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Middle Grade and Young Adult Books Featuring LGBTQ+ Characters

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The Derby DaredevilsTHE DERBY DAREDEVILS: Kenzie Kickstarts a Team
Written by Kit Rosewater
Illustrated by Sophie Escabasse
(Amulet Books; $14.99, Ages 8-12)

In Kit Rosewater’s middle grade book, The Derby Daredevils: Kenzie Kickstarts a Team, fifth grader Kenzie Ellington has spent the past three years watching her mom skate in Austin’s roller derby league wanting to join in too. Fortunately, her BFF, Shelly, finds a junior league being formed. The girls eagerly prepare for tryouts, ready to show off their signature Dynamic Duo moves. However, to keep from possibly being split up, they must form a five-person team in only one week.

Finding other skaters proves harder than expected; the girls they’re asking can’t even skate. Shelly wants to recruit Bree, Kenzie’s skateboarding neighbor, but Kenzie struggles with her complicated secret-crush feelings toward Bree. Then, as the team comes together, Kenzie worries when Shelly welcomes new members and seemingly replaces Kenzie.

Sophie Escabasse’s art brings to life the story’s emotions as well as the humor and camaraderie. Even readers who know nothing about roller derby will feel comfortable with this book’s easy explanations of the sport and accompanying illustrations—just take a glimpse at the dynamic cover.

Fans of the graphic novel Roller Girl by Victoria Jamieson will enjoy this tale which also focuses on friendship and girl power. The six girls depicted in this book are realistic representations of the fifth graders I know. I applaud Rosewater for showing us a diverse group of girls who sword fight and play basketball. Girls can be any combination of things. I look forward to book 2, out in September. Starred Reviews – Booklist, School Library Journal

 

Burn book coverBURN
Written by by Patrick Ness
(Quill Tree Books; $18.99, Ages 14 and up)

In 1957 rural Washington state, Eisenhower’s being sworn in for his second term in office, the Russians ready to launch a satellite into space, and dragons are hired for farmwork having forged a no-kill policy with humans. Against her father’s wishes, fifteen-year-old Sarah Dewhurst begins to interact with their laborer dragon, Kazimir. However, Kazimir has his own agenda, needing Sarah for prophecy fulfillment.

Nearby, FBI agents chase teen assassin Malcolm as he rushes to complete his secret mission for a radical pro-dragon group called the Believers. Nothing sways Malcolm’s devotion to leader Mitera Thea and his probably suicidal mission until his path crosses Nelson’s (who has been thrown out by his mother). Against his training, Malcolm envelops Nelson into the folds of his dangerous world. Yet his ghastly tasks threaten their blossoming relationship.

Best-selling author Patrick Ness once again delivers a complex, action-filled story in Burn. We can relate to Sarah who still aches from her mother’s death and the ongoing prejudice because of their skin color. Sarah’s boyfriend, Jason Inagawa—the only other nonwhite kid in their area—lost his mother to pneumonia during their three-year forced stay in an internment camp. Ness seamlessly blends historical elements with fantasy.

This fast-paced story, told in alternating viewpoint, takes you on a wild journey that includes an alternate universe. Cleverly crafted text amplifies the suspense, allowing for successful verbal sleight of hand. Burn wraps up dramatically, while leaving room to expand into a series. I couldn’t put this book down and look forward to the tale’s continuation in whatever world(s) where I hope to meet more wonderful—and wonderfully awful—dragons.
Starred Reviews Booklist, Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books, Publishers Weekly

 

Witches of Ash and Ruin cvrWITCHES OF ASH & RUIN
Written by E. Lattimer
(Little, Brown BYR; $18.99, Ages 14 and up)

When seventeen-year-old Dayna Walsh isn’t struggling with OCD, she wants nothing more than to ascend from witchling to full witch. Dayna has strong familial bonds with her coven yet her biological family is disjointed: a religious father and a mother who was mysteriously sent away thirteen years ago to Camp Blood of the Lamb. Mix in witches from another coven plus a nearby serial killer and you’ll get an idea of this fantastic brew of a book.

