Does My Head Look Big in This? by Randa Abdel-Fattah

9780439922333

by Randa Abdel-Fattah
Overall: 4 out of 5 stars

Amal, an Australian-Pakistani eleventh-grader, decides mid-year to start wearing the hijab full-time. Her decision brings the predictable awkwardness and difficulty from those who assume her parents force her to wear it, but Amal prevails. The kids and principal at her new school (her old Muslim school only went up to tenth grade) take a while to warm up to her, and her crush, Adam, definitely shows he doesn’t understand her religion. Meanwhile, her friend Simone gets a boyfriend, but doesn’t leave behind the baggage that her mother has instilled in her the idea that she’s overweight and must always be on a diet. And things in her friend Leila’s very traditional, strict home come to a head and Leila runs away.

[Major spoilers!] I found myself waiting for Amal to abandon her faith and kiss Adam, but she never does and then I chastised myself for expecting that. It’s a story that doesn’t get told enough and is equally interesting as if she had. All ends well for everyone, even Leila. Overall, I loved Amal and this peek into her head can show people who’ve never met a Muslim that they think about the same things that non-Muslims do, even obsessing over how they look (whether their hijab is perfect as opposed to their hair being perfect).

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Bolivar by Sean Rubin

9781684150694

by Sean Rubin
Overall: 4 out of 5 stars

Bolivar lives next to a kid named Sybil, who is apparently the only one who pays enough attention to him to notice that he’s a dinosaur. She has a devil of a time getting anyone to realize this, and Bolivar prefers to be undisturbed, so he’s not all that happy when she succeeds. It’s a wonderfully cute story and very well done. It echoes how I feel when I visit New York, and it’s on my list to get for my cousins (ages 4 and 8) who live in Brooklyn and would probably LOVE to live next door to Bolivar.

Fire Song by Adam Garnet Jones

9781554519774

by Adam Garnet Jones
Overall: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Our hero, Shane, is still reeling from his little sister’s suicide, while also trying to navigate his secret relationship with her best friend, David, and his not-secret relationship with his girlfriend, Tara. But when Tara finds out about David, the shit really hits the fan. Meanwhile, Shane’s mom is deep in grief over Destiny’s death and seemingly oblivious to the state of the house, which is literally crumbling around them. Shane’s mom’s depression and the crumbling house conspire to keep him on the reserve (reservation), while everything in him screams to be in Toronto, at college. There’s a tribal enrollment snafu that’s keeping him from the scholarship money he desperately needs, so he gives in and agrees to sell drugs to make money, which David disapproves of.

Gay teen romance still gets me, and this one did not disappoint, especially when the scenes between Shane and David are contrasted with scenes between Shane and Tara. Jones’ Cree ancestry makes the characters wonderfully well-rounded and brutally honest about life on the reserve. There is abuse and drugs and poverty and nosy people, but there is also a close-knit community with important ceremonies to bind them together and continue their way of life. David’s grandmother is an important elder who is also sometimes at odds with the other adults in the community. It bugged me a little that I didn’t know how old David was, but I mostly got over that.

Cardboard Kingdom by Chad Sell

9781524719371

by Chad Sell
Overall: 4 out of 5 stars

This reads like a collection of short stories, but with interrelated characters. Sell wrote each one with a different collaborator (though the tone and style are so seamless you wouldn’t know it by reading) and each story focuses on a different kid in the neighborhood. Somehow they’re all interested in playing dress-up knights and dragons and queens – even the neighborhood bully. I especially liked that we got a glimpse into his life and why he’s unhappy (he lives with his grandmother because his mom can’t take care of him – details are sparse) but it wasn’t the focus of the whole book. Other kids have other issues – one boy’s parents are getting a divorce, and Dad keeps showing up at random times and upsetting everyone; one girl’s dad objects to her wearing a mustache as part of her costume (“What would people think?”); another boy wants to be a sorceress. Generally, it’s the grownups who have trouble with what the kids are doing, though some kids feel like misfits and have a hard time making friends and eventually find a pal among the crew. Conflicts are very minor and very easily resolved.

Good for fans of: Comics SquadAll’s Faire in Middle School, and also has some stretches of wordless panels that might appeal to reluctant readers! If you liked it, you might like the Awkward series.

