Jill Ratzan

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In decades past, the world of queer YA literature comprised cautionary tales and sob stories. Thankfully, these two novels stand out for their uplifting and romantic perspectives.

Sometimes there’s nothing better than a funny, sweet romantic comedy, and How (Not) to Ask a Boy to Prom by S.J. Goslee delivers.

Sixteen-year-old Nolan Grant would be content to secretly crush on the handsome Si while making art, working at the gardening store and hanging with his adoptive family during their board game tournaments and pancake marathons. But his older sister, Daphne, has other plans. 

When Nolan is pressured into a very public promposal orchestrated by Daphne, things go horribly wrong. Instead of asking Si, Nolan accidentally asks Ira “Bern” Bernstein, a bad boy everyone (including Bern himself) thinks is straight, as he recently split with his girlfriend. When Bern accepts, Nolan finds himself in a pickle. To keep up appearances, he has to pretend to date Bern until prom night. Meanwhile, the Gay-Straight Alliance—which Nolan reluctantly joins in his ongoing effort to impress Si—taps Nolan’s art talents for the prom after-party, and the situation between Nolan and Bern might be on its way to becoming real.

As the prom approaches, art projects go awry, siblings squabble and a budding romance overturns everyone’s expectations. Will prom night be everything Daphne has in mind for Nolan, or will nothing go as planned? And when everything starts to go wrong, does that mean that everything’s actually going right? Comedy, romance and feel-good family dynamics combine in what’s sure to be one of this summer’s most fun YA reads.

Things take a turn toward the fabulous in Tanya Boteju’s Kings, Queens, and In-Betweens. Biracial teen Nima Kumara-Clark anticipates another boring summer of working, hanging out with her best friend and hoping to win the affections of her crush, Ginny. But when Nima takes a chance and sees an unusual act featuring drag queens at her town’s annual festival, she meets the mesmerizing Winnow and is instantly smitten. 

Hoping to see Winnow again, Nima follows her to a drag show, where she connects with Deidre, a drag queen who takes Nima under her wing. What follows is a summer that’s anything but what Nima expected. Attending drag shows awakens her, and soon she’s ready to do more than just watch. 

As Nima learns the art of being a drag king—a woman who dresses and performs as a man—she also gains new knowledge about long-hidden family secrets, her friends and even herself. Why did her mother leave her family, with only the briefest of notes, a year and a half ago? Why has Gordon, once a friend, become so bitter and distant? And why, if Nima’s confident that she likes girls, does being labeled a lesbian feel so awkward?

Boteju uses her own life experience in the world of drag to tell a story filled with glitter, feather boas, lip-syncing and dancing, where gender identity is flexible and performance is the embodiment of joy.

In decades past, the world of queer YA literature comprised cautionary tales and sob stories. Thankfully, these two new novels stand out for their uplifting and romantic perspectives.

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Teens and technology are natural companions, in part because both are drawn to challenging limits and pushing boundaries. Two new YA thrillers set in the not-so-distant future explore the complex relationships between humans and their digital creations.

At a theme park called the Kingdom, dreams come true, ugliness is against the rules and everything ends happily ever after. Teenage Ana, a cyborg princess known as a Fantasist, lives with her sisters in the Kingdom, where she spends her days entertaining guests with her beautiful appearance, delightful manners and unfading smile. Surely a creation like Ana, designed to be flawless in every way, couldn’t be capable of murder. But when a park employee is found dead, Ana is the most likely suspect.

Starting an hour after the murder and then jumping back and forth in time, The Kingdom by Jess Rothenberg alternates between Ana’s voice and a series of interview transcripts, court documents and news clippings. Theme park aficionados might smile in recognition—or wince in pain—as their favorite attractions become instruments of dystopian horror. Could faulty settings at the Princess Palace have caused Ana to snap? Did she encounter someone on the monorail connecting Magic Land with Winter Land? Or maybe the blame lies with a quickly covered-up incident at the Mermaid Lagoon? As the Kingdom Corporation defends Ana’s inability to supersede her programming, Ana herself begins to question all she has known. Is everything in the Kingdom really as ideal as it seems? Is she able to doubt, deceive or love? The Kingdom invites readers to ponder how far technology can—or should—go in the quest to create a perfect world.

High school can be a theme park all its own, as Arvin Ahmadi’s Girl Gone Viral attests. Students at the exclusive Palo Alto Academy of Science and Technology (PAAST) build virtual reality worlds, interact with wall-size screens in their dorm rooms and grumble about using old-fashioned iPhones in their history of social media class. Opal Hopper isn’t distracted by holos, Zapps or even her college applications. She and her friends are focused on entering the Make-A-Splash virtual content creation contest. The winning team will be showered with rewards, but the prize Opal cares about most is a meeting with Silicon Valley superstar Howie Mendelsohn, who may hold the key to understanding why Opal’s father mysteriously disappeared seven years ago.

