Jill Ratzan

For Ava, being 13 years old in 1987 means surfing with her friends, making mixtapes filled with U2 and Bon Jovi songs and reluctantly becoming a volunteer at the Southern California hospital where her mother is an obstetrician. But Ava often feels caught between two identities: Born in the U.S. after her mother began medical school, Ava fumbles through traditional Persian tea services and sometimes experiences anti-Iranian harassment.

Ava’s mother wants her to become a doctor, while Ava’s relationship with her absent father is strained. Ava also can’t seem to stop compulsively checking on little things throughout the day, like whether she’s pulled the right textbooks before walking away from her locker at school. Thrumming beneath all this is Ava’s love for her best friend and fellow surfer, Phoenix, whose Hodgkin lymphoma has returned after years of remission.

Author Diana Farid, a physician, poet and beach enthusiast, fills this novel in verse with vibrant details of Persian cuisine, surfing culture and the ins and outs of the hospital where Ava and her mother work. YA fiction protagonists have trended increasingly older in recent years, so Farid takes a risk in making Ava a younger teen. Yet Ava is as complex a creation as older YA protagonists, and her feelings toward everything from her first choir solo to her friend’s illness are honest, tangled and profound. When asked if she thinks she can stop a metaphorical wave, Ava replies, “No, but I can stay / with the wave. / I can hold on to it.”

Many of the poems that compose Wave are concrete poems, in which typography and on-page design are inextricable from the poetic lines. In one instance, letters that spell out inhale and exhale are spaced so widely that they span the entire page, conveying the big, intentional breaths Ava takes as she dives into a wave with her surfboard. Farid’s word choices are often as meaningful as their design: Water bubbles “tumble tumble / rumble” onomatopoetically, and careful readers will appreciate the many different appearances and articulations of the titular “wave.”

Intricate dark blue line drawings by Kris Goto and quotations from the 13th-century Persian poet Rumi accompany Farid’s text, which ends with the track lists of Ava’s and Phoenix’s mixtapes for each other. Queue them up on your favorite music platform for the perfect soundtrack to this “whirlucent tide / we get to ride.”

In Wave, Diana Farid crafts an honest and often profound coming-of-age narrative about 13-year-old Ava, a surfer whose best friend’s cancer has returned.

★ A Million Quiet Revolutions

“You look stunning,” one narrator thinks about the other at the beginning of Robin Gow’s A Million Quiet Revolutions. The narrators are in love and beginning the process of transitioning their gender identities. After one narrator, a history buff, reads about two Revolutionary War soldiers named Aaron and Oliver who may have been transgender, the narrators adopt these names as their own, deciding that “We’ve been erased from / so much history. / Someone needs / to write us back in.”

When a terrible event at Aaron’s church causes his family to quickly move away from their small Pennsylvania town to New York City, the narrators face being separated for the first time since they were in first grade. During this time, Oliver tries on a chest binder and wonders whether he’ll have to redo his bat mitzvah, while Aaron’s new queer friends give him strength to come out fully to his Catholic Puerto Rican family. The pair reunite in New Jersey for a reenactment of the Battle of Monmouth, where their understandings of the past meld with their hopes for the present and future.

In Gow’s free verse poems, line breaks occur in unusual places and allow for contemplative pauses: “I stay on the low branches as / you climb higher.” Through Aaron’s and Oliver’s interactions with each other, their siblings and their parents, readers will find models for supporting trans family members. Gow also thoughtfully depicts Aaron and Oliver asking for and giving sexual consent.

Aaron and Oliver are frustrated that much of history ignores “what it was like to live as someone / other than a / white / Protestant / land-owning / man,” and as they discover that life needn’t follow gender binaries, their revelations ring with authenticity. Fans of classic YA literature will enjoy a subtle allusion to Laurie Halse Anderson’s 1999 novel, Speak, a book that was revolutionary in its time, too.

The Most Dazzling Girl in Berlin

The more we understand history, the more opportunities we have to form connections with one another. Such connections play a key role in Kip Wilson’s The Most Dazzling Girl in Berlin, which is set in the eponymous city just before Hitler’s rise to power.

