The Sun is Also a Star ~ Nicola Yoon

“We’re undocumented immigrants, and we’re being deported tonight. Today is my last chance to try to convince someone – or fate – to help me find a way to stay in America. To be clear: I don’t believe in fate. But I’m desperate.” ~ Natasha

“There’s a Japanese phrase that I like: koi no yokan. It doesn’t mean love at first sight. It’s closer to love at second sight. It’s the feeling when you meet someone that you’re going to fall in love with them. […] I’m pretty sure that’s what I’m experiencing right now. The only slight (possibly insurmountable) problem is that I’m pretty sure that Natasha is not.” ~ Daniel

Natasha is an undocumented immigrant whose family moved to New York from Jamaica when she was eight. Her life is here, in the US, but today is her last day before she gets deported. Instead of packing or saying goodbye to the only place she calls home, Natasha departs on an adventure to try and stop her family’s deportation.

Daniel is the second son of Korean immigrants, their second chance at having a son graduate from “second-best school,” Yale. Today is his Yale interview; the first step towards becoming a doctor, a career Daniel has zero interest in. On his way uptown, Daniel notices a cute, African-American girl dancing her way down the street. He’s hooked.

Once they meet, Daniel and Natasha spend the day together exploring New York City, falling in love, and most importantly, trying to stop Natasha’s deportation. Along the way, they learn about each other’s families, their dreams, and themselves. In her novel, Yoon presents two contrasting yet honest portrayals of children of immigrants in the United States and their search to find out who they are and who they want to become.

The novel is made all the more interesting because each chapter is written from the point of view of a different character, focusing mainly on Natasha and Daniel, while also providing the perspectives of other minor characters – or the universe – on the events of the day. Because of this, Yoon is able to show how a variety of characters in the same city – even family – can experience the world so differently. Somehow, these characters’ stories are all interconnected though, implying that fate might actually exist, no matter how little Natasha believes in it.

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.

Symptoms of Being Human by Jeff Garvin

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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.

Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell

rehost2016913a5c7dcc9-6afd-4a16-b6eb-3b98632b12c7“Nothing before you counts,” he said. “And I can’t even imagine an after.”

She shook her head. “Don’t.

“What?”

“Don’t talk about after.”

“I just meant that… I want to be the last person who ever kisses you, too…. That sounds bad, like a death threat or something. What I’m trying to say is, you’re it. This is it for me.”

Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell is a tale of young love that is a dynamic and heart-warming read.  Using witty, candid, and thoughtful language, Rowell explores the unique love that exists in the confines of high school while also exploring the impact of family and personal history.  Following the typical chain of events of a real high school relationship, Park and Eleanor meet on the school bus, have English class together, and struggle through the same school bullies and woes of gym class.

Although a high school love story may seem like a fairly typical premise of a young adult novel, Rowell defies the high school sweetheart archetype by creating complex protagonists with personalities and histories full of nuance and mystery.

Eleanor and Park’s family backgrounds at first appear insignificant to the relationship, but prove to be the most important component to understanding their future as a couple. Eleanor grew up in a broken and dysfunctional family. Stricken with poverty and harmed by abuse, Eleanor was never exposed to healthy love. Park however, grew up in a stable and supportive household with parents who love each other and care for their family. With two wildly different homes, the love that Eleanor and Park develop gains nuance and surprise. Getting to know the real Eleanor and the authentic Park builds a plot that keeps the reader constantly discovering new things about the characters’ identities and how each learns to love.

The intense backgrounds, and the effects it has on Eleanor in particular is atypical to many high school love stories, but it is precisely what makes this book so successful. The inclusion and acknowledgement of the effects of family dynamics adds a dimension to the narrative that is often missing in young adult novels, but that is crucial in creating a more complex and relatable character.

With a universally relatable theme of adolescence and love, the book is fitting for all ages. For older readers, the story provokes a sense of nostalgia for youth while enhancing the reader’s own appreciation for young love, even imbuing the reader with a sense of hope.  For younger readers, the experiences are relatable for most and will evoke empathy in all. In sum, Eleanor and Park is a must-read for anyone who has ever been in love, who is still looking to find the one, or has the real belief that personal background is important to acknowledge and explore.

By: Anna Fireman

Rowell, Rainbow. Eleanor & Park. New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 2016. Print.

The Beginning of Everything by Robyn Schneider

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Before we begin the review of The Beginning of Everything by Robyn Schneider, I’d like to point out that the novel is titled Severed Heads, Broken Hearts in the UK. This version, while slightly gorier, gives readers a more accurate idea of the story they are about to delve into.

