Review: The Girl He Used to Know

GirlHeUsedtoKnowThe_BookshotNew York Times Bestselling Author Tracey Garvis Graves has a new book coming out on April 2nd, and THE GIRL HE USED TO KNOW is going to be a fantastic springtime read. I’m not usually a reader of books in the “Romance” genre, and I’d never read TGG’s work before, so I went in to this book devoid of expectations. I was pleasantly surprised and I became invested in the characters’ lives and coping mechanisms.

From the publisher:

Annika (rhymes with Monica) Rose is an English major at the University of Illinois. Anxious in social situations where she finds most people’s behavior confusing, she’d rather be surrounded by the order and discipline of books or the quiet solitude of playing chess.

Jonathan Hoffman joined the chess club and lost his first game—and his heart—to the shy and awkward, yet brilliant and beautiful Annika. He admires her ability to be true to herself, quirks and all, and accepts the challenges involved in pursuing a relationship with her. Jonathan and Annika bring out the best in each other, finding the confidence and courage within themselves to plan a future together. What follows is a tumultuous yet tender love affair that withstands everything except the unforeseen tragedy that forces them apart, shattering their connection and leaving them to navigate their lives alone.

Now, a decade later, fate reunites Annika and Jonathan in Chicago. She’s living the life she wanted as a librarian. He’s a Wall Street whiz, recovering from a divorce and seeking a fresh start. The attraction and strong feelings they once shared are instantly rekindled, but until they confront the fears and anxieties that drove them apart, their second chance will end before it truly begins.

I found the main characters wonderfully developed, and the dialogue was both natural and helped move the plot along and deepen the characters’ personality. The novel has perspectives from the two main characters, Annika and Jonathan, although Annika gets much more of a spotlight. The story also uses flashbacks to give detail and explanation for the roadblocks the two face in reconnecting.

read the girl

There are some really vulnerable moments that illuminate the characters and the relationship they share.

I liked that Garvis Graves handled the reveal of a couple of details deftly. I won’t give away what initiated Jonathan and Annika’s break-up back in college, but as I read I wondered…and finding out the reason came at the perfect time and revealed so much about Annika’s character. In addition, most readers will figure out pretty quickly, based on Annika’s actions and words, that she is on the autism spectrum. However, it’s not something that is ever mentioned until well towards the end of the novel. And in one uncomfortable but realistic scene, Jonathan finally tells Annika, “Did you really think I didn’t know?” Small spoiler: Annika really thought Jonathan didn’t know. It was a touching and realistic scene between the two.

The 2001 timeline feels rushed for the Annika/Jonathan reunion, but as the 1991 events unfurl, the whirlwind of getting reconnected begins to become more and more believable. And getting to know Annika and Jonathan’s relationship, as well as meeting peripheral characters (who are essential but sidelined!) like Janice and Annika’s parents and Annika’s therapist Tina, is worth the compressed emotional events.

I appreciated the emphasis on loving and appreciating people for who they are, and Annika’s methods of coping and growing are treated with sensitivity and a matter-of-fact realism. Overall, I really enjoyed reading the novel and getting to know the characters, but I had a personal reaction to one aspect of the novel. See below if you don’t mind partial spoilers!

THE GIRL HE USED TO KNOW by Tracey Garvis Graves comes out April 2nd!

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Glad I Saw It: One Drop Mural


I was driving up this street, stopped in a line of cars waiting for the red light to change, when I first noticed this mural that I must have driven by at least a few times before. It literally made me take a moment to stop and smile.

Which part do you like best? I like the leaf pattern at the lower right, but I also like the overall chunkiness of the mural’s design. It’s by a custom sign and billboard outfit called One Drop Sign Shop.

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Review: JEDI ACADEMY — Revenge of the Sis

Revenge of the Sis Krosoczka IgnatowChristina Starspeeder, older sister to Victor Starspeeder, is the focus in this 7th book in the popular Jedi Academy series: REVENGE OF THE SIS. The graphic novel, written by Jarrett J. Krosoczka & Amy Ignatow, continues the relatable and fun style of journal entries and doodles to great effect. We meet a brand new set of characters from all corners of the Star Wars universe at the Jedi Academy at Jedha City. Christina, who seemed in charge and confident to everyone on Coruscant, shows a more developed personality with vulnerabilities, silly foibles, and self-doubt as she acclimates to her new Academy.

Faced with classmates who are highly impressive and the legendary Jedi Master Skia Ro as her Jedi mentor, Christina’s optimism and confidence are tested again and again – no thanks to her mentor’s droid, whose condescension cuts Christina down at every turn. The storyline emphasizes perseverance, humility, and trusting one’s instincts (some of the time) as the Jedi in training wends her way through adventures and conflicts both small and humongous.