Eighteen-year-old Hilde has just left her orphanage with a handful of Reichsmark coins and the painful memory of Gretchen, the girl who stole her heart. Looking for a job, she stumbles into Café Lila, a club where “all / kinds / of / love / are / possible,” and learns that they’re in need of a musical waitress. Hilde tries to summon up the courage to sing—which is especially difficult in front of the beautiful Rosa, whose aunt warmly welcomes Hilde to their Jewish home. Meanwhile, an important election is approaching and tensions are rising. Hitler’s National Socialists might win over desperate crowds through promises to end hunger and unemployment, but they’re also eager to find someone to blame for Germany’s problems, and they disapprove of what they consider “degenerate” establishments—places like Café Lila.

Alliteration (“languidly, leisurely, lovingly”), onomatopoeia (a clock counts “ticktack”) and words that travel across the page as Hilde moves around Café Lila (“tables / bar / floor / round and round”) add aural and visual interest. Hilde’s realization that she can decide what kind of person she wants to be strikes a quiet note of rightness. Although there’s no on-the-page sex, there’s plenty of acceptance, found family and sweet romance between two girls who know they’re “different from the others” in a time and place where being different means being in danger.

Both A Million Quiet Revolutions and The Most Dazzling Girl in Berlin use poetry to sidestep pronouns. The former makes dexterous use of “you” and “we,” while Ute, the “perfectly androgynous pianist” of the latter, is never referred to with pronouns at all. Both novels also use changes in layout to denote shifts in voice. Words are aligned with the left margin when Oliver and Hilde narrate, and with the right margin when Aaron, Rosa and Rosa’s aunt speak.

Readers in search of insight into the lives of queer teens throughout history—and inspiration for their own lives today—will find plenty of it in these books. As Oliver writes to Aaron about his history project on the gay rights movement during the late 1960s, “It makes me feel like / revolutions are still possible.”

These novels in verse offer stories about LGBTQ people in two eras, illuminating truths about the past and offering touchstones for teens today.

Rebecca Podos’ fourth YA novel, From Dust, a Flame, is a moving story about a girl discovering the heritage and history of a family she never knew she had. On the morning of Hannah’s 17th birthday, she awakens to discover that her eyes are golden serpentine slits, the first of a series of nightly transformations. Soon Hannah and her brother, Gabe, are catapulted into a quest for answers within their family’s hidden past as well as among Jewish myths and legends.

Podos spoke with BookPage about why she’s drawn to tales of self-discovery and how it feels to contribute to a golden age of Jewish fantasy.


How did this book begin for you?
A lot of my stories kind of begin with the theme of inheritance—the things passed down to you for better or worse, and how you navigate that as a young person still trying to figure out who you are and who you want to become.

From Dust, a Flame started when I felt ready to tackle that question in relation to Judaism. I grew up in an observant family and community, knowing the history of both. But I wondered what it would feel like to discover all of that just when you thought you had a pretty solid sense of yourself and what it would mean and how it would change you.

Tell us about Hannah, the main character of the book.
When we meet her, Hannah has plenty of questions about her mother: why she’s spent the last 17 years moving Hannah and her brother from place to place, where she comes from beyond the few vague hints she’s let slip over the years, and why she never seems to understand—or try to understand—her daughter.

But Hannah thinks she’s got a pretty good handle on herself. A chronic overachiever, she long ago chose the academic path and career path that would help her to become who she thought she wanted to be. She’s completely in control of every aspect of her own life, including the image she presents to other people, even the people who love her.

And speaking of that idea of “how it would change you . . . ”: The same night that Hannah makes a significant discovery about her mother’s past and her own identity, she is literally physically changed by a curse she’ll spend the novel trying to undo. At the same time, she’s unraveling the mystery of herself, including her Jewishness, her queerness and the truth behind the image she’s spent most of her life constructing.

“I wanted the book to feel as though it’s sinking deeper and deeper into the past, only for the past to catch up and collide with the present.”

