Review: Just Be Cool, Jenna Sakai by Debbi Michiko Florence

JUST BE COOL, JENNA SAKAI by Debbi Michiko Florence is a layered, thoughtful, and light exploration of how middle schoolers respond to dramas big (family divorce) and not-so-big (academic competition, friendship changes). This stand-alone follow-up to Keep It Together, Keiko Carter is readable, relatable, and filled with well-developed characters we both like and hope will grow. 

Jenna is insecure and angry and vulnerable, and beneath her “heartbreak is for suckers” attitude, she is a bit of a romantic. When she returns from winter break with her dad, Jenna finds out her all-consuming boyfriend has broken up with her. An unwillingness to trust mixes with trading resentment for love, and it’s clear that despite the hurt over her own breakup, Jenna’s parents’ divorce is the real breakup she still needs to deal with. The story handles the complicated emotions well and with authenticity; parents of middle-schoolers would do well to read the book, too. 

The supporting characters of Keiko, Rin, Isabella, Elliot, the local diner’s owner, and even Jenna’s parents are given interesting storylines that help develop their own stories. It is a racially and class diverse group with recognizable personalities. Each displays a variety of emotions and values, helping readers to see them as more than background. It’s an enjoyable ensemble. 

With a lack of conflict surrounding sex, drugs, and violence, JUST BE COOL, JENNA SAKAI is a great book for middle grade readers who are ready for just little more grown-up conflict without jumping into harder topics. For many kids, the emotional toll of middle school is enough. And in this book, it definitely makes for a great story. 

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Review: In the Same Boat by Holly Green

This YA story is about one teen conquering a 265 mile paddling race called the Texas River Odyssey, but it’s also about relationships, forgiveness, pride, and perseverance. IN THE SAME BOAT is a phrase we’ve heard a lot over the last year and a half, but this novel makes it literal. Sadie Scofield was brought up to do difficult things and stay true to the family tradition of finishing the annual race through “constant forward motion.” However, the river adventure is just one challenge Sadie has to overcome, and it might depend on the more difficult task of healing the rift between her former best friend, Cully.

The vivid descriptions of the physical effects of paddling for almost 300 miles put readers in the canoe with the teens. Between the blisters, muscle cramps, hunger, and stomach upheaval, readers will feel included in the good, the bad, and the very ugly of river racing. The hallucinations due to exertion, lack of sleep, and canoeing at night are at once entertaining and ominous. The monologue in Sadie’s head about Cully, her family, her friends, is realistic and ensures that readers find her relatable and likable. Her memories of her tree house, egg shells in a bag of cookies, dumping ice cream on Cully’s dad, and the looming admiration for her father are laced with relatable emotions and raw feelings of longing.

Technical terms related to river boating will become familiar by the end of the story. And while the novel doesn’t have a fairy-tale ending, the two-and-a-half days provide a solid and believable arc for several characters. IN THE SAME BOAT is well-paced and brightly developed. Recommended for 12 and up.

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All American Pledge

Just your Labor Day reminder that the current Pledge of Allegiance was borne out of a desire to make money off of public education. It’s an American tradition, after all. And the pledge didn’t have “under God” in there until Flag Day 1954, over 60 years after the original pledge entered the scene. So, you know, take that as you will.

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Review: The Best at It by Maulik Pancholy

This heartwarming and heartbreaking middle grade novel is honest and layered and true. THE BEST AT IT by first-time author Maulik Pancholy made me laugh out loud (for real, not in the LOL sense) on one page and then gasp in despair on the next. The main character Rahul is about to start 7th grade with a loving and supportive family and best friend Chelsea on one side and a score of challenges on the other. Pancholy manages to create a host of characters readers will care about and root for while addressing racism, homophobia, identity struggles, bullying, and mental health with empathy and care.