Ezra Faulkner believes “everyone’s life, no matter how unremarkable, has a singular tragic encounter after which everything that really matters will happen.” At the end of his junior year of high school, it seems Ezra has evaded his own theory. As class president, star of the varsity tennis team, and leader of the most popular clique in school, Ezra is the stereotypical golden boy. That is, until his personal tragedy catches up to him one night before prom, and his life is changed forever. With his girlfriend, popularity, and illustrious tennis career yanked right out from underneath him, it seems like Ezra is doomed to suffer through senior year in misery. Enter Cassidy Thorpe, an eccentric new student with a mysterious past who catches Ezra’s eye right away. It’s clear early on that Cassidy is a textbook Manic Pixie Dream Girl, making The Beginning of Everything feel a bit like a second-rate Looking for Alaska, but for those who haven’t read John Green and/or those who aren’t put off by the trope, Schneider’s novel could be a feel-good novel about finding oneself after falling from grace.

Readers around Ezra’s age are most likely to enjoy The Beginning of Everything. Mentions of alcohol use and sexual encounters are sprinkled throughout the novel, but members of the target audience won’t be put off by Ezra’s experiences or commentary as they have probably engaged in similar escapades.

If read before any of John Green’s novels (specifically Looking for Alaska), The Beginning of Everything will seem like a twist on the tired story of a jock falling for the quirky new girl, but when compared to Green’s works (as is done by a review on the back cover), Schneider’s story falls a little flat. The Beginning of Everything could be the book you reread to highlight the snappy quotes, but only if you aren’t already familiar with what happens when a witty “different than all the other girls” girl is involved.

By: Tess DeMeyer

Schneider, Robyn. The Beginning of Everything. New York: Katherine Tegen, 2013. Print.

If I Was Your Girl by Meredith Russo

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“You can have anything…once you admit you deserve it” (180).

This idea runs throughout Meredith Russo’s novel, If I Was Your Girl. Protagonist Amanda Hardy has recently moved to a small town in Tennessee to live with her father and graduate high school. She must navigate a new school, make friends, get a boyfriend, and reconnect with a father she hasn’t spoken to in six years. But Amanda’s biggest struggle and secret in her new town? She’s transgender.

 If I Was Your Girl is powerful because it deals with this topic head-on. The novel has frequent flashbacks to Amanda’s past, dealing with the dissolution of her parents’ marriage (which she feels is partially her fault), early stories of realizing she would rather be female, her depression and suicide attempt, her transition towards taking estrogen and getting surgery, going to therapy, and getting bullied and viciously beaten. Russo doesn’t skim over details: instead, she strives to explain why Amanda felt the way she did, the effects a critical community can have, and even the painful process of dilation in order to create a vagina.

The author, Meredith Russo, shares a lot of similarities with Amanda: She is also transgender, was born in Tennessee, and was beaten for being trans. This adds a lot of credibility to the novel and makes it more compelling. Today, there’s a lot of debate about transgender individuals, especially in regards to bathroom usage and whether being transgender is a mental disorder. If I Was Your Girl is a great way to learn more about the transgender community—and although you may feel uncomfortable at times, that uncomfortableness is important.

In addition to everyone who wants to learn more about being transgender or who is transgender, If I Was Your Girl is, at its heart, a love story, and will appeal to all fans of romance. Amanda falls in love with football player Grant, who has his own secrets to hide. She has never been in a relationship before, and the reader gets to see her progression towards being more confident as well as the progression of her and Grant’s relationship. But it’s not just a love story in terms of romance: If I Was Your Girl is also the story of how Amanda and her father learn to love each other again after Amanda begins to live as female, how Amanda’s friends learn to love her regardless of what Amanda’s birth sex is, and how Amanda, ultimately, learns to love herself.

Amanda’s story is complex. She deals with intersection of being transgender and living in the South, religion, and parental acceptance. Amanda’s friend explains to her, “people in the South are addicted to the closet…Everybody’s too afraid of going to hell or getting made fun of…so they can’t even really admit what they want to themselves” (164). Amanda herself deals with trying to maintain her faith. And Amanda’s mother, while accepting, still struggles with what she sees as the death of her son; when Amanda argues, “I’m still me,” her mother responds that “It ain’t that simple” and “I know I’m supposed to say it is, but it ain’t” (186-187). I found these aspects to be thought-provoking; Russo shows that nothing is as simple as it seems, and the novel contains many twists and complications, which keep the novel from falling into tropes or stereotypes.

