Shelf Control #260: All American Boys by Jason Reynolds & Brendan Kiely

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Shelf Control is a weekly celebration of the unread books on our shelves. Pick a book you own but haven’t read, write a post about it (suggestions: include what it’s about, why you want to read it, and when you got it), and link up! For more info on what Shelf Control is all about, check out my introductory post, here.

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Title: All American Boys
Author: Jason Reynolds & Brendan Kiely
Published: 2015
Length: 316 pages

What it’s about (synopsis via Goodreads):

Rashad is absent again today.

That’s the sidewalk graffiti that started it all…

Well, no, actually, a lady tripping over Rashad at the store, making him drop a bag of chips, was what started it all. Because it didn’t matter what Rashad said next—that it was an accident, that he wasn’t stealing—the cop just kept pounding him. Over and over, pummeling him into the pavement. So then Rashad, an ROTC kid with mad art skills, was absent again…and again…stuck in a hospital room. Why? Because it looked like he was stealing. And he was a black kid in baggy clothes. So he must have been stealing.

And that’s how it started.

And that’s what Quinn, a white kid, saw. He saw his best friend’s older brother beating the daylights out of a classmate. At first Quinn doesn’t tell a soul…He’s not even sure he understands it. And does it matter? The whole thing was caught on camera, anyway. But when the school—and nation—start to divide on what happens, blame spreads like wildfire fed by ugly words like “racism” and “police brutality.” Quinn realizes he’s got to understand it, because, bystander or not, he’s a part of history. He just has to figure out what side of history that will be.

Rashad and Quinn—one black, one white, both American—face the unspeakable truth that racism and prejudice didn’t die after the civil rights movement. There’s a future at stake, a future where no one else will have to be absent because of police brutality. They just have to risk everything to change the world.

Cuz that’s how it can end. 

How and when I got it:

I bought a copy for my son about two years ago.

Why I want to read it:

I read Jason Reynolds’ excellent, powerful book Long Way Down last year, and have been wanting to read more of his work ever since, especially since he was named the 2020–2021 National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature. His impact is profound, and I’ve been so impressed with every article and interview I’ve seen about him so far.

As far as the story itself, All American Boys sounds relevant and disturbing, and like an important read both for its intended YA audience and for adults.

What do you think? Would you read this book? Do you have recommendations for other books by Jason Reynolds?

Please share your thoughts!



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Book Review: Perfect on Paper by Sophie Gonzales

Title: Perfect on Paper
Author: Sophie Gonzales
Publisher: Wednesday Books
Publication date: March 9, 2021
Length: 304 pages
Genre: Young adult fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

In Sophie Gonzales’ Perfect on Paper, Leah on the Offbeat meets To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before: a bisexual girl who gives anonymous love advice to her classmates is hired by the hot guy to help him get his ex back

Her advice, spot on. Her love life, way off.

Darcy Phillips:

• Can give you the solution to any of your relationship woes―for a fee.

• Uses her power for good. Most of the time.

• Really cannot stand Alexander Brougham.

• Has maybe not the best judgement when it comes to her best friend, Brooke…who is in love with someone else.

• Does not appreciate being blackmailed.

However, when Brougham catches her in the act of collecting letters from locker 89―out of which she’s been running her questionably legal, anonymous relationship advice service―that’s exactly what happens. In exchange for keeping her secret, Darcy begrudgingly agrees to become his personal dating coach―at a generous hourly rate, at least. The goal? To help him win his ex-girlfriend back.

Darcy has a good reason to keep her identity secret. If word gets out that she’s behind the locker, some things she’s not proud of will come to light, and there’s a good chance Brooke will never speak to her again.

Okay, so all she has to do is help an entitled, bratty, (annoyingly hot) guy win over a girl who’s already fallen for him once? What could go wrong?

Darcy Phillips is seventeen, well-intentioned, and caught in the act.

