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The Sydney Taylor Book Award 2019 Blog Tour – An Interview With Rachel Lynn Solomon

 

graphic for Sydney Taylor Book Award 2019 Blog Tour

 

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 Solomon about 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.

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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 hYou'll Miss Me When I'm Gone book cover image er 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?
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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?
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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.
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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.
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GRWR: Do you share any qualities with your main characters aside from Adina’s love of Siren red lipstick? 
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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.
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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? 
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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.
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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.
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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? 
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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.
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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? 
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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.
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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.
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Author Rachel Lynn Solomon photo by Ian Grant

Rachel Lynn Solomon Photo by Ian Grant

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.

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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? 
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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.
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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? 
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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.
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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? 
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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.
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GRWR: I found it hard to say good-bye to Adina and Tovah. How do you feel upon completing a book? 
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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.
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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!
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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.
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GRWR: Is there anything I didn’t ask that you’d like to mention or call to readers’ attention? 
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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

Barb Rosenstock and Mary GrandPré, author and illustrator of Through the Window: Views of Marc Chagall’s Life
Sydney Taylor Honor Book in the Younger Readers Category
At A Fuse #8 Production at School Library Journal

MONDAY, FEBRUARY 11, 2019

Jonathan Auxier, author of Sweep: The Story of a Girl and Her Monster
Sydney Taylor Book Award in the Older Readers Category
At The Prosen People at The Jewish Book Council

Jane Breskin Zalben and Mehrdokht Amini, author and illustrator of A Moon for Moe and Mo
Sydney Taylor Honor Book in the Younger Readers Category
At 100 Scope Notes at School Library Journal

The Sydney Taylor Book Awards at ALA’s Youth Media Awards
At the Association for Library Services to Children (ALSC) Blog

TUESDAY, FEBRUARY 12, 2019

Rachel Lynn Solomon, author of You’ll Miss Me When I’m Gone
Sydney Taylor Honor Book in the Teen Readers Category
At Good Reads with Ronna

Elissa Brent Weissman, author of The Length of a String
Sydney Taylor Honor Book in the Older Readers Category
At Mr. Schu Reads

Susan Kusel & Rebecca Levitan, leadership of the Sydney Taylor Book Award Committee
At The Children’s Book Podcast

WEDNESDAY, FEBRUARY 13, 2019

Vesper Stamper, author of What the Night Sings
Sydney Taylor Book Award in the Teen Readers Category
At Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast

Erica Perl, author of All Three Stooges
Sydney Taylor Honor Book in the Older Readers Category
At From the Mixed Up Files of Middle Grade Authors

THURSDAY, FEBRUARY 14, 2019

Blog Tour Wrap-Up at The Whole Megillah

Reflections on the 2019 Sydney Taylor Book Awards at ALA at Susan Kusel’s Blog

10th Anniversary of the Sydney Taylor Book Award Blog Tour at The Book of Life

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Every Drop Counts – Dry by Neal Shusterman and Jarrod Shusterman

DRY
by Neal Shusterman & Jarrod Shusterman
(Simon & Schuster; $18.99, Ages 13-17)

 

 

Dry by Neal Shusterman and Jarrod Shusterman book cover

 

 

Starred Review – Kirkus Reviews
NYPL Best Books for Teens

 

New York Times bestselling author Neal Shusterman and Jarrod Shusterman’s YA novel Dry follows the perilous adventure of 16-year-old Alyssa in Southern California during a major drought that turns deadly. The drought or “The Tap-Out” has resulted in a cutoff of water from reaching any homes, sending Alyssa’s parents in search of other water sources. Unfortunately, her parents do not return. This turn of events results in an unexpected and dangerous journey for Alyssa, her younger brother, Garrett and their survivalist neighbor Kelton. Companions they meet along the way include rebellious Jacqui and barterer, Henry.

This suspenseful story is told through the eyes of each teen, switching between them and snapshots of outside characters whom the teens encounter in their harrowing journey through California in a desperate search for water. Dry is a fantastic dystopian novel yet its closeness to reality, due to California’s already barren lands, makes the story even more gripping as we could easily be Alyssa or Garrett and so look to see how all the characters deal with crisis. The writing appealed to me because the authors were able to create compelling and distinct individual personalities for the characters, allowing me to identify with certain actions or people within the story. I was fascinated by how the characters reacted in each situation the authors’ depicted because it made me question if I would react in the same way.

This novel is guaranteed to keep readers on their toes. If you’re unsure as to whether to read Dry, I’d say definitely give it the benefit of the drought!

