Stella By Starlight by Sharon Draper

stella

Stella By Starlight is a flashback to the 1930’s in the Jim Crow South.  Stella’s entire community is shaken when she and brother, Jojo, stumble upon something they are not supposed to late at night in the woods.   Soon, she is forced to confront the reality of living in Bumblebee, North Carolina during the era of the Ku Klux Klan.  Also after her parents discover her difficulty with writing, they give her a typewriter and she soon discovers herself as a passionate writer.  Her very own newspaper, Stella’s Star Sentinel, allows her to peer into the truth about prejudice in her town.

When Jojo awakens Stella to show her the Ku Klux Klan doing rituals in the woods, Stella rushes to tell her parents.  Eventually the entire town is walking around on eggshells in fear of what might happen. Later Stella’s mom is bitten by a snake and the town doctor, revealed to be a member of the Ku Klux Klan, refuses to help her, which both surprises and angers Stella.  However, one night she hears someone drowning, who is revealed to be town doctor’s daughter, Paulette.  Even though Stella saves her, she confronts Paulette about her father, and to her surprise, learns that Paulette is also weary of him.  Stella learns not to judge a book by its cover, and also to not fight hate with hate.

Stella By Starlight forces us to confront a past filled with hatred, violence and injustice.  By looking at such a difficult time period through Stella’s eyes we experience her loss of innocence.  At the same time, we watch her have to make a choice about the kind of person she wants to be regardless of the challenges she has been dealt.  Ultimately, Stella reminds us that we all have the power to be the love that we want to see in the world.

By: Gregory Stewart

Draper, Sharon. Stella by Starlight. New York, NY: Atheneum Books for Young Readers. 2015. Print.

Unwind by Neal Shusterman

Like so many novels that fill the shelves of YA sections in bookstores, Unwind by Neal Shusterman falls into the dystopian subgenre. It’s set sometime in the future (no exact year is given…perhaps a discussion point for readers) after “The Heartland War,” a second civil war fought between the pro-life and pro-choice armies which was resolved with The Bill of Life.

“The Bill of Life states that human life may not be touched from the moment of conception until a child reaches the age of thirteen. However, between the ages of thirteen and eighteen. A parent may choose to retroactively “abort” a child…on the condition that the child’s life doesn’t “technically” end. The process by which a child is both terminated and yet kept alive is called “unwinding.” Unwinding is now a common and accepted practice in society.”

Unwinding is an advanced medical operation that involves harvesting every part of a person’s body (limbs, internal organs, eyes, brain tissue, etc.) so that the pieces may be given to other individuals who need them (e.g. a factory employee who lost a hand in a work accident will be given a replacement hand from a teenager who was unwound). This process is legal and considered superior to abortion because the teens being unwound are not technically killed; they supposedly continue to live their life through their various body parts that are spread between different receivers. A child may be unwound between the ages of thirteen and eighteen, but once they reach eighteen, they are legally an adult and exempt from the procedure.

Teens are unwound for a variety of reasons, and the three main characters each represent a different justification for the procedure. Connor is a sixteen-year-old troublemaker. He gets into fights at school, acts impulsively, and doesn’t seem to care about much. His parents sign the unwind order to rid themselves of a problem child. Risa is fifteen and lives in a state house (orphanage). She plays the piano and is in good academic standing, but she isn’t excellent enough for the orphanage’s headmaster to justify keeping her around. The state house is overcrowded, and Risa is seen as an average kid taking up space. She is sent off to be unwound simply because she wasn’t outstanding. Levi rounds out the main trio, but he has little in common with Connor or Risa. At thirteen years old, Levi has known his entire life that he was meant to be unwound. It’s part of his religion, and he believes that to be unwound would be to fulfill his destiny. When their paths cross, a level of chaos that can only arise out of the desperation to avoid unwinding ensues.

Despite being published ten years ago, Unwind remains extremely relevant (especially in today’s political climate) and stands out among other dystopian novels. Readers around the ages of the main characters are obviously the intended audience as they are most likely to find Connor, Risa, and Levi relatable, but the novel is so thought-provoking and original that it can be enjoyed by older readers as well. If assigned in a classroom, it will be a story students carry with them long after the summer ends and quite possibly one that stimulates a desire for other books that challenge or significantly alter they way they view certain aspects of society.

By: Tess DeMeyer

Shusterman, Neal. Unwind. New York: Simon & Schuster for Young Readers, 2007. Print.