Rahul Kapoor is a first generation Indian boy who struggles with trying to avoid sticking out in a school where jocks rule and white kids are the vast majority. Thanks to a wonderful grandfather, known as Bhai, Rahul has decided that this school year he’s going to find something cool and be “the best at it” in order to make this the best year ever. He tries football — and sprains his ankle in tryouts. He tries auditioning — and is told he’s not the right “type.” (The entire audition scene is at once hilarious and stomach-turning as Rahul and Chelsea cake on pale makeup in preparation and react to overt racism in real time.) When Rahul finally listens to his friends and himself and goes out for the math team, The Mathletes, he seems to hit his stride despite joining a “nerdfest.”

A central conflict for Rahul is how much to embrace his Indian heritage. He is immersed at home, thanks to his immediate family and his extended family of Aunties and Uncles. However, Rahul restrains himself at school and in public, and even seems embarrassed or ashamed of being “too Indian” at times. The bullying and teasing from a boy named Brent doesn’t help. Pancholy sets up several opportunities for Rahul to grow and learn to love who he is and what that means through various characters and difficult situations. Masterful.

Rahul also struggles with a growing awareness of his gayness, and his inner dialogue is so authentic and true to life that many middle grade readers will relate. Even how his complicated feelings about his attractions affect other people (like Jenny, who asks Rahul to the dance) is addressed. Similarly, as his stress grows, so does his obsession with tics that ensure his safety, like checking locks five times, checking the stove five times, and making sure his bed is not too close to outlets to avoid starting a fire. Both of these realizations grow organically throughout the novel, and Pancholy weaves other characters’ reactions and concerns for Rahul delicately and realistically.

Readers will find the characters in THE BEST AT IT delightful and lovable. Even the bully gets a thread of humanity throughout, and towards the end a partial reveal that doesn’t excuse his behavior, but maybe explains it a little. Also appreciated is that there is no perfection in the resolution, but much like life, there are lessons learned to help the characters move forward.

Highly recommended.

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Review: The Surprising Power of a Good Dumpling by Wai Chim

Author Wai Chim’s THE SURPRISING POWER OF A GOOD DUMPLING is a fantastic novel that addresses the typical conflicts and issues in Young Adult stories, but it adds layers that address racism, mental health, family dynamics, the immigrant experience, and more. The characters are well-developed and the scenes are believable and relatable. Anna, the main character, is a 16-year-old Chinese-Australian student living in the suburbs of Sydney. She cares for her younger sister and brother because her mother sometimes stays in bed for weeks at a time and her father runs a restaurant and often sleeps there over night instead of commuting home. Her Chinese heritage affects the family dynamics as well as how each family member is perceived by peers and the community as a whole. Anna’s experiences at school, home, and in her personal life are heartbreaking and filled with painful experiences, but her growth and strength are a pleasure to witness.

The novel deftly handles the effects of a parent’s mental health on children. Anna, her sister Lily, and her brother Michael all have different responses to their mother’s struggles. The additional absence of their father, who copes by throwing himself into work and denial, creates situations where Anna must misinform school personnel and shield her younger brother from the truth. Lily’s anger towards their mother contrasts with Anna’s acquiescence and coddling of her mother’s disturbing behavior. Another student is also dealing with a family member All together, it paints a picture of how the adults in Anna’s life fall short and must do better.

When Anna spends time working at her father’s restaurant during school break, she hopes to grow closer to her father and show him she is capable and trustworthy to contribute to the family business. When Rory, a new delivery person, is hired, Anna realizes that perhaps she has a chance to be a “normal” teenager. Their budding romance is natural and told in traditional narrative and via exchanged text messages. Her relationship with Rory helps Anna open up to how stress and obligation affects her. It is also in conversations with Rory that Anna is able to “put words” to feelings she has often had regarding racist micro-aggressions and her confusion about her mother’s mental health.

