Kate Pentecost’s YA novel has the wonderfully ironic title, Elysium Girls. There’s nothing paradisal about Elysium, Oklahoma, during the 1930s Dust Bowl. One moment it’s a regular town, the next, the goddesses Life and Death use it to play a decade-long game: from next to nothing, the citizens must build a city and a society which is good and responsible, setting aside one-third of all crops as a Sacrifice. If the Elysiums do this, at the end of ten years, their society will continue; if not, everyone perishes. Dust Sickness soon begins to claim lives.
Seventeen-year-old Sal Wilkerson loses her mother and doesn’t fit in, overcome by unfulfilled predictions. As the game’s conclusion draws near, the town’s self-declared witchy leader, Mother Morevna, chooses Sal as the Successor. Finally, it seems Sal’s time has come, but an outsider named Asa arrives and unintentionally upsets things. For me, Asa stole the show as much for his charming personality as for the fact that, even though a nonhuman character, he’s so very relatable. Over the course of the book, his life changes dramatically as he deals with one unknown after another.
Outside the Elysium walls, a band of kick-butt girls survives fire coyotes and other wicked things by using their ingenuity. The different realities are fascinating: inside the walls, outside, above, and blips from the real Depression-era world. In addition, there are many appealing character elements including friendship, girl power, and family. Romance isn’t limited to boy and girl, or human and human. Put it all together and you’ll see why Elysium Girls is as hard to shake as a dusty Oklahoma day.
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Following a devastating senior year, things are looking up for eighteen-year-old Sabine Reyes. She has been accepted to a prestigious art school on a full scholarship, including an allowance for housing. Still traumatized from the events of her senior year, which left her homeless, she becomes alarmed when her professor, a noted artist, is brutally critical of her artwork. Nothing she does meets his approval and she is fearful that failure in this class will result in the loss of her scholarship. Vulnerable, and under intense pressure, she is manipulated by someone she trusts, and engages in unethical activity she at first rationalizes and later realizes is wrong.
Set in contemporary Pasadena and surrounding areas, Linka’s book explores Sabine’s last year of high school and how the events of that year impacted her later actions and decisions. This gradual build up, intertwined with Sabine’s current life of school, work, friendships, and loves, dramatically increases the story’s intensity. Readers helplessly witness Sabine’s entanglement in a criminal world and the staggering consequences she faces when exposed.
Linka’s love of art is clearly evident in the story and provides fascinating backdrops and insights. Yet, this story is also shaped by Linka’s growing concern over homelessness, especially among college students. In Sabine, Linka has created an innocent and fragile young woman who has experienced hardships unimaginable by most of her peers. Due to society’s negative impression of the homeless, Sabine lives in fear that her friends and classmates will find out about her earlier homeless experience. Yet this very hardship enables Sabine to treat the story’s homeless characters with dignity and respect. One such character, inspired by the author’s chance encounter with an older homeless woman, becomes the subject of a powerful work painted by Sabine.
I recommend this complex and gripping story, infused with the beauty of art and the ugliness of deceit and betrayal.
Review by Dornel Cerro
Support a local independent bookstore by ordering your copy of What I Want You to Seehere.
What an honor to once again be participating in the Sydney Taylor Blog Tour. This year it’s been a delight to interview authorHannah Moskowitz after reading her compelling YA novel (that I could not put down) Sick Kids in Love, an honor award winner in the teen readers category. Find out more about this week of enlightening interviews at theAssociation of Jewish Libraries website and at the official Sydney Taylor site. The full blog tour schedule is posted on the AJL blog and below if you scroll down following the interview.
He’s got a chronic illness Isabel’s never heard of, something she can’t even pronounce. He understands what it means to be sick. He understands her more than her healthy friends. He understands her more than her own father who’s a doctor.
He’s gorgeous, fun, and foul-mouthed. And totally into her.
Isabel has one rule: no dating.
It’s never felt better—
—to consider breaking that rule for him.
AN INTERVIEW WITH HANNAH MOSKOWITZ
Good Reads With Ronna:How does SICK KIDS IN LOVE differ from your previous novels and did anything in particular happen to plant the seed to write this one?