The team—Opal, Moyo, Shane and Kara—hopes that their show “Behind the Scenes” will reach top popularity in a virtual universe where success is measured in LiveTags, comment volume and number of avatars in attendance at each broadcast. Viewership of “Behind the Scenes” skyrockets, but their success has its downsides: Opal’s values are questioned at every turn, including her decision to make her budding romance with Moyo part of her public persona. Meanwhile, a presidential election pits a progressive candidate against one from the anti-technology Luddite party. College acceptances come in, friends and couples at PAAST bicker and fight and make up again, and the truth that Opal seeks lurks constantly in the background, waiting to emerge. Pick up Girl Gone Viral for a boarding school mystery with a technological twist.

Two new YA thrillers set in the not-so-distant future explore the complex relationships between humans and their digital creations.

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The nights are getting longer, the weather is getting colder, and Hanukkah is just around the corner.

Hanukkah, also known as the Festival of Lights, celebrates both an ancient military victory and the flame of a tiny oil lamp miraculously lasting for eight days. It’s a chance for families to light candles in a menorah, say blessings, exchange gifts . . . and read books! Two new offerings are perfect for Hanukkah gift-giving.

The Newish Jewish Encyclopedia by Stephanie Butnick, Liel Leibovitz & Mark Oppenheimer
The hosts of Tablet magazine’s “Unorthodox” podcast branch out into book format with The Newish Jewish Encyclopedia, a compendium of all things Jewish, covering everything from bagels to the Book of Life, Shabbat to “Seinfeld.” Alternately irreverent and profound—but always informative—entries range from single sentences (“chutzpah: What it takes to think you can write an encyclopedia of Jewish life”) to four-page spreads (check out the sections about Jewish gangsters and Jewish Hollywood). Photographs of Jewish people and places abound, and quick-reference sections about holidays answer such questions as “What do we do?” and “Anything good to eat?” 

The Newish Jewish Encyclopedia is a great gift for the Jewish maven in your life who’d relish quoting facts about the history of the garment industry or brushing up on their Yiddish curses.

The Jewish Cookbook by Leah Koenig
You can never have too many cookbooks, and The Jewish Cookbook by Leah Koenig is one you’ll pull off the shelf over and over again. Sections for standard cookbook fare, such as soups and stews, are joined by Jewish-specific chapters (“Dumplings, Noodles, and Kugels” is a go-to), and symbols indicate when a recipe is gluten-free, vegan or meets other criteria for ingredients or prep time. 

Dozens of photographs show Ashkenazi favorites like braided challah, fruit-drenched blintzes and crisp pickles alongside curried fish balls from South Africa, coconut rice from India and beloved Middle Eastern desserts like sweet egg meringue and sufganiyot (jelly donuts). You’ll find recipes from chefs at renowned restaurants and for food-specific holidays like Passover. Best of all, every recipe begins with a story: where the recipe comes from, what traditions surround it and how it can best be accompanied. 

Give The Jewish Cookbook to a Jewish cook who wants to combine the tastes of their childhood (wherever it may have been) with adventurous forays into Jewish cooking around the world.

The nights are getting longer, the weather is getting colder, and Hanukkah is just around the corner.
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Who among us has never wondered whether life exists elsewhere in the cosmos? These two YA novels explore this perennially popular topic from very different perspectives. In the first, a neurodivergent teen’s science project spirals into an otherworldly hoax. In the other, a Mexican American girl learns that the disappearance of her mother, who had immigrated to the U.S. without documentation, may be connected to an extraterrestrial plot.

“There were never really aliens,” narrator Gideon Hofstadt tells readers on the first page of his case files. Gideon's brain works differently from other people's. He makes decisions based on what's most practical and can't tolerate messy food or the sensory overload of driving a car. He also has trouble communicating his feelings to his boyfriend, Owen, a relationship that he has been keeping secret. (Gideon’s mother, unaware that he's spoken for, keeps trying to set him up on blind dates with other boys.)

All Gideon originally planned to do was test his newly built seismograph by creating an explosion large enough that it would be picked up by a nearby university. But when his brother, Ishmael, interferes and creates a much bigger explosion than either boy intended, a rumor starts to circulate in their small Pennsylvania town that aliens landed on their family’s farm. Instead of denying the rumors, Gideon encourages them and documents the resulting hysteria as a study in group psychology, all in the hopes of getting into MIT, getting a job at NASA and becoming one of the world's leading astronomers.