  • Review by Rachel Kaufman

 


Rachel Kaufman is a current sophomore studying communications at the University of Southern California. She’s passionate about books and hiking with her dog, Scout. Rachel enjoys how books reshape her imagination of the world around her. Rachel knows firsthand how important books are in aiding children’s futures, working with a reading program, Reach Out and Read, by reading, organizing, and donating over 200 children’s books. In her free time you can find her either reading or thinking about what she might read next.

 

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We’re Onboard for Love & Other Train Wrecks by Leah Konen

LOVE & OTHER TRAIN WRECKS
Written by Leah Konen
(Katherine Tegen Books; $17.99, Ages 12 and up)

 

Cover art for Love & Other Train Wrecks

 

Starred Review – Kirkus, School Library Journal

This twenty-four-hour whirlwind journey in Love & Other Train Wrecks begins with Amarantha “Ammy” West and Noah Adler seated in the same Amtrak car. Their first impressions of one another are stiff and uncomfortable. Noah, eighteen, travels, pink roses in hand, to surprise his ex-girlfriend with fancy dinner reservations and a heartfelt poem. An optimistic, good-looking guy, he attempts to engage Ammy in conversation, but she bristles against his easy-going personality.

Seventeen-year-old Ammy is escaping from the mess her life has become since her father left and her mother plunged into anger and anxiety attacks. Though Ammy’s trying to be supportive of her mother, she seems to hit it off with her new stepsister Kat. Attending her father’s commitment ceremony (before the divorce is even final) tests Ammy’s allegiance to Team Mom. Ammy surely doesn’t want to share any of her personal drama with an annoyingly friendly stranger like Noah.

When the Amtrak train stops due to mechanical error, Noah and Ammy, determined to reach their respective destinations on time, disembark into a snowstorm. GPS makes a bus station seem an easy walk, but, instead, the frozen trek filled with mishaps turns into an adventure of a lifetime.

All the while, Ammy and Noah contemplate their places in the world including what it means to make your own decisions and then face those consequences. Konen’s choice to write alternating viewpoint chapters works well to show what each character shares or conceals. The chapters are also fast-paced and consistently satisfying. As the attraction between the main characters builds, Ammy struggles to come to terms with how romantic relationships can hurt friends and family and how to handle those conflicts of interest. Falling (and staying) in love, while wonderful, isn’t necessarily easy.

 

  • Reviewed by Christine Van Zandt

Writer, editor, and owner of Write for Success www.Write-for-Success.com

@WFSediting, Christine@Write-for-Success.com

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Loving vs. Virginia by Patricia Hruby Powell A Read Your World Review & Giveaway

A REVIEW + GIVEAWAY
FOR MULTICULTURAL CHILDREN’S BOOK DAY

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LOVING VS. VIRGINIA
A DOCUMENTARY NOVEL
OF THE LANDMARK CIVIL RIGHTS CASE
Written by Patricia Hruby Powell
Artwork by Shadra Strickland
(Chronicle Books; $21.99 – available after  1/31/17, Ages 12+)

Cover image for Loving vs. Virginia by Patricia Hruby Powell

REVIEW: When I read Patricia Hruby Powell’s Loving vs. Virginia I felt like a fly on the wall or a Jeter family cousin, as the action of this powerful story unfolded around me. Despite knowing how things turn out in the end, I found every aspect of this teen docu-novel incredibly riveting and eye-opening. Through meticulous research and interviews, Powell has successfully managed to transport readers back in time to the Jim Crow south of Caroline County, Virginia. Plunked down into the small neighborly community of Central Point, we’re quickly swept up into the lives of sixth grader Mildred Jeter, and her close knit family. The year, 1955.

a night at the drive in movies from Loving vs. Virginia

Interior artwork from Loving vs. Virginia by Patricia Hruby Powell with illustrations by Shadra Strickland, Chronicle Books ©2017.

As the romance between family friend Richard Loving and Mildred Jeter developed and grew, so did their problems. Strict segregation laws banning interracial marriage were in effect in over 20 states making any romantic relationship between a black woman and a white man a crime, and vice versa. Virginia, the state that Mildred and Richard called home, made no secret of its distaste for interracial marriage and did whatever it could to thwart these relationships. Mildred often noted that had their genders been reversed making Mildred a white woman and Richard a black man, he’d have surely been hung.

So while things were already difficult for these two, matters were made worse by the local law enforcement. A nasty man named Sheriff Brooks was determined to keep the lovers apart or make them pay. When Mildred and Richard eventually got married in D.C. where it was legal to do so, they returned home to Central Point intending to stay under the radar. But secrets were hard to keep in small towns and it wasn’t long before Sheriff Brooks invaded their home as the legally married couple slept together. The marriage was not considered legal in Virginia and the Lovings were guilty of committing a crime. Mildred and Richard were arrested! Having not seen the film or read anything about the Lovings, I was shocked by this dead of night intrusion.