While the novel deals with heavy subjects, it also dwells on amazing details like restaurant kitchen prep, inner monologues, and loving sibling interactions. The delight with which Anna and Rory consume egg rolls and dumplings is contagious. The attention to peripheral characters and the conflicts they face also demonstrates Wai Chim’s ability to develop multiple personalities and backstories naturally and in detail. Finally, the lack of a definitive “happy ending” solidifies the author’s commitment to relatable and real storylines.

THE SURPRISING POWER OF A GOOD DUMPLING is highly recommended.

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Review: Rise to the Sun by Leah Johnson

Leah Johnson’s second YA novel, RISE TO THE SUN, is a summery, dramatic, fun story that weaves serious emotional pain and challenges with a story about friendship, falling in love, and realizing one’s importance in the world. Told via alternating perspectives of the two main characters, Olivia and Toni, readers follow their blossoming romance and experience a music festival and all its adventures through the vivid descriptions and authentic, believable dialogue between the characters. Heavy topics addressed in the novel include nonconsensual sharing of private photos, gun violence, death of a parent, and the main characters spend a lot of time trying to avoid the realities of these topics. RISE TO THE SUN is a wonderful and relatable summer read.

We first meet Olivia, a Black bisexual teen who is an open-hearted, perhaps over-eager, romantic. An ex-boyfriend shared private photos and Olivia is weathering criticism from peers and anxiety about testifying, which prompts her escape to Farmland, a three-day music festival in another state. She has also told her mother she’s at a religious retreat, and she’s called on her best friend Imani to help boost her heartbroken spirit. It is Olivia’s outgoing optimism and exuberance that are both engaging and which power through the storyline. Watching Olivia grow and face her fears is a compelling and heart-warming thread throughout the novel.

Toni seems to be Olivia’s opposite. While she is a veteran of the Farmland Music Festival and knows all the ropes, her father died less than a year before the novel begins. Where Olivia seems to reach out for love all around her, Toni, a Black lesbian who rarely dates, has closed herself off to affection, believing she doesn’t deserve it. In fact, several times in the novel, Toni seems genuinely surprised that she’s feeling happiness, relaxing, and enjoying herself. Juxtaposed with Olivia’s character, it’s clear the two teens have issues to work on that are at once very different yet similar.

Both Olivia and Toni are at the festival with their best friends, Imani and Peter, respectively. Imani has been called on repeatedly to help Olivia recover from breakups, and Peter, who is Toni’s “festival friend,” helps bring her out of her very tough social shell. The interactions between the friends are believable and open up their personalities without feeling forced. The story allows for social challenges, jealousy, and competition before the group is faced with very real life crisis.

On the surface, it feels like there is too much action packed into the timeline of RISE TO THE SUN, but thanks to Leah Johnson’s steady and detailed prose, readers will lean into the characters and the story. It is a pleasure to witness the growth and hard choices made by each of the main characters. Highly recommended.

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Review: Zara Hossain is Here by Sabina Khan

ZARA HOSSAIN IS HERE by Sabina Khan is a well-rounded novel that includes a wide-range of social justice issues including Islamophobia, immigrant issues, homophobia – especially in religious settings, gun violence, xenophobia, and more. Within those larger issues, Khan manages to address nuances within communities, being open to learning about and teaching about cultures, and defending others and yourself. The novel packs a lot of details into the story, but it rarely feels rushed or overloaded. 

Zara, a Muslim teenager whose parents are in the final stages of the USA green card process,  is a likable and relatable character, as are her parents and friends. She is out as bisexual, and her parents support her and defend her when more conservative Muslims disapprove. Zara is also active in social issues via a school-related club and has a loyal contingent of friends who ensure support both emotionally and physically. Throughout the novel, there are joyful celebrations of food, music, film, and traditions as shared by families and friends. Readers also follow Zara’s new girlfriend, a white girl named Chloe, as she experiences Pakistani traditions for the first time. The growing romance is between the girls is touching and portrayed authentically. 