Aimed at readers 8-12 years old, social tensions exist, but are kept to a minimum. However, Christina’s comparison of her own abilities and experience will feel familiar to most readers. In addition, the use of social media like Stargrams, Galaxy Feed, an online publication called The Daily Millennium, and Christina’s favorite read, Galactic Zoology Today, provide insights to the characters and clues to developing plotlines. There is even astute commentary regarding trust of social media that could spark conversations between parents and children venturing into the morass that is online life.

Revenge of the Sis is a rollicking and enjoyable story that touches on modern topics like shoddy developments pushing out small businesses even as it incorporates age-old adolescent challenges. Ignatow’s dialogue and character development and Krosoczka’s expressive illustrations are a delight. Highly recommended!

Revenge of the Sis is due out March 26th, 2019, but you can find an independent bookstore here to pre-order your copy!

Okay, so Amazon has it too.


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Review: FAKERS, An Insider’s Guide to Cons, Hoaxes, and Scams

FAKERS H.P. Wood David ClarkWhether the young people in your life believe every tall tale or have already developed their cynicism into an art, FAKERS is sure to entertain and educate them about both the history and the current state of cons, hoaxes, and scams. H.P. Wood has collected a huge selection of the most familiar tricks and cons and added in plenty of surprises and new-fangled scams for good measure. The fanciful illustrations by David Clark ensure that readers don’t take the tellers of fake tales too seriously, which contrasts with the photographs and archival material from some of the more successful scams.

Fakers takes us from well-known short cons involving cards, dice, and shells to sales scams that have lasted eons. Ever wondered where “Pig in a Poke” came from? It’s in there! Fakers also keeps things modern by running through the history of the “friend in distress” scam which has gone from scrolls to letters to emails. It continues with descriptions of scams involving pets, lottery winnings, and investments. Readers will get the real deal about Ponzi, pyramid, and Madoff as well as construction scams. Each has origins from generations ago. What is especially impressive is that H. P. Wood goes into the psychology and humanity that allows the scams to work over and over again — even on you!

Whether your interest is in mind-bending spoons, carnival games, science, medicine or war, Fakers makes sure to touch on it all. Additionally, it does so with a modern sensibility. For example, P. T. Barnum is called out for using an enslaved woman as a side-show and pocketing money meant to help free her grandchildren. And “fake news” is pointed out as a convenient phrase when news is less than flattering. The trends on social media and bots are also connected to the idea of decrying “fake news.”

With an extensive glossary, suggestions for further reading, and even a list of quotation sources, FAKERS backs up its claims and establishes itself as a true resource for the history of cons, hoaxes, and scams. Highly recommended for ages 10 and up.


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Review: Nightmare Detective: The Skeleton King

51DlRHzYOLNightmare Detective: The Skeleton King by first-time author Monk Inyang, is a fast-paced and fun read that addresses both fighting fears (real and imagined) and strengthening confidence in young people. The novel’s main character, 12-year old Uko Hill, a Black boy living in Newark, NJ, has a loving family, a close-knit group of friends, and a vivid dream life. What he needs to do is shake off his self-doubt and develop self-confidence and a strong sense of independence — much like most tweens.

In his adventures, he fights dream-monsters in his own nightmares as well as in others’. Sometimes he fails, sometimes he’s successful. And through the guidance of his Nightmare Detective mentor, Uko works towards becoming a talented Detective on his own terms. I found this novel entertaining and creative in its approach to real-life problems young people face, even as it infused fantasy elements throughout.

Uko is a fully-fleshed out and believable character, and his mentor Toni has details and personality added in an organic and believable way. Peripheral characters, like Uko’s brother and best friends, are also not neglected as each serves a distinct purpose as the story progresses. The terrifyingly charismatic Chief and Uko’s personal dream-monster The Skeleton King are both worthy antagonists as well.

Monk Inyang’s approach to childhood insecurities and challenges is creative and effective. And as in many middle-grade novels, the tweens deal with both everyday events and deeply troubling problems. Readers will relate to Uko, Toni, and the other characters in both actions and dialogue. Nightmare Detective: The Skeleton King is recommended for ages 10-14.

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Review: Unbroken: 13 Stories Starring Disabled Teens

35120779The collection of 13 short stories that makes up UNBROKEN: 13 Stories Starring Disabled Teens is diverse in almost every way imaginable. Edited by Marieke Nijkamp, the stories feature varied disabilities, ranging from legal blindness to deep anxiety to using a cane or wheelchair to travel to irritable bowel syndrome, and characters consistently impress with in-depth personalities and courage and imagination. Stories include protagonists of diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds as well as various economic levels and romantic orientations. Settings vary in time and space, some seem to be set in the past, others in the future. And while most stories have a fairly realistic bent, many include touches of magical realism, sci-fi, and magic and fantasy. There is truly something for everyone in this collection.