Hannah Moskowitz: SICK KIDS IN LOVE is my first book to feature characters with chronic illnesses, or even really to include characters with chronic illnesses at all, which is ridiculous since it’s such a defining feature of my own life. I really wanted to write something that I felt like was true to the chronic illness experience and that was keeping up with the conversations happening right now in the disability community that I hadn’t really seen reflected in fiction yet. So I wanted to create a positive, realistic, disability-positive love story. It’s a pretty straightforward romance, which was also a first for me. The way I explained it when I started was that I wasn’t reinventing the wheel; I was just giving the wheel to people who hadn’t had it before.
GRWR:February is Jewish Disability Awareness, Acceptance and Inclusion Month. Can you please speak to the relevance of this initiative in terms of your YA novel’s main characters, Isabel (Ibby) Garfinkel who has rheumatoid arthritis and her boyfriend, Sasha (Aleksandr) Sverdlov-Deckler, who has a non-fatal type of Gaucher Disease, and where abled society falls short here and with understanding invisible illness?
HM: Invisible illnesses are so common and so poorly respected in our society, and there are several that are more common in the Ashkenazi Jewish community than in the general population, like Sasha’s Gaucher Disease. So having a month specifically for Jewish disability awareness, acceptance and inclusion is definitely a big deal. Invisible illnesses are misdiagnosed and underdiagnosed all the time, and it’s unfortunately really hard to be taken seriously without having a diagnosis with a name that people recognize as serious. If you have something people don’t know about, like Sasha, people think you’re making it up. If you have something that sounds kind of common and benign, like Isabel, people think you’re making a big deal out of nothing. It’s really rough out there.
GRWR:Could you have written this novel without a Jewish protagonist, and if not, why?
HM: I think I could have. Writing Jewish protagonists is just easier for me, so letting myself stay in that space is one less thing I have to deal with when I’m planning out my characters. So writing a non-Jewish protagonist would have been possible, but a lot more work. And for what!
GRWR:Why did you decide to have Ibby’s family and friends deal with her illness so differently than how Sasha’s family deals with his?
HM: Ibby’s family’s discomfort with chronic illness is what’s familiar to me in my own life, and Sasha’s is kind of the fantasy of what I wish people were like. So I wanted to show both the uncomfortable reality and that we should still have this aspirational ideal even if we’ve been left down. It’s okay to expect that much.
GRWR:Why does Isabel have such a difficult time self-advocating? Is this something you wanted to raise readers’ awareness about?
HM: Because I do! And because honestly, it’s hard to stand up for yourself and tell people you’re valid when they’re constantly telling you you’re not. Being told you don’t deserve things that you thought you need sticks with you, and having to fight through that internalized ableism is a huge part of living with chronic illness.
GRWR:As an #OwnVoices author, how much of yourself have you put into the story in regard to both your Jewish faith and your chronic illness?
HM: I put a ton of myself into this particular book, which I think was what made it such a joy to write. The whole process was easy; I wrote this book over the course of a month for NaNoWriMo 2017, and the version you can read now is very, very close to that first draft. Isabel is a Reform Ashkenazi Jew with autoimmune arthritis. Guess what I am! She even lives on the block in Sunnyside that I used to live on. Nothing that happens to Isabel in the course of the story is autobiographical, but her character certainly is. Though personality-wise I would say I’m more like Sasha.
GRWR: I enjoyed Isabel’s personal arc as she fights the pull to get involved with Sasha because of her dysfunctional family history among other things. When she ultimately succumbs to love—being loved and loving back—it’s powerful, positive and oh so beautiful. Do you think her struggle is one many teens can relate to?
HM: Thank you! I think Isabel’s big struggle is her fear of committing herself fully to something uncertain, and I think that’s a worry that a lot of people, teenagers or adults, can relate to.
GRWR:What gave you the idea to make Ibby the“SICK GIRL” weekly advice columnist at her high school newspaper and then share her questions throughout the novel?
HM: I’ve been asked this before and honestly I wish I could remember, but I … don’t. It was part of the book from the first draft, I know that. A long time ago I was trying to write a book where one of the main characters went around asking people what they would do if it was their last night in New York, so I think it might have stemmed from that. But my memory is too terrible.
GRWR:As your sub-heading says, no one dies in your novel yet I cried in several places because I cared about Ibby and Sasha, their relationship, and felt so much was at stake for this young couple. Did any part make you cry as you wrote it?
