By Dori Jones Yang
Random House/Delacorte Press, 2011
Awards/Recognitions: *Amelia Bloomer Project selection *Children’s Book Committee of Bank Street College of Education, Best Books of the Year *National Council for the Social Studies *Notable Trade Books for Young People
Set seven hundred years ago in Xanadu, the summer palace of Mongolian emperor Kubla Khan, Daughter of Xanadu is the story of Princess Emmajin, the Khan’s eldest granddaughter. Emmajin is athletic and headstrong and dreams of joining her grandfather’s army and becoming a legendary warrior. She is determined to take advantage of her last days of official childhood by competing in an archery contest between the young men of the royal court. Everyone but Suren, her best friend and eldest grandson of Kubla Khan, tries to block her from competing even though she’s grown up practicing the three superior arts: archery, horseback riding, and wrestling alongside the boys of Xanadu. These arts are the territory of men, yet because Emmajin excels in each of them, she has been allowed to participate. However once Emmajin and Suren turn sixteen, everything will change. Suren will become a warrior; Emmajin will be expected to marry.
In her final competition, Emmajin’s expertise and courage impress the Khan and the royal court. The Italian merchant Marco Polo has just arrived at the royal palace and as a reward for Emmajin’s brilliance, her grandfather assigns her to spy on Marco Polo and Marco’s father and uncle. She must report everything about these foreigners to her grandfather’s advisers. At first, Emmajin is disturbed by Marco Polo’s red hair and green eyes, but he’s such a kind and accepting person that despite her upbringing, Emmajin grows to like him. That presents a couple of problems.
Not only would loving Marco Polo always be a forbidden love, a romance of any kind would only distract her from her goal of gaining acceptance into the imperial army. While there’s some betrayal involved in Emmajin’s pursuit of her ambition to become a warrior, she wins the opportunity march with twelve thousand men on a secret mission to for the Khan.
And guess who goes along for the journey? Oh, I can’t tell you who. Yes, I can. Her cousin, Suren, goes with her. They are friends for life – the inhale to the other’s exhale. Emmajin proves herself on the battlefield next to Suren. She kills hundreds of the enemy’s soldiers, but she finds that becoming a legendary warrior carries an extraordinary cost and meeting Marco Polo changes how she defines enemy.
Daughter of Xanadu is a sweeping story of friendship, war, ambition, and romance in the Mongolian Empire. Dori Yang’s Emmajin is a heroine of ancient times and a shero for our time. History buffs, time travelers, and explorers of the internal and external worlds will love this book. GA
By Lila Quintero Weaver
Young adult/non-fiction/graphic format
The University of Alabama Press, 2012
I am so very proud to include this debut work in Girls of Summer. I had the pleasure of meeting the author at this year’s national Latino Children’s Literature Conference, where I sat utterly amazed by her talent and grace.
Set in Marion Alabama during the 1960s, Darkroom is a memoir in graphic novel format. It’s about growing up as the only Hispanic family in a town where racial tensions erupted into violence and murder during the Civil Rights era. Weaver, daughter of an amateur Argentine photographer, gives us an unflinching account of what she saw and how she grew to make sense of all that surrounded her.
Neither black nor white in the eyes of her neighbors, she felt shame at her own heritage, especially as she became increasingly conscious of the appalling racial injustice against blacks at the time. The memoir hinges on the events of a single night that ended in the death of a peaceful marcher, an event that would change her thinking forever.
We all know that children have never been exempt from history’s horrors. What’s remarkable here is how expertly Weaver has found an honest way to talk about this awful chapter in our country’s history – and how well she keeps us in the perspective of the young girl she once was. Her black and white illustrations are especially clever in partnerships with spare, elegant text. This is a writer who has depth and knows that her readers do, too.
I think young women reading this will find a doorway into history. So many of the events are disturbing. (The snapshot of the fourth grade history book is particularly alarming. And be warned: Weaver keeps true to ugly slurs of the time.) But I think strong girls will love this book because it’s a story of a girl who didn’t give in to the pressures around her. Instead, she learned to open her eyes to what was really around her and inside her. It’s a story of a shy, unsure girl finding her voice at a dangerous time. MM
By Veronica Rossi
Awards/Recognitions: *Kirkus Reviews, starred review
Summer is made for guilty pleasures, and what better way to fit the bill than a romantic fantasy that features a dystopian future, a feral hottie, and an opera-singing strong girl? I am happy to introduce you to Under the Never Sky, the first in a planned trilogy with HarperCollins.