A high school junior, Darcy has a thriving business going at her school, offering relationship advice — anonymously — via notes left in an abandoned locker that only she has access to. Students drop their notes, along with the $10 fee, in the locker, and Darcy replies via email with well-researched, supportive advice. Results guaranteed! She offers a refund for failed advice, and is proud of only having to give back the fee once (and even then, blames the failure on the letter writer not providing a full picture of the situation).

But one day, Darcy gets caught by a boy she barely knows as she retrieves the day’s stash of letters from locker 89. He offers her a deal — he’ll keep her secret, but she has to act as his personal relationship coach. He wants his ex-girlfriend back, and wants to hire Darcy to show him how to make it happen. Since he’s offering to pay her for her time, and since keeping the secret is vital, Darcy agrees.

Darcy is an out and proud member of the school’s Q&Q (Queer and Questioning) club, identifying as bi. She’s supportive of her friends, a devoted sister, and very proud of the professionalism she applies to her locker/advice business. But Darcy also has a secret — she’s in love with her best friend Brooke, and when Brooke and a girl interested in her each wrote to the locker the previous year asking for advice on how to move the interest forward, Darcy intentionally sabotaged them out of jealousy. She’s not proud of what she did, and she’s deathly afraid that Brooke would never forgive her if she knew the truth. (Fair point — it was a lousy thing to do.)

Meanwhile, Darcy’s coaching of Brougham helps her get to know him, and while she’s supporting him through his relationship woes, she’s startled to realize she may have feelings for him.

There’s so much to like about Perfect on Paper! The characters are all well-drawn individuals, quirky and unpredictable, and feel very much like real people with real feelings. They’re messy and make bad decisions from time to time, but hey, perfection isn’t reality. Brougham’s home life is terrible despite his wealth, and Darcy’s home life, while full of love, is also not providing her with the support and attention she needs. Perfect on Paper shows that to truly understand someone, it’s necessary to dig deeper, go beyond immediate impressions, and have compassion for the things that may not be obvious.

It’s wonderful to see bi representation presented as thoughtfully as it is with Darcy. Darcy comes across as very confident, and she is in many ways, but she also carries a lot of weight with her around being bi — from being asked if she’s “turning straight” when she gets involved with a boy, to fear that her Q&Q friends won’t accept her as one of them depending on who she dates, to the frustration of having to endlessly explain that being bi doesn’t equate to inability to be in a committed, monogamous relationship. The author does a fabulous job of showing Darcy’s depths and insecurities, as well as the importance of a supportive community.

Overall, I really enjoyed Perfect on Paper. There’s a feeling of lightness to it, even when the characters go through darker moments, and a nice balance of fun and seriousness. Darcy is a terrific main character, but the supporting characters are all wonderful too. Definitely recommended!

For more by this author, check out my review of her 2020 book, Only Mostly Devastated!Sav.

Book Review: A Cuban Girl’s Guide to Tea and Tomorrow by Laura Taylor Namey

Title: A Cuban Girl’s Guide to Tea and Tomorrow
Author: Laura Taylor Namey
Publisher: Atheneum
Publication date: November 10, 2020
Length: 320 pages
Genre: Young adult fiction
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Love & Gelato meets Don’t Date Rosa Santos in this charming, heartfelt story following a Miami girl who unexpectedly finds love—and herself—in a small English town.

For Lila Reyes, a summer in England was never part of the plan. The plan was 1) take over her abuela’s role as head baker at their panadería, 2) move in with her best friend after graduation, and 3) live happily ever after with her boyfriend. But then the Trifecta happened, and everything—including Lila herself—fell apart.

Worried about Lila’s mental health, her parents make a new plan for her: Spend three months with family friends in Winchester, England, to relax and reset. But with the lack of sun, a grumpy inn cook, and a small town lacking Miami flavor (both in food and otherwise), what would be a dream trip for some feels more like a nightmare to Lila…until she meets Orion Maxwell.

A teashop clerk with troubles of his own, Orion is determined to help Lila out of her funk, and appoints himself as her personal tour guide. From Winchester’s drama-filled music scene to the sweeping English countryside, it isn’t long before Lila is not only charmed by Orion, but England itself. Soon a new future is beginning to form in Lila’s mind—one that would mean leaving everything she ever planned behind.

