American Panda by Gloria Chao

9781481499101

by Gloria Chao
Overall: 5 out of 5 stars

Seventeen-year-old Mei Lu is a freshman at MIT (because her parents said so; she skipped a grade and they dictated the college); pre-med (because her parents said so; she’s a germophobe), effectively an only child (because her parents said so; they disowned her brother), but also, American (because her parents said so; they sacrificed everything for her and her brother). But when her American identity clashes with their very strict, very traditional Chinese beliefs, there’s trouble ahead. Big trouble. And not all of it is named Darren Takahashi, a fellow freshman who steals her heart.

Mei also has to forge her own relationship with her brother, change her major from pre-med to, well, almost anything else (as long as it involves math, which she loves), continue to dance and teach dance, and pursue a relationship with Darren – all without her parents finding out. If they find out, she’ll be disowned just like her brother, Xing. Of course, she starts off the book being an obedient (if conflicted) daughter, so these are not her goals at the outset, and her journey to having the strength to go against her parents is the fascinating part. I loved watching Mei grow and also feel like my own compassion for my Taiwanese friends has taken on new depths. One, a college roommate, is now an artist and I can’t imagine what she had to go through to get where she is today. I also enjoyed watching Mei and her roommate, Nicolette’s, relationship grow. Best of all, I loved hearing Mei narrate what goes on for her when she dances, even times when dancing fails to help her work through whatever’s got her down. And of course, I enjoyed seeing MIT’s campus and Chinatown here in Boston through Mei’s (and Chao’s) eyes.

There is much discussion (though not graphically) of sex and STDs, as Mei shadows her campus health center gynecologist for the day. The gynecologist, a young doctor named Tina Cheng, is an interesting if not entirely believable character, so timid she is able to be pushed around by Mei into letting her shadow for the day when some issues of patient confidentiality come up. Mei’s relationship with Darren is limited to kissing and nothing else, so there’s not much there that’s unsuitable for younger teen readers (I’d even give it to some precocious middle schoolers, honestly).

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Piecing Me Together by Renee Watson

9781681191058

by Renee Watson
Overall: 5 out of 5 stars

A young adult librarian listserv I’m on frequently shares recommendations for books that are important to have on our radars and this one came up as an alternative to (but touted as much better than) The Hate U Give. I expected it to be roughly the same storyline, where a girl witnesses a traumatizing event of police brutality to someone close to her. However, that’s not where Watson’s story draws its power. Yes, Jade describes a case of a teen girl in her area brutally beaten by police and hospitalized, and she and her community are shaken deeply. But that is just one aspect of Jade’s junior year of high school that affects her, and this story encompasses all of them. Like Jade’s amazing collage artwork, stepping back and looking at the whole reveals its beauty and power.

Jade takes us through her junior year at a private (read: white) school in Portland, Oregon. She is black, and a scholarship student (and Watson does not lose this opportunity to show us opposing examples of how those two things are not mutually exclusive at St. Francis), and is invited to participate in a two-year-long mentorship program for smart, young, black women. She and her mentor get off to a rocky start, and soon she is ready to quit the program. While she and Maxine are both black and went to the same high school, they seem to be worlds apart in terms of SES and how they understand the world. More than that, Maxine dated a friend of Jade’s uncle. So, things between them are complicated and uneasy to say the least. But she doesn’t quit, and things do turn around for her eventually.

My favorite parts were her descriptions of Spanish class, especially her relationship with her Spanish teacher. Jade went to this school primarily because of their promise of study abroad opportunities, and when it looks like she won’t get them, she takes matters into her own hands – which happens to be the biggest lesson she learns over the book. Jade’s friendship with a fellow scholarship student, a white girl who rides her bus, also has some very touching learning moments. One last issue that is just briefly touched on is Jade’s body image – she is heavyset and at one point overhears a group of boys rating her and other women in a fast food restaurant. That she receives a 5 (out of 10) is the first indication of her looks, and the reader is as devastated as she is. Jade’s mother is another interesting character; she and Maxine initially also get off on the wrong foot in a power struggle of sorts, but she eventually comes around to Maxine.