This would only be the first of several arrests that eventually led Mildred and Richard to young lawyers with the National Civil Liberties Union. The Loving’s rights as Americans, according to their plucky attorneys, were being denied. It took several years and a lot of personal sacrifice for the couple, but they worked through every issue, and their compelling case was ultimately heard by the U.S. Supreme Court. Of course as we all know, they won in a unanimous decision under Chief Justice Earl Warren, but the fear of losing was palpable. It was no longer illegal to marry someone of another race. And at last, the Mildred and Richard could raise their children in their home state of Virginia without fear of breaking the law. Perseverance, fearlessness, and commitment helped this couple make history. The year, 1967. And now in 2017 we can proudly mark the 50th anniversary of this important case and the Lovings that made it happen.  

Late night escape to the woods from Loving vs. Virginia

Interior artwork from Loving vs. Virginia by Patricia Hruby Powell with illustrations by Shadra Strickland, Chronicle Books ©2017.

Powell’s writing is at once simple yet sophisticated. The ample white space of each unillustrated page invites readers in slowly and calmly as the tension of the story builds. Told in blank verse, Powell’s narratives alternate between the distinct voices of Mildred Jeter and Richard Loving, bringing enlightening perspectives to teen readers. The text is complemented by illustrator Shadra Strickland’s evocative artwork done in visual journalism style “characterized by a loose, impromptu drawing style” containing overlapping lines and “an informal feeling of sketches in the final composition.” Strickland’s illustrations made it easy to picture the setting, the characters, the time period and the events. I cannot imagine this story with any other type of art. Its minimal and muted color palette and its interspersing of historical photos in black and white worked wonderfully to convey the mood of this era. Helpful information can be garnered from the extensive resources included in the back matter of this book such as a time line, a bibliography, quote sources and moving messages from the artist and author. With its still timely message of civil rights, equality and racial tolerance, Loving vs. Virginia should be required reading for every high school student. I will be recommending it to everyone I know with a teen at home.

  • Reviewed by Ronna Mandel

MCBD logo image IMPORTANT INFO:

Multicultural Children’s Book Day 2017 (1/27/17) is its fourth year and was founded by Valarie Budayr from Jump Into A Book and Mia Wenjen from PragmaticMom. Our mission is to raise awareness on the ongoing need to include kid’s books that celebrate diversity in home and school bookshelves while also working diligently to get more of these types of books into the hands of young readers, parents and educators. Despite census data that shows 37% of the US population consists of people of color, only 10% of children’s books published have diversity content. Using the Multicultural Children’s Book Day holiday, the MCBD Team are on a mission to change all of that.

 

Current Sponsors:

MCBD 2017 is honored to have some amazing Sponsors on board. Platinum Sponsors include ScholasticBarefoot Books and Broccoli.
Other Medallion Level Sponsors include heavy-hitters like Author Carole P. RomanAudrey Press, Candlewick Press,  Fathers Incorporated, KidLitTVCapstone Young Readers, ChildsPlayUsa, Author Gayle SwiftWisdom Tales PressLee& Low BooksThe Pack-n-Go GirlsLive Oak MediaAuthor Charlotte Riggle, Chronicle Books and Pomelo Books.

Author Sponsors include: Karen Leggett Abouraya, Veronica AppletonSusan Bernardo, Kathleen BurkinshawMaria Dismondy, D.G. Driver, Geoff Griffin Savannah Hendricks, Stephen Hodges, Carmen Bernier-GrandVahid Imani, Gwen JacksonHena, Kahn, David Kelly, Mariana Llanos, Natasha Moulton-LevyTeddy O’MalleyStacy McAnulty, Cerece MurphyMiranda PaulAnnette PimentelGreg RansomSandra RichardsElsa TakaokaGraciela Tiscareño-Sato,  Sarah Stevenson, Monica Mathis-Stowe, SmartChoiceNation, Andrea Y. Wang.

We’d like to also give a shout-out to MCBD’s impressive CoHost Team who not only hosts the book review link-up on celebration day, but who also work tirelessly to spread the word of this event. View our CoHosts here.

Important MCBD Links to Remember:

MCBD site here.

Free Multicultural Books for Teachers here.

Free Diversity Book Lists and Activities for Teachers and Parents here.

Get a FREE Kindness Classroom Kit here.
MCBD’s Downloadable Kindness Classroom Kit for Educators, Organizations, Librarians & Homeschoolers

The MCBD ebook is LIVE on Amazon here!!
This ebook will be FREE to everyone January 26th-January 30th. For people who have KindleUnlimited it’s free for them all of the time. 

