There’s just no drama like family drama—especially while time traveling or fighting crime. From struggling to find footing as a foster kid to having a mom with depression, the protagonists in these titles are working through real-life situations that will resonate with teens.
Davis, Tanita S. Peas and Carrots. 288p. ebook available. Knopf. Feb. 2016. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9780553512816; lib. ed. $20.99. ISBN 9780553512823.
Gr 8 Up –Dess and Hope are both 15, and their lives have intersected: Dess has moved from a group home to a foster placement, and Hope is her new foster sister. Resentment and distrust immediately flare on both sides, but Davis avoids the trappings of an issue novel about foster care by giving her characters deep nuance and complexity—enhanced by the girls’ narrating alternating chapters. Dess is cynical about whether a family can be as loving as Hope’s seems; her own grandmother refused to care for her and her brother upon their mother’s incarceration, in part, Dess believes, because her brother is biracial. This experience also makes Dess, who is white, particularly sensitive to being mistaken as racist by Hope and her family, who are black. On Hope’s side, isolation and frustration are the major motivators, as Hope struggles to adjust at school after her best friend moves overseas. Yet the two begin to stand up for and help each other—resentfully at first, but with genuine appreciation by the end. While this transition from name-calling enemies to sisterly bond feels quick given the time line of the novel, the overall theme remains strong: family are the people you can trust to care for you, regardless of how you come together. VERDICT Nuance and honesty make this a solid addition to young adult collections.
Downham, Jenny. Unbecoming. 384p. ebook available. Scholastic/David Fickling Bks. Feb. 2016. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9780545907170; ebk. $17.99. ISBN 9780545907323.
Gr 9 Up –What kind of pain can love survive? How late is too late to learn the truth? When 17-year-old Katie’s estranged grandmother shows up on their doorstep, alone and suffering from dementia, Katie’s tightly wound mother is enraged. Instantly drawn to the confused but fascinating old woman, who seems to embody a spirit of personal freedom and love that the teen has been longing for, Katie starts recording pieces of her grandmother’s story, both to help her remember and to get to the bottom of what really happened between her mother and grandmother. It turns out all three women are harboring some pretty heavy secrets. Unveiling the narrative in bits and pieces and hopping through time periods, Downham paints a moving picture of three generations of women who haven’t felt listened to or understood, who have felt confined by their choices, and who have suffered the consequences of trying to forge a new path. Katie’s plotline (she is coming to terms with her growing attraction to girls) is wrapped up a little too nicely, but the two older women’s stories, both past and present, are subtle and heartbreaking. The grandmother, whose slipping hold on her memories is portrayed with compassion and gentle humor, is especially well drawn. This would be a great title for teens and adults to read and discuss together. VERDICT A strong choice for thoughtful readers.
Friend, Natasha. Where You’ll Find Me. 272p. ebook available. Farrar. Mar. 2016. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9780374302306.
Gr 6-9 –Anna is reeling from the recent changes in her life. A year ago, her parents divorced; six months ago, her dad and stepmother had a baby; a few weeks ago, her BFF declared their friendship over; and three days ago, her mother tried to commit suicide. Everything in Anna’s life feels wrong and awful—and on top of everything else, Anna feels she’s let her mother down. Friend’s book deals with all the difficulties of middle school, newly blended families, and—authentically and without oversimplification—having a parent with mental illness. Anna’s confusion about her mother, her mother’s bipolar disorder, and their relationship are heartbreaking and honest, and her conflicts and conversations with her parents, teachers, and friends ring true. Friend avoids all the pitfalls of a run-of-the-mill “issue” novel to offer a nuanced look at a life that, despite unexpected turns and sometimes crippling feelings of fear and loss, can still be happy. VERDICT This well-written, expertly layered work is strongly recommended for YA collections.
Heilig, Heidi. The Girl from Everywhere. 464p. ebook available. HarperCollins/Greenwillow. Feb. 2016. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9780062380753.
Gr 8 Up –Nix has spent all of her 16 years with her father as a time-traveling pirate aboard a physical ship, navigating into the margins of historical maps to reach his ultimate goal—returning to Honolulu in 1868, the time and place of Nix’s birth, to save her mother, who died when Nix was born. Nix’s home is the sea and her family the ship’s crew, and while she adores traveling and dreams of navigating on her own, she fears the end of her father’s journey. If he can save her mother, Nix will no longer exist. Can she find a way to strike out on her own and reunite her parents? History and mythology fans will love this fast-moving ride through time, where mythological maps take Nix and the crew to real places with items and creatures true to the map’s design. Nineteenth-century politics involving the Hawaiian royal family and control over the islands create mystery and danger as Nix endeavors to discover her mother’s identity, reconcile with her father, and accept her feelings for Kash, the Persian thief who has become her closest friend on the ship. VERDICT This must-have fantasy adventure will appeal to fans of Rick Riordan’s “Kane Chronicles” and Amie Kaufman and Meagan Spooner’s “Starbound Trilogy,” (both Disney-Hyperion).
