Written by Kwame Alexander
with Mary Rand Hess
(Blink YA Books; $18.99, Ages 14-18)
★Starred Reviews – Kirkus, School Library Journal
Kwame Alexander’s Newbery Award-winning novel, The Crossover, used basketball as the backdrop for the story. His new book, written with Mary Rand Hess, is a novel-in-verse called Swing with a prologue beginning:
We were halfway through
Rounding the bases.
About to score
it’s a good bet that the title refers to baseball.However, Hess and Alexander also collaborated on the 2017 novel Solo about rock and roll, and it turns out that Swingis as much about swinging the beat as swinging the bat. Most of all, though, it’s about putting yourself out there and embracing life.
The book opens as narrator Noah and his best friend Walt (AKA “Swing”) have again failed to make their high school baseball team. Noah wants to give up, lamenting:
But the truth is
Our baseball dream
is a nightmare.
It haunts me.
Noah defines himself by what he can’t do. He can’t play baseball, and he can’t tell his longtime crush, Sam, how he feels about her. With Walt’s encouragement, Noah tries writing poetry for her, but it’s not very — well, see for yourself:
I want you
to be my symphony
two piccolo trumpets
Even Walt agrees the poem is not good enough to give to Sam, but when Noah buys a second-hand Louis Vuitton Keepall as a birthday gift for his mom, he finds old love letters stashed in the lining that inspire him to try again.
Tonight, I’m ready
To tear courage
Out of the book of dares
And make it mine.
The love letters give him a scaffold for creating art worth sharing. Noah uses them to make blackout poetry — he blacks out some words so that the ones that remain legible form a new poem — and then adds original graphic elements with his pen. The resulting mixed media art stands out, even in this book composed entirely of poems. They make me curious; I have to figure out which letter Noah uses for which piece. They make me want to try writing blackout poetry myself, and they make Noah more confident, able to express himself and impress the girl he loves.
As wonderful as Noah’s art is, my favorite creation in this book is, simply, Walt. I want to reread Swingto spend more time with him. Noah describes him and his quirks like this:
My best friend
Walt Disney Jones
is obsessed with jazz,
dead famous people,
and finding cool,
if it’s the last thing
we ever do.
But Walt’s a
on how to
never give up
until you win.
When it comes to “finding cool,” especially with regard to girls, Walt relies on his older cousin Floyd and a podcast called The Woohoo Woman. He won’t give up, whether he’s practicing baseball or finding a date for prom. He even gets a tattoo inspired by Tupac Shakur’s acronym THUG LIFE. Walt’s tattoo says HUG LIFE, exhorting everyone who sees it to embrace the world, and all its people and opportunities, wholeheartedly.
Noah’s quest to win Sam over from her boyfriend takes flight after Noah’s parents go on a trip, leaving him home alone for a few weeks. Noah’s grandmother is supposed to supervise him but doesn’t believe it’s necessary. Walt, on the other hand, moves right in, believing Noah absolutely needs supervision if he’s going to win Sam’s heart. Walt anonymously sends Sam one of Noah’s poems, but it’s still up to Noah to decide how and when to reveal himself. Will he ever convince Sam to promote him out of the friend zone?
Swing is most of all a coming-of-age story, but there is a mystery in the background throughout. People find American flags left on lawns, stuck on windshields, and painted on freeway exit signs, and the town debates whether the flags represent a show of patriotism or a sinister warning.
…no one can agree
on why the flags are here,
who’s planting them,
and whether or not
we should be
happy or offended
that they’re growing
The flag mystery leads a fairly light story into heavier territory. I believe in building empathy and understanding through books about difficult topics; however, in Swing, the social justice issues are not well developed. Because of this, I felt unprepared for a tragedy (caused by police using excessive force) at the end of the book, and I think younger, sensitive readers in particular may have the same experience. Most of us dislike spoilers, but with Swing I think it’s fair to provide readers with a little warning before reading and a lot of opportunities for discussion afterward. In that context, I recommend Swing to readers fourteen and up as both a funny coming-of-age buddy story and a serious vehicle for discussing the people we as a society forget, fear, or abuse.
THREE SIDES OF A HEART:
STORIES ABOUT LOVE TRIANGLES
Edited by Natalie C. Parker
(Harper Teen; $17.99, Ages 14 and up)
★Starred Review – School Library Journal
Christine Van Zandt recommends Three Sides of a Heart, a short story anthology featuring sixteen authors and an introduction by Natalie C. Parker who is also the editor.
This YA short story anthology, Three Sides of a Heart, gives us glimpses into love triangles from historical zombie featuring the Southern belle, her handsome betrothed, and her fierce female Negro Attendant (“Dread South” by Ireland) to futuristic (“Omega Ship” by Carson—with a let’s-talk-about-it ending) to a modern-day girl-on-girl kissing romance (“Lessons for Beginners” by Murphy). The common thread in this collection is its unique perspective of this theme referred to in the introduction as “reimaginings.” Settings as near as your backyard to far-off inhabitable planets will delight readers.