Veronica Rossi’s debut novel pulls you immediately into Reverie, a dystopian world of pods that keep out poisonous Aether. Our heroine, Aria, lives with other genetically-engineered people, a perfect looking bunch, all strapped with Smart Eyes that allow them to visit virtual realms to alleviate the boredom of life inside a pod. Beyond their protected world are the Outsiders, tribes trying to survive the harsh landscape of a world dominated by roiling skies filled with swirls of electrical charges that create devastation in their path. When Aria is expelled from the pods and set outside to die, she has to find a way to adapt to a world where an enemy can scent your emotions or hear you coming from miles off. It’s a world where you have to face down cannibals, wolves, and near starvation.
Rossi is a master at invention and pacing. She’s written a page-turner, whether in the high action fight scenes or in the scenes where she builds sexual tension between Aria and Peregrine in a futuristic spin on Romeo and Juliet.
I’m hopeful for the next two books in the series – mostly because Aria goes from pampered girl to kick ass heroine. I’ll admit I worried at the early scenes where the boys did too much survival teaching, but I can see there’s much more to come. Under the Never Sky is for all of you who didn’t flinch once at the premise of The Hunger Games — and who don’t mind a good knife-fight now and again. MM
By Laura Resau and María Virginia Farinango
Delacorte Press, 2011
Awards/recognitions: *A School Library Journal Best Book of 2011 *TAYSHAS list (Texas student reading list) 2012-2013 *ALA Best Fiction for Young Adults 2012 *A Junior Library Guild Selection *An Amelia Bloomer Project Recommended Book
There is no shortage of horrors that can befall a little girl in the world. Laura Resau brings us the fictionalized account of her co-author’s life as an impoverished indígena who is given to (or stolen by, just depending on your view) a metizo couple in Ecuador.
The novel follows seven-year-old Virginia as she leaves her difficult rural life for the frightening role of babysitter and house slave to her adoptive family. Along the way, you’ll get a ringside seat to the racism that plagues indigenous cultures throughout Latin America.
If you’re worried that this novel will read like an anthropology text, don’t. You’ll fall in love with Virginia – difficult, stubborn, intelligent, a survivor – and you’ll be more than willing to see her win. MM
By Nancy Amanda Redd
Penguin Group, 2007
With Body Drama, former Miss Virginia and a Miss America swimsuit winner, Nancy Redd, wrote the book she wished she had had in high school and college. What better season to embrace of self-love and body-confidence than summertime?
Part reference book, part girlfriend, Body Drama aims to reassure young women about their bodies, encourage them to appreciate their natural strength and beauty, and remind them that there are no stupid questions. Nancy Redd leaves no question unasked or unanswered. The book is presented in five sections: Skin, Boobs, Down There, Hair Mouth Nails, and Shape. Each section follows the same friendly, accessible format:
- Body Drama
- What’s Going On?
- How Do I Deal
- What if They Notice, and
- How to.
The body dramas covered range from the timeless – My face is a zit factory – to the contemporary – My piercing isn’t healing well – to the confessional – It’s a forest down there – and everything in between.
There’s almost nothing better than having a girlfriend who you can trust with any fear, who you can ask any question. You know, the one who keeps a hug for you in her back pocket? If a book could be that girlfriend, Body Drama would be her – someone to laugh with over all the nicknames you can think of for your boobs or your period and one bold enough to even teach you nicknames for your vulva (p. 118). My favorite? Grassy Knoll.
Body Drama makes a perfect gift for a young woman headed off to college or for any woman who could use a friend to remind her as this book does, “No Body is Perfect. Every Body is Beautiful. Every Body is Different. Different is Beautiful.” GA
By John Green
Dutton Books, 2012
Awards/recognitions: * #1 New York Times bestseller * #1 Wall Street Journal bestseller * #9 The Bookseller (UK) bestseller * #1 Indiebound bestseller * New York Times Book Review Editor’s Choice * Starred reviews from Booklist, SLJ, Publisher’s Weekly, Horn Book, and Kirkus
Okay, look: The Fault in Our Stars is a cancer book. It’s also a hilarious, gut-wrenching, and beautiful story of romance between two young people who have a zero tolerance policy for bullshit. If this novel doesn’t win the Michael L. Printz Award, I don’t know what will.
