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.


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”

Ask the Passengers – A. S. King

Award Nominee, diversity in YA, families, Female Leads, gay characters, love

No one is perfect.

There are sort of three stories in one with this novel, which takes a little bit to get really into but it’s worth the wait. First, is the narration of Astrid Jones’ 17 year old life.  Her family moved to a small town from New York after her mom decided to buy the old family estate.  The mom is a piece of work, judgmental, favors Astrid’s younger sister so openly to serve her alcohol, take her on “mommy dates”, and favor any moment spent with her ignoring Astid for similar things.  Her sister is more small town minded than Astrid and focuses on what her schoolmates think.  Then the dad is clearly unhappy in a dull job and avoids his passive aggressive wife by smoking pot.  Astrid is also secretly trying to figure out if she’s gay and afraid to let anyone know.  Oh, she also helps keep the cover up of the perfect “it” couple at school, Christina and Justin (who are both gay, but pretend to be dating).

The second aspect of this story is when Astrid lays on her picnic table in the backyard and imagines the lives of passengers as planes fly above her.  We are given little mini-stories of passengers as Astrid imagines who is in the planes.  But in a touching way for a girl who receives no real love at home, she passes love to these strangers thousands of feet above her whose lives she imagines.  She doesn’t want to keep all of her love since she doesn’t feel she needs it all, but in a full circle at the end, it is Astrid who receives love.

The last part is actually quite funny.  It helps to offset the homophobic slurs that eventually get said and the sad lack of a mother-daughter relationship that Astrid wants, but doesn’t have.  Astrid is in a humanities class studying philosophers and she’s decided to take her appreciation of Socrates by imagining “Frank” Socrates and how he’d react to her life.    As she discusses Plato’s  Allegory of the Cave, she eventually compares those cavemen who want to stay living in the shadows to that of her close-minded classmates, and even her own sister who refuses to branch out from their mother’s favoritism to be an independent thinker.


This is definitely a novel for older readers, not because of the many gay characters (who most are still in the closet other than their friendship), but due to the cussing.  There is a lot of cussing.  Once Astrid and her friends are outed (a raid on the gay bar in the city) prejudice and stereotypes become more apparent in their high school and Astrid not only has to struggle with the small minded hatred, she has to decide whether to tell her parents the truth.  She questions her arousal to Dee, her openly out female coworker and girlfriend.  There are great points made in this book about trying to find the truth and what people actually need to be honest and happy.  Even from her judgment mom, Claire, Astrid is told being gay isn’t a choice, you’re either born gay or straight.  While Claire hates how the gossip affects her and is not a warm mother to her eldest daughter, King has this otherwise bad mother say a loving comment which offers overall support, even if her daily actions are contradictory.

In the end a big discussion on labels and placing people in boxes to try to categorize them is the point – and being true to yourself.   With the humanities project of arguing paradoxes, Astrid argues against the idea of perfection and proves her point that no one is perfect, not her overcritical mother, her best friends, or passengers that fly over her house.  Everyone is simply trying to live and she sends love to them, but decides to keep some for herself as well.


I Was Here – Gayle Forman

death, families, mental illness, suicide

Cody receives an email from her friend Meg that she has killed herself.  Planning an email on a time delay, indicating which motel she was in, and telling her parents how to deal with her body…. it seems Meg thought of everything, only not how her suicide would affect her best friend, family, and the small town she had just left behind.

Cody, much like everyone, is confused more than anything that Meg killed herself.  Even boxing up most of her own belongings before committing suicide, it seems Meg was factual, logical, and of sound mind – lists, boxes, emails.  How can one such intelligent and functioning girl want to die?  In her email Meg wrote it had been coming for a long time and Cody begins to question her entire background with her best friend.

  • A side note to myself on the main emotions and how loss is dealt with in this book (for my next piece on The Hub): Confusion, bitterness of being left behind, and that she failed her friend by not keeping in touch.  The overall tone is being left behind and the reasons Meg killed herself.  Confusion mostly until Cody feels a purpose in figuring out why Meg killed herself, and that is where the suicide gets darker in a realistic, online-suicide-group sort of way.  Everyone processes grief differently – baking, talking (or not talking), reliving memories, or anger….. “the tentacles of her suicide” affecting everyone.  Later Cody must acknowledge forgiveness and that she may need to forgive herself, but in her grief she’d rather be angry because she’d rather focus on anger than feel exposed and the resulting sadness.  She does not want to face the depth of her loss.  Meg’s Dad mentions how if there was someone to blame then grieving her would be simpler and cleaner.  Once Cody let’s her true feelings out, the guilt is the strongest, but in the end she is just left left sad about what was and what could have been.  Anger and sadness can be experienced at the same time during grief and this book  covers it well – as well as the added bonus of trying to teach forgiveness for ourselves (and hits upon depression and mental illness).

Once Cody, with the help of one of Meg’s roommates who hacks into an encrypted file on her computer, finds a trail to an anonymous internet suicide group she has a purpose to find out why Meg killed herself.  With the help of Meg’s odd mix of roommates (the stoner minister’s son is a good one), and the ex that broke Meg’s heart, Cody finds an odd Scooby Gang to help her investigate Meg’s death.  The book gets dark, but isn’t that a needed warning for teens and what they can find on the internet and to be wary of anonymous strangers?  Many who censor what their children read won’t like this once the suicide group gets into the plot,  but I believe that knowledge is useful and a powerful form of independence and intelligence – I think it’s a fine book, definitely dark, but stuff like this is out there so why not address it?  There is a really shady person on the chat board who discusses suicide as “freedom” and even encourages Meg to find her freedom and that perhaps it will set others free from her.  What can be troubling is the one-sided view of the forum showing suicide as seen as brave in some cultures and encouraging the act.  I certainly wouldn’t want that taught to some young readers, but most teens know there are bad groups on the internet.