Soon people around town are claiming to have been abducted by aliens, and Gideon and Ishmael must continually raise the stakes to keep control of their own narrative. But when the leader of a cultish multilevel marketing (MLM) business comes to town and declares that the aliens have given him the recipe for a tonic that will grant immortality, all bets are off. What will happen to Gideon's MIT. application if his sociological project is exposed as a hoax?

Chelsea Sedoti (The Hundred Lies of Lizzie Lovett) tells It Came From the Sky through a series of news reports, interviews, explanatory interludes and other forms of data that Gideon has collected. A bovine escape artist, a bizarre reality TV show and a curious (but explainable) sighting of the late John F. Kennedy in the woods add laugh-out-loud humor to her fast-paced tale. Divergent storylines involving Gideon's younger sister, his lonely friend Arden and his mother's MLM connections dovetail into a highly satisfying conclusion. The aliens may never have been real, but the human foibles, challenges and hopes Sedoti depicts in a breezy and engaging documentary style definitely are.

With her debut novel, Sia Martinez and the Moonlit Beginning of Everything, Raquel Vasquez Gilliland transports readers far from the verdant fields of Pennsylvania farm country, across the continent to the American Southwest and into the realms of speculative fiction and magical realism.

Sia’s favorite place is a spot in the Arizona desert that might have been where the world began. There, two human-shaped cactus plants seem to be reaching their arms out to each other, as though asking to dance. She goes there sometimes to light candles to guide her mother's spirit home. Not quite two years ago, Sia's mother, who immigrated to the United States without documentation, died in the Sonoran desert after being deported. And yet Sia’s grandmother insisted, until her own recent death, “M'ija vive.” My daughter lives.

Sia's anger at the local cop who reported her mother to Immigrations and Customs Enforcement is sometimes soothed by the corn she plants, a family tradition with deep roots. She can sense her departed abuela's watchful presence in her garden, among her cacti and sometimes even in her car. Meanwhile, there's a school project about the moon to complete and Harry Potter fan fiction to read. Sia's relationship with her best friend, Rose, becomes strained by Rose's new girlfriend, Samara, leaving Sia room to pursue a romance of her own with Noah, the new boy at school, which is complicated by Sia's personal history with sexual assault. Everything is finally coming together, as friends reunite and love grows stronger.

And that's when Sia sees the blue lights in the sky.

Like the best speculative fiction, Sia Martinez and the Moonlit Beginning of Everything uses imaginative elements as metaphors for contemporary issues, in this case racism, immigration and abuse of police power. Sia’s narration is also pervaded by intense spirituality that blends Catholicism with the spirits and ghosts of Mexican folklore. The book teems with vivid imagery and explicit social commentary; "I guess when your skin is light enough, you get to cast the benefit of the doubt like a spell or something," Sia muses at one point.

Don't be disoriented when the narrative seems to radically shift genre just before the halfway point. Vasquez Gilliland skillfully sows the seeds of science fiction and magical realism early in the story, and like Sia's maíz, they have been waiting for just the right time to bloom.

Who among us has never wondered whether life exists elsewhere in the cosmos? These two YA novels explore this perennially popular topic.
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What makes a fairy tale? Is it the presence of witches and demons, magic mirrors and secret spells? Are fairy tales always stories about finding one's true love, righting the wrongs of previous generations or navigating the cost of meddling in powers beyond your understanding? Are wishing wells and dark forests required? What about a magic . . . spoon? These three YA novels explore, stretch and expand our notions of what a fairy tale can be.

The Mirror: Broken Wish

When a package from their neighbor arrives at Agnes' doorstep in the winter of 1848, her husband Oskar warns her to ignore it: Everyone in their small German village knows that their neighbor is a witch. But what could be wrong with honey cake, lavender tea and an offer of friendship? Agnes longs to have a family, and Mathilda offers her a potion she promises will end Agnes’ childlessness. But magic comes with unexpected consequences, and associating with Mathilda comes with unexpected costs. Agnes makes her decisions and hopes for the best.

Seventeen years later, Elva pins sunflowers in her hair for the dance, hoping to catch the eye of handsome farmhand Willem. Her parents, Agnes and Oskar, have warned her never to share her secret—when she looks into water, she sees visions of the future—but maybe telling Willem will be fine. Besides, she'll need his support: A frightening vision and the discovery of a stash of hidden letters has led Elva to seek out the only other person she knows of with magical powers, the witch Mathilde, who's rumored to kidnap children as they play in the woods.

