novel in verse

Take Romeo and Juliet and put it in current times with the Israeli and Palestine conflict and we have Ronit & Jamil.  A smart Israeli girl and a smart Palestinian boy, both raised by doctors who meet in passing assisting their fathers at a hospital.  Thus begins this little (178 paged pocket sized) universal love story.

This story reads quickly and even quotes a few lines from Shakespeare’s work.  What is unique in this modern retelling is that communication not only occurs via text messages, but that Ronit and Jamil, unlike Juliet and Romeo, know the entire time they are going against family rules and cultural laws.  In fact, knowing how their relationship would be both a disgrace and punishable, makes them value their time together even more than the immature star-crossed-lovers.  The forbidden love is similar, as it has probably occurred throughout time, but these passages make it modern in a way the reader – even if unfamiliar with the Palestine and Israeli struggle – will follow.

Throughout the alternative narration, Ronit and Jamil have similarities with their family lives and their own interests, as seen in the passages “What I love” and “What I hate”.  The overall tone is one of finding love and while being afraid of rules, family, and law, holding onto that love through a time of war; finding joy and truth when it contradicts what you were led to believe.  Ronit and Jamil eventually must face their reality and which they will chose: family or love.

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American Street – Ibi Zoboi

death, diversity in YA, families, Female Leads, gay characters

Fabiola Toussaint and her mother are traveling from Haiti to America to join her aunt and cousins, but when Fabiola’s mother is held back by customs, Fabiola joins her cousins and aunt alone.  In Detroit, a city much different that Haiti, Fabiola tries to remember her mother’s guidance in a city where everything is different, her cousins act older than they should, and a mysterious stranger seems to be sending Fabiola messages.

She wants to gain her mother’s freedom, but without money or knowing how to find her once she’s been sent to New Jersey, Fabiola must turn to her cousins and friends in this new city.  Among them is Kasim, the cute boy who seems to prefer Fabiola’s natural hair and Haitian accent over the makeover and slang her cousins give and teach.  Only when a detective approaches Fabiola to assist them in a previous crime and offer to help her with the immigration process for her mother must Fabiola decide which family is more important: the life with her mother or the new love and family she has found with her cousins and Kasim.

It is often a difficult balance in trying to portray a group of people without falling into stereotypical traps in language or behavior, but this is a nice balance offered by Zoboi.  Fab’s cousins are mostly American in behavior and pretend to be strong, but when faced with challenges and fear, they fall into each other with the vulnerability that is only protected in the safely of siblings.  Stereotypes and strengths are gone and we see four young females from a different country trying to survive in a cruel world when they get swept up in greed and a new way of survival.

Fabiola’s experience with family, neighborhood criminals, her Haitian culture, and the need of her mother still detained by Immigration officials makes for a unique story of life in America, but be warned – drugs, crime, sex, death, and cussing.  Still, Fabiola (as well as some other finely created female characters) is smart, strong, and brave.  This is a new story, a strong story, and one worth sharing.

The Sun Is Also A Star – Nicola Yoon

alternating narration, diversity in YA, families, love, Safe Bets

“Do you have idea what it’s like not to fit in anywhere?”  For our characters, they all do.

Natasha is Jamaican and came to America as a child with her family.  Daniel’s family is Korean, but he was born in America.  Both struggle with living in America as outsiders.  For her it’s due to the location of her birth and for him it’s trying to learn how to be both American and Korean.  Life for Natasha is worse than trying to live the American life, she is trying to stay in America.  Natasha’s family is to be deported – tonight – when the story begins.  As a senior in high school who only knows of her life in Brooklyn, Natasha has gone from looking at colleges and planning prom to trying to find a way to remain.

This is more than a YA “meeting a stranger-turned-romance” tale, it shows the depth of families, the struggles when a teenager takes on parental roles, but what makes this second novel by Yoon amazing, and hold up to Everything, Everything is the way she writes of the side characters to show everyone has a story and how lives are connected.  This novel has so much enjoyment to offer from the budding friendship/romance of Natasha and Daniel to the way they spend a day when one is blessed with the freedom of teenagers out of school for a day as they answer questions and experience different parts of Brooklyn and New York City.  Natasha is strong and believes in science.  She values facts over emotion.  When she meets Daniel, who believes in emotions, dreams, poetry, and fate, at first it’s with amusement, but as the day continues, they both begin to understand their view of the world isn’t the only way to view it at all.