There’s a lot in here (an incident in a store, another with a teacher at school) that can really shine a light on how it is for black people navigating white spaces and friendships with white people, in a way that is a lot more subtle than The Hate U Give – neither way is right or better, they’re just different. Overall, I wholly agree with the original recommender on the listserv – this is a hugely important book, and also one that is likely to be sadly overlooked in the fervor over Thomas’ timely and bold work.

Witch Boy by Molly Knox Ostertag

9781338089516

by Molly Knox Ostertag
Overall: 4 out of 5 stars

Aster lives with his large extended family in a big old house at the edge of the woods. He and his cousins are all homeschooled, mostly in the ways of witchcraft (for the girls) and shapeshifting (for the boys). These roles are strictly adhered to with recent evidence of disastrous outcomes if the lines are blurred. The problem is, Aster wants to study witchcraft instead of shapeshifting, which his cousins all tease him for and his parents, aunts, uncles, and grandmother strictly forbid. He runs away and finds a new, non-magical friend, a girl named Charlie. When his male cousins start disappearing, Aster uses his ability to shapeshift and do witchcraft, combined with Charlie’s physical femaleness, to save the day.

My book club read this one along with Drum Dream Girl and Boy and the Bindi. (While none of the characters in these books are transgender specifically, I used that tag because it’s about gender roles.) The overwhelming feeling was that Boy and the Bindi could have used more explanation about what a bindi is (and why it’s used, officially); I mostly stayed out of that but feel guilty at not raising the idea of the explanatory comma, which I first learned about through NPR’s Code Switch podcast. But I’ll give my two cents here: I think if you know what a bindi is, this book is for you. If don’t know what a bindi is, go learn, and then this book can be for you too. And also,┬áit’s okay if not everything is for you. I think it’s important for kids with minority identities have things that are just for them and don’t get into too much explanation for delicate white palates.

Book Scavenger by Jennifer Chambliss Bertman

9781627791151

by Jennifer Chambliss Bertman
Overall: 5 out of 5 stars

12-year-old Emily Crane and her family are on a quest to live in all 50 states. Well, her parents are on a quest, and she and her older brother are mostly along for the ride, whether they like it or not. When their next moving truck takes them to San Francisco, though, Emily finally makes a friend who’s as into puzzles and games as she is. It’s also the home of her hero, the great Garrison Griswold, creator of the website Book Scavenger, which is part Little Free Library, part geocaching game. But Griswold suffers an attack that lands him in the hospital and his next game reveal is put on hold indefinitely – or is it? When Emily and her new friend, James, find a book they believe it is the first clue in the next game and Emily is determined to win it, even if there are two men after them to get hold of the book.

Emily and James have help from a local bookshop owner named Hollister. There is a part near the end where they walk through a park past a homeless man in a sleeping bag and Emily comments in her head about staying away from there for safety, and it turns out the man in the bag was Hollister. He has graying dreadlocks and I appreciated the nod to race/class stereotypes that was turned upside down. On other interpersonal fronts, Emily and James have a fight about being a good friend, and Emily and her brother fight because he has stopped caring about book scavenging and being her friend and is more into his new favorite band. (Matthew is 15 years old.) Her teacher, Mr. Quisling, is rather inexplicably short with her on her first day of school, and he gets in the way of her plan to solve Mr. Griswold’s new game, though he turns out to be a good guy. Her parents also realize how much Emily would love to stay in one place for a while and end up putting the next moving plans on hold.

For fans of: The Puzzling World of Winston Breen by Eric Berlin, Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library by Chris Grabenstein

Simon vs the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli

simon-cover-lg_2xer-956880b92f97

by Becky Albertalli
Overall: 5 out of 5 stars

I swore I was going to stop reading these gay teen love stories! Ugh. So much angst! So much lust! All the feels! This one had everything, and with a twist – our hero did not know the true identity of the boy he was falling in love with over email. Sure, he knew that Blue attends his school and is a fellow junior, but they’re both fine with (and in fact prefer) not knowing.