For Colored Boys Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Still Not Enough: Coming of Age, Coming Out & Coming Home, Edited By Keith Boykin

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Does For Colored Boys Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Still Not Enough: Coming of Age, Coming Out, and Coming Home sound familiar?  If it does, it’s because it was inspired by Ntozake Shange’s choreopoem, “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf,” which was adapted into film.  The film was becoming popular around a time of national silence around the suicides of various gay men of color.

For Colored Boys Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Still Not Enough is a book for Black and Brown boys who have ever struggled with the process of coming out, going home or growing up.  Over the course of 42 beautifully-written vignettes written by various gay men of color, the book examines sexuality, homophobia, suicide, sexual abuse, HIV/AIDS, and racism within the lives of several African American, Latino and Asian gay men.

The editor, Keith Boykin, divides the book into ten sections that group the vignettes into common themes.  The vignettes alternate in terms of tone, going from at times being serious and sad, to being hilarious and honest, to also being powerful and inspiring.  The first section, entitled “Growing Pains,” contains stories about growing up and being gay.  By beginning with early experiences of getting picked on at school or playing with dolls, the reader is allowed to think back to times when they felt different or marginalized.  The final section, entitled “Power to the People,” reminds readers that from pain comes power; that being a gay person of color is just as much about empowerment as it is about oppression.

For Colored Boys Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Still Not Enough is for anyone who has felt like they haven’t had a voice or like they don’t deserve love.  It’s for anyone who is trying to find their identity in a world that can be really tough for people who look or act like them.  Expect to laugh and cry at points throughout the book, but ultimately expect to be inspired.

By: Gregory Stewart

Boykin, Keith, editor. For Colored Boys Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Still Not Enough: Coming of Age, Coming Out and Coming Home. Magnus Books, 2012.
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We Are the Ants by Shaun David Hutchinson

we are ants

When Henry Denton is abducted by aliens, he is given the opportunity to prevent the destruction of the earth by pressing a button. Unfortunately, Henry’s worldview is clouded by recent tragedies in his life: his father leaving his family, his grandmother’s Alzheimer’s, and his boyfriend’s suicide. During the 144 days he has left to make a decision, Henry embarks on deep self-reflection and analysis of the world around him as his friends and family try to convince him that not only is the world and life precious and worth saving but Henry is too.

Shaun David Hutchinson’s book is driven by Henry’s inner monologue which encompasses an examination of our world that is deep and true. Henry has a harsh, cynical voice that many young readers have. Melodramatic teens have often considered or even wished for the possibility of the end of the world. Hutchinson introduces a protagonist who is faced with this question and hesitates.

Teens will appreciate Henry’s wit and sarcastic approach to the world. Science Fiction fans may be disappointed to find that this book is less about alien abductions and is more of a thoughtful and complex 451-page defense of why life is worth living, merely using the urgency of the alien apocalypse as a backdrop to underscore this analysis. More imaginative readers or those interested in science, history, and politics may be thoroughly amused by Henry’s wild yet insightful hypotheses for how the world will end. If taught in a classroom, these theories will also spark an interesting conversation about human relations and geopolitical systems. Readers should be aware and cautious of difficult and triggering themes in this book such as suicide and sexual assault.

Students who began reading the book with a rose-colored view of the world will reach the end with empathy and an appreciation and awareness of the darkness in the world. We Are the Ants inspires looking beyond the blanket “I’m fine,” encouraging introspection and hypervigilance. No one is fine—not even the perfect popular boy in school. For those who were cynical prior to reading this book and see Henry’s voice as a reflection of their own worldview, they will be greeted with an ode to all that is beautiful and complex about this world. Though it might seem obvious to some that the protagonist should press the button, Hutchinson simultaneously defends Henry’s point of view while underlining all the nuanced ways the world is beautiful and worth living.

By: Naana Obeng-Marnu

Hutchinson, Shaun D. We Are the Ants. Simon Pulse, 2016.

History Is All You Left Me by Adam Silvera

rehost2016913a5c7dcc9-6afd-4a16-b6eb-3b98632b12c7What happens to us when the love of our life dies unexpectedly? How do we process our grief knowing that we will never be able to speak to them directly or hear them respond? And, what happens if this love was dating someone else when they died?

