Molly Horan

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Zac knows all the statistics about his leukemia—the survival rate, the chance the cancer will return even if his new bone marrow gives him a temporary clean bill of health. But he’s still hopeful he can get back to his old life after months in solitary with only his mother for company—his mother, and the faceless girl fighting her own battle next door.

Mia is angry—angry she has cancer, angry the treatment makes her so sick, angry her doctors and mother don’t seem to understand she just wants the treatment to be done so she can get back to her friends. The only one who seems to understand, even a little bit, is the boy in the other room. He knows nothing about her except that a sore ankle led to her cancer diagnosis. He calls her lucky—she has good odds.

Then Zac goes home to try to regain his pre-cancer life, and Mia goes home with so much less than she ever dreamed. Inevitably they end up together again—Zac desperate to help, and Mia desperate to run from everything.

It’s almost impossible for a book about two teens fighting cancer to escape a comparison to The Fault in Our Stars, and on a very surface level the two books share DNA: sick teens falling in love, sometimes angry, sometimes hopeful, sometimes resigned. What Zac and Mia does best, however, is capture the feelings of loneliness and isolation. Mia’s need to pretend her cancer doesn’t exist separates her from her friends even as she interacts with them online, and when the reality of her illness catches up with her she finds it impossible to connect with her former friends, who have nothing heavier than a zit weighing on their minds.

Zac and Mia is much more than a book about illness; it's a book about learning to trust a person, and trusting they can care about you when you feel completely unlovable.

 

Molly Horan has her MFA in writing for children and young adults from The New School.

Zac knows all the statistics about his leukemia—the survival rate, the chance the cancer will return even if his new bone marrow gives him a temporary clean bill of health. But he’s still hopeful he can get back to his old life after months in solitary with only his mother for company—his mother, and the faceless girl fighting her own battle next door.

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For Rose, summers at Awago Beach are a constant. She and her parents have been renting a cottage there for as long as she can remember, and none of the changes in her life can alter the yearly trip to the beach—not even her parents’ sudden surge of fights. She’s reunited with her best beach friend Windy, and at first everything falls into the usual rhythm. But her mother won’t join in the fun, no matter how hard Rose and her father try to pull her in, and the year-and-a-half age gap that separates Rose from Windy seems bigger than before.

As things between her parents get worse and Windy seems more and more irritating, Rose focuses on the drama surrounding the local DVD rental store and the cute boy who works behind the counter. She and Windy discover that his girlfriend is pregnant, but Rose is certain her crush isn’t at fault.

This One Summer effortlessly captures the moment when the adult world begins to seep into childhood’s summertime rituals.

Written and illustrated by the team behind the critically acclaimed graphic novel Skim (2008), This One Summer perfectly captures the comfort of returning to a safe place steeped in tradition, and the dawning realization that no matter how static a place may stay, the process of growing up forces a change in feelings and perceptions. Author Mariko Tamaki does a masterful job of tackling issues often shied away from in young adult novels, such as the instinct to blame a girl for an unplanned pregnancy rather than the boy, either out of jealousy or a sense of societal norms. Tamaki also excels at weaving in questions of bodies and boys in an authentic preteen voice.

Illustrator Jillian Tamaki’s artwork complements the story perfectly, slowing it down when the pace needs to be calmed and focusing on unusual details—such as what it’s like to look through a gummy candy—to really connect the reader to the scenes.

This One Summer is a beautiful book in more ways than one and will have readers eager for summer vacation. Its illustrations will stay with you as much as the unique-yet-relatable narrative.

 

This article was originally published in the May 2014 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

For Rose, summers at Awago Beach are a constant. She and her parents have been renting a cottage there for as long as she can remember, and none of the changes in her life can alter the yearly trip to the beach—not even her parents’ sudden surge of fights. She’s reunited with her best beach friend Windy, and at first everything falls into the usual rhythm. But her mother won’t join in the fun, no matter how hard Rose and her father try to pull her in, and the year-and-a-half age gap that separates Rose from Windy seems bigger than before.

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Cy Williams is not a slave, but his life is far from his own. Growing up in Georgia in the 1890s, he knows that the cruel white plantation owner his father works for could throw him in jail or even kill him in a second.