Seventeen and addicted to America’s Next Top Model, Hazel is battling thyroid cancer that has spread to her lungs. She is well aware that there is no cure for her disease – only a way to prolong her life and keep her comfortable. Turns out, none of that gets in the way of friendship or falling in love with a handsome bone cancer-survivor named Augustus.
I’ll admit that Hazel and Augustus can be a bit too prep school precocious as characters. (Seriously, not many kids quote sonnets to one another – or use the word “alas.”) But what is irresistible here is their razor-sharp assessment of dying young. Better still, in Hazel we have a young woman at her most physically frail emerging as a force you’ll remember long after the last pages.
John Green takes what most of us think of as a worst-case scenario and gives us a story that somehow still celebrates life. He captures the spirit of being young and doing anything – including dying. MM
By Jennifer Donnelly
Harcourt Books, 2003
ISBN: 978-0-15-216705-9/978-0-15-205310-9 (paperback)
Awards/recognitions: *Printz Honor Book *ALA “Top Ten” Best Book for Young Adults *Booklist Editor’s Choice *Booklist Top Ten Youth First Novel *Book Sense 76 Top Ten Book for Teens *Junior Library Guild Selection *A New York Public Library Book for the Teen Age *A Parent’s Guide Children’s Media Young Adult Honor Book *A Publishers Weekly Best Book of the Year *A School Library Journal Best Book of the Year
This is our oldest selection for Girls of Summer, and I couldn’t be more committed to including this title. It debuted when I was writing my first novel, and I still remember closing the book and wondering if I would ever be able to write something that felt so completely satisfying. Jennifer Donnelly has gone on to write other acclaimed titles, but none have earned my heart the way this one did as a word geek, as a writer, as a feminist, and as a fan of good whodunit.
It’s 1906, and Mattie Gokey, working as a hotel domestic for the summer, finds herself faced with a girl drowned in the lake – and a pocketful of letters the girl asked her to burn. So begins the unraveling of a sad mystery based on the scandalous real-life death of skirt factory employee Grace Brown, whose untimely death was the basis for Theodore Dreiser’s novel An American Tragedy and later, the Academy-award winning movie, A Place in the Sun.
In Donnelly’s deft hands, however, Grace Brown’s death is a parallel to the larger conflict for Mattie: being a girl robbed of choices. A deathbed promise to her mother has left Mattie caring for her three sisters and father, who are struggling with the daily demands of keeping up a farm. Her dreams to study at Barnard, where she has already been accepted, are at odds with virtually every reality in her life: her promise, her father’s wishes, and the social mores for women of the time. The future she wants is on a collision course with the approval of her entire social circle, including Royal Loomis, the handsome young man every girl should want.
Mattie is a girl searching for the words to name and explain her experience, words that are too big, too scary for all but her dearest friends. In the end, like all strong girls, she has to ask herself the hard questions and find her own answers. What defines a woman as respectable – or conversely, as dangerous, immoral, and even a lunatic? Who gets to make those definitions? Populated with a cast of layered and contradictory characters, A Northern Light gives us a story about people, motives, and the tough choices we make in order to find ourselves. MM
By Malinda Lo
Little Brown Books for Young Readers, 2011
Awards/Recognitions: * ALA Best Books for Young Adults
Some books defy categorization; some books reject our need to make the world linear and instead turn our imaginations inside out for a nice cleaning out of cobwebs, a good letting in of sunshine. Open the pages of such a book and, somehow, labels and shelves and containment seem not only inappropriate but downright sinful. Such a book is Huntress.
Fantasy? Yes. Adventure? Certainly so. Love story? Oh yes, a love story of the truest, purest sort. Young Adult? OK, sure, technically, I guess that’s where Huntress rests when not in use. Spirituality? Deliciously so. Eco-fiction? Yep. GLBT? Sure!
The jacket flap summarizes the plot nicely: “Nature is out of balance in the human kingdom. The sun hasn’t shone in years, and crops are failing. Worse yet, strange and hostile creatures have begun to appear. The people’s survival hangs in the balance. To solve the crisis, the oracle stones are cast, and Kaede and Taisin, two seventeen-year-old girls, are picked to go forward on a dangerous and unheard-of journey to Tanlili, the city of the Fair Queen.”
O, Huntress, I love you at forty-six and would SO have loved you at fifteen. My daughter loves you at eighteen; my aunt at sixty.
And just what makes Huntress so lovable?
