The subtitle of this book is “A Comic Book Guide to Relationships, Bodies, and Growing Up” and that’s basically what it is. The first half of the book, the puberty / bodies part, dragged a little for me, but the second half, which talked about gender, sexual attraction (or lack thereof), and especially consent, was great. There were some really clear metaphors for understanding, again especially about consent (including one that even might bump the tea metaphor out of first place!). The book is sort of narrated by five teens of different races, genders, and sexualities, but who don’t really have distinct voices and sometimes come off as really didactic.
by Benjamin Klas
Overall: 4 out of 5 stars
Jeremiah is spending the summer with his dad in Minneapolis, as usual. This time, though, there’s another man in the picture: his dad’s boyfriend, Michael. Jeremiah met Michael last year but thankfully didn’t have to spend too much time with him. This summer, though, he’s still there. Jeremiah finds Michael’s flamboyance and interest in being his parent annoying. Dad and Michael have moved in together to a new apartment and Jeremiah makes friends with Sage, a girl about his age (12) with two moms and a bicycle, and they spend a lot of time riding around together. They also manage to befriend Mr. Keeler, the resident curmudgeon. By the end of the summer, Jeremiah has come around to Michael, partly because of Mr. Keeler, whose passing plays a role in Jeremiah and Michael bonding.
A coworker recommended this one to me, but wasn’t sure who to give it to. Normally the font size and protagonist age match up but this book might be a case of a hi-lo book (high interest level – of interest to a middle schooler – paired with low reading level, indicated by the larger font size and presence of pictures as aids). It’s also a great show of bisexuality and bisexual acceptance; Jeremiah’s dad (and mom) have known that he’s bi all along and no one has any lingering issues about him dating both men and women. Sage has two moms and that’s partly why they bond; she is cued as Black and all other characters are cued as white (except for one of Sage’s moms who is identified as Hmong). It’s also worth noting that the author does a great job of showing how Jeremiah feels about Michael and how it changes gradually over the course of the book.
by Sarah Kapit
Overall: 4 out of 5 stars
Vivy Cohen is an 11-year-old knuckleball pitcher. See, three years ago, she met the great VJ Capello, her hero, who showed her the knuckleball hold, and she’s been practicing it ever since. She’s gotten pretty good and even gets herself on a team! Her mom isn’t quite so enthusiastic, because she’s afraid to let Vivy do things that are risky, either physically or socially, since Vivy has autism and needs to work on her social skills. Part of that is going to social skills group, which she hates, but one assignment the kids get is to write to their hero. Of course she chooses VJ Capello, who to her surprise writes her back! This begins a correspondence that carries the whole epistolary novel. Mostly they talk about pitching, but also Vivy’s family, including her brother (spoiler alert: he comes out as gay), and her best friend, who is also the catcher on the team she plays for. When Vivy gets pretty seriously hurt, her mom bans her from playing and her great challenge is to convince her. The way she finally does (oops, I mean, spoiler alert) was a little surprising and gratifying – everyone in the story grows a little as a result: mom, dad, Vivy, even VJ, but nothing comes of the coach’s son bullying her. One additional aspect to the story is that VJ is Black and has some reflections on being a Black knuckleball pitcher, a minority of minorities, in a sense.
I won’t make the mistake again (see the comments) of claiming that an author who is writing about an autistic character is not themselves autistic, but it is not clearly the case whether Kapit is autistic or not. So the jury is out on the authenticity of the experience, though it certainly felt very real from an outsider’s perspective, especially the descriptions of Vivy’s emotional meltdowns and her hand flapping of excitement, even if Vivy seemed a bit too in tune with others’ body language and with her own mental process. Regardless, Kapit certainly has down the non-autistic adults in Vivy’s life, especially her mom, who arguably does the most growing. One argument that Vivy makes about making her own decisions is that next year she will have a Bat Mitzvah and “doesn’t that mean something? I think that it should.”
by Adib Khorram
Overall: 4.5 out of 5 stars
My favorite gay Persian teen is back! This time he’s dealing with his first boyfriend, his first real job, and the mysterious tensions in his house, especially when his dad travels for work for a month and his grandmothers come to visit. And by “dealing with his first boyfriend,” I mean everything from feeling not ready for sex, to feeling attracted to someone else, to doubting whether the relationship is a good fit for him. He’s attracted to a former nemesis, now a soccer teammate and friend, who is not out for most of the story and yet surprisingly bold with Darius.
As always, I loved Darius’ relationship with his father, and especially that they talk about all this sex and relationship stuff. I mean, it’s awkward, but his dad does a really good job. It’s actually Darius’ mom who he thinks has a harder time with it. Darius’ grandfather passes away, his grandmothers don’t say much so that’s always awkward, and his best friend Sohrab goes silent on the other end of Skype (spoiler: turns out he and his mom are applying for asylum). Throughout it all, Darius is himself, struggling with depression, super into watching Star Trek with his dad, sweet and caring and protective with his little sister Layla (and the same with his new friend’s 2-year-old niece), trying to figure out what he wants from his job, from a boyfriend, from life.