A Cuban Girl’s Guide to Tea and Tomorrow was one of Reese Witherspoon’s YA book club picks, and I can see a lot of what makes it appealing — romance, family, grief and recovery, friendship, and cultural diversity and celebration.

The girl of the title is Lila Reyes, a 17-year-old with a broken heart who has suffered too many losses in too short a period of time. Her boyfriend breaks up with her, her best friends makes plans to work in Ghana after graduation without telling Lila, and most devastating of all, Lila’s beloved abuela dies unexpectedly.

Her abuela was the heart and soul of the family, and she taught Lila everything she knew about food and baking. Lila’s plans were set in stone already — after graduation, she and her older sister Pilar would take over the management of the family bakery. But when Lila’s grief leads her down a self-destructive path, her worried family sends her to a small town in England to spend the summer with a cousin at her family’s inn.

Lila is mad and resentful at first, and so stubborn that she refuses to alter her Miami dress code of tank tops and strappy sandals, even when confronted with chilly English weather. Slowly, though, Lila finds the beginnings of a routine for herself, baking her special Cuban pastries and treats in the inn’s kitchen, becoming friends with a local musician and her group, and getting to know Orion Maxwell, a lovely local who is determined to show Lila all the best sites and tastes of Winchester.

The story is sweet and occasionally moving, as Lila, Orion, and others deal with sorrows and challenges, and learn the various ways true friends can hold each other up when they need it most. And oh, the food! Each chapter is filled to the brim with Lila’s nonstop cooking and baking, and it all sounds amazing! Take me to her bakery now, please, so I can fill my stomach with absolutely everything!

So why only 3 stars? (And, I’ll be honest, I wavered between 2.5 and 3 for quite a while.) It’s simple — I just couldn’t get into the author’s writing style.

You know how in some books, the sentence structure or use of words is so unique or special that it makes you stop and admire it while you’re reading? This isn’t that. Instead, I was constantly pausing because I was befuddled by the odd syntax and use of language, and had to try to puzzle out what certain descriptions and phrases actually meant:

Blond hair — a dark variety his creator dyed in a murky rain puddle — curls slightly on top of a cropped cut.

Before my mouth even closes, my words strike faces.

Gray, dim, shade — those are the colors on his face before he thumbs his chin and half-smiles for me.

My culture also has too much wanting to die out in the new.

Miami. The third heart on this pavement, trying to love me harder.

The story is nice and moves pretty quickly, but I just didn’t love it enough to want to rave about it, and the writing issue definitely affected my overall enjoyment.

Recommended for the amazing food and the tribute to Cuban Miami culture, but not a must-read.

Mini-reviews: Starting 2021 with two YA novels

Okay, 2021. Let’s do this!

I started two different YA novels right at the end of December, and finished both by January 3rd. I haven’t read a whole lot of YA lately, and I’m definitely not in the target demographic, so take my reviews with lots of grains of salt, please.

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Title: You Have a Match
Author: Emma Lord
Upcoming release: January 12, 2021
Length: 320 pages
Rating:

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

From the beloved author of Tweet Cute comes Emma Lord’s You Have a Match, a YA novel of family, friendship, romance and sisterhood…

When Abby signs up for a DNA service, it’s mainly to give her friend and secret love interest, Leo, a nudge. After all, she knows who she is already: Avid photographer. Injury-prone tree climber. Best friend to Leo and Connie…although ever since the B.E.I. (Big Embarrassing Incident) with Leo, things have been awkward on that front.

But she didn’t know she’s a younger sister.

When the DNA service reveals Abby has a secret sister, shimmery-haired Instagram star Savannah Tully, it’s hard to believe they’re from the same planet, never mind the same parents—especially considering Savannah, queen of green smoothies, is only a year and a half older than Abby herself.

The logical course of action? Meet up at summer camp (obviously) and figure out why Abby’s parents gave Savvy up for adoption. But there are complications: Savvy is a rigid rule-follower and total narc. Leo is the camp’s co-chef, putting Abby’s growing feelings for him on blast. And her parents have a secret that threatens to unravel everything.

