RJ Witherow

For the inhabitants of the frozen planet Tundar, survival is a daily struggle. Powerful corporations and crime syndicates rule through greed and fear, and everything from the weather to the wildlife can kill you in an instant. The only resource the desolate planet can offer the interstellar economy is exocarbon, a rare metal that can only be mined during Tundar’s annual sled race in which would-be miners drive teams of genetically engineered vonenwolves across hundreds of miles of deadly wilderness to reach the dig site first. With fame and fortune on the line, racers are just as likely to be killed by another team as they are by Tundar’s giant osak bears and blizzards.

Sena Korhosen knows this all too well: Five years ago, both of her mothers died in the race. Since then, Sena has sworn off all things race-related. When circumstances force her to rescue Iska, a wounded fighting wolf, and enter the competition she despises, Sena must use everything her mothers taught her and more in order to survive to the finish line.

Cold the Night, Fast the Wolves makes full use of its perilous setting. Debut author Meg Long spends a significant amount of time familiarizing readers with the culture and creatures of Tundar, as well as exploring Sena’s reluctance to race, which effectively builds a sense of danger and dread for the looming competition. While some readers might find such methodical world building a little slow out of the gate, particularly for a story about racing, the novel’s third act will reward patient readers with all the brutal, fast-paced survival action they could ever want.

Sena’s grief over the loss of her mothers and her deepening connection with Iska form a quiet emotional counterpoint to the novel’s harsh setting. Sena’s memories of her mothers are a source of pain, love, protection and strength, all of which she finds mirrored in the wounded wolf she’s tasked with healing. Whether Iska is helping Sena cross a frozen wasteland or melting her frozen heart, the bond between girl and wolf is lovely and touching. Readers will root for them as they’re swept along on their wild ride.

This sci-fi survival story makes full use of its perilous setting, to which its hero’s bond with a wounded wolf forms a quiet emotional counterpoint.

It’s the 15th century, and the grim shadows of Portuguese slave ships loom over the Atlantic Ocean. The divine orisa Yemoja, prevented from destroying the ships by ancient magical law, instead uses her power to transform seven humans into mermaidlike beings called Mami Wata. They are tasked with collecting the souls of enslaved people who die at sea—whether by jumping overboard or being murdered by their enslavers—so they can be blessed on their journey home to Olodumare, the Supreme Creator.

Simidele is proud to serve Yemoja as Mami Wata, but she still feels an irresistible pull toward the wisps of memories she can recall from her former life as a human. When Simi chooses to save the life of a boy thrown overboard from one of the ships, she sparks a conflict between powerful orisas. The only way Simi can save herself, Yemoja and the other Mami Wata is by finding two magic rings and petitioning Olodumare for forgiveness. Adekola, the boy Simi rescued, offers to help her find the rings, but her fondness for him holds dangers of its own. Yemoja warns her that if she ever acts on her love for Adekola or any other human, Simi will dissolve into seafoam.

Skin of the Sea is an inspired take on Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid” that blends West African religion and history in an immersive adventure. Simi travels across sun-soaked sands and into cold ocean depths, through dense forests and into harsh volcanic strongholds. In luscious prose, debut author Natasha Bowen beautifully paints sensory details that often trigger Simi’s returning memories. Past and present lace together in these flashbacks, sparked by the familiar color of someone’s eyes or the scent of a homemade meal. Bowen’s rich descriptions are also well suited to conveying the breathtaking grandeur of the many gods, goddesses, spirits and creatures whom Simi and Kola encounter on their quest.

From the outset, the stakes are high for both Simi and Kola. Each new challenge highlights the heroes’ courage in fighting for the ones they love even as they also work to heal from the cruelty and trauma inflicted upon them by enslavers aboard the deadly ships. Skin of the Sea painfully entwines love and sacrifice to create a story as powerful and majestic as the sea itself.

This inspired take on “The Little Mermaid” blends West African religion and history in a story as powerful and majestic as the sea.

Vanja Schmidt has never led a charmed life. From a young age, she was forced to work as a maid at Castle Falbirg, where she suffered everything from petty cruelty to unspeakable abuse at her employers’ hands. Even Vanja’s friendship with Princess Gisele left her with more scars than support. So when Vanja saw a chance to swipe a magical string of pearls that she could use to steal Gisele’s identity, she seized it.