Julie C. Dao’s Broken Wish is the first in an innovative quartet of novels called The Mirror. Each book will be written by a different author, but the four authors will share notes and ideas throughout the creative process. Together, the four books will follow four generations of a family—and a magic mirror—from 19th-century Germany to New Orleans in the 1920s, then to San Francisco in the 1960s, before finally resolving in New York City in the early 2000s.

The ingredients are all here for a quintessential fairy tale (including a reference to the Brothers Grimm), but be prepared for some surprises too. Elva's watery visions are always true, they're not always truly complete. The familiar fairy tale elements of Broken Wish never once feel derivative, thanks in part to Dao’s effortless prose and heartfelt characters. It’s an important reminder that, done well, even tales as old as time can feel fresh and enjoyable.

The Puppetmaster’s Apprentice

How would the story of Pinocchio be different if the eponymous child had a talent for woodcrafting—and if she was a girl? In The Puppetmaster's Apprentice, Piro and her father Gep own a woodworking shop and are hard at work on a special order—a hundred life-sized wooden soldier marionettes, each with a unique face, for the ruling Margrave's sickly son. A secret attic cubbyhole connects Piro and Gep’s home above their shop to the shop next door, where Bran, the tailor's son, is trying to find the courage to tell his parents that he'd rather make clocks than clothes. He longs to help the town clockmaker repair a long-broken glockenspiel clock, another project also recently commissioned by the Margrave.

Because magic is banned on penalty of death, no one must ever know that Piro came to life after a spell recited under a blue moon. But it’s hard to keep the secret because of the trace the magic left behind: A wooden splinter bursts from her skin whenever Piro tells a lie. When the Margrave summons Piro to the palace for a special commission, she'll need all of her skill as a puppet-maker—and as a magical creature herself—to defeat the frightened tyrant's twisted imagination.

Debut author Lisa DeSelm proves herself just as much of a talented maker as her characters. She uses detailed imagery to craft an imaginative world of wooden assassins and princesses, metal gears and glass eyes. Fairy tale staples including an enchanted forest, a rhyming spell and a mysterious crone join elements of dark fantasy, romance and political intrigue as Piro works together with her fellow makers to save her town and break her curse. Amid the pounding of hammers and the scraping of chisels, the magic of the blue moon reminds Piro of her father's favorite maxim: "A maker will always prevail.”

The Way Back

Just about everyone knows the tales of Snow White's magic mirror, Hansel and Gretel's child-eating witch and Pinocchio's extendable nose. But how many teens are familiar with the gilgul, the Sisters of Lileen or the demon Belial? In Gavriel Savit’s The Way Back, a 19th-century Eastern European village becomes the departure point for two teens' tour through the demonology of Jewish mysticism.

Yehudah, hiding from a mysterious stranger who may be responsible for his father's long-ago disappearance, follows a crow to a treasure house run by a bargain-making demon whose agreements never quite turn out well for his petitioners. Bluma, meanwhile, flees a dark spirit in her house that leaves behind a very strange spoon, stumbles into a graveyard and is soon surrounded by the vengeful demon Lilith and her cat-like entourage. Yehuda and Bluma’s paths cross and they find themselves in the Far Country beyond the living lands. There’s a ferryboat operator who must be paid, a red scarf whose protective value is much more than mere warmth and a magical library that returns answers to visitors' questions in their own handwriting. Back in the everyday world, a famous Rebbe is about to host his youngest granddaughter's wedding, and everyone is invited—guests from the world of the living and from the world of the dead.

Told in repetitive rhythms reminiscent of the oral storytelling tradition, The Way Back is a quiet and contemplative tale. Like more familiar fairy tales, the story contains magical incantations, talking animals and dark hooded figures. But bring your tissues, because this one is a tearjerker—especially one scene in which Death appears to each character in the guises they’ll understand best. By striking bargains, serving demons, stripping away their identities and asking themselves whether what they seek is truly what they want, Yehudah and Bluma, lost among creatures of the dark, haltingly attempt to find their way back.

What makes a fairy tale? Is it the presence of witches and demons, magic mirrors and secret spells? Are fairy tales always stories about finding one's true love, righting the wrongs of previous generations or navigating the cost of meddling in powers beyond your understanding? Are wishing wells and dark forests required? What about a […]

Even the most particular teen reader won't be able to resist the varied charms of these YA anthologies.

A Phoenix First Must Burn

Give this to a reader who believes in possibilities as boundless as their own imagination.

A Phoenix First Must Burn: Sixteen Stories of Black Girl Magic, Resistance, and Hope opens with a story of fresh beginnings, in which time-traveling Black girls become gods, and closes with a story of Black girls choosing their own destinies. All 16 of these tales feature fantastical universes, futuristic technologies and magic beneath the surface of our world.