Each of the tales stars a teenager with a disability, and each of those teens leads the reader into a world where perspectives and experiences are challenged. The subtitle of Unbroken, 13 Stories Starring Disabled Teens, pinpoints the focus perfectly. Each of the 13 authors has created a world where the main character is unconcerned with explaining her or his disability to the reader. We are left to navigate the stories tentatively even as we are immersed in realities with challenges, difficulties, and also immense joys.

Stand out stories include Kody Keplinger’s “Britt and the Bike God,” in which a girl with retinitis pigmentosa bikes her way into fully accepting her blindness, a love/ghost story titled “The Leap and the Fall” in which author Kayla Whaley deftly creates a true hero of a teenaged girl in her wheelchair, and Katherine Locke’s sci-fi story “Per Aspera Ad Astra” of a girl with debilitating panic attacks who must challenge herself to save her family. Another favorite for me was “Plus One” by Karuna Riaz, which helps readers understand the intense self-consciousness of anxiety as it becomes an unwelcome companion and intertwines with cultural and family expectations. Several stories, notably “The Leap and the Fall” and “A Curse, A Kindness,” include two girls finding love.

I want to especially mention “Dear Nora James, You Know Nothing About Love” by Dhonielle Clayton. In it, Nora struggles with balancing irritable bowel syndrome and high school and an absentee Dad who wants to reconnect and an understanding best friend who needs a big favor. The dialogue, interactions and personalities of the characters are all so true-to-life and poignant that readers can’t help but feel both protective and proud of Nora James.

While some of the stories include uneven dialogue, what I especially appreciated was the matter-of-fact inclusion of each challenge and disability, whether emotional or physical, as a seamless aspect of each teenager’s whole being. This collection is an important book for neurotypical and physically-abled readers. But even more importantly, as the title promises, this collection affirms and centers disabled teens.

Some stories include curses, but they don’t come across as gratuitous and they highlight character traits. There are several romantic entanglements with kissing. Overall, Unbroken: 13 Stories Starring Disabled Teens will make an important and oft-read addition to any collection or classroom. Recommended for ages 13 and up.


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Review: Struttin’ With Some Barbecue

41034887.jpgSTRUTTIN’ WITH SOME BARBECUE, written by Patricia Hruby Powell and illustrated by Rachel Himes, showcases the personality, talent, and successes of Lil Hardin Armstrong, the First Lady of Jazz.  This biography in verse is fun to read and filled with vivid details that almost dance off the page. Recommended for children in grades 3 through 7, the language is accessible and vibrant, and the poetic lines ask to be read aloud. The author is direct in sharing topics like racial segregation and sexism in ways that even younger readers will grasp and appreciate.

Lil Hardin Armstrong’s story is told in four parts, with a focus on events influencing her musical development and accomplishments. From church organist at 9-years old to a rebellious daughter playing in a band, and later to an ambitious powerhouse behind Louis Armstrong’s success, the story of The First Lady of Jazz will inspire and captivate readers. Like the music, Struttin’ With Some Barbecue is fast moving and exciting.

The graphite and ink art throughout the book is expressive and joyful. Sometimes illustrator Rachel Himes chooses a detail, like a vinyl record, hands clapping, or a silhouette, to highlight a moment in the story. Other times she creates entire scenes full of movement and personality. The illustrations accent the words wonderfully.

The end of the book includes a glossary, notes on jazz, segregation, quotation sources, and further reading. The book itself will be sure to inspire readers to learn more about Lil Hardin Armstrong and her talents for music, business, and life.

Recommended for ages 8-14.

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Glad I Saw It: Repeat!!! Repeat.

23 skiddoo.jpg

Good advice from outside 23 Skiddoo. Take it several times a day.

23 Skiddoo in Bloomfield has fantastic hot drinks, a comfortable room with lots of seating, and a laidback and open atmosphere.

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Review: New Kid by Jerry Craft

x800Jerry Craft’s new graphic novel, NEW KID, is honest, crammed with real moments, and it is an excellent commentary on you and you and me and the biases and vulnerabilities we all share. The main character, Jordan Banks, is a Black 12-year-old NYC kid about to start 7th grade at a prestigious academically-oriented private school that has little racial or economic diversity. He just wants to go to art school, but, despite misgivings, his parents aren’t about to pass up a golden opportunity. The book starts on Jordan’s first day of school, and as we follow Jordan, we are immersed in Jordan’s new but foreign world of high-end privilege and opportunity at Riverdale Academy.