After a year of posing as Gisele and continuing her covert crime spree, Vanja’s latest theft earns her a deadly curse from the goddess Eiswald. If Vanja can’t find a way to make up for her crimes in the next two weeks, the curse will turn her into the same precious gemstones she’s been stealing. To make matters worse, Eiswald sends her shapeshifting daughter to keep an eye on Vanja, there’s a frustratingly talented young detective hot on her trail—and the real Gisele is still out there, furious at Vanja’s betrayal.

This colorful cast is the best part of Little Thieves, and author Margaret Owen pursues every opportunity for her strong-willed characters to clash, banter and bond with one another. Whether they are scheming over breakfast sausages or teaching knife tricks to orphans, the characters’ vivid personalities always shine through.

Owen dedicates Little Thieves to “the gremlin girls,” and Vanja wears that descriptor as the honorific it’s intended to be. Vanja’s heists are clever, her insults are creative and her vulnerabilities are striking. She’s a complex protagonist, and Owen expertly demonstrates how her devious personality is simultaneously a flaw, a strength and the direct result of her past experiences. The compassion and sensitivity Owen displays toward Vanja will easily earn her a place in the hearts of all her fellow gremlins.

Amid the book’s plentiful action scenes and witty repartee, Vanja also offers biting commentary on power and privilege. Characters wield authority over one another—whether through divine magic, mortal law, the threat of violence or familial obligation—and these power imbalances shape every interaction and drive the novel’s many intertwining conflicts.

Little Thieves is an endlessly entertaining fantasy tale about characters on their worst behavior learning to be their best selves.

Little Thieves is an endlessly entertaining fantasy tale about characters on their worst behavior learning to be their best selves.

In the year 2061, Halley’s comet is on a crash course with Earth, and life on the planet is destined to end. Only three ships of colonists, including 12-year-old Petra Peña and some members of her family, have a chance at survival on another world. When Petra imagines her future on the distant planet Sagan, she dreams of becoming a storyteller like the grandmother she must leave behind on Earth.

When Petra wakes from suspended animation after almost four centuries of space travel, she learns that the colonists did successfully reach Sagan, but an extremist faction known as the Collective took over the ship while she slept. These descendants of the non-suspended colonists believe that peace can only be achieved when every human being is exactly the same; they even genetically alter their skin to be colorless and transparent. Petra is the only person left whose memories of Earth have not been erased by the Collective’s technology. She must use her wits and her stories to outsmart the Collective and fight for humanity’s legacy.

Petra’s love of storytelling forms the heart of The Last Cuentista. To communicate the sheer scope of what could be lost if the Collective succeeds, author Donna Barba Higuera references both traditional and contemporary tales, from the epic of “Gilgamesh” to Yuyi Morales’ 2018 picture book, Dreamers. Yet even as Petra seeks to protect the past, she doesn’t shy away from change. She often tweaks the stories she retells and reminisces on her grandmother’s own embellishments, beautifully demonstrating how even our oldest and most cherished stories continue to grow with us.

Particularly fitting for a novel about storytelling, the language Higuera employs is powerful and effective. The somber and sterile ship, the Collective members’ eerily transparent skin and the lush alien world of Sagan are all portrayed in transporting detail. Higuera establishes a tense mood early on and preserves that tension throughout, while still creating spaces in which she quietly explores Petra’s intense feelings of grief, hope and love. The contrast between these elements is balanced and complements the novel’s bittersweet narrative.

Readers will find in The Last Cuentista a promise that the past is not the enemy of the future, but a gift that grants the perspective to meet that future with compassion and bravery.

In the year 2061, Halley’s comet is on a crash course with Earth, and life on the planet is destined to end. Only three ships of colonists, including 12-year-old Petra Peña and some members of her family, have a chance at survival on another world.

Della Lloyd’s family has drawn their magic from the Bend, a stretch of river and woodland known to locals as Wood Thrush Nature Park, for generations. Recently, however, something has gone terribly wrong with the woods and their magic that Della can’t explain. Almost a year ago, a spell left her mother cursed to be transformed into a monstrous river siren each night, and now a string of girls has disappeared in the park. 