I want to dig into the way you’ve structured this book. “The past has teeth,” says a character at one point. “It may catch you if you turn your back on it.” From Dust, a Flame jumps between multiple time periods, follows objects through generations and draws on folktales, letters and dreams—almost as though the novel itself would seem to agree. Can you talk about how you went about figuring out how to tell this story?
Trial and error, for sure! I’ve never written a book from multiple perspectives or in which a significant part of the story takes place in another time period. I knew that I wanted the book to feel as though it’s sinking deeper and deeper into the past, only for the past to catch up and collide with the present. I tried to pace it out so that Hannah’s timeline—most of which takes place in just one week—doesn’t lose its urgency. I also didn’t want the chapters spent in her mother’s timeline, and briefly in her grandmother’s, to feel less important or interesting just because those events happened long ago. For Hannah and for her family, the threat posed by the past is greatest when they don’t believe it can touch them.

One of the most complex themes you explore in this book is the idea of family—what it means to be part of a family, and the stories, histories and (sometimes) secrets that families hold. What drew you to exploring these ideas?
I really like stories where for the most part, there are no clear villains, just people trying and sometimes failing to do their best when faced with the toughest of choices. Don’t get me wrong, I love the villains, too, and there is a literal demon in the mix, but Hannah’s grandmother was shaped in part by the terrible things that happened to her, as was Hannah’s mother, as is Hannah.

A lot of what goes wrong between the generations in this book comes down to the secrets they keep out of fear, and because it seems too painful to share them, and because they want to protect the people they love. Families are complicated. Trauma is complicated. I wanted every character to have a moment in the story to share their perspective and to shed a light on their own demons.

There’s a lot of self-discovery happening in From Dust, a Flame, not only for Hannah but also for many other characters. When you began working on the book, did you know the discoveries that each character would make?
That’s a really interesting question! I did my heaviest outlining yet for this book. I’ve been a pantser in the past, but since I was juggling timelines and points of view and trying to build a magical system, it seemed pretty necessary to know where I was going. Also, I got halfway through without adequately planning out one of the bigger plot twists and basically had to go back to the beginning to fix it. But I still learned about the characters as I went and figured them out a little better with every draft. It took me a while to figure out not just what Hannah wanted, but what she needed. And that’s what I like to give characters in the end.

“I really like stories where for the most part, there are no clear villains, just people trying and sometimes failing to do their best when faced with the toughest of choices.”

From Dust, a Flame contains so much cultural, historical and mythological detail. In your author’s note, you write that in spite of your religiously conservative upbringing, it’s common for a Jewish writer to feel that they’re not “Jewish enough to translate their identity into fiction.” How did you work through those feelings?
I think I just had to release myself from the expectation of perfectly representing “the Jewish experience” or “the queer experience” or any of my identities and accept that it’s OK simply to write one single experience out of infinite possibilities. Nobody is qualified to write “the experience” of anything, but I’m qualified to tell a story about a Jewish girl struggling to understand herself. So that’s what I tried to do.

What was the most enjoyable part of the book to research?
The most enjoyable part of research—of which there was so much—was the lore. One Jewish folktale in particular plays a very important part in the world building of this book, and it was one I’d never heard before! I also found the podcast “Throwing Sheyd: Better Living Through Jewish Demonology,” which brilliantly sifts through the Jewish texts to explore mentions of shedim, both well known and obscure, and I wasn’t really familiar with any of it. It was all fascinating to explore and engage with these stories that are artifacts of culture and history and religion combined.

Your author’s note also mentions a revelation you had while drafting the novel, when you realized that you needed an answer to a question Hannah asks: What does it mean to be Jewish? If someone were to ask you this question today, would your answer be different than if someone had asked you before writing this book? If so, how?
I think it would! Like I said earlier, I didn’t really grow up wondering what it meant to be Jewish, because I just was. It was a fact. If it had been a question, I probably would’ve answered that Judaism is a shared history as much as a set of present-day beliefs and practices (a pretty wide range in modern Judaism). And it absolutely can be that.

“When it comes to where and who we come from, we don’t really get to pick out the good and ignore the bad or separate the burdens we inherit from the blessings.”