Latimer’s Witches of Ash & Ruin unfolds in multiple viewpoints providing glimpses inside the heads of others (witchlings, Dayna’s ex-boyfriend, and a witch-hunter named Dubh). I found it interesting that the book opens with Dubh stating his evil intentions—that seemed to solve the puzzle from the start—but knowing the bad guy in no way slows the suspense.

Speaking of tension, the heat between Dayna and a witchling from the other coven is palpable. You’ll root for them to be alive and together at the end.

If you like complex stories without tidy endings, you’ll enjoy this sweeping tale. Some parts are bloody, but that’s expected with a murderer on the loose and a witch or two dabbling with the dark side. Unless you’re fluent in ancient Celtic mythology, pay attention when gods and their histories are mentioned.

 

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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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Pointe by Brandy Colbert

Pointe by Brandy Colbert is reviewed by Mary Malhotra

“Colbert builds characters whose flaws, struggles, and bad decisions make them real and indelibly memorable . . and it’s this complexity and empathy that set this gripping story apart.”—Publishers Weekly, starred review

“Colbert has put out a stunningly poignant novel . . . Readers who discover this book will be unable to put it down.”—VOYA

Pointe-cvr.jpg
Pointe by Brandy Colbert, G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 2014.

The narrator in Brandy Colbert’s debut YA novel Pointe (G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2014, $17.99, YA) could be a stereotypical prima-ballerina-in-training. Theo’s got the drive, the demanding instructor, the long, strong legs, the beat-up toe shoes. As you might expect, she commiserates with dancer frenemies, and escapes with school friends who have no idea what she goes through at the studio. She struggles with an eating disorder, too. But Theo is not a stereotype, and she has a lot more going on in her life than just dance.

The eating disorder, for example. It seems to be a response not to the demands of ballet but to two losses Theo suffered as a thirteen year old: her much-older first boyfriend unceremoniously dumped her, taking off without a trace; and her best friend Donovan was kidnapped. Pointe opens on the day four years later when Donovan is rescued from his kidnapper and returned home. Theo is upset that Donovan won’t see or talk to her. She’s also confused by news footage that appears to show he was happy living with his captor. She needs to understand why Donovan didn’t try to escape, especially once she realizes she knows the kidnapper — and will have to testify against him.

There is much to recommend in this book. Theo’s voice is real and raw, and she and her friends Phil and Sara-Kate make compelling, memorable characters. Their chemistry, like Theo’s warm relationship with her supportive parents, provides an island of hope in a choppy sea. The book’s natural presentation of diversity works well. Realistically, as the first-person narrator, Theo doesn’t announce that she’s African-American. Race doesn’t even come up until part way through the second chapter, when she recalls how she and Donovan bonded after a teacher mishandled a classroom discussion about slavery.

Parents sharing Pointe with teens may want to be ready to discuss some aspects of the book. Pot smoking is an accepted, routine activity for Theo and her friends. In fact, her love interest doesn’t just smoke; he also sells drugs to his classmates. He already has a girlfriend, too — but will that matter to Theo? There are sex scenes and references, and much of the sex is abusive, though Theo doesn’t realize it. Perhaps because of this, the scenes are not so explicit that the details got burned into my psyche. A last point to consider is best explained by including a spoiler, although you can skip the spoiler and walk away with this bottom line: if you start the book, be sure to finish it!

 

SPOILER: In case you want additional guidance before choosing this book, I’ll close out the review with the spoiler version of my “finish what you start” recommendation. Early on, Theo realizes that Donovan’s kidnapper and her first boyfriend are the same guy, Chris Fenner. This means he was actually twenty-six when she was thirteen, but Theo still thinks of him as her ex-boyfriend. She sees herself as an unlovable reject rather than seeing Chris as a pedophile. Eventually, she comes to the understanding that she and Donovan are both victims, that part of Chris’s crime was that he warped her view of sex and love. However, it takes her most of the book to get there; a reader without patience might give up while right and wrong are still upside down. Reading this book to the last page is not hard, but it is important.

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