Chapters alternate between emails back and forth and straight narration / dialogue. I loved that Albertalli did not include absolutely every email but rather plopped us down into the middle of the exchange. I had to work a little to infer what the previous email had said and it was just great showing-not-telling. Also, once we do find out Blue’s true identity, I rejoiced in flipping back through to find snippets of description of that character, so that I got to experience the magic again.

I especially appreciated the character development. Not just the protagonist, but also his friends (who have their own drama going on, literally and figuratively as some of them are in the school musical with Simon), his antagonist (the classmate who blackmails him about Blue) and his family (two sisters and “cool” parents). Simon’s friend Leah was mostly irritating, but his other friends were lovely diversions from the main storyline. I also loved that Simon and Blue encouraged each other to start coming out, and the way in which the bullying was addressed. Totally delightful. Can’t wait to see the movie!

Wild Things: The Joy of Reading Children’s Literature as an Adult by Bruce Handy

9781451609950

by Bruce Handy
Overall: 4 out of 5 stars

My Adults Who Read Kids’ Books book club had a good time dissecting this one, and especially making our own list of books and authors that could have been included. I did notice, however, that neither our list nor Handy’s was especially diverse, except for gender-wise (ours had more female writers; Handy’s had few). Overall, it was fun – not only a trip down memory lane, but Handy apparently did a lot of research. I found it a bit technical at first, but eventually got into it. I liked that each chapter had a theme (like Christianity or Death) and fit a few things together into each. I was prepared for it to be total fluff, but was pleased that there was a bit more thought put into it (though he mentioned and completely dismissed an entire book, Was the Cat in the Hat Black?, out of hand, which irked me because I thought it had important things to say, and white people dismissing claims of racism really irks me. But other than that, this was a well-researched trip down memory lane, with a few surprises.

The Lotterys Plus One by Emma Donoghue

9780545925815

by Emma Donoghue
Overall: 5 out of 5 stars

Sumac Lottery comes from a large family – 7 kids (she’s #5) and 4 parents. The parents, two homosexual couples of various races and ethnicities, were already close friends when they won the lottery and decided to buy a mansion and acquire all their kids (some through adoption, some through other means – IVF? it’s a bit unclear). Despite their wealth, they are very environmentally-minded and don’t buy a lot of extra things just because. The story starts when one of the grandparents, the one living that none of the kids knows, comes to live with them. He is very conservative and racist and clashes a lot with his son’s family and quickly earns the nickname Grumps. He displaces uber-helper Sumac from her room and thus begins her internal struggle. Grumps is deeply unhappy about all the changes in his life and takes them out on the family, but also comes around eventually (even being rescued from the airport where he’s attempting to get back to his old home).

From the beginning, I was expecting this one to be too over the top about the hippy-dippy diversity, but it actually worked. I had a really, really hard time connecting to the fact that this book took place in Toronto – I had gotten it into my head that they lived in Hawaii! (I think because their house sounded a lot like the 13-Story Treehouse.) The kids are all homeschooled and are named after trees; eventually they mostly crystallized but I felt like some details were missing (like Sic’s name came from a tree somehow but I missed how – maybe Sycamore? And another kid is just straight up named Wood?). Probably details of their births and races and even intellectual abilities/disabilities were omitted to show that they’re not really important to Sumac, but it didn’t help me understand her family.

The one thing that irked me was that the four-year-old sibling, whose original name was Briar, decided they wanted to be called Brian and not be called a girl throughout the story (though at the end they claimed to be a brother and a sister to their siblings), and the rest of the family kept referring to them as she. While this seemed necessary to create confusion for the grandfather and make one particular scene work, it seemed both insensitive generally and also out of character for this family in particular, which is so diverse and perfectly accepting in all other ways.

It reminded me of The Family Fletcher in noise level and busyness, too, so if you liked that one, you’ll probably like the Lotterys! I spent a while looking to see if this was the second book in a series, since it seems to jump right into an established story, but it doesn’t appear to be the case. (Though the author’s website indicates it’s to be the first in a series, so I guess stay tuned!)