While the main plot is Cody trying to find the reason for Meg’s suicide, in searching for that answer she feels is necessary to move on in her own life, we are shown different types of families – from the best to the worst-  and it isn’t until the end that the reader grasps that not all of life’s events have predictable causes, not all people are as they seem from social stereotypes, and families range from loving adoptive parents to those that abandon their children, or worse – show indifference to their existence.  But the most important thing that comes out of this book is forgiveness, not for a criminal or a victim, but for those left behind and how we forgive ourselves, and to remember those who die were here.  For a moment. I Was Here proves there are so many moments and emotions during the healing process and that it is different for everyone.


The Living – Matt de la Pena



Shy is a Mexican-American teenage boy working on a 5-star cruise ship for the summer.  He has a great group of coworkers who are friends with the appropriate amount of teenage teasing, but nothing too mean – which a lot of YA books don’t balance as well.  One night early into his voyage, a man confesses strange things to Shy and climbs overboard the highest deck, ultimately letting go and committing suicide.

If this weren’t enough to weigh on a young adult’s mind, soon someone appears asking questions about Shy and what this man discussed on the deck with him before jumping.  Right as the story takes a turn focused on a Pharmaceutical company conspiracy focused around a deadly illness, the cruise line is informed of a massive earthquake that hit California.  The weather begins to worsen and soon a tsunami hits the ship.  Action ensues with our favorite ship employees and a few passengers – the good and the bad – and soon the ship is sinking.  There is a lot of action from the first wave through Shy’s 8 days at sea: people are found, people die, sharks attack, water runs out, and hope is lost.  Besides the great action of this book, and there is plenty, there is a more mature subplot on class, opportunities given (or abused) based on class, and even when characters realize the injustices of the world – not including the bad luck of being aboard a sinking ship – there are moments of kindness, understanding, empathy, and simply learning that stereotypes are not always truthful.

Obviously Shy doesn’t die on the lifeboat – or there would be no book, and certainly not a sequel – but I can’t really continue without giving away the plot.  So know that if you can handle some very detailed chapters about a ship sinking, shark attacks, and life trying to survive on a lifeboat you will be able to make it through the scariest parts of this story to the much deeper conspiracy.  There are some great side characters and action.

A book most boys will like, mostly action and less romance since it’s a male narrator, but be warned – there is a good amount of cussing. Still, the plot (and one certain character) have sparked enough of an interest, and I feel devoted to Shy after surviving with him, that I will continue with the story.

“. . . adventure survival enthusiasts will relish the vivid and raw descriptions of the sinking ship, blistering sun, and shark-infested waters. But most appealing is the empathetic teen, portrayed as a tough guy with a romantic side, who will appeal to both males and females . . . ” — School Library Journal

“Peña takes the time to establish some solid rapport among his characters before unleashing the mayhem, though, and the central disease and drug scam is so viciously immoral that readers will probably book passage on the upcoming sequel, to learn whether Shy and his two smokin’-hot love interests will bring the bad guys to their knees.” — The Bulletin

Sequel – The Hunted (already out)

Reality Boy – A.S. King



Gerald, now 16, was a reality show child – and not the cute, talented kind.  In fact, he was on Network Nanny because of his bad behavior.  Now 11 years later, he cannot escape the fact that his town, kids at school, and the nation saw him as a 5 year old who pooped, anywhere he wanted when upset.  Gerald is known as “the crapper”.  As if having the world know your childhood was not bad enough, his violent tendencies continued so now he goes to anger management; he has an overly verbally and emotionally violent drop-out sister; and Gerald lacks friends.  Throw in a tendency to cuss a lot and his rage issues …. and one sees how being a reality-show participant has messed up his life.

Gerald’s positive things in his life – Gersday…. an invention in his mind of daydreaming escapism, it’s another day of the week where he often eats ice cream, visits with his normal sister (who loves him).  He also has a job he likes and a cute girl who soon befriends him.  When a stranger’s hug and sympathy about what Network Nanny did to him causes him to breakdown, the reader more easily relates to him.

Chapters alternate between Gerald living his life and the episodes of Network Nanny that focused on 5 year old Gerald and his 8 and 11 year old sisters, Lisi and Tasha.  Tasha already clearly a psychopath. What’s worse, is Gerald begins to realize that besides his mom favoring Tasha, the psychopath, she clearly ignored Gerald and wanted him in the Special Ed classes to explain his bad behavior so that it was no reflection of her parenting.

Gerald fears he is about to let go on an intense violent outburst and is always trying to keep his anger bottled up, but there are numerous times when it comes out – often scaring those around him.  The struggle of trying to keep well deserved anger within and the new friendship, realizations that his mom was an enabler, and the dream to leave town and “the crapper” image behind is always present … and we root for Gerald getting out from his reality boy image.

A girl, a dream of running away to the circus, and eventually Gerald realizing his worth and demanding changes in his life lead to Gerald living in the moment and letting go of Gersday.  A symbolic swing on a trapeze bar releases him from his shell and there’s quite a lovely ending for him leaving the past behind and having dreams and goals for the future.

14 and older, tons of cussing/fighting/and lots of mentions of sex from the psychopath sister.