Hashtag: Don’t forget to connect with us on social media and be sure and look for/use their official hashtag #ReadYourWorld.

Chronicle Books Summary:

From acclaimed author Patricia Hruby Powell comes the story of a landmark civil rights case, told in spare and gorgeous verse. In 1955, in Caroline County, Virginia, amidst segregation and prejudice, injustice and cruelty, two teenagers fell in love. Their life together broke the law, but their determination would change it. Richard and Mildred Loving were at the heart of a Supreme Court case that legalized marriage between races, and a story of the devoted couple who faced discrimination, fought it, and won.

Patricia Hruby Powell’s previous book, Josephine: The Dazzling Life of Josephine Baker, won a Sibert Honor for Nonfiction, a Coretta Scott King Honor, and five starred reviews. She lives in Illinois.

Shadra Strickland is an illustrator whose work has won an Ezra Jack Keats Award, a Coretta Scott King/John Steptoe Award for New Talent, and an NAACP Image Award. She lives in Maryland.

GIVEAWAY:
Details of our giveaway courtesy of Chronicle Books are below. Plus, if you follow us on Facebook and let us know that you did by telling us in the comments of this blog post, we’ll give you an extra entry. An additional comment on our Facebook page post for this book review gets you yet another entry. Also, if you enjoyed this review, please subscribe to our blog. Thanks and good luck!

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Enter Title Here by Rahul Kanakia

ENTER TITLE HERE
Written by Rahul Kanakia
(Hyperion; $17.99, Ages 14 and up)

 

enter-title-here book cover
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
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Saint Anything by Sarah Dessen

SAINT ANYTHING
Written by Sarah Dessen
(Viking Books for Young Readers; $19.99, Ages 14 and up)

Saint-Anything-300x452

Starred Review – Publishers Weekly
-A New York Times bestseller
-Kids’ Indie Next List Pick (Summer 2015)

Sarah Dessen’s many fans won’t need to be cajoled past the slow start of her new YA novel, SAINT ANYTHING (May 2015, Viking; $19.99). New Dessen readers, however, should know that the beginning is there to provide contrast, like the black-and-white opening of the Wizard of Oz movie. The detached vibe reflects how main character Sydney Stanford’s home life feels until she meets the Chatham family. The Chathams and their restaurant Seaside Pizza are full of warmth, acceptance, and music, and the pace of the book picks up as soon as the family appears. Layla Chatham becomes Sydney’s new best friend. Since she has a big sister who is a skating-star-turned-drug-addict, Layla understands what it’s like for Sydney now that her brother Peyton is in prison. Peyton was the Stanford family’s “Golden Child” before he drove drunk and crashed into a pedestrian.

Layla invites Sydney to join her group of friends, which includes her brother Mac. They all hang out at Seaside after school, eating pizza and practicing retro pop covers for an upcoming band showcase. Sydney feels herself falling for Mac, despite Layla’s warning that she can’t abide her friends dating her brother. But how can you draw a line between friendship and romance when you meet the right guy? The times Sydney and Mac find to be alone — usually while delivering pizza in Mac’s not-so-reliable old truck — are some of my favorite moments in the book. I enjoyed reliving the sweet excitement of a potential new relationship. I also related to Sydney’s discomfort when her brother’s friend keeps popping up to hang out with her, especially when her parents aren’t around. It’s hard to ask for help when an older guy creeps you out for reasons you can’t name and therefore can’t report.

The heart of the book for me centers on Sydney’s feeling of guilt about the young teen, David Ibarra, her brother Peyton injured. Sydney learns everything she can about David’s life before and after the accident. A friendly, caring guy nicknamed “Brother,” he’s going to be in a wheelchair for life, and Sydney feels like she’s the only person in the family wanting to make amends. Her mother, Julie, only thinks about Peyton and how the aftermath of the accident affects him. As a parent, I laughed out loud as Julie, stuck in helicopter-parent mode, tries to organize families of Peyton’s fellow prisoners as if she were the president of a prison PTA. I was touched, though, when Sydney and Peyton start talking on the phone, finally getting to know each other as individuals outside of their family roles, ready to take responsibility for their own lives.

SAINT ANYTHING is peopled with teens who feel real, none of them perfect and all of them passionate about something, whether music, school, or French fries. The book is a comfortable place to hang out even while facing uncomfortable situations with the more caricature-like adults. I recommend this book to fellow fans of quiet YA, those of us who’d like to peek inside a house when delivering a pizza, trying to figure out what life’s like behind that half-open door.

  • Reviewed by Mary Malhotra
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