When a tragic accident leaves the plantation owner’s son—and Cy’s best friend—dead, the blame falls on Cy. Still mourning, Cy finds himself bound and blindfolded, on the way to a chain gang where he’ll work, shackled to a line of other boys who dared to make a white man angry. Four years spent working under the threat of a whip breaks Cy’s spirit and drains him of all hope that he’ll ever see his father again. But when his father appears with clean clothes and a plan, Cy dares to believe there might be freedom in his future.

Cy in Chains is a difficult, painful novel, but it’s an important one. Cy quickly morphs from a kind, compassionate boy, looking out for his friend before the accident, to a young man who’s been broken by a life of hard work and cruelty, and who comes to see compassion as a weakness he can’t afford.

His transformation is shown in sharp contrast from another boy on the chain gang, Jess, whose deep faith keeps him hopeful and who takes care of the younger, weaker boys. Jess’ sense of responsibility to help those who can’t stand up for themselves highlights Cy’s every-man-for-himself attitude, as well as exposing the cracks in it. It’s a prerogative Cy adopted to survive, not a true representation of his character.

The details of the horrors Cy and the other boys suffer at the hands of the men who run the chain gang are vivid and varied, from sexual abuse to physical abuse, to neglect so severe their lives are in danger. Each new punishment is more horrible than the last.

Cy in Chains is a book for those who love historical fiction and don’t want the horrors of the past sugar-coated.

 

Molly Horan has her MFA in writing for children and young adults from The New School

Cy Williams is not a slave, but his life is far from his own. Growing up in Georgia in the 1890s, he knows that the cruel white plantation owner his father works for could throw him in jail or even kill him in a second.

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Twelve-year-old Jewel has never liked her birthday. Celebrating the day she was born is just another reminder to her family of the brother she never met, 5-year-old John, nicknamed Bird by her grandfather, who tried to fly off a cliff and fell to his death while her mother was in labor with Jewel. It’s more than loss and grief that surrounds Bird’s death; it’s superstition and blame that Jewel has never fully understood. Her grandfather hasn’t spoken since the day Bird died, and her father is sure the nickname “Bird” attracted a Duppy, a Jamaican spirit, that convinced him to jump.

Sick of living in the shadow of a ghost and never living up to her parents’ expectations, Jewel is ecstatic when she meets a new kid in the neighborhood who shares her love of science and climbing trees, who listens to her problems and worries and seems to understand. But when she brings him home, her parents are unnerved, and her grandfather is livid—because the boy's name just happens to be John.

Bird is a heartbreaking story of a girl trying everything she can to fill the hole her brother left in her family. While the majority of the book shows her parents as incredibly sad, too wrapped up in their own grief to notice the love and needs of the child they still have left, the most powerful sections describe their fleeting happiness. Each smile from her mother terrifies Jewel, because she never knows when the next one will come or exactly how to bring it about. Every declaration of pride from her father is hard-won and treasured.

Author Crystal Chan also paints a vivid picture of what it means to grow up in a mixed-race family. Jewel takes pride in her father’s Jamaican garden, but she’s frustrated when her neighbor expects her to be able to speak Spanish, and even more frustrated when strangers ask what she is instead of who.

Bird is a fast read but will stay with you. You’ll remember Jewel’s spirit, what John teaches her about space and the message that there are plenty of ways to show you love someone without actually saying those three words.

 

Molly Horan has her MFA in writing for children and young adults from The New School.

Twelve-year-old Jewel has never liked her birthday. Celebrating the day she was born is just another reminder to her family of the brother she never met, 5-year-old John, nicknamed Bird by her grandfather, who tried to fly off a cliff and fell to his death while her mother was in labor with Jewel. It’s more than loss and grief that surrounds Bird’s death; it’s superstition and blame that Jewel has never fully understood. Her grandfather hasn’t spoken since the day Bird died, and her father is sure the nickname “Bird” attracted a Duppy, a Jamaican spirit, that convinced him to jump.

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Felix’s last season of high school football is all that matters. When he’s out on the field, he can forget about his older brother who never came back from the war, his mother who disappeared inside her own mind after losing her oldest son, and the mining town that seems to be crumbling around him. If he can just lead the Muckers team to victory, he knows everything will be all right.