HM: I’m not much of a crier, and I don’t think I’ve ever cried while writing something! But I do make playlists for the characters, and sometimes I cry a little bit listening to those and thinking about all their feelings.
GRWR:The voice in your novel was great, as was the dialogue and humor. What part of the novel did you enjoy writing the most? What were some of the most difficult parts?
HM: I always prefer writing dialogue to anything else. My favorite things to write are arguments, and Sasha and Isabel have at least one great one. I hate writing descriptions and world building, but at least this time I got to just talk about a place I knew well.
GRWR:SICK KIDS IN LOVE should be required reading in high school curricula. You’ve succeeded in opening readers’ eyes to the disabled community, how they’re perceived and treated and how they’d like to be treated. Do you think you’ve written all you’d like to say on this topic?
HM: Thanks! I think I did put all I have to say at this time about disability and chronic illness into this book. But who knows if I’ll think of more in the future!
GRWR:What can we expect in your next novel?
HM: Right now I don’t know which of several books my next novel will be, but it’s likely either a very untraditional lesbian romance, a story about a teen mom figuring out her sexuality, or a f/f retelling of “Dirty Dancing.” So … expect lesbians.
BLOG TOUR SCHEDULE
The Sydney Taylor Book Award is showcasing its 2020 gold and silver medalists with a Blog Tour, February 9-13, 2020! Interviews with winning authors and illustrators will appear on a variety of Jewish and kidlit blogs. Interviews will appear on the dates below, and will remain available to read at your own convenience.
Below is the schedule for the 2020 Sydney Taylor Book Award Blog Tour. Please follow the links to visit the hosting blogs on or after their tour dates, and be sure to leave them plenty of comments!
LOVELY WAR Written by Julie Berry (Viking BYR; $18.99, Ages 14 and up)
Julie Berry’s epic older-YA/new-adult book,Lovely War, cleverly employs a trial orchestrated by Hephaestus after he catches his wife, Aphrodite, with her lover—his brother, Ares. From there, the gods Aphrodite, Apollo, Ares, and Hades narrate the tale of four mortals during World Wars I and II. Eighteen-year-old Hazel Windicott and nineteen-year-old James Alderidge meet at a parish dance in 1917 London—with a little push from Aphrodite. Alas, James leaves to report for duty in France and fears the reserved British girl, an accomplished pianist, has stolen his heart. Much to her parents’ mortification Hazel throws caution to the wind; determined to go where there is need (and be closer to James), Hazel submits an application to be an entertainment secretary in a YMCA relief hut in France.
Aphrodite also imbibes Colette Fournier, a Belgian girl whose childhood ended at age sixteen when everything and everyone she knew were destroyed. Colette gets by as a YMCA volunteer in the south of France, until, four years later, she ends up at the same camp as twenty-one-year-old musician extraordinaire, Aubrey Edwards. There she awakens emotionally. The passion and pain of love ensues within their war-stricken world resounding with the harsh reality of prejudice that Aubrey and his troop of black servicemen must endure.
Lovely War is a monumental, layered accomplishment pared down to a comprehensible size. This 480-page tome looks daunting but has short, fast-paced chapters with changing viewpoints. The outer framework of the gods felt as realistic as the stories of the four mortals that they reflect upon. I’d recommend this book to older teens, young adults, and adults who enjoy historical fiction, romance, or mythology. I’ll want to read it again someday because I appreciated the craft Berry employs while still maintaining sincere characters. Her historical end notes further explain how the Great War shifted the roles of women and affected the plight of the black servicemen.
Lovely War has received seven starred reviews and is an indie bestseller. Learn more about award-winning author Julie Berry here. Read another YA romance novel review by here.
Have a Little Faith in Me, the YA debut from Sonia Hartl, hooked me with its opening line: “If I hadn’t made such a big deal about my virginity, I might not have spent a valuable portion of my summer checking nosebleed tissues for images of Jesus.” Have a Little Faith in Me is a funny, honest YA romance. Soon-to-be-senior CeCe was recently dumped by Ethan, her nice Christian boyfriend, because he must restore his virginal heart. To bridge the religious gap between them, CeCe secretly signs up for the same three-week Jesus camp, knowing their love will conquer all. Her best friend and next-door neighbor, Paul, thinks otherwise so he accompanies CeCe to this “faraway land, a dark place with no Wi-Fi.”