Well for starters, Huntress is a twofer – Kaede and Taisin, two strong girls in one book. Two strong girls saving the human and fay worlds, falling in love, and staying true to themselves. Author Malinda Lo has created a world so immediate and rich that readers can’t help but feel transported forward or backward into the journey with Kaede and Taisin. As their love grows, Lo’s narrative makes you giggle, makes you blush, and makes you remember. Aesthetically, this is one book you will want to hold in your hands and read in its paper version. Huntress is so lovingly designed with an old-school endpaper map, embellishments to open each chapter, and ornaments that delineate each of the book’s three parts. GA
Learn more about Malinda Lo.
By April Henry
Christy Ottaviano Books: Henry Holt BYR, 2010,
Awards/Recognitions: * American Library Association Best Books for Young Adults * American Library Association Quick Picks for Young Adults
Sometimes, I’m reminded that we tend to read the way we eat. For some meals, we fill our plate with nutritious food that takes a while to digest. Other times, we just want to enjoy a big fat slice of cake, no guilt attached. There’s no reason we can’t enjoy both within reason.
For me, Girl, Stolen is a delicious piece of cake. No, it doesn’t make deep commentary on a girl’s journey. But it is an exciting crime story that will keep you happy poolside as you read to find out if 16-year-old Cheyenne Wilder will manage to escape her captors.
It’s a nightmare pulled from headlines: A kid is stolen in the half-second it takes a parent to run in for an errand. In this case, Cheyenne is burning with fever, and her stepmother takes her along to pick up her antibiotics. Unfortunately, a car thief named Griffin happens along. He’s out trolling the mall parking lot to help his chop-shop dad by stealing a nice SUV. What he doesn’t realize until it’s too late is that Cheyenne is asleep in the back seat of the car he steals.
Being hijacked when you’re deathly ill is bad enough, but let’s throw in the clincher: Cheyenne is legally blind, thanks to the car accident that killed her biological mother. And that, my friends, is what we mean by a character’s dilemma.
The novel is written in alternating chapters, between Griffin and Cheyenne’s point of view. It has the effect of humanizing the villain – or at least, pointing out that he’s not the uber bad guy in this tale. I was a little worried that the author would recreate one of those silly scenarios where the female victim falls in love with her assailant. (Ask your mother about soap operas in the 1980s. Sweet Lord.). But no, experienced mystery writer April Henry doesn’t go there. Instead, she fleshes out her characters’ relationship just enough and keeps us on the edge of our seats with everything from snarling dogs to leering garage assistants.
What I particularly like is what many reviewers have pointed out: Cheyenne’s blindness is simply a part of her, not the focus of her character. And like all strong girls, blind or otherwise, she’s up to solving her trouble – no matter how hopeless it seems – through her wits and gifts. MM
Learn more about author April Henry.
By Cathryn Clinton
Middle grade/ Ages 10 and up/Grades 5 and up
Candlewick Press, 2001
Awards/recognitions: * Parents’ Choice Awards Gold Award
Cathryn Clinton’s first novel, The Calling, made me a lifelong fan of hers and of her book’s publisher, Candlewick Press. The strong girls that I know are spiritual beings. They wrestle with questions about right and wrong, about intuition, about the hereafter, and about how they fit into God’s plan. With The Calling , both author and publisher affirm that spiritual questions belong in the realm of children’s literature, for this is a story of a child receiving a call by God into her life’s work. Yet while spiritual journeys are serious matters, we have only to pay attention to the world around us or to read The Calling to remember that God really does have a big old sense of humor.
In The Calling, Esta Lea is one of the youngest members of a clan where preaching is a tradition, just how farming is for other families. At the ripe old age of twelve, Esta Lea unexpectedly gets the call to allow God to heal others through her. Esta Lea experiences visions and something profoundly different starts happening in her “knower” – her “knower” being the part of herself where wisdom and insight reside. She is a somewhat reluctant healer, pure in motivation, and both surprised and grateful as God uses her to restore the faithful to full sight, full hearing, and full faith.
Right away, Esta Lea’s handsome and ne’er do well uncle, Peter Earl, sees opportunity in his niece’s calling. He hatches a plan to take Esta Lea and her songbird older sister, Sarah Louise, on a healing revival tour of all the nearby small towns. But, is Peter Earl’s plan for God’s glory or Peter Earl’s? Not only is Esta Lea now a healer, she’s a bit of a private eye, too! With some help from her BFF, Sky, who unabashedly lives her life in emulation of Saint Joan of Arc, Esta Lea tries to figure out what her uncle is really up to. Add Peter Earl’s glammed up ex-girlfriend, a hoarder with a heart of pure gold and a prophetic gift of her own, a few other real-life saints, and The Calling is all at once mystery-comedy-faith fiction.