But part of life is showing up, leaning in, and learning to fit all your awkward pieces together. Because sometimes, the hardest things can also be the best ones.

I’m fascinated by real-life stories of people discovering hidden family connections through DNA testing companies like 23andme. (My test results were not particularly dramatic — no secret siblings or deep-dark family secrets!)

In You Have a Match, 16-year-old Abby discovers through DNA testing that she has a full sister that she never knew about. Determined to understand how this is possible, Abby and Savvy connect, and decide to attend summer camp together as a way to piece together the puzzle of their pasts… without telling their parents about their big discovery.

Family secrets come to light, tears are shed, and Abby learns a lot about herself, her parents, and the secret history she shares with Savvy. Plus, there’s friend and boyfriend drama, plus social media, worries about the future, and a best friend/boyfriend to sort out too.

I really liked the camp setting (memories…), and thought the main concept was really inventive. The secrets behind Abby and Savvy’s shared past are surprising and moving, although I’m not sure I buy some of the events as they’re described. I loved that the girls were able to get past their surface differences and come together as sisters, filling roles in each others’ lives that they never knew they needed.

I was less into the emphasis on Instagram followers and fame, but I suppose that’s a generational thing. The romance aspects also didn’t really speak to me, but again — not an actual young adult here!

I didn’t really know what to expect from You Have a Match, and I was pleasantly surprised! This is a fast, easy-to-get-lost-in read. Lots of fun, and also hits the emotions.

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Title: You Should See Me in a Crown
Author: Leah Johnson
Published: 2020
Length: 336 pages
Rating:

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Liz Lighty has always believed she’s too black, too poor, too awkward to shine in her small, rich, prom-obsessed midwestern town. But it’s okay — Liz has a plan that will get her out of Campbell, Indiana, forever: attend the uber-elite Pennington College, play in their world-famous orchestra, and become a doctor.

But when the financial aid she was counting on unexpectedly falls through, Liz’s plans come crashing down . . . until she’s reminded of her school’s scholarship for prom king and queen. There’s nothing Liz wants to do less than endure a gauntlet of social media trolls, catty competitors, and humiliating public events, but despite her devastating fear of the spotlight she’s willing to do whatever it takes to get to Pennington.

The only thing that makes it halfway bearable is the new girl in school, Mack. She’s smart, funny, and just as much of an outsider as Liz. But Mack is also in the running for queen. Will falling for the competition keep Liz from her dreams . . . or make them come true?

This book came to my attention when Reese Witherspoon picked it as her book club’s first YA book. I’m so glad I gave it a chance!

In You Should See Me In a Crown, Liz is an outsider when it comes to her wealthy community’s obsession with prom. Really, she’s never really thought about it in relation to herself, until forced to take desperate measures when her hoped-for scholarship falls through. And nothing could be more desperate than Liz Lighty running for prom queen.

With the support of her best friends, Liz determines to step outside her comfort zone and do what it takes to pursue her dream. Battling cliquey mean girls and the school’s slant toward the straight, white, popular crowd, Liz has to balance being true to herself with doing what it takes to earn the votes needed to become queen.

The book showcases friendship and honesty, falling in love and deciding whether to be out, family support and keeping secrets, wealthy inequality, and so much more. While the race for prom queen is the overarching plotline, You Should See Me in a Crown is an excellent portrait of a young woman in an unexpected situation, figuring out how to achieve her goals without losing herself in the process.

I listened to the audiobook, narrated by Alaska Jackson, and it was light, fun, and sweet. I really enjoyed the story, and think it would make an awesome Netflix movie!

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There you have it — two contemporary YA books that gave me a cheerful start to my 2021 reading!

Book Review: Four Days of You and Me by Miranda Kenneally

Title: Four Days of You and Me
Author: Miranda Kenneally
Publisher: Sourcebooks Fire
Publication date: May 5, 2020
Length: 352 pages
Genre: Young adult fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

A new swoon-worthy romance following a couple’s love story on the same date over four years.