Though CeCe is out of her element, she finds that questions and uncertainty about sex unite her with the other girls. At the same time, CeCe’s relationships with her ex-boyfriend and her best friend take unexpected turns.
Have a Little Faith in Me is ideal for a teen who wants real-world advice about navigating the sexual and emotional aspects of relationships—a book I’ll set aside for our daughter. While scenarios of intense moments not quite going as planned are humorous, the story seriously examines what consent means. I like that LGBT sex is also addressed as a viable option. Reading this book felt like confiding with close friends who don’t hesitate to share intimacies. The bottom line: figure yourself out before you hookup with someone else.
In the dystopian YA novel,How We Became Wickedby Alexander Yates, an insect-borne plague called the Wickedness has swept the planet. The people who remain are either wicked (infected), true (untouched), or vexed (immune). Three sixteen-year-olds survive the devastation.
Astrid and Hank reside in Goldsport, an enclosed community of elderly inhabitants; their world exists within its walls, a sanctuary founded by Astrid’s Grandpa Gold (now dead for twenty years). When the lighthouse on Puffin Island inexplicably turns on again, Astrid’s unanswered questions push her to find out all she can from the wealthy investors who built this safe place and now spend their days sporting their finery, comfortable with their stockpiled supplies.
On Puffin Island, Natalie’s life seems as barren and rocky as the island itself. Her mischievous and malicious grandfather remains locked away for safety’s sake. When Natalie and her pregnant mother have to deal with his shenanigans, their days ahead take an alarming turn.
I liked How We Became Wicked’s dual-perspective story from the insinuating title to the thoughtful story line. The wicked are an interesting lot, seemingly normal and almost childlike until their murderous intentions arise, reminding me a bit of zombies (when zombies are depicted with comical elements yet remaining relentlessly lethal). This book kept me hooked through its fast-paced chapters. My favorite part was the clever conclusion.
In WHERE I END AND YOU BEGIN by Preston Norton, seventeen year-old Ezra Slevin desperately wants to take Imogene Klutz to the prom. The only problem is he’s a neurotic, insomniac who is too shy to even talk to her, and Imogene’s best friend hates him, but has a crush on his best friend who hates her. Ezra’s best friend has inside information where Imogene will be at the time of the solar eclipse, the most important event in their town. The unimaginable takes place during the eclipse – Ezra and Imogene’s best friend, Wynonna, body swap, unleashing a series of humorous circumstances.
Ezra and Wynonna are exact opposites but both suffer from self-loathing. Ezra says, “I didn’t feel masculine. I didn’t feel like a fucking human being.” His self-loathing results in his never standing up for himself. Wynonna is aggressive, angry, and dyslexic.
The author thoroughly explores every angle of sexual identity against the background of Hamlet’s Twelfth Night, “exploring the line between love and suffering, the ambiguity of gender, and the folly of ambition.” Norton states, “The important thing isn’t the word or the label. The important thing is you.”
I often found myself laughing, and loved Norton’s imagery. “Slowly, Imogene’s eyes widened like a pair of flowers blooming in a fast-motion time lapse.”
This is a humorous story about male and female body swapping which deals with serious topics of self-loathing, anger, forgiveness, sexual identity, and friendship, which leaves the reader with a sense of hope and possibility of transcendence.
Readers who enjoy books like EVERY DAY by David Levithan should definitely add WHERE I END AND YOU BEGIN to their TBR list.
Reviewed by Guest Blogger, Joanne Rode e About the reviewer: Joanne Rode is a retired librarian living in Los Angeles, California. Twenty years ago she started working as a children’s librarian while living on Maui. The births of her grandchildren drew her back to the mainland, where she continued her career as a librarian in Orange County, then later in Los Angeles. She now enjoys using her free time to write. Contact Joanne at joanneorode.com
THE SIMILARS Written by Rebecca Hanover (Sourcebooks Fire; $17.99, Ages 14+)
In Rebecca Hanover’s suspenseful young adult novel, The Similars, readers go inside Darkwood Academy, a forward-thinking, elite boarding school. It’s there that Headmaster Ransom gives six clones (teens called the Similars) a chance to attend alongside the student body. This is the first time the Similars will leave their amazing, isolated man-made island where they grew up strictly controlled by their guardian. The Similars are clones of current Darkwood students who had their DNA stolen and only recently met their doppelgängers. The controversial decision to allow the Similars to transfer in ignites the campus as a new school year begins. Only Emmaline “Emma” Chance, a junior, isn’t very interested; she’s still suffering from her best friend Oliver’s recent death. When the Similars are introduced, Emma’s shocked to learn Oliver has a clone named Levi.