But even as the Muckers win more games, it’s hard to ignore everything that’s going wrong in his small Texas town. The threat of communism has everyone on edge, and race relations in the multiethnic immigrant community are near a boiling point. One of his best friends is heading off to the Korean War to prove himself, and the town will never accept the fact that Felix is white and the only girl he wants to kiss is Mexican.

Muckers is a strong piece of young adult historical fiction that manages to touch on many topics without seeming disjointed. The frame of a local newspaper helps to add some extra historical content without forcing it into the dialogue.

The novel is strongest when it gets inside Felix’s head off the football field, when he’s forced to think about not only his painful past, but his future. His desire to honor his parents and brother is strong, but what makes him a truly compelling protagonist is his thirst to prove his worth to himself, and his determination to avoid a life in the mines.

Muckers will entertain anyone interested in 1950s America, but it will especially capture the attention of football fans and anyone who’s ever felt hometown pride.

Felix’s last season of high school football is all that matters. When he’s out on the field, he can forget about his older brother who never came back from the war, his mother who disappeared inside her own mind after losing her oldest son, and the mining town that seems to be crumbling around him. […]
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Eighteen-year-old Cath is not looking forward to her first year of college. Her twin sister Wren, who has always seemed like her other half, decides they should both use college as a time to meet new friends—separately. But even as she stresses about her sister’s distance or what living alone will do to her loving but scatterbrained father, she has one constant in her life to lean on: her fan fiction.

Cath has been writing Simon Snow fan fiction since she was a preteen, and she’s become a bit of a celebrity in the community. With the series finishing up in the spring, she’s desperate to finish her version of Simon’s story before the author ends his journey in canon. In fact, she’s so busy writing her final fanfic, she barely has time to deal with an absentee mother who suddenly wants to re-enter her life, an English professor who admires her writing but thinks fan fiction is plagiarism, or the attention of a boy who’s always coming to her rescue no matter how many times she pushes him away.

Rainbow Rowell’s latest YA novel is truly fantastic. She creates an incredibly relatable protagonist with Cath, a college freshman who would rather live off granola bars for the entire year than ask her intimidating roommate for directions to the cafeteria. Yet in spite of her social anxiety, Cath is a character with tremendous inner strength who comes to the aid of her family without a second thought and who finds her confidence with a pen in her hand.

Rowell also creates a very believable romance, with a slow build and false starts that seem genuine to the college experience. All stages of her developing relationship are equally important, from Cath’s disbelief that such a guy would be interested in her to her questions about his expectations.

Fangirl is bound to become a classic for anyone who grew up writing fan fiction and to all the teens scrolling though Tumblr, hoping to meet others who have decided that their favorite novel’s protagonist and antagonist are actually the romantic leads. Even readers who have never heard of fanfic will be drawn in by Cath’s witty, original voice and the sense of safety she feels when disappearing into the world of a book.

 

Molly Horan has her MFA in writing for children and young adults from The New School.

Eighteen-year-old Cath is not looking forward to her first year of college. Her twin sister Wren, who has always seemed like her other half, decides they should both use college as a time to meet new friends—separately. But even as she stresses about her sister’s distance or what living alone will do to her loving […]
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All Danielle wanted was a quiet, peaceful summer, and her babysitting job provided her with just that. Five-year-old Humphrey was adorable, funny and better company than the friends from whom she seemed to be growing apart. And then came the accident, a split second during their walk home from the park: Humphrey ran into the road and was hit and killed by a passing car, and Danielle can’t help but feel responsible.

A devastating accident leaves a girl scrambling for answers.

Guilt and grief consume Danielle as she tries to remember the good times with Humphrey, the afternoons of make-believe and nights of Popsicles, but in the aftermath of the accident, her sleepy neighborhood buzzes with controversy. Some members of the community think a lack of streetlights caused the crash and lobby for improvement, while others are hung up on the fact that the driver of the car was an illegal immigrant. What no one wants to talk about, Danielle realizes, is the smart little boy who was lost that night.

When her parents put her in therapy to deal with the loss, Danielle begins to realize that she was having problems long before the accident, and if she wants to get past them and honor Humphrey's memory, she's going to have to speak her mind in the neighborhood’s debates.