Every May 7, the students at Coffee County High School take a class trip. And every year, Lulu’s relationship with Alex Rouvelis gets a little more complicated. Freshman year, they went from sworn enemies to more than friends after a close encounter in an escape room. It’s been hard for Lulu to quit Alex ever since.

Through breakups, make ups, and dating other people, each year’s class trip brings the pair back together and forces them to confront their undeniable connection. From the science museum to an amusement park, from New York City to London, Lulu learns one thing is for sure: love is the biggest trip of all.

Such a sweet story! It’s been a while since I’ve read any YA, but I’ve always enjoyed Miranda Kenneally’s books, so I knew I had to read her newest.

Lulu and Alex start as rivals freshman year, both running for class president — Lulu on a green platform, and Alex capitalizing on his popularity as a baseball star. When Alex wins, they exist as frenemies for the rest of the school year, until accidentally getting locked into an escape room together on their class trip. As they finally acknowledge their mutual sparks, Lulu and Alex start a relationship that will last throughout their high school years, despite ups and downs and time apart.

As each section of the book focuses on the class trip for that year, we get to see how Alex and Lulu have matured, and how their relationship has matured with them. There are problems along the way, of course. Alex’s devotion to baseball and his commitment to working in his family’s restaurant leaves him unavailable except for late at night, past Lulu’s curfew. They both end up frustrated and unable to see past their own hurt, so a break-up is inevitable.

Still, every year on May 7th, as they set out on another class trip, Alex and Lulu seem to be thrust back into each other’s orbit. They really are great together, and even when trying to make something work with other people, they both realize that what they have is special.

I love how matter-of-fact the author is when it comes to teen relationships. There’s no judgment here, and the characters all enjoy varying degrees of healthy sex lives. Alex and Lulu take their time getting there, but they do enjoy gradually deepening levels of intimacy, and when they finally decide to have sex, it’s with lots of discussion, explicit consent, and pre-purchased condoms.

The supporting cast is quite good too — best friends and cousins and teammates, each with their own lives and quirks. They form a loyal and strong core, and I liked that we get to see Alex and Lulu not just 100% about their relationship, but really engaged with true friendships.

I also appreciated that Lulu and Alex each have their own passions — Lulu as an author/illustrator of graphic novels, Alex with baseball — and that they support each other’s dreams and goals. Neither one would ever suggest that their plans outweigh the other’s. It’s refreshing to see two characters work through their differences without losing sight of how much they care about each other.

Miranda Kenneally writes terrific, strong female characters, and Lulu is no exception. She’s talented and smart, and someone who’d be easy to like in real life. Four Days of You and Me is a quick read, and I really enjoyed this glimpse of high school life and all its drama, humor, and adventure.

Book Review: When You Were Everything by Ashley Woodfolk

Title: When You Were Everything
Author: Ashley Woodfolk
Publisher: Delacorte Press
Publication date: March 10, 2020
Length: 400 pages
Genre: Young adult fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

You can’t rewrite the past, but you can always choose to start again.

It’s been twenty-seven days since Cleo and Layla’s friendship imploded.

Nearly a month since Cleo realized they’ll never be besties again.

Now, Cleo wants to erase every memory, good or bad, that tethers her to her ex–best friend. But pretending Layla doesn’t exist isn’t as easy as Cleo hoped, especially after she’s assigned to be Layla’s tutor. Despite budding new friendships with other classmates—and a raging crush on a gorgeous boy named Dom—Cleo’s turbulent past with Layla comes back to haunt them both.

Alternating between time lines of Then and Now, When You Were Everything blends past and present into an emotional story about the beauty of self-forgiveness, the promise of new beginnings, and the courage it takes to remain open to love. 

It’s refreshing to read a contemporary YA novel where romance takes a backseat. In When You Were Everything, the focus is on friendship — or more specifically, on the end of friendship.

Few things are more traumatic for teen girls that losing a best friend. In When You Were Everything, we witness the pain and sorrow and rage that occurs when besties forever, Cleo and Layla, fall apart.