Khorram does an exceptional job of especially showing the nuances of a relationship and what would cause someone (or both someones) to be rethinking it, even in a high school relationship. I also loved that he gets into the grandmothers’ backstory – this is Darius’ father’s parents, and it turns out one is trans. They open up to Darius a bit about their history, but he – and I – were left wanting a lot more. Khorram also shows Darius making some big realizations about hobbies vs. careers, which is not something many teen books grapple with and it was nice to see.
Rick by Alex Gino
Overall: 5 out of 5 stars
6th grade is full of changes for Rick. His beloved older sister is off to college, Rick starts visiting his Grandpa Ray for some one-on-one time, and he’s coming to terms with how he feels about his best friend, Jeff, who he’s realizing is kind of a jerk. At first, Rick judges Jeff on past behavior and on comparing him to others, but eventually realizes that he needs to look at Jeff’s behavior on its own.
6th grade also introduces Rick to the Rainbow Spectrum, an after-school group of LGBTQIAP+ kids and allies, including Melissa, the heroine of Gino’s novel George. (The cover is also similar to George’s, so I knew at a glance this would be a similar, if not companion, book to that one, and was pleased to see Melissa here.) Jeff is pretty vocal about his disdain for the Rainbow Spectrum, and at first Rick doesn’t say anything, even while standing as lookout for Jeff to deface the group’s posters. But eventually he comes into his own, with some subtle peer pressure from another kid in the Rainbow Spectrum and some good advice from Grandpa Ray. Rick also, importantly, learns about asexuality and is sure that he is ace too, even while others tell him he’s too young to know. Grandpa Ray and the Rainbow Spectrum’s advisor, Mr. Sydney, reinforce that the Q means both queer and questioning, especially in kids that age. Rick asks, “what if it changes and I like girls at some point? Or boys?” and Grandpa Ray responds, “Then it changes and you like girls at some point. Or boys. Or both. Or other people too” (p144-145).
Grandpa Ray has his own gender identity stuff going on, which I’ll let you discover on your own. I loved his and Rick’s relationship and Rick’s overall character development. I really liked that Rick didn’t just think (or be told) that Jeff is a jerk and dump him. Rather, we get to see him be an accomplice to bullying / hate crime and struggle with not speaking up, and then get the courage to actually speak up. I think that could be really powerful for kids to see their own struggles modeled, even if they don’t recognize them at first, and take the next step to speaking up.
Stories about ace characters are so few and far between and I’m so glad this one exists! I also loved that even Rick’s beloved older sister isn’t perfect and dismisses his sexuality questioning based on his age. I too would be tempted to tell a 6th grader, especially a boy, that they might just be a late bloomer, but after reading this story I will be more careful about validating them. As Grandpa Ray says, you know yourself best!
Rising seniors Jamie Goldberg and Maya Rehrman were once childhood friends who reconnect when Maya’s mother signs her up to canvass for a political candidate, Jordan Rossum. Jamie’s cousin Gabe is a muckety muck in the Atlanta campaign, and his little sister Sophie is preparing for her Bat Mitzvah. Maya’s parents are getting divorced and her best friend is mentally already at college (and finally moves there and officially leaves her behind). As she and Jamie grow closer, her mother’s bribe of a car in exchange for volunteering falls to the side.
It’s not surprising that Jamie and Maya fall for each other, though it takes Maya longer to realize it. I loved the subplot with Sophie’s sexuality, and how Jamie handles it. I loved everything about Jamie, except that he seemed a little *too* perfect. Albertalli, I assume, wrote the Jamie chapters, and Saeed wrote the Maya chapters. One thing that bothered me about Maya is that she was not up front with Jamie about her not being able to date. Though on balance maybe it was more of a reflection of how deeply in denial she was about her feelings for him. In the Jamie chapters, it is clear how much she is flirting with him, even if she thought of him just as a friend. It reminded me of Does My Head Look Big in This? in which the main character sticks to her convictions to wear hijab and not to date. But then, those are her convictions, whereas in Maya’s case it’s her mother’s conviction that she’s trying to follow. Maya also doesn’t wear hijab, but her mother does, and the proposed passage of a bill to ban head coverings while driving really ramps up both her and Jamie.
Social media and white supremacy both play big roles in this story. Rossum’s opponent is the one sponsoring the bill, and his supporters vandalize cars with Rossum bumper stickers by putting their own over them, which are impossible to remove or cover up. But Jamie and Maya figure out a clever way to deal with them. Jamie’s grandma, inexplicably some sort of Instagram celebrity, uses her platform to promote Rossum. At one point, someone posts a photo of Maya and Jamie, and there’s also a campaign video of them, that garners a lot of comments, both negative and positive. Teens today have quite a lot to deal with in terms of internet harassment, it’s really very troubling to me. But Jamie and Maya manage to get through it and the ending is sweet and hopeful, but also realistic. Jamie even overcomes his immense self-consciousness and makes a sweet speech at his sister’s bat mitzvah party. Another interesting note is that their father is largely absent from their lives, and they are largely okay with it.
by Elizabeth Acevedo
Overall: 5 out of 5 stars
Xiomara, age 15, is many things: defender of her sensitive twin brother, writer and budding slam poet, Catholic-about-to-be-atheist. Her mother, a fierce Catholic with a tough life history, sees Xiomara’s body taking shape – literally, curves – and tries to force her into what she sees as “safe” but in reality looks a lot like body shaming. When Xiomara gets a crush on her lab partner in science class, she knows she has to hide it from her mother.