Yes, The Calling feels like home. This is a book to read when you need to breathe in a stand of pine trees, to recall a best friend who had your best interests at heart, to laugh out loud, and to rock easy in the grace of being called by name. GA
Learn more about Cathryn Clinton.
By Kelly Bingham
Candlewick Press, 2007
ISBN: 0763632074 / 9780763632076
Hard cover, paperback, e-book
Awards/recognitions: * South Dakota Teen Choice Book Awards Reading List * Black-Eyed Susan Book Award (Maryland) * Florida Teen Read Award * Oprah’s Book Club – Kids Reading List * Bank Street College Best Children’s Book of the Year
Find a hammock, a beach chair, or a blanket. Go away to your backyard, the pool, or the ocean. Leave the tissues behind. It’s not that you won’t need them; it will just feel good to let your tears splash these pages. Kelly Bingham’s debut novel, Shark Girl traces one tragic and triumphant year in the life of fifteen-year old artist, Jane Arrowood.
A sunny day at the ocean in June turns into a national news story when a shark attacks Jane, severing her dominant right arm. Jane’s older brother, Michael, starts their day at the beach by teasing his sister about her pink bikini. Shortly thereafter it is Michael who pulls Jane out, saving her life. In a way, the rest of the story shows us how many people and how much time it takes to pull Jane Arrowood out of that moment that changed her life. Everyone works so hard at Jane’s recovery; no one harder than Jane.
Using poetry, journal entries, and interior dialogue to trace Jane’s recovery, Bingham tells the story in three parts. Part One occurs in the hospital immediately after the attack. Letters, cards, and flowers pour in from all over the world. People want Jane to be a hero. Jane just wants to be Jane, again. In the hospital therapy room, she meets a little kid named Justin who has lost his leg below the knee. When Jane tells him, “A shark attacked me,” Justin responds, “He ATE your arm?” Finally, here is someone who wouldn’t know how to walk on egg-shells even with feathers on his feet, and Jane’s recovery deepens. In Part Two, Michael, their mom, and her friends help Jane adjust to returning home. Everyone thinks Jane will never draw again. She remains friends with Justin, who urges her to draw him a picture, but Jane can’t. Part Three begins with Jane alone in the kitchen struggling to cook her own dinner. Flashbacks through poems that begin with “I remember” show us how long this journey has been and will continue to be for Jane. By Part Three, though, Jane is getting there. Her worries have shifted. She talks about make up; she accepts a ride and welcomes attention from a pretty cute guy. She gets angry when a friend makes her feel not good enough. And, Jane’s back.
Shark Girl is a book to be devoured. All in one sitting. I took a blanket and pillow out in the yard and read Shark Girl in an afternoon. Later, I let myself go back and take in the visual experience of how artistically the pages are designed and rendered to bring texture and illumination to the story. GA
Click here to listen to
an interview and reading with Kelly Bingham from Candlewick Press.
Learn more about author Kelly Bingham.
By Sonya Hartnett
Candlewick Press, 2009
Awards/recognitions: * Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award *Starred reviews from Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books, Publisher’s Weekly, School Library Journal
There is a particular kind of girl who moves from middle grade novels straight into the adult world, without looking back. Her heart and mind are big enough to make the leap into all kinds of reading – just as long as it moves her. Luckily, there’s room on this list for a gifted writer who can create thoughtful and provocative YA that walks such readers into adulthood. Her name is Sonya Hartnett, an Australian author who won the 2006 Printz Honor award for her novel Surrender.
Butterfly, her 2009 release, is dark, thoughtful, and unerringly honest about the hell of being 13. Hartnett, who started publishing when she was a teenager, captures the world of “frenemies” and predatory adults, without reducing anyone to simple clichés.
Plum is about to turn 14, and her party plans are at hand. She lives an ordinary life in Australia with her loving (and thus incredibly irritating) parents, her 21-year-old brother, Justin, over whom all her friends swoon, and Cydar, the oldest brother, a pothead and recluse. Plum wants to stop believing in God. She wants to be thin and well-liked (or at least not tortured) by her friends. She wants someone to understand her, perhaps as well as her 35-year-old neighbor, Maureen Wilks. But is girlhood something we want to keep or something to run from? And what price does Plum have to pay to find out?