It happens the way these things do. Friends since age twelve, the girls start moving in different directions at the start of their sophomore year of high school. Layla wants more than anything to join the school chorus, and while the “Chorus Girls” adopt her right away, they have no interest in including Cleo in their elite circle.

Cleo’s feeling are hurt over and over again as Layla spends more time with her new friends than with Cleo, and small slights turn into bigger and bigger betrayals, until there’s a final and irreparable break.

Cleo is also dealing with her parents’ separation, and her new friendless status is made even worse by a stream of bullying and harassment she endures from the Chorus Girls while Layla stands by and does nothing.

Cleo is smart and driven, but she also makes some poor choices, lashing out in hurtful ways when her own feelings are hurt. And while I felt that Layla was more to blame for the friendship break-up, Cleo isn’t blameless either.

When You Were Everything is hard to read at times, specifically because it’s so relatable. My own high school years are way in the past, but Cleo’s feelings as she’s isolated and tormented ring very true, in a sadly timeless sort of way.

I enjoyed seeing how Cleo opens herself up to new friendships and learns to see what’s in front of her instead of living inside her own head so much. There’s a sweet romance too, but it’s less important than what Cleo learns about herself and about friendship.

The cast of characters is nicely diverse, and I liked the way the story includes the importance of family and the impact of parents’ and grandparents’ support, love, and involvement. Despite the sadness of the end of a friendship, the book ends on a hopeful note.

Definitely a recommended read!

Book Review: Only Mostly Devastated by Sophie Gonzales

Title: Only Mostly Devastated
Author: Sophie Gonzales
Publisher: Wednesday Books
Publication date: March 3, 2020
Length: 288 pages
Genre: Young adult fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

SIMON VS. THE HOMO SAPIENS AGENDA meets CLUELESS in this boy-meets-boy spin on Grease

Summer love…gone so fast.

Ollie and Will were meant to be a summer fling—casual, fun, and done. But when Ollie’s aunt’s health takes a turn for the worse and his family decides to stay in North Carolina to take care of her, Ollie lets himself hope this fling can grow to something more. Dreams that are crushed when he sees Will at a school party and finds that the sweet and affectionate (and comfortably queer) guy he knew from summer isn’t the same one attending Collinswood High.

Will is more than a little shocked to see Ollie the evening of that first day of school. While his summer was spent being very much himself, back at school he’s simply known as one of the varsity basketball guys. Now Will is faced with the biggest challenge of his life: follow his heart and risk his friendships, or stay firmly in the closet and lose what he loves most.

Summer loving had me a blast
Summer loving happened so fast.
..Save

Well, you know how it goes.

Two cute teens meet on their summer vacation, fall head over heels, say sad good-byes… and then end up attending the same high school in the fall.

But in Only Mostly Devastated, we’re not talking good girl Sandy and bad boy Danny. Instead, we have two adorable boys, Ollie and Will, who have a magical summer together. They should be thrilled to end up at the same school unexpectedly, right?

The problem is (and of course, there has to be a problem): Ollie is out; Will is not. And while Ollie came out to supportive parents and a chill circle of friends and school acquaintances back in California, Will grew up in more conservative North Carolina, where homophobic jokes are de rigeur for the cool jock crowd and their hangers-on.

When Ollie and his parents relocate to North Carolina to be near his terminally ill aunt and help with her children, he doesn’t really expect to run into Will without some effort. Not to mention that Will appears to have ghosted him right after their final summer good-bye kiss.

So when Ollie tells the group of girls who befriend him on his first day of school about his summer love — and shows them a picture — complications almost immediately crop up. Because of course, Will goes to the same school, and of course, the girls are thrown for a loop by this news that straight hot basketball star Will is maybe not so straight after all.

Ollie is sweet as can be, and it’s so sad and painful to go through all his emotions alongside him. He’s firmly out and will never accept a situation where’s he’s forced back in the closet — but he has to respect Will’s choice, even if it means accepting that Will has to pretend not to know Ollie, and can’t hang out with him too visibly for fear of being teased about turning gay.