The story of these two and their immigration background, family cultures, and day together is a great story on its own, but what I appreciate of this story is that we learn about side characters in alternating narrations, yet characters who seem to have no connection somehow affect each other’s lives.  A side character story line from the security guard to an immigration lawyer having an affair show how people are connected. Yoon also manages to make us see people and circumstances from another view.  As the title suggests, the sun is more than the sun. In a story focused on people coming into a country seeking a home, the real story is the humanity between people – no matter where they are from.

 


Click here for an interview with Nicola Yoon

A Time to Dane – Padma Venkatraman

diversity in YA, novel in verse, religious

Veda is a trained prodigy in bharatanatyam dance.  In India, she is well respected as a skilled dancer.  When a bus accident results in the partial amputation of her leg, she not only loses the ability to dance, but also her connection to the story of the dance and its significance to her culture.

Trying to overcome the unfairness of the accident is only part of her struggle, she must learn that her identity as a dancer must change or disappear altogether.  Knowing dance is in her heart, she finds strength to not only begin dancing using her prosthetic leg, but to begin many aspects of her life again.  Helping her along is her lovely grandmother who has supported Veda in dance and life and Jim, the American doctor who fixes and teaches Veda how to use her new leg.  Veda is strong and resilient and when her dance teacher refuses to continue teaching her, she finds another dance teacher who isn’t put off by her disability.  In fact, it’s at this new studio where she meets Govinda, a young dancer and dance teacher, who treats Veda as an artist.

This is a story about more than dance, but the spirituality of dance cannot be ignored.  It’s as important to the story as any character.  This is a beautiful novel about healing the mind, body, and spirit.

Everywhere in Everything

Everywhere, in everything, I used to hear music.                                                                        …

in the scents of cumin, coriander, and red chili.                                                                   Wrap my arms around Paati’s plush body.                                                                                   At night I’d hear music                                                                                                                         in the buzz of hungry mosquitoes                                                                                           swarming outside my mosquito net, …

In the grey-green hospital room                                                                                                 silence                                                                                                                                         stretches.                                                                                                                                      (42-43)

The Way We Fall (Fallen World, 1) -Megan Crewe

Climate Fiction, death, diversity in YA, families, Series

Kaelyn narrates a virus outbreak through her journal entries intended for her former best friend.  Little did she realize beginning a journal-apology would act as a first hand account to an illness that soon begins killing off her friends and neighbors.

What starts with an itch and a cough leads to a hyper-hallucinating fever, with the end result being death.  Soon school is cancelled, and Kaelyn remains in her house with her family.  While her dad is one of the island’s doctors, he cannot explain what is happening.  When the government and the World Health Organization comes to town searching for answers, Kaelyn and her neighbors are left in the dark.  Things go from odd to worse with eventual Quarantine status for those left on the island.

Even though her current circumstances seem out of the ordinary, her friendship struggles are quite ordinary for teenagers.  Kaelyn’s family moved away years ago and only recently returned.  She tries to make new friendships, but is haunted by one from the past.  Her friend Leo who after being best friends for a decade, had a falling out, and now Kaelyn wants to make amends – only, this virus is keeping her on the island and him off.

Soon it’s been months, the island is still under quarantine, and more have gotten sick.  The Mainland isn’t helping other than drop offs by helicopter, but with a recent rogue gang taking things by force, the humanity of Kaelyn’s neighbors begins to disappear as would happen as fear and death increase while supplies decrease.  There’s also a light romance, but the overall focus is the disease and the island.

Being the beginning of a series, I grew tired of it expecting more action and story line progression. I’m a bit curious how the series moves forward once our characters get off of the island (which is the plot of the second), so I may finish this series eventually.


A great science/virus – apocalyptic plot like Life As We Knew It, The Living, Sweet, and H2O and other ClyFi or science conspiracy books.


Series Continues:

Salt to the Sea – Ruta Sepetys

alternating narration, Books Worth Crying Over, death, diversity in YA, period pieces

There aren’t a lot of books that the night I finish reading it, I wake and in my groggy state think back to the heartbreaking parts or dialogue.  I mean, Come On Ruta Sepetys! This is not only based on a true story, but has amazing characters – brave, loyal, courageous, kind.  And Emilia – a “warrior” (as Florian eventually calls her) for sure.   Read it.  Trust Me. Tears will flow, but they are worth it.

In 1945, thousands of refugees were trying to flee Germany.  Joana, a Lithuanian, is hunted by guilt.  Florian is Prussian has a plan he believes fate will hunt him or lead him to success.  Emilia who is Polish is living in shame and Alfred, the German sailor, is hunted by fear and a strange view of self-importance.   As these people come together, either trying to flee or trying to survive, each faces their fears and personal dangers.