The clones are the focus of DAAM (the Darkwood Academy Anti-Cloning Movement) headed by campus celebrity, Madison Huxley. Much to Madison and her family’s dismay, Madison’s been cloned and has to live with that fact daily at school. Though Emma continues to support clone rights, relating with Levi is difficult and confusing as she tries to figure out how he compares with Oliver. When Emma’s roommate and close friend, Pru, is attacked on campus, Emma breaks rules to get behind what’s really going on.
Set in the near-future, The Similarshas cool tech toys, such as the plum devices that kids wear on their wrists; Emma’s is named Dash and interacts with her on a human level. The fast-moving story line leaves you guessing. It also connects on an emotional level, inviting thought about clone rights, and sharing the turmoil of dealing with the death of someone close.
The Curseshas an undoubtedly awesome first line: “Wolf had been back from the dead for almost three weeks when we had our first midnight picnic of the year.” Best-selling author Laure Eve’s second book picks up smoothly from where The Graces left off, changing the narrator from River (the new girl in town with enigmatic magical powers) to Summer (her on-again-off-again BFF from the Grace family of witches).
This sequel expands the world of the Graces while keeping favorite characters close. The Graces are beautiful, rich, and alluring—and they have cool names. Complicated relationships advance between the people who love the Graces, hate them, or want to be them. High school drama is heightened as the teens try to master their supernatural powers.
Truth-seeker and air witch Summer questions the dreaded curse on the Grace family (they cannot marry for love). After some sleuthing, dangerous mysteries unfold and Summer struggles with how she’s inexplicably drawn to River, wondering whether to stay away or bring her into their coven.
The main story line revolves around Wolf and the problems accompanying his resurrection. Throughout, the characters grow and learn to navigate the complicated aspects of friendship, family, and love. Appearances can be deceptive and easy answers may not be the right ones but there’s surely magic in the world, if you’re open to it.
Welcome to day three! As one of the bloggers participating in the Sydney Taylor Book Award 2019 Blog Tour, I’ve had the privilege to interview author Rachel Lynn Solomonabout her terrific debut novel You’ll Miss Me When I’m Gone, an honor award winner in the teen readers category. Find out more about this week of enlightening interviews at the Association of Jewish Libraries website and at the official Sydney Taylor site. The full blog tour schedule is posted on the AJL blog and below if you scroll down following the interview.
PUBLISHER’S SUMMARY OF YOU’LL MISS ME WHEN I’M GONE Eighteen-year-old twins Adina and Tovah have little in common besides their ambitious nature. Viola prodigy Adina yearns to become a soloist—and to convince her music teacher he wants her the way she wants him. Overachiever Tovah awaits her acceptance to Johns Hopkins, the first step on her path toward med school and a career as a surgeon.
But one thing could wreck their carefully planned futures: a genetic test for Huntington’s, a rare degenerative disease that slowly steals control of the body and mind. It’s turned their Israeli mother into a near stranger and fractured the sisters’ own bond in ways they’ll never admit. While Tovah finds comfort in their Jewish religion, Adina rebels against its rules.
When the results come in, one twin tests negative for Huntington’s. The other tests positive.
These opposite outcomes push them farther apart as they wrestle with guilt, betrayal, and the unexpected thrill of first love. How can they repair their relationship, and is it even worth saving?
From debut author Rachel Lynn Solomon comes a luminous, heartbreaking tale of life, death, and the fragile bond between sisters.
INTERVIEW WITH RACHEL LYNN SOLOMON
Good Reads With Ronna: Please tell us what the source of your inspiration was for writing You’ll Miss Me When I’m Gone (Simon Pulse, $17.99 + 12.99, Ages 14+)?
RLS: Thank you for having me on your blog! As a kid, I remember watching a couple TV shows that centered on genetic testing, and the idea of being able to know your fate, to an extent, stuck with me. Years later in early 2014, I was doing some random Internet research, looking for something that might spark a book idea. I landed on a page about Huntington’s disease, which I knew a little about. What stood out to me was the fact that a child of a parent with Huntington’s has a 50/50 chance of inheriting it, and I wondered: what if twin sisters received opposite results?