From Elizabeth Acevedo’s poetic “Gilded” to the modern vampire tale “Letting the Right One In” by the collection’s editor, Patrice Caldwell, the stories provide space for Black girls to exist in their own narratives and explore what it means to seek peace in a world that perceives you as an enemy. A standout is Charlotte Nicole Davis’ “All the Time in the World,” in which Jordan learns that her neighborhood’s contaminated water supply has given her the power to stop time. At a time when Flint, Michigan, has been without clean water for more than a decade, Davis reminds young readers of the strength to be found when hope seems lost.

This collection pulls no punches. You’ll find yourself holding your breath between cheers for each and every one of these girls.

—Lane Clarke

Rural Voices

Give this to a reader who presses their nose to the window of every car, train and plane they ride in.

Rural Voices: 15 Authors Challenge Assumptions About Small-Town America offers brief but immersive glimpses into life in rural and small towns. Spanning 12 states, the vignettes include short stories, poems and even comics.

In S.A. Cosby’s “Whiskey and Champagne,” Juke uses his knack for murder mysteries to help his dad out of a sticky situation. A mysterious creature creeps around an Alaska cabin as a young trapper tries to stay calm in Inupiaq author Nasuġraq Rainey Hopson’s “The Cabin.” And in David Bowles’ “A Border Kid Comes of Age,” a bisexual Texas boy fights for his family to accept not only himself but also his uncle Samuel, who is gay.

Monica M. Roe’s engrossing “The (Unhealthy) Breakfast Club” is one of the collection’s strongest offerings. Its carpooling teens have little in common besides their private school scholarships. Narrator Gracie captures a slice of life as she and her crew bond over the stereotypes they confront each day. Roe depicts ordinary realities, such as relying on the nearest McDonald’s for the fastest Wi-Fi, and brings together a group of misfits to root for.

Rural Voices reveals how generalizations fail us, proving there is no such thing as a single rural American narrative.

—Annie Metcalf

Vampires Never Get Old

Give this to a reader who loves to fall under the thrall of a great supernatural story.

Vampires Never Get Old: Tales With Fresh Bite is sure to start a new craze for YA’s favorite fanged phenoms. These 11 stories preserve traditional undead lore while giving bloodsucking tropes a much-needed inclusivity makeover. The diverse teen vamps in this collection all share a common denominator: trying to survive their eternal adolescence.

Samira Ahmed’s “A Guidebook for the Newly Sired Desi Vampire” takes the form of an acerbic advice column (“What should you eat? Your colonizer.”) to offer a thoughtful treatise on the geopolitical ramifications of British rule. As haunting as it is beautiful, Heidi Heilig’s “The Boy and the Bell” tells the story of a trans boy who digs up the wrong body in an old graveyard. And worth the price of admission is Victoria “V. E.” Schwab’s “First Kill,” which has already received a limited series order from Netflix. It’s a game of cat and mouse in which both cat and mouse have the hots for one another. Juliette, a vampire who hasn’t yet experienced her first kill, is crushing on transfer student Calliope. Juliette’s bloodlust combines with that classic teen party game, 60 seconds in a closet, to create a powder keg of emotion.

—Kimberly Giarratano


Give this to a reader who wants to dig deeply into the craft of storytelling.

Created by Emily X.R. Pan and Nova Ren Suma, Foreshadow: Stories to Celebrate the Magic of Reading and Writing YA grew out of an online initiative to showcase new and underrepresented voices. Established YA authors such as Jason Reynolds and Sabaa Tahir introduce 13 stories by emerging writers, and throughout the collection, playful experimentation alternates with contemporary takes on familiar formats.

Linda Cheng’s “Sweetmeats,” which Heidi Heilig calls “‘Hansel and Gretel’ flavored with Guillermo del Toro and a dash of Miyazaki,” exemplifies the creativity on display in every story here. Ever since friends Mei and Marlie were led astray by a witch bearing chocolate soufflé and blackberry soda, Mei’s hunger has been insatiable. Parental pressure, a bully’s cruel pranks and Marlie’s increasingly disturbing behavior culminate in a night when power dynamics are upended and truths are revealed. Each tale ends with an author’s note that discusses an element of the writing craft, and exercises invite readers to create and refine their own stories.

—Jill Ratzan

Come On In

Give this to a reader who would walk a mile in someone else's shoes every day if they could.