Plum and the other characters in this novel are richly layered and unpredictable in both their ruthlessness and unbelievable kindness. Hartnett’s prose is – as always – gorgeous, and her subtle insights about the landmines of becoming a woman are unfailing. Yes, the novel has drug use, sexuality, infidelity, and an uncanny accuracy for the painful self-loathing that comes on the heels of trying to blend into vicious girl groups. It also has chapters told from the point of view of the adults. If that makes you pull the plug on it as a book for young people, it’s your loss. To me, Butterfly, as its name suggests, is about the metamorphosis of growing up. It’s about beauty emerging from even the ugliest situation. MM
By Steve Watkins
Candlewick Press, 2011
ISBN: 10-0763642509 / 13-9780763642501
Awards/recognition: Georgia Peach Award for Teen Readers
Once while at a writing conference, I heard a famous author ask, “Does the world really need more stories about child abuse?” Almost everyone in the audience laughed. I got kind of ticked off.
Does the world need more baseball stories? More World War II stories? More talking animal stories? Are children still being abused at the hands of their families? Yes, yes, yes, and yes. Our world needs many more stories of triumph over trauma, especially those told by authors such as Steve Watkins who infuse the telling with insight, beauty, and clarity.
What Comes After is the realest of realistic fiction. In this, his second novel, Watkins fictionalizes a harrowing and true crime of an orphaned teen beaten at the hands of her extended family to the point of hospitalization. The story begins with a newspaper account of the beating, which conceals the victim’s identity. From there, we meet sixteen year-old Iris Wight just after her father’s death, just before she is sent to live with distant relatives in North Carolina. The story’s main villain, Aunt Sue, sees Iris – or more accurately, Iris’ trust fund – as a meal ticket. Free labor for the family’s goat farm. Right away, Aunt Sue begins to withhold all sustenance from Iris and attempts to strip her of her identity completely.
Iris, however, instinctively reaches into the depth of her own heart and soul and memory, turning What Comes After into a story of resiliency. She writes letters to her deceased veterinarian-dad. She finds ease and relief in the natural world. As Iris begins to care for the animals on Aunt Sue’s farm with skills she learned while accompanying her father on his rounds throughout her childhood, we see vividly how her dad’s nurturing presence attends to Iris, even long after his death.
As a reader, I found myself grasping for Iris’ name about mid-way through the book. I willed myself not to forget the girl, not to let Aunt Sue take away everything even from the story. The almost-disappearance of Iris as a person throughout the narrative is no accident and is, I think, a sort of ghost journey for the identities of so many abused children, invisible and unknown to us. Watkins sets this up from the first page and though I wanted to turn away, put the book down, I did not do it because. Because I trust Steve Watkins and his knowledge of how resiliency works, how it unfurls and rises up when it is needed most. Because I do believe that we need to hear these stories so we remember there is work yet to be done.
Watkins is a mandated child abuse reporter who volunteers for his local Court Appointed Special Advocates office (CASA). In 2010, over 1,000 CASA offices throughout the U.S. restored 237,000 children in America to safety. Watkins brings his real-life experience of working to end family violence to his writing. From having witnessed healing and recovery, he knows that early nurturing, social connections, friendships, and support in a crisis are key to a child’s ability to survive and, ultimately, to thrive. Yes, he sends Iris on a journey to hell. Yes, he is very clear that the fictional character, Iris Wight, is willing to make this journey on behalf of the hundreds of thousands of children who we may only read about in the newspaper, but thankfully, Iris Wight is well-equipped to make the return trip. GA
Learn more about author Steve Watkins.
By Julia Alvarez
Knopf Books for Young Readers, 2002
ISBN: 0375815449 / 978-0375815447
Also available in paperback and audio
Awards/recognitions: * ALA Best Books for Young Adults * ALA Notable Book; Miami Herald Book of the Year * Winner of the Amércias Award for Children’s and Young Adult Literature * Winner of the Pura Bupré Award
Julia Alvarez is a titan in the world of Latino literature, so it isn’t surprising that a decade past its publication, her first YA novel, Before We Were Free, is still one of my favorites to recommend for middle school readers. The novel is historical fiction, but it’s not based on American history. Instead, it’s set in the Dominican Republic during the early 1960s as the brutal 30-year dictatorship of Rafael Trujillo was unraveling.