The author does a great job of helping us (and Ollie) understand why Will might fear being outed, showing the social environment at school and the not-so-subtle pressure to conform, as well as the scorn reserved for those who don’t fall nicely into socially acceptable gender and relationship roles.

Meanwhile, Ollie forms close friendships with a trio of girls who seem to adore him and take him under their wings. They’re all interesting and varied, not just a generic crowd of high school girls but real people with distinct personalities and conflicts and challenges.

Ollie’s family life is also portrayed sensitively, and it’s quite sad to see Ollie processing his aunt’s decline while also being there for his two little cousins. As if Ollie wasn’t adorable and sweet enough already, he’s also a terrific babysitter and loves his family unconditionally, and it’s heartbreaking to witness his grief when the inevitable finally happens.

The cast of characters in Only Mostly Devastated is nicely diverse without making a big fuss over it, which I really appreciated. The romance at the heart of the story is so well done, and even though it’s almost too sad at times to see how hurt Ollie is, by the end, it feels like a realistic journey that the boys go through to get to where they end up. (Being vague here, so as not to spoil too much…)

If you enjoy sweet, sensitive young adult romances with well-earned happy endings, definitely check out Only Mostly Devastated!Save

Book Review: If I Grow Up by Todd Strasser

“WHEN YOU GREW UP IN THE PROJECTS, THERE WERE NO CHOICES. NO GOOD ONES, AT LEAST.”

In the Frederick Douglass Project where DeShawn lives, daily life is ruled by drugs and gang violence. Many teenagers drop out of school and join gangs, and every kid knows someone who died. Gunshots ring out on a regular basis.

DeShawn is smart enough to know he should stay in school and keep away from the gangs. But while his friends have drug money to buy fancy sneakers and big-screen TVs, DeShawn’s family can barely afford food for the month. How can he stick to his principles when his family is hungry?

In this gritty novel about growing up in the inner city, award-winning author Todd Strasser opens a window into the life of a teenager struggling with right and wrong under the ever-present shadow of gangs.

A bit of context: My teenaged son is not, and has never been, a recreational reader. He’ll read what’s required for school, and that’s it.

So when he picked up this book without being forced to, then came to me and told me I had to read it… well, clearly I needed to see what it was that had made such an impression on him.

If If Grow Up is a tough, clear-eyed look at inner city life, as seen from the perspective of DeShawn. We meet DeShawn at age 12, still a child but growing up fast. He lives in the projects with his grandmother and older sister, and knows to drop to the floor when there’s the sound of gunshots and to steer clear when the Douglass Disciples are coming through.

Death and violence are everyday facts of life. DeShawn goes to school, but there’s little point when the teachers rotate out as soon as they can get a better assignment and most of the kids are there just to pass the time until they too can join a gang. DeShawn is determined to get an education and stay out of gang life, but with each passing year, his choices narrow further.

This book is devastating in so many ways. The author shows the hopelessness of inner city life, where children grow up without parents, where parents bury children caught in the crossfire, where murderous gang leaders may also be the only supportive adult figure for many of the kids who so desperately need someone to guide them. Through DeShawn, we see year by year as the goal of a better life dwindles away into impossibility, and we also see the inevitability of gang life for a kid who’s forced to think about feeding his hungry family at much too young an age.

While parts of the book, especially the ending, felt kind of preachy, I had to remind myself that If I Grown Up is firmly aimed at teen readers, and that I needed to let go of my adult reader perspective and think about what this book might mean to a teen who hasn’t seen real life reflected on the page in this way before.

I know my son was really affected by the story. I’ve never seen him not be able to put down a book, or find a book so meaningful that he both wants to read it again and wanted me to read it right away so we could talk about it. And that really says a lot.

I’ve never read anything by this author before, but apparently he’s quite a prolific writer of realistic YA fiction, and I plan to check out more of his works. I’m hoping If I Grow Up will be a catalyst for my reluctant reader son to continue reading books that he connects with.

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The details:

Title: If I Grow Up
Author: Todd Strasser
Publisher: Simon Schuster Books for Young Readers
Publication date: February 24, 2009
Length: 240 pages
Genre: Young adult
Source: Purchased