Jordan’s feelings of being “the other” crop up as soon as he arrives. His happiness at seeing a Black father pull up to school is deflated when he realizes the driver is actually a chauffeur. And his excitement at spotting another Black boy in the hallway becomes upsetting when Maury, who has attended the school since Kindergarten, is referred to by a nickname meant to insult him for not fitting in with racist expectations. Despite being paired with a helpful student, Liam, as his “guide,” a series of micro-aggressions ranging from abrupt questions to comments about liking a teacher — because he’s also Black — to consistently making comments about another student’s food choices disrupt any comfort to be had. Most of these comments come from Andy Peterson, the resident obtusely-mean kid. Craft skillfully fills in the school population with a wide range of personalities and social types, and each feels developed and real.

As an educator, I particularly appreciated the depiction of how the teachers reflected various styles and perceptions when working in a diverse environment. Jordan’s math teacher, Mr. Garner, who is Black, is in the middle of assuring Jordan that people are mixing him up with another Black student because he’s new when a colleague calls Mr. Garner “Coach” and wishes him luck in an upcoming game. Not only does Mr. Garner not coach a team, but he has taught at Riverdale Academy for 14 years. Another teacher is constantly asking his students if something he has said was offensive. And painfully, Jordan’s English teacher continually makes careless offenses with names and economic assumptions. She also applies standards of behavior unequally based on race which almost gets a student expelled when he speaks up in frustration. Sadly, when given an open-ended opportunity to grow, she resists and refuses.

NEW KID asks readers to relate to characters both similar to themselves and different from themselves. Biases are confronted on all sides, and assumptions are challenged. Characters are given avenues to change, and — as in real life — not all take the chance. All this is wrapped in a storyline that feels true to middle school life and almost-teenage drama. The author’s empathy for the discomforts and joys of each of the main characters brings them to life and nudges us to embrace each character fully — even when we may not immediately see ourselves in them.

I highly recommend this graphic novel for ages 10+.  Seriously, older teens and adults, too. And I deeply believe every teacher of middle school and high school students should read this book. Twice. New Kid comes out on February 5th, 2019 — so preorder yours today! An audiobook version of New Kid is also being released with a FULL CAST!


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Review: Unclaimed Baggage by Jen Doll

unclaimed baggageUNCLAIMED BAGGAGE is author Jen Doll’s first novel, although she’s also written extensively for various magazines and newspapers, and she also wrote a memoir before penning this young adult delight. Unclaimed Baggage centers on three flawed but very likable teens, all of whom work in the back room of Unclaimed Baggage, a store that sells the items inside lost and unclaimed luggage. The story is set in a small Alabama town, where not attending church is scandalous and everyone knows who did what. The baggage dealt with throughout the novel is in turns literal, emotional, and sometimes physical. During the novel, each teen must confront heavy challenges including sexual assault, alcoholism, and racial tension and attacks. What ties their responses together is their friendship and ability to support each other.

Doris is the focus of the novel, and she has been working at Unclaimed Baggage for a year or so. She hires both Nell, a recent transplant to Alabama from Chicago, and Grant, the local football star on a forced hiatus, and they become good friends over the summer. The teens spend their days unpacking and sorting the contents they find (just one dildo?), and deciding what to sell, throw out, or save for themselves or others. When they aren’t working, typical teenage outings and drama pop up. A trip to the waterpark and to the local balloon festival are highlights that develop both the teens’ personalities and deepen their friendships.

Doll’s choice to use alternating chapters for each character works to let the reader in on private thoughts and details that are revealed to the friends in later scenes. The first person narratives feel intimate and unassuming, as though we have stumbled upon a diary found in a piece of lost luggage. Occasionally there are chapters that focus on a purple suitcase, which later factors into a plot point that neatly (perhaps too neatly?) wraps up at least one of the storylines with karma.

The language used in the novel is authentic and individual to each character. Painful scenes involving the aftermath of assault and the depths of addiction are visceral without seeming overly-dramatic. In addition, while the inter-racial and long distance relationship between Nell and her boyfriend Ashton seems at first a bit devoid of conflict, it provides some of the scenes with the most impact. In a poignant scene after Ashton is attacked by a racist local while visiting Nell, she is forced to face her privilege and Ashton is straightforward in saying, “It’s not about you…You’re going to have to let me process this, and not make it your thing, you know?” Difficult enough for a teenager, and even more so for a teen who feels responsible for a boyfriend’s broken arm.

This same ability to go further than trite and rosy resolutions also provides strong scenes for Grant and the repercussions of his alcoholism and Doris’ grief at losing her aunt and dealing with being ignored by authority figures after a sexual assault. Each of these difficult topics is treated with a somber but lighthearted touch. Less serious developments like a lost little brother and a budding romance punctuate the events and keep the story moving.

Unclaimed Baggage is a fun read that touches on topics and concerns many teenagers will relate to . Highly recommended for ages 13+

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