But in writing Gabe, Hannah’s brother who was adopted at birth and who wrestles with what his mother’s history means for him, I wanted to be more purposeful. We don’t always make enough space for Jewish converts or patrilineal Jews or anybody who falls outside of what we think a Jewish person should look like. Like the character who answers Hannah’s question on the page, I’d say that Judaism is also very much a story that you can choose to write yourself into, with knowledge and curiosity and respect.

From Dust, a Flame is one of a growing number of recent YA books that explores Jewish identity and mythology. How does it feel to be adding a volume of your own to that group?
It’s wonderful. There are such amazing Jewish fantasies and folktales out recently and coming up next year—Katherine Locke’s This Rebel Heart, Aden Polydoros’ The City Beautiful, Allison Saft’s A Far Wilder Magic, Phoebe North’s Strange Creatures, Kalyn Josephson’s This Dark Descent. . . . It’s a little bit of a golden age at the moment, and I’m excited to be a little part of it.

This book has a lot of moments in which characters speak—or Hannah thinks—some really stunning words of truth. One of the most meaningful moments for me involved a word written in some spilled sugar. Is there a truth in the book that’s particularly meaningful for you?
Oh, I’m glad you like that scene! It was actually the source of the book’s original title, which didn’t make it (luckily, I like this one better). I don’t want to spoil anything, but there are some big moments where Hannah has to reckon with the idea that, when it comes to where and who we come from, we don’t really get to pick out the good and ignore the bad or separate the burdens we inherit from the blessings. We have to find a way to live with it all, and being honest with ourselves and the people we love can be the key to moving forward.

Read our review of ‘From Dust, a Flame.’


Author photo of Rebecca Podos courtesy of Zaynah Qutubuddin.

Fantastical secrets come to light in a moving tale inspired by Jewish mythology and history.

The nightly transformations begin on Hannah’s 17th birthday. First, she awakens in the bedroom of her family’s Boston apartment with the eyes of a snake. The next morning, she has a wolf’s teeth. Six weeks after Hannah’s mother leaves in search of a cure, an envelope arrives in the mail. It contains an obituary for Jitka Eggers, the maternal grandmother Hannah has never met.

Hannah and her brother, Gabe, are desperate to find their mother and get some answers to what’s happening to Hannah. They travel to Jitka’s village in upstate New York, where the large Jewish family they never knew they had welcomes them into shiva, a Jewish period of mourning.

As Hannah, Gabe and their new friend Ari keep digging, they stumble onto family secrets; meet a folk healer called an opshprekherke; discover a golem and a vengeful, demonic sheyd; and find that, like the present and the past, the real and the fantastical aren’t as far apart as they might seem.

Rebecca Podos explains how it feels to contribute to a golden age of Jewish fantasy.

Author Rebecca Podos packs a lot into From Dust, a Flame, including lovingly detailed descriptions of traditional Jewish practices, tales of creatures from Jewish mysticism and depictions of life in Prague during the Nazi invasion. Its narrative encompasses two time periods plus assorted letters, dreams and folktales—and references to everything from the legends of King Solomon to Disney’s The Little Mermaid.

Throughout the novel, Podos explores themes typical of YA literature, including self-image and self-discovery, as well as more mature questions, such as when to protect children and when to let them go. A mystery component encourages readers to question their initial assumptions, and a first romance found when least expected adds queer sexuality to the range of experiences represented.

From Dust, a Flame sits comfortably beside other works of Jewish American YA literature, both classical and recent. As in Jane Yolen’s 1988 novel, The Devil’s Arithmetic, Holocaust-era visions inform a present-day teen’s circumstances, and as in Gavriel Savit’s The Way Back, published in 2020, a host of magical creatures from Jewish mythology intervene in our world and influence the destinies of young adults.

At its core, From Dust, a Flame is a moving story about the enduring power of telling stories.

Read our Q&A with Rebecca Podos.

Rebecca Podos draws on Jewish mythology and culture to craft this moving novel about the enduring power of telling stories.