Author Debbie Levy’s depiction of loss in Imperfect Spiral is powerful, and equally as compelling are her frequent flashbacks of Danielle and Humphrey’s time together. Levy has created an incredibly nuanced relationship between the two, showing that the most important relationships can form outside traditional boundaries like age groups and family ties. Within these memories she also explores Humphrey’s family and the complicated mix of a parent’s love and expectations.

The novel sometimes lags under the weight of all the issues it attempts to address. Danielle deals not only with her panic attacks and feelings of loss, but also her feelings on illegal immigration and the strain between her parents and brother, and the story becomes exhausting for both her and the reader. Likewise, the addition of a love interest feels squeezed in, and while the relationship’s development is genuine, it also feels rushed.

Despite its flaws, Imperfect Spiral is a powerful book that stays with you long after you’ve read the final page. It’s a story of love and loss that distinguishes itself from the flood of YA books tackling those topics by challenging how we define family and who you can count among your friends.

All Danielle wanted was a quiet, peaceful summer, and her babysitting job provided her with just that. Five-year-old Humphrey was adorable, funny and better company than the friends from whom she seemed to be growing apart. And then came the accident, a split second during their walk home from the park: Humphrey ran into the […]
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No matter how hard he tries, Danny can’t get over the fact that after years of battling cancer, his mom died mere weeks before his high school graduation, the one date she’d been trying to hold on for. With his dad killed in a car accident when he was a kid, his big sister in China trying to rediscover her roots and the summer between high school and college stretching out before him, Danny almost resigns himself to three months in his big empty house, grieving for his mom and obsessing over the girl that got away.

When a letter comes from the caretaker of his family’s apartment in Japan, asking what he’d like to do with his mom's leftover medication, Danny is puzzled, thinking she should have taken it all on her last trip. Desperate to figure out the meaning of the spare pills, wanting to know more about the last few months his mother spent without him and needing to get some space from his best-friend-turned-ex-girlfriend who’s suddenly dropping by after a year of ignoring him, Danny books a one-way ticket to Japan.

Daisy Whitney’s novel covers many emotional bases—grief, loneliness, betrayal, hope—and she captures them all incredibly well. Even as Danny tries to make sense of his mother’s final visit to Japan, he's always aware there might not be any logic behind it, that cracking the puzzle is a way to distract himself but may not give him peace. At the same time, he holds out hope that he can get back together with the girl that broke his heart when she dumped him the previous summer, but when she reaches out, he can’t bring himself to reach back, protecting his heart from more damage.

The book’s biggest strength is its unpredictability. The bulk of the novel is spent trying to unravel a specific mystery, yet Danny’s most shocking discovery has nothing to do with his mother. Likewise, Danny’s friendship with his apartment's caretaker’s daughter doesn’t rely on the promise of romance, which is refreshing from a YA novel.

When You Were Here is an engrossing book that draws readers in by being a window to a different culture and leaving its big questions unanswered until the last minute.

Molly Horan has her MFA in writing for children and young adults from The New School.

No matter how hard he tries, Danny can’t get over the fact that after years of battling cancer, his mom died mere weeks before his high school graduation, the one date she’d been trying to hold on for. With his dad killed in a car accident when he was a kid, his big sister in […]
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Eleanore has no memory of who she was before she was found wandering the streets of London in the early 1900s. Placed in an orphanage, she would have easily blended in with the other lost children if she hadn't spoken aloud the secret she carried: She hears music when there is none, sweet songs vibrating from the metal around her. Locked in a mental institution, she learns to tune out the songs, but just when she is to be released, the First World War breaks out. Eleanore is then sent to the country and given the charity spot at a prestigious all-girls school.

The Iverson School for Girls proves to be a cold, unwelcoming place, but soon Eleanore finds reasons to be happy, like the handsome groundskeeper Jesse, with whom she seems to have an instant connection. But things become complicated when her benefactor’s son, Armand, also takes an interest in her.

Jesse reveals that he knows why she hears music others don't: She’s a Drakon—but what that means, she does not know. Eleanore learns she can transform into shimmering smoke at will, but to become who she truly is meant to be, she must work toward an even more dramatic transformation.