Nelson, Marilyn. American Ace. 128p. Dial. Jan. 2016. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9780803733053.
Gr 8 Up –When she dies, Nonna Lucia leaves a letter to Connor’s father, her oldest son, which reveals that he is not the biological son of her husband but rather of an American who died during World War II. It is as if Connor’s father has lost himself as well as his beloved mother; he is devastated. The confusion and questions emerging from the discovery propel Connor to explore who this mysterious grandfather might have been. It emerges that he was one of the storied, heroic Tuskegee Airmen. Through 45 poems in Connor’s voice, Nelson considers such matters as identity, heredity, nurture, race, and family. Connor and his father, who is teaching him to drive, have ample opportunity to probe tentatively and delicately into their feelings about such things while they’re on the road. Connor’s research takes on urgency after his father suffers a stroke, and his gradual recovery is deftly linked to Connor’s increasing pride about their newfound heritage. VERDICT Nelson packs a good deal into these verses, and though the subject matter is weighty, she leavens it with humor and deep family affection.
Pope, Paul & JT Petty. The Fall of the House of West. illus. by David Rubín. 160p. (Battling Boy: Bk. 2). ebook available. First Second. 2015. pap. $9.99. ISBN 9781626720107.
Gr 7 Up –Determined to find her mother’s killer, Aurora West, daughter of hero Haggard West, has finally started to patrol the monster-infested streets on her own, despite the protests of her father and her mentor. While the first volume, The Rise of Aurora West (2014), in the prequel series to Pope’s Battling Boy (2013, both First Second), was disappointingly more setup and character backstory than action, this volume instantly makes up for lost time. This installment is filled with numerous traps, shoot-outs, and interrogations. However, the book’s greatest strength is in the moments between the chaos, as characters are wonderfully fleshed out. As characters slowly reveal their secrets, readers discover, along with Aurora, that the heroes she has always looked up to are cracked and bruised. Rubín’s Robert Crumb–inspired artwork is a wonderful throwback to the Silver Age of Comics (1956 to circa 1970). Villains are grotesque and cartoonish, while the heroes have chiseled jaws and perfect posture. The illustrator’s choices perfectly echo the themes throughout the narrative. Diagonal gutters and Batman-style sound effects not only add to the nostalgic feel but expertly move the action forward; readers will be flipping through the pages as fast as the bullets flying over Aurora’s head. VERDICT The strongest series entry so far—one helluva read.
Rice, Luanne. The Secret Language of Sisters. 352p. ebook available. Scholastic/Point. Feb. 2016. Tr $18.99. ISBN 9780545839556; ebk. $18.99. ISBN 9780545839563.
Gr 7-10 –This realistic, if a bit heavy-handed, emotional ride takes readers through two sisters’ perspectives on a life-altering accident. Tilly and Roo, close friends as well as siblings, find their lives thrown upside down when Roo gets into a devastating car accident. She survives but goes into a coma and eventually suffers from locked-in syndrome—she can hear and see, but she just can’t move. Everyone rallies around her, but Tilly, her younger sister, finds herself increasingly on the outside and increasingly attracted to Roo’s boyfriend, Newton. Tilly’s feelings of guilt multiply when everyone in school discovers that she was texting Roo at the time of the accident. Newton and Roo’s relationship, while emotionally deep, remains modest, so middle schoolers would be quite comfortable with the romance here. The alternating chapters, from Tilly’s and Roo’s perspectives, add to the authenticity of the story; the emotions are genuine and heartfelt. The “don’t text and drive” message is a little overdrawn, but readers will be engaged in the emotional and physical recoveries of both sisters. Fans of Gayle Forman’s If I Stay (Dutton, 2009) will find another favorite in this. VERDICT A good purchase for libraries with teens craving realistic but not edgy fiction.
Tamaki, Mariko. Saving Montgomery Sole. 240p. ebook available. Roaring Brook. Apr. 2016. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9781626722712.
Gr 6 Up –Montgomery Sole is the older daughter of two moms, a member of her high school’s Mystery Club, and a confused, sweet, sometimes moody, relatively innocent teenage girl in the small town of Aunty, CA. The teen starts using a black stone she wears called the Eye of Know to explore the unexamined intentions of the reverend, his son, and herself. The tone here is reminiscent of Stephanie Perkins’s Anna and the French Kiss (Dutton, 2010), but the topics and themes are closer to those found in Carol Rifka Brunt’s fantastic debut, Tell the Wolves I’m Home (Dial, 2013). The characters are refreshingly diverse for YA literature, in both sexuality and race, and the conversations around religion, homophobia, and society are written as if they are a norm of Montgomery’s life—never straying into preachy or didactic territory. The novel is ultimately an exploration of Montgomery’s struggles with religion and her parents’ sexuality—and the question of whether the two are at odds. VERDICT While the themes are mature, the writing and characters are accessible for younger middle school readers; this would make a strong addition to most school or public library YA collections.