GRWR: Your bio says you write about ambitious, complicated, sometimes unlikable girls who are trying their best. Can you please expand on that in reference to your main characters, Adina and Tovah, the 18 year-old fraternal twin sisters who do not get along?
RLS: Absolutely! I firmly believe we don’t need to like the characters we read about — we just need to relate to them. Likable characters, in fact, are often quite boring to read about. Rule-following characters who always make the right decisions, who never hurt anyone’s feelings…not realistic, for one, and not as interesting as a reader or writer. Furthermore, in fiction, male characters are often given much more “permission” to be unlikable. Their flaws are more easily forgiven.
In YMMWIG, Adina and Tovah aren’t bad people, but they make mistakes, they hurt each other, and they occasionally sabotage themselves. But they’re trying, and they’re relatable (I hope!), and at the end of the day, those are the kinds of characters I’m always going to gravitate toward.
GRWR: Do you share any qualities with your main characters aside from Adina’s love of Siren red lipstick?
RLS: There’s a bit of myself in all the characters I write. While I don’t play viola like Adina, I grew up playing piano and guitar, and in high school, I was a stereotypical overachiever like Tovah.
GRWR: What are your thoughts about the need for Jewish authors to write about more than just Holocaust stories despite the need for those to continue being told? And what kinds of books would you like to see written?
RLS: My major thought about this is: YES. We need stories about all kinds of Jewish experiences. I’ve mentioned this in other interviews, but growing up, I truly believed we only had one story to tell, and that story was the Holocaust. And that’s just devastating, to think your entire culture can be summed up by a tragedy. It’s why it took me so long to write Jewish characters of my own — while YMMWIG was my first published book, it was my fifth completed manuscript since I decided to get serious about writing. It was also my first with Jewish characters.
I would love to see more historical novels featuring Jewish characters that don’t center on the Holocaust. IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD OF TRUE by Susan Kaplan Carlton, which comes out in April, is a great example of this, and I highly recommend it! I’d also love to see more intersectional Jewish stories like YOU ASKED FOR PERFECT by Laura Silverman, coming out in March, and COLOR ME IN by Natasha Diaz, coming out in August. Aside from that, more contemporary stories about Jewish teens simply living their lives while also being Jewish — whatever “being Jewish” means to them.
GRWR: Do you feel that books featuring Jewish protagonists and teens tackling illness fall under the diverse books heading since they are so underrepresented and often stereotyped?
RLS: This is a weighty topic, and one I’m still grappling with. Judaism occupies an interesting space in diversity discussions. I’m keeping a list of 2019 YA novels by Jewish authors and with Jewish protagonists, and I have only 14 books on that list. It’s so underrepresented in YA, and yet I’ve had a trade review insinuate Judaism isn’t diverse. Jewish friends writing Jewish characters have asked me whether their book “counts” as diverse. Conversely, one review told me I made my characters Jewish “for diversity points.” To me, Jewish books are diverse books, and I plan to continue advocating for them in the book community.
GRWR: Your YA novel tackles a tough topic of a mother slowly succumbing to Huntington’s disease as her teen daughters witness the decline. Also, early on in the story, one of the twins will learn after genetic testing, that she will get the disease, too. Your second novel also deals with a character needing a kidney transplant. What compels you to write about characters coping with illness?
RLS: I’m drawn most to topics that interest me — with YMMWIG, I wanted to learn more about Huntington’s disease and genetic testing, and with OUR YEAR OF MAYBE, which deals with the aftermath of a kidney transplant, I was curious about organ donation. Curiosity is a huge part of my writing process. My background is in journalism, and I love research, and writing is such a magnificent way to learn more about the world.
With regard to illness, specifically, I wanted to write characters who are not defined by their illness. In YMMWIG, Adina and Tovah’s mother is suffering from Huntington’s. It was important to me that Huntington’s was not her sole defining characteristic. She enjoys her job as a teacher, old movie musicals, and knitting, and she has a meet-cute backstory with the twins’ dad. In OUR YEAR OF MAYBE I focus more on the aftermath of the transplant and how it affects the two protagonists’ relationship. I aim to write sensitive portrayals of illness where the illness is a piece of the story but not the entire story.