If the proverb “variety is the spice of life” is true, then Three Sides of a Heart is zesty indeed—and quite steamy in places. Of course, there are girls torn between good boys and bad boys (“Hurdles” by Colbert and “Waiting” by Tahir), and, more unexpected, the undead falling in love with the dying (“Unus, Duo, Tres” by Hagen). In “Vega” (Yovanoff), the city is a character. “Triangle Solo” (Nix), set on Mars, uses the boy/boy/girl triangle and a triangle, the instrument.
The sixteen authors in this well-crafted collection include Renée Ahdieh, Rae Carson, Brandy Colbert, Katie Cotugno, Lamar Giles, Tessa Gratton, Bethany Hagen, Justina Ireland, Alaya Dawn Johnson, E. K. Johnston, Julie Murphy, Garth Nix, Natalie C. Parker (who also writes the introduction and is the editor), Veronica Roth, Sabaa Tahir, and Brenna Yovanoff. Each author delivers a memorable bite-sized tale.
- Reviewed by Christine Van Zandt
Writer, editor, and owner of Write for Success www.Write-for-Success.com
by Jay Asher
(Razorbill; $18.99, Ages 14 and up)
What Light by Jay Asher was released in October and was a perfect way to kick off the holiday season, but it’s also a book that keeps the holiday spirit going all year round. In fact, I’d say anytime is a great time to read a romance. It tells the story of teenager Sierra, whose family owns a generations-old tree farm and spends every December in California selling their trees to locals there. Her overprotective father keeps all the worker boys at bay, even though Sierra has no interest in a fleeting romance—that is, until she meets Caleb. Struck by his charming character and smile, Sierra’s feelings for him clash with her high standards for relationships as well as the rumors she hears about Caleb. He has a history that looms over him like the Ghost of Christmas Past, but Sierra tries to lighten the burden he’s carried with him for so long.
Sierra and Caleb share the instant love of Romeo & Juliet (though without the dramatic dual-sacrifice ending). In fact, the title, What Light, is a nod to Romeo & Juliet’s first meeting: “What light through yonder window breaks? It is the east, and Juliet is the sun.” However, the title becomes much more meaningful as the relationship between Sierra and Caleb unfolds.
Given that it is only 186 pages, and given Asher’s ability to instantly make me care about his characters so much that I need to know what happens next, it’s no surprise that I finished this book in one day. What was a surprise (and delight) was just how much my teenaged niece, new to Asher’s novels, loved the book as well. She had told me that she needed a book for her independent reading at school, and I immediately suggested this. She was going on a trip, and I told her it would be perfect for the plane ride. Upon her return, she messaged me immediately and said that she loved the book, could not put it down, and had never been so happy to be “forced” to read a book. She loved the bond between Sierra and Caleb and said, “It’s so cute…. I want this to happen to me.”
This story is one of family and friendship, understanding and forgiveness, love and loyalty, and, most of all, hope. My niece has been passing this book around to her friends, and I have been passing it along to those of my students who are avid young adult readers and enjoy a spark of love and hope in their lives. In a world that offers so much darkness at times, Asher’s latest novel offers us some well-needed light.
- Reviewed by Krista Jefferies
by Scott Bergstrom
(Feiwel & Friends; $18.99, Ages 14 and up)
Initially, seventeen-year-old Gwendolyn Bloom’s worst things in life include being bullied by rich girls at her “diplobrats” school and aching from the tenth anniversary of her mother’s brutal death. Gwendolyn’s worldview is soon upended when her father’s kidnapping propels her to action.
With the help of friends (including a blossoming first love), Gwendolyn escapes to Paris in pursuit of her first lead. She discovers that cruelty has no borders as she travels through the underbellies of France, Germany, and the Czech Republic. Surviving in the shadows using intrigue and deception, Gwendolyn perseveres.
The Cruelty by Scott Bergstrom is a fast-paced read; with each chapter, Gwendolyn grows more deeply involved in gambling, arms smuggling, and human trafficking. She sacrifices everything in the hope of freeing her father—then finds bigger causes to fight for.
While this modern-day spy book exemplifies female strength and independence, the life of this spy is rarely glamorous. The title tells all: cruelty rules. Opting for activism means becoming tougher and craftier than her enemies. Gwendolyn learns there’s no going back from these irreversible choices.
Find Scott Bergstrom’s website here.
The Cruelty is available on February 7, 2017. Book two, The Greed, is scheduled for release next year.