My heart broke for Xiomara. I’m sure her mother thinks she’s doing the best thing for her, but from Xiomara’s point of view, it’s wholly unfair. It’s a kind of slut-shaming that reminds me very much of my own early adolescence, when a girl in my fifth-grade class developed earlier than everybody else. There were rumors that she had her period, that she was dating boys in the class, basically that she was acting promiscuously, based solely on her appearance. I realized as an adult how hard that must have been on her, and I see it in Xiomara too – just because she’s got this fully developed body doesn’t mean she knows what to do with it, wants to do those things, or wants the attention it brings.
I loved watching Xiomara, or X as she prefers in writing poetry, develop emotionally. She comes into her own about religion, slam poetry, and her brother’s sexuality, not to mention her own.
by Francesca Zappia
Overall: 5 out of 5 stars
I loved this book so hard I had a book hangover while reading it. Wait, is that a thing? Maybe I was just book drunk? Anyway, the point is, even while hanging out with dear friends (and my god-dog, aka The Best Dog Ever), all I could think about was this book and the characters and how I was sad I wasn’t reading it at that very moment. I even swung by work on Saturday to yell at the coworker who recommended it because instead of my usual excitement at adulting, all I wanted to do was park myself on the couch and devour the thing whole. But I digress – synopsis?
High school senior Eliza is the anonymous creator of the wildly popular webcomic Monstrous Sea, but in real life she has almost no friends (just two Monstrous Sea insiders who know her true identity) and school is torture because she’s considered so weird it’s contagious. Suddenly, there’s a new boy at school who’s also into Monstrous Sea and they become friends, and soon more than friends. Then she finds out that he’s really her biggest, most popular fanfiction writer, and also has a complicated home life that adds some interesting depth to the story and to their relationship (including stepparents/stepsiblings/half-siblings of different races, and a suicide). Eliza’s home life is a bit simpler, with the main issues being well-meaning athletic parents and younger brothers, but their family dynamic is complex and interesting (especially to me as someone closer to the parental side of the equation than the teen side). (Side note: when she starts dating Wallace, her mom insists on taking her to the doctor for birth control, which she puts up a bit of resistance to but it’s otherwise a nonissue. They do nothing more than a little kissing.) Spoiler alert: Eventually, as you might guess, Eliza gets doxed, her relationship with Wallace takes a major hit, and she is fearful of her safety, but her family rallies around her in unexpected ways and she realizes how much she’s been shutting them out in a very all-or-nothing attitude. It’s tidy and heartwarming, but in a believable way and I just loved it.
Secret identities like: Ready Player One by Ernest Cline
First love like: Openly Straight by Bill Konigsberg
Fanfiction excerpts like: Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell
by Julie Murphy
Overall: 5 out of 5 stars
It probably goes without saying that I love Julie Murphy (along with most of the rest of the world), so I was extra excited to see that she has a middle grade debut! Sweet Pea DiMarco (real name: Patricia) is nearing the end of her seventh grade year when a few things are set in motion to start healing her relationship with her ex-best friend, Kiera. Sweet Pea’s neighbor, Miss Flora Mae, leaves town for a few weeks and leaves Sweet Pea in charge of mailing in her advice column letters and responses. But Sweet Pea recognizes Kiera’s handwriting on an envelope and can’t help herself; soon she’s writing advice all by herself. Miss Flora Mae happens to live next door to both Sweet Pea’s parents, who in their divorce decided to maintain nearly identical houses on the same street.
I loved all the relationships and complexity going on in Sweet Pea’s life: her friendships with Oscar and Kiera, her parents’ divorce and the reason for it that makes them the talk of the town, the advice-column writing. There were some cringe-worthy scenes, especially when Sweet Pea crashes Kiera’s birthday party with embarrassing gifts. I didn’t totally buy how they became friends again but it mostly worked.
Deja and Josiah are seasonal best friends – only for two months in the fall when they both work at the pumpkin patch together. On their last night working there before they go off to college, Deja decides that it’s time for Josiah to tell the girl he’s liked for four years how he feels. They go all over the park to try and find her and have adventures along the way that make them realize that they actually like each other (and Josiah finally talks to the girl and realizes that she’s pretty terrible). It reminded me in some ways of Sorry For Your Loss. I also liked that Deja is bisexual because there aren’t too many bi characters out there.