When Tyler, a boy who has been verbally bullying Zara, paints racist phrases on her locker gets suspended, he brings the bullying to her home. This prompts Zara’s father to go to Tyler’s home to confront his father about Tyler’s behavior. The storyline takes a turn when Zara’s father is shot and goes into a coma, prompting a domino effect of unintended consequences which affect the family’s green card application. The dramatic push and pull during the disastrous events grows to an emotional peak even as concerns about friends and romantic encounters and how to respond to tormentors continue. Somehow the plot manages to remain clear and the themes continue to deepen. 

One strength in the novel is how Khan depicts Zara’s pushback to Tyler, Chloe, and even her closest friends when they express concern for her. Zara’s anger at Chloe’s inability to understand the constant stress of being Muslim in a mainly white and Christian community comes across as genuine, as does her angry response to Tyler’s attempts to apologize. Really Tyler’s arc, in which he seems to have begun a journey to reject his xenophobia, is a lesson in how to apologize without putting the onus on the person who has been harmed. Zara’s response to Chloe’s apology also shares both the anticipated stress and relief tangled up in cross-cultural and racial friendships. 

Overall, ZARA HOSSAIN IS HERE handles a multitude of typical Young Adult topics within the wider world of Zara’s reality that balances on the USA immigration system, navigating racism and Islamophbia, and being a queer teen. Readers will root for Zara throughout the novel, and will perhaps learn a few things along the way. Recommended for teens and their caregivers.

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Review: RICK by Alex Gino

RICK by Alex Gino is not a continuation of the award-winning GEORGE from a several years ago, but the themes and some characters are consistent. This important novel focuses on Rick, whose best friend heckled and harassed Melissa (the focus of the novel GEORGE) for years, before she came out as a transgender girl. Rick treasures the long-time friendship he has with Jeff, but as he discovers and embraces his own identity, he realizes that Jeff is not someone he can find support with or rely on. With gentle discussions laced throughout the novel that involve language and LGBTQ+ labels, discovering and asserting one’s true self, and finding the courage to make change in relationships, the novel serves as both an affirmation and a guide for young people and the adults who love them.

Rick is about to start middle school, and his friend Jeff’s banter about girls and meanness towards almost anyone else makes him realize that maybe it’s only video games and habit that are keeping the friends together. In fact, Jeff’s commentary about girls as well as his family’s assumptions that he will have a crush on a girl soon make him realize he doesn’t feel romantic or sexual feelings about girls. Or about boys. Online searches help him discover a whole world of definitions and choices surrounding sexuality; the novel’s portrayal of the searches is both realistic and straightforward.

Rick’s older sister has gone away to college, and what used to be a supportive, simple relationship becomes aloof when she doesn’t “get” his questions about asexuality because he’s “too young.” It is Rick’s newly revived relationship with his grandfather that eventually serves as a safe place to discuss and explore his feelings. The natural progression of their closeness — born from a love of a sci-fi television show — is heart-warming and authentic. His grandfather affirms that there is no “too young” in identity, just as there’s no “too old.”

In school, Rick’s interactions with a confident and self-assured Melissa encourage him to summon the courage to attend a meeting of the Rainbow Spectrum club. At the meetings, students discuss pronoun use, labels, and acceptance of figuring themselves out however they need to. The novel handles differences of opinion expertly, allowing characters to disagree and challenge each other with respect and thoughtfulness. The teacher who leads the club is portrayed as learning from and even apologizing to the students as well. It’s an excellent example of what “safe space” can mean without making it into a caricature.

The in-depth exploration of Rick’s asexuality, and the support he finds from the club and his grandfather is a learning experience for every reader. Rick’s growth and the actions that result from it seem to happen quickly, but anyone who knows tweens, knows how quickly social connections and feelings move for that age group. Alex Gino’s RICK is an easy read in language and the gentle treatment of complicated subjects.

Highly recommended for middle grade readers and their caregivers.

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The Mighty Heart of Sunny St. James by Ashley Herring Blake

“I’m going to die today.”