An orphan girl with a strange secret discovers her own ancient magic.

First introduced in her adult Drakon series, Shaba Abé’s new dragon mythology creates a unique world for Eleanore to explore. The book’s greatest strength is its strong-willed protagonist who never lets herself be made to feel inferior. She owns her powers, but it’s not her powers alone that give her courage—it’s her own sense of self-worth.

The novel can drag where too much focus is given to the day-to-day drudgery that Eleanore must endure at school, but the questions that are left unanswered until almost the very end about Drakons and Eleanore's heritage keep the reader engaged. The romance between Eleanore and Jesse, as well as the tension between Eleanore and Armand, are also compelling as their feelings become parts of their destinies.

The Sweetest Dark is a novel that borrows from many genres, from historical fiction to fantasy to romance. What pulls the book together is the well-drawn characters that are easy for almost any reader to connect to.

Molly Horan has her MFA in writing for children and young adults from The New School.

Eleanore has no memory of who she was before she was found wandering the streets of London in the early 1900s. Placed in an orphanage, she would have easily blended in with the other lost children if she hadn't spoken aloud the secret she carried: She hears music when there is none, sweet songs vibrating […]
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Six months ago, Hannah’s best friend Lillian died, wasted away after a battle with anorexia. Somehow, Lillian never left, and only Hannah can see her skeletal ghost always hovering in the background. It’s all Hannah can do to deal with her friend’s haunting and maintain a happy face for family and friends. But when someone starts killing teenage girls in her neighborhood park, Hannah suddenly has more than one ghost to deal with.

Author Brenna Yovanoff has created a rich, layered novel that perfectly interlaces a love story, a murder mystery and a story of grief. The goosebumps-inducing creepiness of the young girls’ murders and Hannah’s compulsion to solve them is balanced by the giddy excitement of her crush and budding relationship with the local bad boy. Her feelings about Lillian's death, from the guilt she feels for not stopping it to the anger she has toward Lillian for letting it happen, are fresh. It's not a one-sided expression of grief; it’s something she can talk about with the dead girl herself.

The novel’s main problem is its false resolutions. Sometimes an issue seems to be resolved, only for the reader to be dragged back into the conflict a few chapters later. While false starts and red herrings make the mystery aspect of the story more suspenseful, they can be frustrating when applied to Hannah and Lillian's relationship. 

Paper Valentine is both frightening and hopeful, a novel that uses the supernatural to make a common YA storyline seem totally unique.

Molly Horan has her MFA in writing for children and young adults from The New School.

Six months ago, Hannah’s best friend Lillian died, wasted away after a battle with anorexia. Somehow, Lillian never left, and only Hannah can see her skeletal ghost always hovering in the background. It’s all Hannah can do to deal with her friend’s haunting and maintain a happy face for family and friends. But when someone […]
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Eighteen-year-old Scarlet was happy with her quiet life as an outsider, working on her beloved grandmother’s farm and ignoring the whispers about her eccentricities. But when her grandmother is kidnapped and the police refuse to believe she was taken by force, Scarlet sets out to find her with the help of a handsome stranger called Wolf.

Meanwhile, 16-year-old cyborg Cinder—still reeling from the news that she’s actually Princess Selene, Lunar Queen Levana’s own niece—manages to escape from her prison cell and certain death at the hands of the Queen. Cinder begins to develop her newfound power of mind control while coming to terms with her new identity, and her conflicting feelings about the morality of using her powers of manipulation are well portrayed.

Marissa Meyer has created a rich, unique, yet accessible fantasy world. While the technology of half-machine girls plants the story firmly outside the reader’s reality, the constant presence of portscreens and “comms” seems no different from the ubiquity of present-day smartphones and texts.

Scarlet doesn’t try to recreate the fairy tales it borrows from, but instead takes their most interesting characters and gives them new purposes that expose emotions never revealed in the original tales.

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Read our interview with Marissa Meyer for Scarlet.

Eighteen-year-old Scarlet was happy with her quiet life as an outsider, working on her beloved grandmother’s farm and ignoring the whispers about her eccentricities. But when her grandmother is kidnapped and the police refuse to believe she was taken by force, Scarlet sets out to find her with the help of a handsome stranger called […]

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