In Come On In: 15 Stories About Immigration and Finding Home, editor Adi Alsaid (himself a bestselling YA author) has created an anthology worthy of the blurb on its cover: “The immigration story is not a single story.” The characters in these stories have connections to countries including Australia, Japan, India, the United Kingdom and more, while all of the contributing authors have been touched by immigration in some way. As they capture both the experiences of children of first-generation immigrants as well as the bittersweet journey of leaving one’s own country, the stories give readers a dynamic, kaleidoscopic view of what it’s like to feel displaced from home—or displaced at home.

One of the most stirring stories is Nafiza Azad’s opener, “All the Colors of Goodbye,” which follows a teen girl as she recounts the many goodbyes she must say before she and her parents leave her home country of Fiji for what her father hopes will be a brighter future in Canada. In vivid prose, Azad depicts the girl’s heartbreak at leaving behind not only her extended family and friends, but also small, ordinary aspects of life in a country she loves and in a place that has shaped her as a person. It’s a love letter to the idea of home and a testament to the power this idea holds in our lives.

—Hannah Lamb

A Universe of Wishes

Give this to a reader who knows that the power of magic is inside of everyone.

The 15 fantasy stories in A Universe of Wishes are all powerful, thought-provoking and inclusive. Edited by Dhonielle Clayton (The Belles), A Universe of Wishes was created in partnership with We Need Diverse Books, a nonprofit organization that advocates for diversity in young people’s literature. It features the imaginings of popular writers including Kwame Mbalia, Anna-Marie McLemore and Nic Stone, alongside a story by Jenni Balch, the winner of a WNDB writing contest.

The stories here reflect a wide range of styles and fantasy subgenres, from climate fiction to romance to fairy tale re-imaginings. Fans of authors V.E. Schwab (A Darker Shade of Magic) and Libba Bray (A Great and Terrible Beauty) will be thrilled to discover new tales set in the fictional worlds of their bestselling trilogies.

Among the collection’s most moving stories is Tochi Onyebuchi’s “Habibi,” an epistolary chronicle of the unlikely connection between a boy from Long Beach, California, and a boy from Gaza. Using only the power of words, the two give each other hope for a future beyond their own horrifying present realities. “Habibi” exemplifies what lies at the heart of every story in this anthology: the wonder that awaits us when we celebrate our differences and recognize the beauty in one another.

Tami Orendain

Even the most particular teen reader won't be able to resist the varied charms of these YA anthologies.

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The novel in verse is experiencing a bit of a renaissance in children’s and YA literature. Writers including Kwame Alexander, Elizabeth Acevedo, Jason Reynolds, Candice Iloh, Jasmine Warga and Joy McCullough have garnered both critical acclaim and commercial success. These two YA novels feature teenage narrators for whom the carefully chosen words of poetry hold the key to self-discovery.

The title and cover of Tina Cane’s first YA book, Alma Presses Play, set the scene immediately: Portable cassette players and big headphones are the technology of the day as 13-year-old Alma and her Jewish Chinese family ring in the new year of 1982 in New York City.

For Alma, eighth grade and the following summer are a time when “there’s a lot going on / but also nothing at all.” She ponders her possibly romantic feelings for her neighbor Miguel, gets her first period, dodges her parents’ increasingly frequent arguments and misses a friend who moves away. Along the way, Alma’s guidance counselor, Ms. Nola, encourages her to write down her feelings about race, gender and life in her neighborhood. Plus there’s candy to eat and share—Tootsie Rolls and Pop Rocks and Twizzlers—and music for every mood, from Stevie Wonder and Blondie to David Bowie and the Pretenders.

The most noticeable feature of Alma Presses Play is the way Cane arranges Alma’s words on the page. Most lines consist of blocks of words set apart by white space, which allows readers to inhale between each phrase and makes Alma’s words feel breathy, immediate and authentic. Lists, letters, dictionary-style definitions and outlines break up the pace. Cane sprinkles in details of life in the 1980s such as mixtapes, Atari video game systems and Judy Blume novels, as well as the ever present question of what, exactly, the plural of Walkman is.

The Greek and Roman mythology that Alma studies in school—especially the character of Janus, the god of transitions, and stories of female protagonists such as Helen and Pandora—provides an ongoing lens through which Alma makes sense of her life. Cane offers multiple, sometimes contradictory versions of these myths, enabling Alma and the reader to wrestle with the stories’ alternating messages of women’s power and powerlessness. “Even though fiction is made-up / it contains a certain kind of truth," Alma muses, a fitting description of Cane's writing. As Alma makes decisions about school, relationships and even the city she wants to live in, it’s wonderful to watch her realize that she can set her life to the music that she chooses.