This is the story of the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff at the end of WWII when 10,000 people were boarded on the cruiser [built for 1,463 passengers] to evacuate East Prussia.  Once at sea, a soviet submarine shot it with torpedoes and it sank, killing over 9,343 people.  It is the deadliest maritime disaster in history.  Sepetys writes of these hidden histories so that their stories are told and she does it so beautifully and respectfully.

I am still thinking of these characters 24 hours after completing the novel.  War brings about horrible situations, especially to the children, which is shown through these characters as well as the thousands of refugees our group encounters along the roads, walking across frozen bodies of water, and later on the ship which seems a savior, but ends up killing thousands.  Such wonderfully wise passages from The Poet, the elderly shoe maker who cares for Klaus, the 6 year old orphan, who still manages to find good in the world even as death surrounds all of them.  The historic details gained from Sepetys’ research are heartbreaking and shocking, especially to the desperate parents and the children cast aside.  The stories of the babies are really the only reason I would say 14 and over.  This was the first time I read all of the author’s notes following the completion of a work of historical fiction.

One of my top favorites for historical fiction, books worth crying over, and overall goodness still being in the world when there appears to be none left.  And that Emilia, quite the selfless warrior.

 

The Midnight Star (The Young Elites #3) – Marie Lu

Action, alternating narration, death, diversity in YA, Fantasy, Favorites, Female Leads, gay characters, Series

Three different groups of people continue to fight for power and their desire to be the one ruler in the final installment following  The Young Elites and The Rose Society.

Adelina is where she wants to be after the first two installments of this trilogy and that is as the White Wolf ruler.  She has reversed all prejudice and killings of the marked (those with powers) and has reversed the hatred she and her people faced and now in pure revenge fashion, aims it towards her former perpetrators.  She, along with her Rose Society of warriors, ensures that all marked (those formerly dubbed the ‘malfettos’) are respected in society. Her anger, and the voices in her head, make her self-conscious, paranoid, and cruel.

A few countries away her sister Violetta’s health is failing and a  prediction given earlier that the Elites will lose their powers and die seems to be coming true.  Violetta is protected by a powerful group of Elites – the same group that used to work with Adelina.  The Daggers know Adelina has gone off the deep end with her quest for revenge. They are another group vying for power.

Then there is Queen Maeve, one of the best female characters since Lady Macbeth, who harbors the two men that she brought back from death – and not with their former humanity.  Enzo, the former Malfetto Prince is still as powerful, but will kill more easily and Maeve must realize that her youngest brother, the one she always protected, is now more harmful than she realized.  Better think twice before bringing people back from the Underworld.  So Maeve, her soldiers, and her half-dead violent men are the third group.

Soon all sides collide in a battle of skill, power, and death.  People are captured by the other side and no one seems safe from each other or from the new threat they all face as marked malfettos, but a larger issue faces the powerful marked leaders: they are losing their powers.  A prophecy that was shared in the second book of the series seems to be coming true and now these strong leaders and enemies must come together for their own survival.  As battles continue, more people die (seriously – it’s like a Game of Thrones season), we wonder who will survive, who will retain power, and who will be the last leader standing. As the Elites travel to find the Gods and into the Underworld in order to learn why their powers lessen, more die on their journey.  This is a conclusion to the series that was focused on power and ruling an empire, but resolves in characters finding forgiveness, peace, love, and loyalty.

All in all after a violent, power hungry series, the Elites all finish mostly happily – if they were lucky enough to survive – and it’s a sweet ending, full circle all the way.

Holding Up the Universe – Jennifer Niven

diversity in YA, families, Favorites, gay characters

Jennifer Niven continues to bring together two unlikely people with the characters of Libby Strout (the fattest teen in America) and Jack Masselin, who cannot recognizes faces.  After years of Libby being home-bound (and losing hundreds of pounds) she reenters the world of public school, years after she had to be removed from her house by a crane.  Libby has overcome her mother’s death and faces high school bravely and with a fierce sense of humor.  Jack, always trying to fit in with those around him so that they don’t notice his moments of confusion at not recognizing his friends, remembers Libby from the night her house was taken apart so that an overweight girl could be lifted from it.

Now in high school, Jack gets caught up in a cruel game of ‘fat girl rodeo’ and he and Libby are linked together beginning with the prank and ending with group sessions and community service.  Libby is brave throughout the story, hardly letting teasing affect her.  She dances, has a quick wit, and knows people have seen the news story of her years ago, but doesn’t let it define her.  Soon she is also the only one Jack has confided into about his Prosopagnosia disorder.  An unlikely friendship for sure, but it is one with humor and support.