These are the provocative central questions at the heart of Adam Silvera’s History Is All You Left Me. Written from the perspective of seventeen year-old high school senior, Griffin, the novel oscillates back and forth between the present in the aftermath of the passing of Griffin’s first love and the past history of their relationship, from their first date through the accident that separated them forever. Griffin, an introverted teenager who struggles to manage his overwhelming obsessive compulsive disorder, is enthralled by the charismatic and outgoing Theo, and when the two of them decide to take the next step from being friends to boyfriends, they find a love within each other that is kind, supportive, and everlasting. That is, until Theo moves away from their home in New York to California to start college and begins dating Jackson, thrusting Griffin into the role of supportive best friend – a role he had agreed to play, yet struggles with as he envisions his path and Theo’s eventually realigning. When Theo drowns while at the beach, Griffin and Jackson’s lives are thrust together back in New York in the wake of his funeral. Can two people who loved the same boy be friends as they navigate their shared grief, or will their separate and competing histories tear them apart? Griffin, who speaks directly to Theo during the moments of the novel that are set in the present, grapples with his unwanted relationship with Jackson, but learns that there may be some benefit in spending time with the only other person who understands what he is going through.

For anyone who has ever lost someone, this is a challenging, gut-wrenching, cathartic, beautiful tale of how viscerally powerful grief is. There are moments in the text where Griffin’s loss is so real that it is hard to continue reading, and in that way Silvera has brilliantly realized the theme of grief through his writing. As a young person navigating the murky waters of belonging, mental illness, and loss, Griffin is a well-rendered character through whom many adolescent readers, male and female, queer and straight, can see parts of their selves and their struggles reflected through. For those who feel alone and who feel like they have nothing left, Silvera reminds us that even in the wake of sadness and isolation, the essential tools to rebuild our lives, though they may not change our circumstances, lie within us. When everything in our lives seems uncertain, we are reminded, as Griffin learns, that we are our own “compass arrow[s], trying to find [our] true north, (233).

By: Josh Quinones

Silvera, Adam. History Is All You Left Me. Soho Teen, 2017.

Out of the Easy by Ruta Sepetys

out of the easy

How much does your upbringing affect your ability to follow your dreams?

For a young woman like Josie Moraine, her dreams have been limited by circumstances out of her control. Growing up deep within the French Quarter during the 1950s, Josie Moraine seeks more than what her setting offers. She dreams of education, friendship, social status, and money, but is restricted by her life’s harsh realities. Josie cannot escape her upbringing; in New Orleans, she will always be the daughter of a prostitute.

Rita Sepetys’ Out of the Easy is a gripping read that follows Josie’s struggle to her achieve her dreams and rise above her expected life path. Despite its complicated nature, Josie is determined to overcome her mother’s reputation and influence, and ultimately make a name for herself. Through her passion for reading, Josie is exposed to stories that highlight the possibilities of life beyond the French Quarter. She also is highly aware of the danger that exists within the Quarter, particularly within the brothel she was raised in.

One of Josie’s greatest aspirations is to attend college. After a chance encounter with a wealthy college student named Charlotte, Josie feels deeply inspired to achieve higher education and break out of her sleazy reality. Through Charlotte’s influence, Josie becomes obsessed with the idea of attending Smith College alongside her new, elitist friend. However, Josie needs resources she does not have in order to make it happen. Now more than ever, Josie is faced with morally challenging decisions that could significantly change her life for the better or the worse.

Out of the Easy grapples with relevant themes surrounding sacrifice, morality, family ties, and aspirations, which makes the book likable to many. Despite Josie’s unique upbringing, she continues to face relatable teenage social problems. Josie’s character experiences love interests, bullying, and pressure to fit in. Young adults reading Out of the Easy will relate to many of Josie’s feelings and reactions, but also be intrigued by Josie’s out of the ordinary lifestyle. Readers who have a fascination with New Orleans’s French Quarter will also greatly enjoy the book. Sepeteys’ historical research provides the story with details that increase the book’s accuracy and enhance the plot. Overall, Out of the Easy is a fascinating read that highlights important themes, while also telling a compelling and unique story.

By Anna

Sepetys, R. (2013). Out of the easy. London: Penguin Books.

Heartless by Marissa Meyer

Overall Rating: 90%

Relatable Characters?

Meh.

Cute?

Yes!

Funny?

Sometimes!

Moving?

Could be?

Sad?