Among them is Rochelle Greymont, whose sister, Natasha, will stop at nothing to find her. While Natasha suspects Rochelle’s abusive boyfriend, Jake, of foul play, Della secretly worries her bloodthirsty mother might be the real culprit. Natasha’s anger and desperation lead her to beg Della for magical assistance in tracking down Rochelle, but neither girl is prepared for the terrible secrets their search will unearth. 

Erica Waters’ second novel (after 2020’s Ghost Wood Song) is a richly atmospheric mystery that isn’t afraid to delve deep into the darkness of its premise, and the Bend provides a perfect backdrop for its story. It’s a foreboding place, steeped in a long history of violence and filled with creatures that are not what they seem to be. Even Della, who loves the Bend and feels connected to the rich plant life it harbors, can’t ignore the threat its increasingly twisted magic poses. 

While both Della and Natasha are driven by the need to protect the people they love, Waters never shies away from the harsher sides of her heroines. “I’d kill a hundred park visitors myself before I’d let my momma die,” Della admits early on, while Natasha wants Jake to suffer for how he treated her sister as much as she wants him to confess. Waters gives Della’s and Natasha’s feelings of rage, grief and fear plenty of space to seethe without judgment. The result is a cathartic portrait of two girls’ anger toward a world whose cruelty and injustice forced them to fight back. 

Full of dangers both magical and mundane, The River Has Teeth delivers ferociously good thrills.

Erica Waters’ second novel (after 2020’s Ghost Wood Song) is a richly atmospheric mystery that isn’t afraid to delve deep into the darkness of its premise.

Leah Johnson burst onto the YA scene in the summer of 2020 with her acclaimed debut, You Should See Me in a Crown, which received a Stonewall Honor. She returns with Rise to the Sun, the story of Olivia and Toni, who meet on the first day of the Farmland Music and Arts Festival. Together, they race to solve scavenger hunt clues, nail onstage performances and learn to trust each other with their hopes and fears in Johnson’s ode to summer, friendship and love.

Let’s start from the outside and work our way in. What did you think the first time you saw the book’s cover art?
I full-on got teary-eyed. It’s beautiful art—bright and hopeful—reflecting Black queer girls in love, and I couldn’t have asked for anything more.

Can you introduce us to Toni and Olivia? Where are they in their lives when readers first meet them?
Toni is grieving the loss of her father, who passed away eight months before the book begins. She’s hoping that returning to the music festival they both loved will bring her closer to him and give her some insight into what she should be doing with her life after high school. 

Olivia has just been the victim of a pretty nasty breakup that’s left her an outcast at school and at home, and she’s hoping that one epic weekend with her best friend, Imani, will help her forget what her senior year has in store. 

They’re both precious little unsure babies trying to convince the world that they have it all together. (Reader, they do not.)

Both Toni and Olivia describe feelings of distance and isolation from their peers, but they are each attending the festival with a close friend: Olivia with Imani and Toni with Peter. What do these friendships mean to them?
Their friendships are lifelines for them, but in different ways. Toni has some serious trust issues that have kept her from letting people get close to her at all. Olivia is perhaps too trusting and lets a lot of people near her but doesn’t allow anyone to really know her besides Imani. With their best friends, they’re able to be their full selves, which is a gift I think a lot of us often take for granted.

Your first book was told from a single character’s point of view, but Rise to the Sun alternates between two perspectives. What motivated that decision? Was that always the plan?

From the start, I knew that I wanted the book to be told from two points of view and also take place over a pretty tight span of time, which is an homage to some of my favorite books (Rachel Cohn and David Levithan’s Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist being at the top of that particular list) but also an effort to more intimately explore two sides of the same fear.

I believe in the power of the sonic cathedral. In building something together under those lights that I could never build on my own. And that belief has changed my life.

Both Toni and Olivia are terrified of being seen for who they really are. Digging into that more—the ways they arrived at that fear, what it takes to push past it, allowing themselves to be loved through it—felt like not only an interesting craft challenge but also a real opportunity to explore the ways all of us at our cores are both remarkably similar and wildly different.

The book’s dual perspectives enable us to see that when Olivia views one of her personality traits as a flaw, Toni actually considers it to be one of Olivia’s strengths, and vice versa. It’s a really effective way to capture how girls, especially young queer Black girls, internalize negative perceptions of themselves. Was this always something you wanted to explore in this book?
Thanks so much for saying that. I hoped it would illustrate the ways that so many of us are unable to see the best parts of ourselves because the voices that want us to be ashamed or embarrassed or small are often the loudest in our heads. But when you’re able to divorce yourself from those voices and unlearn that shame, you become your fullest self. Sometimes it takes someone else who sees that grandness in you, and is so unabashed about it that there’s no room in your head for anything else, in order for you to begin to see it yourself.