Penderwicks at Last by Jeanne Birdsall

9780385755665

by Jeanne Birdsall
Overall: 4 out of 5 stars

Lydia, the youngest of the Penderwick siblings, is now ten and poised for her first visit to Arundel, the summer vacation setting of the first Penderwick book, for her sister’s wedding. There she meets Cagney’s daughter, Alice, who’s her age, and they become fast friends. There’s some drama with the older sisters, and with Mrs. Tifton (Jeffrey’s mother), but in general this one is more good, clean fun – and even lower drama than the other books in the series. I was still pulled in by the same kinds of funny scenarios as the rest of the series.

With words like “at last” in the title, I was expecting this book to feel like a final book in a series, but it didn’t, for a few reasons. One is that you don’t get to experience the wedding, which was a weird letdown. Another is that there’s no closure to the Batty/Jeffrey situation. Lydia’s parents are largely absent, which seemed odd. It all just makes me wonder if this really is the final installment. One thing I really loved was that at one point they’re talking about how Mrs. Tifton thinks one of the Penderwicks wants to marry Jeffrey, and 16-year-old Ben says “I didn’t think any of us wanted to marry Jeffrey”! LOVE.

Bob by Wendy Mass & Rebecca Stead

9781250166623

by Wendy Mass and Rebecca Stead
Overall: 4 out of 5 stars

Ten-year-old Livy comes back to Australia to visit her grandmother. Her last visit was five years ago, which she doesn’t remember at all. She also doesn’t remember the friend she made then, and that is because he is partly magic. His name is Bob and he’s been waiting in Livy’s closet for five years, because she told him to. He is crushed that she doesn’t remember him, but it turns out there’s a reason for that. While solving the mystery of who Bob is and how to get him back home, Livy rekindles her friendship with Sarah, her grandmother’s neighbor and learns about memory and friendship and water.

I love these two writers and am always intrigued by collaborations, mostly because it involves a meshing of two processes, which generally authors get pretty used to doing very much on their own. I spend a lot of time wondering who wrote which lines or chapters, what their process ended up looking like, when they laughed or yelled at each other, and whether they were satisfied with the final product. This story is pretty seamless so I’d like to think that the process went pretty well for them! I did have trouble not picturing Bob as Roger the alien from American Dad, but that might just be me. Nicholas Gannon‘s sparse, sepia-toned illustrations definitely helped.

Spoiler: I loved the ending, and who Bob turns out to be, which is a well dweller, and his absence has caused a drought in Australia. When a well dweller gets too far away from the well, he forgets where he came from. A small detail I bet I’ll forget is that Livy has named her baby sister BethAnn, and it turns out that Bob has two sisters named Beth and Ann. Some small things do get lodged into her memory somehow, and these echoes make lovely little details for the story and even help it along. Most adults can’t see Bob at all, it seems, though Sarah’s little brother, Danny, can. I think he sees him as a chicken, because of 5-year-old Livy’s improvised chicken suit that he wears, which is a hilarious image. I loved that Bob reads the dictionary and rebuilds a Lego pirate ship and counts to 987,654,321 six times in the five years between Livy’s visits. But mostly I love that he forgives her and that they are friends again, easily.

And She Was by Jessica Verdi

9781338150537

by Jessica Verdi
Overall: 5 out of 5 stars

Dara has just graduated high school and dreams of playing tennis professionally. She’s good enough, she just needs the money. But she’s always lived a life of limited resources with her mom. When she asks her mom for her birth certificate so she can get a passport to play a tournament in Canada, her mom gets weird. Then when she finds the birth certificate on her own, things get even weirder. Her mom’s name, Mellie Baker, is nowhere on the document; instead her parents are listed as Marcus Hogan and Celeste Pembroke.

Dara’s search for what’s going on leads to a bombshell revelation by Mellie: she used to be Marcus and is Dara’s biological father. When Celeste died, she took the final steps to live as a woman and had to go underground and assume a whole new identity. To protect her daughter, she did the same for her. Now 18, Dara’s journey continues – she grabs her best friend, Sam, and hits the road to find the other half of her family.

Throughout Dara’s road trip, she receives emails containing more of Mellie’s story. By the time she tracks down the Pembrokes, she is furious with Mellie for the ways in which her decisions impacted Dara. But she comes around to understanding why Mellie did what she did, and even leaves the lap of luxury at her grandparents’ home, and the promise of a life as a pro tennis player, to stand by her mother (and – spoiler alert – face her fears about dating Sam). I thought I knew how this story was going to unfold, and there were a few surprises, which was great. I also appreciated the author’s note at the end, where she recognized that she is not trans herself, but tried to do the story justice. She also talked about the need to have Mellie’s story in an adult voice in there, which is unusual for YA.