Two years ago, Moth’s parents and brother were killed in a car crash, leaving an emotionally and physically scarred Moth to live with her aunt. Despite being an elite, talented dancer, Moth vows that she will never dance again: It “feels too joyful, too greedy now.” Moth wishes that she had learned more Hoodoo practice from her grandfather, who promised before he died that he would “never leave [her] trapped—defenseless.”

None of the other Black kids at her mostly white school want to be friends, but soon Moth meets Sani, who also feels out of place living with his mother’s white family after his Navajo father left, and whose depression stops him from singing and playing the music that once brought him joy and meaning. Together, they depart on a cross-country road trip, visiting historical sites where enslavement and genocide underly white prosperity, exploring moth-related metaphors for growth and maybe even starting to fall in love. Will they find the courage to break out of their cocoons and emerge in new forms?

If you think you know where this story is going, think again. Me (Moth) will surprise you.

As in Alma Presses Play, the placement and alignment of words on the page plays a key role in the storytelling of Me (Moth). Line spacing varies, and some lines are only one or two words long. Even punctuation is unusual: Ampersands replace standard conjunctions, and names often appear in parentheses even when meanings are otherwise clear (“my aunt (Jack)” or “my mom (Meghan)”). Author Amber McBride rhymes occasionally (“the accident that split / our car like a candy bar”), drawing attention to the sounds of words, and her imagery is often tactile and tangible (“the choreography is choppy water instead of wind blowing / through a field of wheat”).

Moth engages in Hoodoo practices like lighting candles, burying significant objects and leaving offerings of food to ancestral spirits in the hopes of shifting odds in her favor. She also matches Sani’s Navajo creation stories with traditional Hoodoo stories of her own. “All stories have ghosts,” Moth tells Sani, and she’s right. In this brilliant novel, the past haunts the present in places where history, memory and spirituality intertwine.

These two YA novels feature teenage narrators for whom the carefully chosen words of poetry hold the key to self-discovery.

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On the very first page of Lesa Cline-Ransome’s Being Clem, a knock at the door brings terrible news: Clem’s father has been killed in the 1944 shipyard munitions accident that will become known as the Port Chicago disaster. Clem’s mother, unable to find anyone willing to hire a Black secretary, is soon behind on the rent, and his older sisters, busy with friends and boys, have little time for their little brother’s grief. 

When Clem skips a grade to attend middle school, he begins hanging out with Lymon, a new boy in town. But when Lymon begins to bully another new boy, Langston, who shares Clem's affinity for the local public library, Clem must make a difficult choice. Should he go along with Lymon, despite his misgivings, or stand up for the new boy—but risk losing a friend in the process?

As if all this weren’t enough for one boy to deal with, Clem's swimming lessons aren’t going smoothly either. How can Clem grow up to be a Navy man like his father when he’s afraid of the pool? Clem may know all the answers in school, but there's still so much he doesn't understand.

Although Being Clem can be read independently, fans of Cline-Ransome’s previous books Finding Langston (which received a Coretta Scott King Honor) and Leaving Lymon will appreciate the daring narrative choice to place Clem in friendships with her two previous protagonists—who are, in turn, one another's enemies. 

Cline-Ransome also fills Being Clem with rich details from 1940s Chicago, including the real-life, award-winning DuSable High School swim team, whose members were Black and against whom some white teams refused to compete. Cline-Ransome explores societal issues of race, class and gender alongside Clem's more internal struggles to express difficult emotions like fear and sadness. Being Clem gains poignancy from Clem’s personal journey as he mourns the father for whom he is named and whose legacy he hopes he will one day honor. 

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Being Clem author Lesa Cline-Ransome reveals the real-life inspiration behind Clem and his friends.

On the very first page of Lesa Cline-Ransome’s Being Clem, a knock at the door brings terrible news: Clem’s father has been killed in the 1944 shipyard munitions accident that will become known as the Port Chicago disaster.

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It's time for Pachelbel’s “Canon in D”—again. Though Quinn dutifully plays the harp for her family's wedding-planning business, Borrowed + Blue, she doesn't believe in romance anymore, especially not the kind that starts with grand gestures and always ends in heartbreak. Now that she's graduated from high school, her parents expect her to follow in her older sister’s footsteps and join the family business after college. But Quinn yearns to build a future she can call her own. This summer, she plans to wear animal-print dresses, eat chocolate mug cakes, hang out at Seattle’s farmer’s markets with her best friend, Julia, and Julia's new girlfriend . . . and swear off guys completely.