“We’re all weird and damaged in our own way. You’re not the only one.”

In the bravest move Libby could imagine, she proves to students – and herself – that she IS wanted, that everyone has insecurities, and that she is alive and present.  She encourages everyone to be proud of themselves and dance!  With a unique challenge/diagnosis pairing, the plot is original and really focuses on being true to yourself and loving what makes you – You!  There is a lot of cussing in this one though which is why I have it as 14 or over.


I kept thinking of the title and wondered if ‘holding up the universe’ was the weight on Libby’s shoulders, or thinking back to her substantial weight gain after her mother’s death, but finally I think it’s about how everyone is connected.  It’s a collective togetherness.

On a side note

– there is some backlash on the internet about Niven’s portrayal of obesity and the few moments Libby doubts her worth.  Instead of focusing on those fictional thoughts, the more significant portrayal of Libby is one who is fiercely strong, funny, kind, brave, and happy.  In the letter she writes to everyone/anyone, she gives worth to everyone, no matter their intelligence, size, race, or skill.  Some also think her portrayal of a cognitive disorder is romanticizing mental defects and focuses too severely on prosopagnosia.  Niven always researches for her books and writes in a respectful, profound, and delicate way.  I’m sure, like every disorder there is a range of severity, and she focused on Jack’s as severe.  As always though, this is fiction.  Enjoy fiction and know the overall tone is one of kindness, being true to yourself, and seeing past the labels of high school.

As always, I love Jennifer Niven and find her writing beautiful and that the story is always worth reading.

“Dear friend, You are not a freak. You are wanted. You are necessary. You are the only you there is. Don’t be afraid to leave the castle. It’s a great big world out there. Love, a fellow reader”

The Book of Broken Hearts – Sarah Ockler

diversity in YA, families, Favorites, love, mental illness, Safe Bets

Jude Hernandez is 18, the much younger sister of three older sisters who live around the country, and is spending her summer before college in an effort to fix her dad’s old motorcycle.  Why?  Because her dad, Papi, is at the beginning stages of Alzheimer’s and Jude sees how each time Papi speaks of his summer riding the motorcycle, he lights up.  The only problem is the 19 year old who is the hired worker to fix the motorcycle is Emilio Vargas – the youngest brother of the Vargas boys who have broken the elder Hernandez sisters’ hearts.

Jude (JuJu) was a 12-year-old preteen when she took the oath to swear off the Vargas family with her older sisters.  Surely now that the eldest sisters are living in different states, and are grown, the juvenile oath doesn’t hold…. the bike can get fixed before the summer and her sisters will never know Emilio Vargas was invited into the Hernandez household.  The only problem is Emilio shares the good looks of the Vargas family, and JuJu not only relies on him to restore the motorcycle, but begins to rely on him during the summer she cares for her ailing dad.

With sisterly humor, family struggles, a light romance, and a daughter’s love wanting to do something for her father who is disappearing from their lives.  Her love for her dad surpasses the sisterly oath.  In a light, entertaining read, this is an entertaining romantic and even silly story of a family and first romance.

Scarlett Undercover – Jennifer Lathiam

Award Nominee, diversity in YA, Female Leads, Young Readers

Scarlett is a Muslim-American, private detective.  Not much past teenage years, she seems to have either insanely good luck or an unprecedented ability of street smarts, an unrealistic ability in observational tendencies (more than the local police), and is very smart and able to defend herself.  In summary – this is a bit far fetched (and that’s before we get to the mystery of a suicide with secrets, relics which hold special power, and the murder of her own father.)

I understand and appreciate the diversity Lathiam offers with a Muslim narrator and her community, but it’s not enough for this book to have my vote for the Arkansas Teen Book Award, which is why I read it.  I enjoyed some of the mystery when we first learned a suicide isn’t all it appears to be and the scrappy little siblings of a pair of friends who have more depth to them then the detective, even though she is older and is the main character.  It’s a light mystery, but mostly far fetched, even if the effort is to bring about minorities in a young adult novel, the plot isn’t enough.  Well done on diversity and a little creativity, but it doesn’t totally deliver.  Or maybe it does for the pre-teen crowd, I was just expecting more.

Although, before you hand it to the preteen crowd, there are deaths within this story besides the suicide or Scarlett’s dad.  Also, there is a strong focus on the Muslim community and Arabic appears throughout – in greetings and mention of prayers – but for such a focus on a devout Muslim family, and a sister named Reem who wears a hijab, I don’t find the name Scarlett fitting with the family.