A little

Lemon trees from one’s dream materialize overnight in one’s room. Cuckoo clocks house talking cuckoo birds that fall asleep and forget the time. Croquet is played with flamingos as mallets and hedgehogs as balls. The world of Marissa Meyer’s Heartless is full of fantastic, impossible things. Inspired by Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Heartless tells the backstory of the Queen of Hearts, featuring Meyer’s take on why the character becomes the “blind and aimless Fury” that Carroll portrays (Meyer 4).

rehost2016913a5c7dcc9-6afd-4a16-b6eb-3b98632b12c7Heartless follows Catherine Pinkerton whose passion for baking sustains her dream of opening a bakery with her best friend and maid Mary Ann. In the Kingdom of Hearts, however, women have no place in the world of business because societal rules and norms are modeled after Victorian England’s, and baking is not considered a suitable job for Cath, the daughter of the Marquess of Rock Turtle Cove. Cath nonetheless endeavors to realize her dream, all-the-while grappling with her parent’s wishes for her to marry the King of Hearts and become queen.

Exploring the impact societal norms and parental expectations can have on one’s life, Heartless also illustrates issues of privilege and class divide and raises questions about what actions are just, what love justifies, and if some events are not certain individuals’ faults but fate’s.

Heartless’ rich world-building and colorful cast of characters make for a very immersive read that both those familiar and unfamiliar with Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland will enjoy. In addition to reimagining staples like the Cheshire Cat, the White Rabbit, and the Mad Hatter, Meyer incorporates elements of other works like Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven” into Heartless and introduces original characters like the charming, funny, considerably swoon-worthy new court joker of Hearts, Jest.

However, not everyone may appreciate the substantial role romance plays in the novel, and I personally found it hard to like Cath. I didn’t always agree with how she handled situations, and her behavior and inner monologue, while authentic given the societal context, was off-putting at times—reflecting classist notions.

Nevertheless, my entrancement with the novel’s world and desire to learn what causes Cath’s transformation from aspiring bakery owner to heartless queen compensated for the few issues I had with Cath’s character and certain plot points in the story. Overall, I found Heartless to be a worthwhile read.

By Celina Sun

Meyer, Marissa. Heartless. EPUB ed., Pan Macmillan, 2016.

 

 

Written in the Stars by Aisha Saeed

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“I stare up at this house. It’s my father’s home too. It’s my home, they tell me. But right now, all I can see is a large cinder box that traps me inside.”

Naila is about to graduate high school in Florida and start a prestigious combined medical program at a University a few hours away from home with her best friend, Carla and boyfriend, Saif. Her ultra-conservative, Pakistani parents don’t know about that second part though. Naila is not allowed to have a boyfriend, let alone hang out with boys. Her parents will choose her future husband. Naila has been lying to her parents for a year about Saif, but when she sneaks out to Prom, her parents catch them together.

Livid, Naila’s parents decide to leave for a last minute, month-long family trip to Pakistan days before her graduation. Once there, Naila finally meets her aunts, uncles, cousins, and actually finds herself enjoying her time in Pakistan. However, unbeknownst to Naila, her parents have decided to arrange her marriage within the next few weeks and don’t intend for her to return to Florida with them. Naila struggles to fight against her parents’ wishes as she comes to terms with the fact that her core values and beliefs conflict with those of her parents.

This is the story about the dissonance between immigrant parents and their children’s values. Saeed shows how far parents will go in order to do what they think is best for their children, as well as the difficulties children of immigrants face in making sense of their different identities. This novel plays with themes of immigrant families, coming home, arranged marriage, and resilience within the poignant and emotional story of a teenager learning to stand up for herself. Naila’s story is one that is unfortunately more common than we realize, but Saeed’s take on it offers a unique and more accessible perspective.

Trigger Warning: instances of rape and physical abuse.

Saeed, Aisha. Written in the Stars. New York: Speak, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC, 2016. Print.

The Lie Tree by Frances Hardinge

The Mendacity Tree is the stuff of legends – whisper a lie to it, spread the lie around, and the tree will bear a fruit uncovering a secret.

The Lie Tree by Frances Hardinge is an enjoyable read full of mystery, heartache, and chills. It tells a story from the perspective of Faith, a 14-year-old girl full of wonder and curiosity about the world. Her father is a reverend and a renowned natural scientist, and all she wants is to help him with his work and learn.

The book opens with Faith and her family moving to Vane Island. After secretly digging through her father’s papers, Faith learns that the family is escaping a scandal back in their hometown of Kent, where stories are circulating that her father is a fraud. Though the family is initially well-received by the townspeople, attitudes quickly change when news of the Reverend’s scandal reaches the island. Tensions are high, but no one will tell Faith why.