This novel is powerful and important for transgender youth, above all. Russo said she wanted to “help transgender youth who feel alone and not accepted in any community by giving them a relatable heroine who is fun, interesting, and empowered” (Edwards). I think she certainly achieved her goal, and that the story of Amanda will grab you and leave you thinking long after the last pages.

By: Grace Layer

Edwards, Lynda. “Chattanooga transgender woman lands $100,000 book deal.” Times Free Press 27 January 2015. Web. 17 April 2017.

Russo, Meredith. If I Was Your Girl. New York: Alloy Entertainment, 2016. Print.

I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson

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“When twins are separated, their spirits steal away to find the other”

In Jandy Nelson’s I’ll Give You the Sun, twins Noah and Jude fluctuate between their separate identities and NoahandJude, the singular soul which unites them even as their adolescence takes them in two different directions. I’ll Give You the Sun tells the story of Noah at age 13, as he experiences his first love with the boy next door, rife with painterly imagery and the many titles of Noah’s “mind paintings,” which he “paints” in between working on actual art. Art is Noah’s life; to Jude, art is something she enjoys, but not in the way her brother does. Which is why, when Noah starts getting all of the attention from their mother for it, tensions flare.

Also told by Jude at age 16, I’ll Give You the Sun captures Jude’s experience struggling to find her inner sculptor, and dealing with the guilt of hurting her brother several times over in the years between her story and Noah’s. And, of course, falling for a certain edgy English motorcycle boy…

Though it took some time to get used to Jandy Nelson’s painterly, metaphor-heavy language, I found I’ll Give You the Sun to be a spectacular read, as colorful and vibrant as the artwork it so often alluded to. Writing about art is a daunting task—ekphrasis, as it’s called, often leaves something to be desired—but this novel is delicious in its descriptions. I recommend this book to anyone who loves art, or who has ever picked up a pencil or paintbrush in an attempt to explain the way they feel.

I’ll Give You The Sun is as much about art, though, as it is about loss. In Jude’s narrative, we learn about a devastating family tragedy, and the family’s attempts to overcome their grief and personal regrets. As a result, this book can be difficult to read at points, brutally honest and painful in its intensity. That said, Jandy Nelson does an excellent job of painting the tragedy with nuance, blurring black and white into shades of gray.

For all the careful attention to certain difficult topics, though, I did take issue with some of the content of the novel; as a result, I think the reader of this book needs to approach it with a certain amount of maturity and perspective in place. I’ll Give You the Sun depicts the blossoming romance between a nineteen-year-old college student and a high school underclassman—and does startlingly little to acknowledge how these sorts of dynamics can often be unhealthy or dangerous to the minor. Instead, it seems as though Jandy Nelson is willing to write off the age difference for the sake of romance.

As long as the reader is able to themselves acknowledge the questionability of such a relationship, though, I think I’ll Give You the Sun is an excellent read for the young adult looking for a vibrant, often hilarious story jam-packed with plot twists and unforeseen connections. The novel won the Stonewall Honor award for its positive representation of an adolescent navigating his sexuality, and so I also recommend the book to students looking to see themselves represented—and represented well—in literature.

By Laura Kenney

Nelson, Jandy. I’ll Give You the Sun. New York: Dial , NY. Print.

The Fault In Our Stars by John Green

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“I fell in love the way you fall asleep: slowly, then all at once” (125).

A sixteen-year-old who was diagnosed with cancer at a young age, Hazel knew that she was running out of time. But when her mother forces her to attend a cancer patient support group, Hazel meets a cancer survivor, Augustus, who changes her perspective on life forever. Hazel and Augustus quickly connect with each other through their struggles, their sense of humor, and their love for literature. Just when she thought she was ready for her fate, Hazel comes across a totally unexpected kind of beauty in life – love – and she’s not ready to let go anymore.

In this beautifully written novel, John Green explores the power of love and demonstrates that love trumps all, even when life seems hopeless. Green also highlights the importance of family and friends in terms of providing support for adolescents, especially for those who need to fight for their lives. Whether you’re a teen or an adult, if you’re a believer in love, then this novel is a must-read for you. If you don’t believe in love, then this novel is also a must-read for you, for it will undoubtedly change your perspective and enlighten you about love’s great potential. This heartbreaking yet heartwarming story will take you on an emotional roller coaster ride filled with both laughter and tears.