- Reviewed by Christine Van Zandt
Writer, editor, and owner of Write for Success www.Write-for-Success.com
ENTER TITLE HERE
Written by Rahul Kanakia
(Hyperion; $17.99, Ages 14 and up)
Just in time for back-to-school comes ENTER TITLE HERE from Hyperion. Rahul Kanakia’s debut YA novel examines the fierce competition for college admissions in a fresh, surprising, and funny package, with a bonus meta element for those of us readers who are also writing our own novels. The main character is Reshma Kapoor, a Silicon Valley high school senior who employs unhealthy and unsavory means to achieve her all-consuming end: admission to Stanford.
Reshma is convinced that her application — with its stellar grades but average-after-several-tries SAT scores — needs a hook in order to stand out in the admissions slush pile. She thinks she’s found her “in” when an essay she published in the Huffington Post earns her an email from a literary agent: “If you were to someday write a novel, I’d love to read it.” Boom, goal-oriented Reshma has a new aim: secure a contract with this agent, and write a novel to be under submission (or maybe even sold) in time for Stanford’s Early Action deadline.
And that novel is ENTER TITLE HERE. Or is it? I enjoyed the argument in my head as I read: is this really happening, or is this just for the novel? Reshma the narrator certainly encourages the confusion. She scopes out a brief synopsis in her head, epiphany and all, and then writes a “SEPTEMBER TO-DO LIST” of the experiences she needs to have to write the novel convincingly: make a friend, go on a date, attend a party, get a boyfriend, have sex. In the pages that follow, she sets about checking off each item. Oh, and this isn’t on her list, but no way is she going to loosen her grasp on her school’s valedictorian spot. She won it by hook and by crook, and keeping it is as essential to her plans (and her self-image) as writing the novel is.
You may have guessed by now that Reshma is not a very likable person. When she writes, for school assignments, newspaper articles, or her novel, she maintains two versions: an honest one and a pretty one. But when she meets people face-to-face, “…they start to hate me. That’s because when I speak, I find it hard to create a pretty version.” But even as we dislike much of what Reshma thinks, says, and does, we keep reading. Why?
For one thing, I was curious to find out which of her many enemies deserved the title. There’s her mother, who thinks Reshma should lower her sights from Stanford. There’s her “perfect” classmate Chelsea, who couldn’t possibly be as nice as she pretends to be. And then there’s Alex, Reshma’s Adderall supplier. Reshma blackmails Alex into being her friend (item number one on the TO-DO LIST) and then wonders if she can trust Alex to have her back. Meanwhile, will Reshma ever notice that George, whom her parents allow to live in the basement so he can go to a good school, consistently behaves like a real friend?
Kanakia keeps us rooting for Reshma, in spite of all her faults. We want her to figure out how to stop the train before the wreck. Her mother tries to help her, sending her to a therapist. As a writer, I found some of the funniest moments of the book occurring in Dr. Wasserman’s office. He’s not just a therapist; he’s also an unpublished novelist, and his line of questioning is familiar to any fellow striver: “…you’ve mentioned your agent…Who is she, if you don’t mind me…?” He has lots of advice for Reshma, but it’s never clear. Are the ideas for the novel, or for her life? Does Reshma imagine Dr. Wasserman’s decline into obsession with her plot line and character arcs? Or is he a horrible therapist but a pretty good editor?
I enjoyed ENTER TITLE HERE and recommend it as a work of evil genius that will be especially appreciated by students currently competing in the college admissions rat race. Their parents will like the novel too — though it may send some of them searching their kids’ backpacks for stray Adderalls.
- Reviewed by Mary Malhotra
(THE SELECTION SERIES #5)
by Kiera Cass
(HarperTeen; $19.99, Ages 14 and up)
Since Kiera Cass’ The Heir left off on a heart-wrenching cliffhanger, we’ve been eagerly awaiting the next and final installment of The Selection series, The Crown. Princess Eadlyn faces the fear of possibly losing her mother, while having to step into very large and heavy shoes in the absence of her parents. As Maxon stays glued by his ailing wife’s side, Eadlyn must fill the role of both King and Queen while also continuing her Selection for the sake of her parents and her country. Eadlyn must also provide comfort for her younger brothers all on her own, as they are all still mourning the departure of Eadlyn’s twin brother, Ahren, after his surprise elopement to France. While the situation is extremely daunting, Eadlyn takes on these challenges, following in the strength of her mother, and blossoms into the woman she was always meant to be. She still struggles with whether love is actually possible for her, ever comparing it to the truest and deepest love her parents share, but she must find a way to do what’s right for herself, her family, and her people.
I recommend rereading the last few chapters of The Heir before reading The Crown to remember all the Selection candidates and Eadlyn’s feelings for each one. It reintegrated me back into the palace and Eadlyn’s life, allowing me to be wholly invested in her once again. I waited an entire year to read this book, and Kiera Cass did not disappoint. She gave me everything I wanted in an ending and allowed me, as a devoted reader, to lovingly say goodbye to these characters. I’m sad it’s over and will likely read the entire series again, just to experience it one more time.