GRWR: Of the two sisters, Tovah is the practicing Jew who keeps kosher, studies Torah and observes Shabbat along with her parents. It was encouraging to read a YA novel featuring Jewish main characters and their perceptions navigating life in a predominantly non-Jewish school and world. Was this your experience too?
RLS: Thank you! Yes — I was one of only a handful of Jewish kids in my Seattle suburb. I actually don’t remember meeting other Jewish kids outside of temple until middle school. And it wasn’t until college that I found more of a Jewish community — I took a year of modern Hebrew, I joined Hillel, and for a while, I attended services every Friday. These days, I am more secular, but I’m happy to say I have close Jewish friends for the first time in my life, which I’ve realized is so incredibly important, especially in a world that often makes us feel like outsiders.
GRWR: Adina can be cruel, jealous, socially aloof and manipulative, often using her beauty to control guys. Is it easier to write a more likeable character such as Tovah or one who’s not so likeable?
RLS: That’s a great question. I’m not sure what this says about me, but Adina was much easier to write than Tovah! It might be that I’m more similar to Tovah, so writing Adina allowed me to get more creative. To this day, her voice is the clearest of any main character I’ve written.
GRWR: Tovah is a neophyte when it comes to sex while Adina has been sexually active since age 14. Tovah myopically dreams of attending Johns Hopkins to become a surgeon while Adina dreams of playing viola in an orchestra. One incident four years earlier has shattered their tight bond. Sisters yet complete opposites and strangers. What would they or anyone for that matter have to do to become close again and repair the wounds?
RLS: I’ve never experienced a rift quite like theirs, but my sister and I fought constantly growing up. It’s hard to admit you did something wrong, but I think that humility is the only way to at least begin to repair a broken relationship. I’m not sure if it’s something that gets easier as we grow up and grow older, but I know it’s especially difficult as a teen.
GRWR: The twins’ story is told through alternating POV which works so well. What do you like about this approach and what other YA novels using this dual POV have you enjoyed?
RLS: Thank you so much. I felt strongly that this was the only way the book could be told — each sister is a full person but only half the story. It was the same with OUR YEAR OF MAYBE. The book explores the aftermath of a kidney transplant, complicated by the fact that the donor is in love with the recipient. The book doesn’t work unless we have both POVs and understand both characters, whose arcs are so closely entwined. Some other dual POV books I love: I’LL GIVE YOU THE SUN by Jandy Nelson, JUST VISITING by Dahlia Adler, HOW TO SAVE A LIFE by Sara Zarr.
GRWR: I found it hard to say good-bye to Adina and Tovah. How do you feel upon completing a book?
RLS: It’s been an adjustment! In the past, my manuscripts felt like living documents — I could open one up and tweak a sentence any time I wanted. But now, the book gets to a point where I have to be done messing with it. It’s hard for me to say goodbye, but it’s heartening to know that the book is done because it’s going out to readers who will be able to experience it for the first time.
For anyone else who’s interested, I wrote a “five years later” short story about Adina and Tovah that originally went out as part of a preorder campaign. It’s available on my website here for anyone to read: https://www.rachelsolomonbooks.com/extras/. There are some sad moments, but I hope it provides a bit of additional closure!
GRWR: What other irons do you have in the fire?
RLS: My second book, OUR YEAR OF MAYBE, came out last month, and I have two more YA novels contracted through Simon Pulse. My third, a romantic comedy, will be out in the summer of 2020. It takes place in 24 hours on the last day of senior year, and follows two rivals who realize, as they reluctantly team up to win a senior class game, that they might be in love with each other. While it’s lighter than my first two books, the two main characters also confront anti-Semitism in a way I haven’t written about before.
GRWR: Is there anything I didn’t ask that you’d like to mention or call to readers’ attention?
These questions were wonderful — thank you for again having me!
2019 SYDNEY TAYLOR BOOK AWARD BLOG TOUR
SUNDAY, FEBRUARY 10, 2019
Emily Jenkins and Paul Zelinsky, author and illustrator of All-of-a-Kind Family Hanukkah Sydney Taylor Book Award in the Younger Readers Category At Out of the Box at the Horn Book
SWING 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.
WHAT LIGHT by Jay Asher (Razorbill; $18.99, Ages 14 and up)
What Lightby 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.
THE CRUELTY 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.
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.