“You don’t get to choose if you get hurt in this world… but you do have some say in who hurts you. I like my choices” (313).

By: Isabel Kim

Green, John. The Fault In Our Stars. Penguin Books, 2012. Print.

Every Day by David Levithan

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“Everyday I am someone else. I am myself—I know I am myself—but I am also someone else. It has always been like this.”(Levithan 1)

In David Levithan’s unique and captivating novel Every Day, the protagonist, a sixteen year old named A, wakes up each morning in the body of another person. Every day, A must adapt to a new life, assuming a new name, family, and set of challenges to navigate while attempting to keep the life of the host as normal as possible. Nothing in A’s life is constant or stable, and a sense of profound loneliness grows with each new day and identity. One day, however, A makes a special connection with a girl named Rhiannon, and soon both of their lives are changed forever.

As A travels from one identity to the next over the course of the story, readers are briefly introduced to a number of different characters that adolescent readers may relate to on a personal level. Mental illness, physical disabilities, loss, and family conflicts are just a few of the challenges that A encounters day to day in the bodies of these various sixteen year olds. Additional themes central to the story and A’s own set of challenges as a changing individual include romance, difference, belonging, gender and sexuality, morality and justice, and sense of self.

All adolescent readers can learn something from A. Among many other lessons, A teaches readers the power of compassion and human connection at times when it feels like the world is against you. A recollects, “If you stare at the center of the universe, there is a coldness there. A blankness. Ultimately, the universe doesn’t care about us. Time doesn’t care about us. That’s why we have to care about each other”(320). An unconventional and captivating romance novel dealing with so much more than just two everyday teens, Every Day provides readers with a new, more open-minded perspective on identity, love, and sense of self.

Source Cited: Levithan, David. Every Day. New York: Ember, 2012. Print.

By: Liza

Star-Crossed by Barbara Dee

What do you have to do to be a player in your own story?

That is the question for Matilda “Mattie” Monaghan, whose lack of presence means not being invited to the biggest Halloween party in her town. When she sneaks in to catch a glimpse of her crush Elijah, she instead finds herself talking to the funny and intriguing (and British!) Gemma Braithwaite. The problem? Gemma is very much a part of one clique, while Mattie is in the other. Things only get more complicated when Mattie takes on the role of Romeo opposite Gemma’s Juliet in the school’s eighth grade production of Romeo and Juliet. Through the play and her role as Romeo, Mattie learns about crossing seemingly impossible social lines while taking control of her life and choices.

Star-Crossed is one of many modern takes on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, and yet it feels fresh. The appeal of Romeo and Juliet lies in the forbidden nature of the romance, a feeling which is captured perfectly by reframing the story around two young girls who develop a crush on each other. This book is perfect for tween and younger YA readers, however older readers can also find things to relate to in Mattie’s narrative. Despite being directed at a younger audience, Barbara Dee doesn’t make Mattie’s world simplified or perfect. Mattie’s big sister Cara and mother argue and fight every time Cara visits from college. Her friend Tessa is the daughter of divorced parents, although it’s only mentioned tangentially. The struggles Mattie faces with trying to decide how much to reveal to her friends about her growing crush on Gemma doesn’t come across as childish or unrealistic — it feels like real fear of knowing that people may and will treat her differently if they knew she liked girls. In one scene she witnesses her classmates commenting how weird it is for girls to be playing male roles in Romeo and Juliet. Although her English teacher, Mr. Torres, makes it clear he won’t tolerate any prejudice, Mattie is still very clearly surrounded by peers who may not be entirely supportive of LGBT individuals.

However, Star-Crossed is a love story at its core, and one that’s executed with a good balance of reality and fantasy. As a woman who discovered her sexuality at a young age, I appreciate Star-Crossed for normalizing affection between same-sex tweens. Mattie’s feelings toward Gemma unfold very naturally, from realizing Elijah isn’t her true love like she thought to noticing how Gemma smiles at her. A scene where she leaves Gemma an anonymous love note of Romeo’s lines is particularly sweet and poignant, while the ensuing confusion over who wrote the note keeps the momentum going through the book. While I won’t spoil the ending, I think the resolution of their feelings toward each other is perfect and powerful, showing Mattie that her feelings are valid and allowable. Throughout Star-Crossed, Mattie struggles with making decisions and going after what she wants. By the end of the book, she learns that taking action and embracing who she is rather than sitting in the background allows her to be a happier, fuller person.

By Mary

Dee, Barbara. Star-crossed. New York: Aladdin, 2017. Print.