Rafael who? Yes, that’s exactly the problem. This bloody history happened right in our global neighborhood, but ask your average middle school kid about it and you’ll get a blank stare. So, for girls who like world history, a little bloodshed, espionage, and murder plots, this is a terrific pick.
The country is in upheaval, and the secret police are investigating anyone who is suspected of betraying “el jefe” Trujillo. Anita de la Torre’s uncle has already disappeared, and her beloved cousins are fleeing to the United States, plucked from school one day and told to take one thing they cherish. Anita stays behind with her parents, only vaguely aware of her father’s involvement in the plot against the president.
The book touches on the tragedy of those caught in political upheavals the world over. Family separations, secrets kept from children for the sake of safety, and of course, the gut-wrenching decisions people have to make about morality, ideals, torture, and murder. But what is on full display here – and what strong girls will respond to — is the cost to young people: their voice and their innocence. MM
Learn more about Julia Alvarez.
By Angela Johnson
Dial Books, 2004
Awards/recognitions: * Louisiana Young Readers Choice Award Nominee * ALA Notable Book * ALA Best Book for Young Adults
Angela Johnson writes the South, writes summer, and writes family like nobody’s business. Her middle-grade novel, Bird, stands as a testament to the very best qualities of the American South – forgiveness, acceptance, and triumph over suffering.
The main character, thirteen year old Bird, knows what she wants – a whole, complete family. She spends her summer in pursuit of her step-father, who has left Bird and her mother in Cleveland. Bird runs far away to Acorn, Alabama in the hopes of finding the only man she’s ever known as father, sure she can convince him to return. But, living in an old shed and snitching leftover pancakes with strawberry syrup while the farm family attends church can’t go on forever. While hiding out, Bird sees people in Acorn who think they’re invisible, yet some Acorn folks also see Bird and resolve to help her.
Johnson tells the story from the perspectives of Bird as well as Ethan and Jay, two Acorn-boys who befriend Bird and in doing so find an easier way of facing their own grief over personal losses. Readers will linger with Bird in a pond so big it ought to be called a lake, so true it summons the children in the story to explore its depth and their own. Readers will also hold their breaths while joy-riding in an old lady’s pickup truck that stirs up a fine red dust from the red dirt road, a dust so fine it settles like baby powder on a girl’s skin and hair. And readers will nod their heads in agreement with Bird’s insights, “In the summer, you can be somebody’s cousin from Michigan or be waiting for your parents who just went into the Fast & Sure Mart for some paper plates or something. You can be almost anybody in the summer.” GA
Learn more about author Angela Johnson.
By Valerie O. Patterson
Clarion Books, 2009 (hardcover); 2010 paperback
Awards/recognitions * Agatha Award
The summer after her father drowns in a boating incident, 15-year-old Cyan and her mother return to their vacation home in Curacao. Surrounded by blue sky and sea, her mother, a celebrated painter, needs desperately to work and heal, but Cyan will have none of it. Feeling lost and unconvinced by the reported details of her father’s death, she is out to find the truth. One person in Curacao holds the key to the mysterious boating accident: Mayur, son of the physician who tended to the drowning. What does he know, and what is Cyan willing to give him in order to find out? Complicating matters even more is their houseguest, Kammi, the ever-pleasing daughter of her mother’s new fiancé.
The gorgeous Caribbean setting is irresistible for a summer read, but The Other Side of Blue offers much more. It’s a page-turning mystery, but a smart one that layers in a story about a dark and accusing dance between a mother and her teenage daughter. (Sound familiar?) Above all, this book gives us characters from the full spectrum of girls, from those who are a menacing blue, like Cyan, to those who are of the pink-and-easily-burned variety.
Also to its credit is the unflinching look at how even the puniest boy can pervert sexuality into a power play. Patterson courageously lays it out as it is, which is as much as you can ask an author to do for the readers she cares about. MM
On finding Cyan’s voice: “I’m not sure exactly how she came to me, but when she started to say things, her anger was always right there. That was unusual because I’ve never been a particularly angry person. But, at fifteen, I didn’t like my mother very much. At that age, not many girls do. Maybe part of it is the angst and part of it is competing with your mother…When I was writing, I was always afraid that I couldn’t recapture Cyan’s voice, but she always came back.” Valerie O. Patterson
Learn more about author Valerie O. Patterson.