I’ve been really lucky that I’m surrounded by people who love and support me, but that love is under constant threat of buckling under the weight of a world that doesn’t want me to love myself. Black women—Black girls in particular—are expected to be palatable, to shrink themselves into something small and “respectable.” I wanted to buck against that in this book. Black girls should have room to be selfish, to be careless, to make mistakes and still be redeemable. Still be worthy of and capable of boundless love. 

You really captured the power of live music as a communal experience during the Farmland scenes. What do the connections between artist, audience/listener and music mean to you? Do you make music yourself?
I play the ukulele pretty poorly, but I’ve always had a heart for live music. I can’t count the number of times I’ve lost myself in a crowd at a show, become family with sweaty strangers standing next to me at a concert, felt something too big to name under the stars at a music festival as I shouted lyrics at the sky. Live music has given me shelter when I needed it and shined a light on the things I wanted most to hide when I needed that, too. Not to wax too poetic about it, but I love it a great deal.

Dave Grohl wrote about this in The Atlantic last summer: “Without that audience—that screaming, sweating audience—my songs would only be sound. But together, we are instruments in a sonic cathedral, one that we build together night after night.” And I think that’s the whole thing. I believe in the power of the sonic cathedral. In building something together under those lights that I could never build on my own. And that belief has changed my life.

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our starred review of Rise to the Sun.

I loved the book’s dedication: “To the Black girls who have been told they’re too much and to the ones who don’t believe they’re enough: You are the world’s most beautiful song.” Who do you hope will read this book, and what do you hope they’ll take away from it?
All of my work is for Black girls who deserve to see themselves reflected in the pages of the stories they read, but this particular book is for the Black girls who have internalized shame about who they are. There’s nothing wrong with being someone who feels “too much” or loves “too hard.” It’s OK to be afraid of the future and unsure about what you want. Be loud, be foolish, be a little reckless. Be quiet, be brooding, be contemplative. You deserve to take up space, to be whoever and whatever you are, and be loved not in spite of those things but because of those things.

I once heard a writer say that you spend your whole life writing your debut novel and then just a year or two writing your second one. What was the experience of writing a second book like for you, and how was it different from your first?
I don’t know if we even have enough time for me to get into what it was like to not only draft and revise a book in a year but also to do it during a pandemic. It was a wild, impossible-seeming, deeply challenging experience. From cross-country moves, to health emergencies, to your regular case of the sophomore scaries, this book was forged in blood, sweat and tears (literal tears—so many of them!). I’m so proud of the book we were able to make, not just because of the story but also because I know how hard it was to get it done. You Should See Me in a Crown was written in a different world and, sometimes it seems, by a different person. They both come from the same heart, though—from the same desire to write Black girls in a way that is honest and funny and sometimes cringey. And that’s my North Star. The why doesn’t change, no matter where or when I’m working.

There are some super fun Easter eggs in Rise to the Sun for fans of You Should See Me in a Crown. Why did you decide to connect the worlds of the two books?
I have always been a sucker for a shared universe in an author’s work! I love it. It feels like an inside joke between me and the writer somehow, like they planted a seed just waiting for me to come along and watch it blossom. It feels less like fiction and more like a real, tangible world being built. I knew that if I ever got a chance to do that in my own books, I would do it in a heartbeat. Luckily, my editor let me get away with it.

I’ve noticed a recurring theme of competition in both of your books—prom queen challenges, scavenger hunts, music contests. Do you think of yourself as a competitive person?
Ha! Yes and no. I’ve recently gotten really into the game Catan (thanks to Brittney Morris, incredible writer and tabletop gamer extraordinaire), and I’m taking great pride in beating everybody I know at it. Apparently it is a secret gift of mine. So when it comes to Catan, watch out, I’m cutthroat. But most things? I’m just here to have a good time.

Photo of Leah Johnson courtesy of Reece T. Williams

Leah Johnson returns with Rise to the Sun, the story of Olivia and Toni, who meet on the first day of the Farmland Music and Arts Festival.

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