One hot summer day, Syd storms into work at the Proud Muffin—the best queer-owned bakery in Austin, Texas—full of breakup woe and ready to channel it into baking delicious treats, including a spur-of-the-moment special, Syd’s Unexpected Brownies. To Syd’s horror, everyone who eats the sorrow-laden sweets soon finds their love lives in disarray. So Syd and Harley, the bakery’s bicycle delivery worker, embark on a mission to serve everyone who ate the brownies an antidote, like a piece of Very Sorry Cake or a slice of Honest Pie. Getting the right treats into the right mouths turns out to be more complicated than Syd thought, and then Harley begins to look awfully cute in their (or sometimes his; pins on Harley’s messenger bag signal Harley’s pronouns that day) bike shorts and Western boots.

In The Heartbreak Bakery, author A.R. Capetta describes both baking and the excitement of first love in luscious, sensuous detail. The book’s sumptuous recipes combine real directions with Syd’s colorful commentary; the first ingredient in Breakup Brownies is “4 oz unsweetened chocolate, broken up (I mean, it’s right there, how did I not see this coming?).” Plus, Capetta folds in food metaphors throughout: An awkward situation feels like a crumbling sheet of pastry dough, and at one point Syd’s heart “wobbles like an underbaked custard.”

Watch our interview with A.R. Capetta about ‘The Heartbreak Bakery.’

Syd, who is agender, is an expertly constructed protagonist and a notable step forward in representing the full spectrum of gender identities in YA fiction. Syd’s earnest musings about gender, bodies, performance and identity are likely to resonate deeply with teens who’ve shared those thoughts and experiences, while offering cisgender teens an approachable lens through which to begin to understand their peers. The Proud Muffin’s welcoming atmosphere provides Syd a home away from home. Among its customers, a range of identities and relationships are modeled and celebrated. Capetta offers a multitude of ways to use and share one’s pronouns, as well as techniques for avoiding pronouns altogether.

Like the contrasting flavors in a peach strawberry basil pie, Syd’s journey of self-discovery melds perfectly with the quest to find and repair the brownies’ damage. Suspend your disbelief in everyday magic and enjoy this frothy, fulfilling confection with a lemon ginger scone and a tall, chilled glass of iced green tea

Like the contrasting flavors in a peach strawberry basil pie, this frothy confection melds a journey of self-discovery with a quest to repair broken hearts.

In an isolated house in the American Midwest in 1860, 12-year-old Silas lives a quiet life spent learning about the new art and science of photography with his father and his ghostly companion, Mittenwool. That all changes one night when, just before dawn, three riders come to their door bearing a long-forgotten name, a bald-faced pony and a demand that Pa accompany them on a mysterious errand. When the pony returns the next morning, riderless, Silas sets off on him to find Pa and bring him home. Along the way, Silas encounters a haunted forest, a grumpy federal marshal, a notorious ring of criminals and answers to questions he never thought to ask about his family, his friendship with Mittenwool and his own unusual abilities. 

Author R.J. Palacio is best known for her bestselling contemporary-set middle grade novel Wonder. Palacio ventured into historical fiction with the 2019 Sydney Taylor Award-winning graphic novel White Bird, set during World War II, and she continues this foray into the past with Pony, which offers plenty of Wild West-style action, including a hidden hideout, a small-town sheriff and some tied-up villains.

Palacio underpins these hallmarks of typical Westerns with more historically accurate representations of the period’s deeper social injustices, such as colonialism, slavery and classism, while also exploring how a family’s past can affect future generations. Pony’s frequent references to Greek and Roman mythology are sure to have readers looking up the tales of Telemachus, Argos and more. Descriptions of photographic technology add historical detail, and connections between early photography and spiritualism mesh naturally with Silas’ sometimes frightening, sometimes comforting ability to see and interact with ghosts. Each chapter opens with a spooky 19th-century photographic portrait, and the subject’s gazes seem to bore into the reader’s soul. 

Readers in search of fast-paced historical fiction with speculative elements should look no further than Pony. The twists and turns of Silas’ odyssey are both stunning and satisfying.

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Pony author R.J. Palacio reveals why she had to throw hundreds of pages of the novel away in order to unlock the key to writing it.

In Pony, Wonder author R.J. Palacio pens a twisting historical odyssey set in the American West in 1860.

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