But then she runs into Tarek, the cute Egyptian American baker who’s a hopeless romantic and whose family's catering business often works with Borrowed + Blue. Bickering with Tarek used to be Quinn's favorite part of working at weddings, but they haven't spoken since she confessed her feelings for him just before he left for college last fall. Amid mishaps with missing bridal attendants, melted cakes and last-minute tofu runs, Quinn soon finds that she's falling for Tarek again, despite her best efforts not to. Meanwhile, a reality show wedding seems poised to help Borrowed + Blue really take off, but only if everything goes perfectly.

We Can’t Keep Meeting Like This is a classically structured romance with a contemporary social consciousness, exploring such topics as Quinn’s Jewish identity; mental and physical illnesses, including obsessive-compulsive disorder, depression and eczema; and the effects of celebrity culture. Discussions of sexuality and gender are modeled and normalized, and B+B’s clients include couples of all sorts—two grooms, two brides and second marriages. Frequent humor keeps the tone light (funny slogans on T-shirts and mugs are particularly chuckle-inducing) and sensuous language about everything from pizza to kissing abounds. The idea of a “perfect” special day gradually gives way to the notion that what makes life sweet are the bumps along the way.

Fans of Stephanie Perkins’ YA love stories or the satisfyingly independent-minded heroine in Gayle Forman’s Just One Day will adore this sweet, fizzy confection of a romance.

Though Quinn dutifully plays the harp for her family's wedding-planning business, Borrowed + Blue, she doesn't believe in romance anymore, especially not the kind that starts with grand gestures and always ends in heartbreak.

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It’s rare to encounter a YA novel that so vividly depicts a high-achieving, overly self-reflective teenager (like myself at that age, or my similarly overachieving, overly self-reflective high school friends). Even more rare is a YA book that expands what the entire category of YA literature can be. Kelly Loy Gilbert’s astonishing When We Were Infinite is both.

Senior year is a time of lasts for Beth: her last time doing AP bio homework; her last youth symphony showcase performance; her last time hanging out and laughing at everything and nothing with her four best friends, Jason, Brandon, Sunny and Grace. Preparing for her Juilliard audition leads to a lot of late nights, but somehow Beth always finds time for her friends, planning the perfect homecoming evening for them, for instance, or helping Sunny check out “crafternoon” at the LGBTQ community center.

When something terrible happens to Jason, Beth desperately wants to make everything all right again. Her concern for Jason, as well as her fear of being separated from her friends, weigh heavily on her, and the new beginnings that beckon beyond graduation begin to fill her with dread rather than excited anticipation. Will Beth ever feel as electric, as real, as infinite as she does right now, in this moment, surrounded by the friends she loves?

YA is, by definition, a literature of immediacy. Explorations of family dynamics and life transitions as well as the search to find and claim one’s own identity and agency have always been staples of the category. When We Were Infinite uses these themes as starting points but brings them expansively into the 21st century. Gilbert’s characters’ experiences reflect issues that include gender, sexuality, race, class and mental health, and in every moment, these experiences feel vital and organic to both the characters and the larger story. 

Microaggressions are ignored but remembered. Romances start and end. College applications are submitted, and decisions are made. And as for my own high school friends? We group-texted earlier today about this book.

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Kelly Loy Gilbert reveals the central question in everything she writes.

It’s rare to encounter a YA novel that so vividly depicts a high-achieving, overly self-reflective teenager (like myself at that age, or my similarly overachieving, overly self-reflective high school friends). Even more rare is a YA book that expands what the entire category of YA literature can be. Kelly Loy Gilbert’s astonishing When We Were Infinite is both.

Review by

Acquiring a new skill is often daunting, and as an adult it can be downright embarrassing to struggle with an unfamiliar process. In Beginners: The Joy and Transformative Power of Lifelong Learning (7.5 hours), author Tom Vanderbilt invites us to work through our fears and embrace the joy of learning something new.

Vanderbilt, who reads his own book, acknowledges that adults are rarely comfortable learning new skills. He takes listeners on an exploratory tour through infant psychology, educational theory and cognitive science. As he chronicles his own experiences of studying how to sing, surf, draw, weld and juggle, he encourages listeners to embrace a “beginner’s mind” that facilitates lifelong learning. He’s also subtly radical in his unabashed rejection of futurism. There may be instructional videos galore on YouTube, he argues, but it’s still better to learn with a class and a teacher.

Whether inspiring parents to join their children in trying new activities, encouraging group learning experiences or explaining how a neurobiologist might benefit from studying the tango, Vanderbilt maintains an upbeat and optimistic tone, like an encouraging friend.


To guide you on the path of positivity in the new year, four books provide support, affirmation and inspiration.

In Beginners: The Joy and Transformative Power of Lifelong Learning (7.5 hours), author Tom Vanderbilt invites us to work through our fears and embrace the joy of learning something new.

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