One night, the Reverend takes Faith out on a mission at night to find caves she had seen earlier. When they return to the house, he swears her to secrecy, tells her that he must go out again, and asks her to lie to everyone about his whereabouts. He never returns.

When the Reverend’s body is found, the townspeople believe that he committed suicide, but Faith is convinced her father was murdered. Looking through his journal, she learns of the Lie Tree, and she embarks on a new mission to unravel the secrets behind her father’s death.

Set in the Victorian era, the novel is thoroughly feminist. Throughout the book, men tell Faith that it is scientific fact that women are less intelligent because their brains are smaller. They tell her that women are unskilled and incapable and that the only thing a woman can be is “good.” Faith is extremely frustrated because she is clearly intelligent and wants the same opportunities that men are afforded, but the men around her refuse to provide her with anything other than women’s duties. As the novel progresses, it introduces strong women who have learned to wield power in a patriarchal society while Faith gains confidence in her intellect.

I also appreciated the way the novel handled the dichotomy between religion and science. It was a great imagining of the upheaval that was caused by the publication of The Origin of Species. While some scientists staunchly believe in the Bible as a historical record, others are more swayed by the book’s theories and the recent discoveries of fossils. The Reverend wants to know the truth about the origin of the world and humans, but he also feels great despair from the thought that everything he believes might be wrong and that humans might be much more insignificant than they seem. It’s touching and confusing at the same time.

On the other hand, some of the book’s drawbacks include its slow pacing at the beginning. Additionally, though the Reverend is Faith’s father, I didn’t completely understand her idolatry of him – going so far as to think of him like God sometimes – when he, like any other man, berated her for not staying in her place. Faith also displays an ignorance of her position as a woman of relative privilege. It can be hard to relate to the characters, so some readers might find the novel irrelevant.

Overall, I would recommend this book to readers curious about life and attitudes in the Victorian era and those looking for a dose of mysticism. It’s a true mystery that kept me curious until the end.

Hardinge, Frances. The Lie Tree. Amulet Books, 2016.

By Hattie Xu

Symptoms of Being Human by Jeff Garvin

symptoms

I’ll make a confession: As I began reading Symptoms of Being Human, I didn’t think I’d learn a lot from the book. After all, it’s about a gender fluid teen — but my sister, many of my friends, and I all identify as LGBTQ+, and I’ve done a good amount of reading and thinking about gender identity. But my assumption was very wrong. Not only did this book draw me in with an engaging story and characters, it also highlighted for me just how deep my assumptions about gender identity and expression run.

Symptoms of Being Human follows the story of Riley, a high schooler who starts an anonymous blog about the experience of being gender fluid — which, in Riley’s case, means sometimes feeling more like a girl, sometimes more like a boy, and sometimes neither. Riley is not out at home or at school, but when the blog goes viral, a malicious classmate discovers who is behind it and begins threatening Riley. Riley must navigate the situation at school while simultaneously finding friends, a girlfriend, and a place in the LGBTQ+ community.

Although the plot itself is predictable sometimes, that was much less important to me than the remarkably pointed way in which Garvin challenges readers’ preconceptions. That point was driven home when Riley attends a gender and sexuality support group, and assumes that a transgender man is a woman based on his appearance. Riley says, “This is the second time in as many weeks that I’ve misjudged someone else’s gender identity. I feel a pang of shame; like everyone else, my instinct is to put people in a category” (154). In that moment, I realized that I was doing exactly the same thing: mentally assigning a male/female identity to Riley, trying to categorize every action and thought as “masculine” or “feminine” — even though Riley’s gender fluidity is made clear from page 1. Symptoms of Being Human is filled with striking examples of this kind of judgement and its effects on Riley and other characters. This does mean that Garvin addresses bullying, suicide, sexual assault, and other difficult topics. However, the representation of these issues in the books does not feel gratuitous; rather, it gives readers an important opportunity to learn about both themselves and the concrete issues that Garvin tackles.

Finally, one of the main ideas of the book is that Riley has many identities and traits beyond gender fluidity, including an interest in music and a talent for writing. Indeed, Garvin uses Symptoms of Being Human to emphasize the similarities shared even by outwardly different people. This makes the story an engaging choice for anyone regardless of gender identity, and especially for teens who are trying to find community and identity. Also, it reinforces the importance of acceptance, respect, and trying to understand people with identities other than our own — a message that feels extraordinarily significant in today’s world.

By: Anja Hendrikse Liu

Garvin, Jeff. Symptoms of Being Human. New York: Balzer + Bray, 2016. Print.