That’s the opening line of the heart-breaking (in the best way) middle grade novel THE MIGHTY HEART OF SUNNY St. JAMES by Ashley Herring Blake. Sunny is a 12-year-old girl going into summer without her best friend, but with a new heart. Literally. After two years of restricted activity and oxygen tanks, she has a plan for a New Life post heart transplant. Things seem to be progressing, albeit slowly, when a new friend brings up feelings Sunny wants to deny and the mother who abandoned her eight years ago returns to her life. Despite huge life-changing events, this wonderful story grounds its characters in friendship, family, internal conflicts, and raw emotions that will feel authentic and relatable to readers. With deep affection for each character, this novel tackles queerness, parental abandonment and reunification, major health issues, and more typical attempts at independence and coming-of-age.

Sunny is a likable, thoughtful, poetry-writing character whose resistance to her own emotions will have readers cheering her on and wanting to give her a hug. Scenes that describe mean girl behavior are painful, and they set up her feelings of isolation and her resistance to embracing her romantic feelings for Quinn, a new girl in town. Sunny’s confusion around who she wants to kiss (part of her summer quest is “Find a boy and kiss him”) emerges naturally, and what is soon clear to the reader grows more slowly for Sunny as the story progresses. Quinn, as a character, is also very likable and relatable. And more than a side-character, she brings a depth to the struggles developed throughout the novel. The friendship and budding romance between the two girls is intense, genuine, and portrayed with heart-felt care.

In addition, Sunny’s relationship with her guardian Kate is loving, but deeply strained because Kate is hyper-protective due to Sunny’s heart condition. The return of Lena, Sunny’s cool and rock-n-roll mother, brings up both loyalty and frustration with Kate and heightens Sunny’s urge to be free of restrictions. This tender storyline is portrayed gently and realistically, with disappointments, anger, and yearning for connection all wrapped into an adolescent heart. Between arguments, lies, vulnerable conversations, and confusing loyalties, the parent-triangle comes across as believable even as it feels so painful. What is never in doubt is that Sunny is loved from all sides, and also that she is a regular kid in extraordinary circumstances.

The Mighty Heart of Sunny St. James is an easy read because readers will want to know how things turn out for the characters. The story flows smoothly between conflicts and joys and disappointments, and while the events feel overwhelming and rushed, much like adolescence, it never condescends to its middle grade audience. Adult readers will appreciate the portrayal of adults as whole characters and not caricatures relegated to the sidelines.

Highly recommended.

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Review: The Girl from the Sea by Molly Ostertag

Molly Ostertag’s THE GIRL FROM THE SEA brings together both fantastical and very real emotions and events in a graphic novel that addresses first love, hiding one’s true self from friends and family, and coming-of-age. The fantastical arrives in the form of Keltie, a selkie without inhibitions — but with a secret. The very real involves Morgan Kwon’s parents who are recently divorced, her friends who don’t “get” her, and her abrasive little brother. Morgan’s life brings this all together as she falls in love with Keltie, but refuses to share her new relationship with anyone around her. Heartstrings are pulled, and readers will root for the girls as their relationship develops and grows.

With Ostertag’s signature illustration style, we can’t miss when someone is distressed or annoyed or embarrassed. And most characters express themselves directly, or over texts that move the plot along. Morgan’s nervousness about letting her friends and family know she is gay is palpable, especially when it confuses Keltie and threatens to separate the girls. Even the seals (including baby seals!) are expressive throughout the story, and readers will also root for them and their home.

As Morgan becomes more comfortable with Keltie, readers will hope that she finds the courage to bring her relationship public. When an outside threat needs to be addressed, Morgan must gather the strength to face the judgment and lack of privacy she fears. The novel is poignant and deeply in touch with adolescent emotions throughout. THE GIRL FROM THE SEA is a graphic novel that will demand multiple readings.

Highly recommended.

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