Sarah Welch

For Lou, the months before college are full of change and uncertainty. She just broke up with her too-pushy boyfriend, and she thinks she might be asexual. Her mother, Louisa, is away selling beadwork on the powwow circuit, and her former best friend, King, is back in town for the first time in three years. And her family’s ice cream business is going under.

Then a letter arrives from Lou’s father, a dangerous, manipulative white man who has recently been released from prison and demands to be involved in her life. Lou was conceived when he sexually assaulted her mother, and the pair spent years running from that history and their own Métis heritage before finally settling down with Lou’s uncles. If anyone in Lou’s family learns that her father is out of prison, Lou fears that Louisa will want the two of them to disappear again, and Lou will lose every ounce of stability she’s managed to find. With support and tough love from King and other friends, Lou spends a pivotal summer learning to finally embrace who she is, who she loves and what she stands for.

In The Summer of Bitter and Sweet, Jen Ferguson (Border Markers) portrays one weighty subject after another, including Lou’s exploration of her sexuality, her relationship to her Métis heritage, her quest to save her family’s ice cream shack, her father’s threats and her burgeoning relationship with King. Each of these storylines could easily fill a whole novel, but Ferguson impressively blends them all together in a complex depiction of one teenager’s struggle to find her center when every aspect of her life seems on the verge of collapse.

Lou is wonderfully multidimensional, and so is everyone around her. As Lou comes to a new appreciation of her community and its power, Ferguson paints the novel’s ancillary characters with vivid strokes, creating detailed and dynamic portraits of Louisa, King, Lou’s uncles and even her ex-boyfriend.

Readers will appreciate that Lou’s journey toward strength and self-acceptance is not neat or linear; instead, it’s messy and filled with as many stumbles as steps forward. They’ll empathize with her when she reaches for King and when she pushes him away. It’s moving and inspiring to witness Lou’s tenacious drive to understand, on her own terms, what family and identity truly mean.

Jen Ferguson’s The Summer of Bitter and Sweet is a moving, inspiring portrait of one teenager’s tenacious desire to understand what family and identity truly mean.

To commemorate their “dumpster fire” of a year ending, two teenage girls light a fire in their school’s garbage dumpster. Over the course of a single day, the fire sets off a twisting chain of events and unravels a complex relationship that flickers between best friendship and so much more.

In Nothing Burns as Bright as You, Ashley Woodfolk (When You Were Everything, The Beauty That Remains) plumbs the depths of female friendship, first love and the grief that often comes with navigating—and losing—both. The narrator retraces the history of an intimate friendship with someone referred to only as “you” across the novel’s nonlinear structure, creating a portrait of a defining relationship. With the day of the fire as an anchor, readers follow the girls back and forth in time and witness them becoming best friends and partners in crime, then slowly but fully—though the narrator’s partner can’t bring herself to admit it—falling in love.

Woodfolk’s second-person free verse and rich language imbue both characters and their relationship with vivid, vulnerable life. She exposes their conflicted feelings about their love for each other as well as the exhaustion from the weight of the expectations they bear as Black teenagers. The narrator poignantly recalls her first realization that she lives “in a world that always makes things that aren’t your fault / your fault,” describing how, at age 13, she found herself in danger simply because she was a Black girl. Yet only a few lines later, the narrator reveals that when she met her friend “a year later, almost to the minute,” her friend told her, “You didn’t need to be rescued. / You are infinitely powerful. / You had already saved yourself.”

In moments like these, Woodfolk captures an intense connection between two girls in its truest form. Readers will recognize touchstones of their own friendships in the unguarded, affectionate and protective way Woodfolk’s protagonists relate to one another, and they’ll also feel the ferocity of the deep love and sadness the girls experience as their relationship begins to singe and smolder in the days before and the hours after the fire. Nothing Burns as Bright as You is an emotional inferno and Woodfolk’s best book yet.

Discover why Ashley Woodfolk calls ‘Nothing Burns as Bright as You’ her most “emotionally honest” book yet.

In Nothing Burns as Bright as You, Ashley Woodfolk plumbs the depths of female friendship, first love and the grief that often comes with navigating—and losing—both.

Millie Price has her heart set on Broadway, so when her single dad tells her that he wants her to stay in New York for her senior year of high school rather than attending the prestigious musical theater pre-college she’s been accepted to in California, she feels her dreams slipping away. When she stumbles across her dad’s old college-era LiveJournal, however, she discovers the perfect solution. If Millie can find her mom, she’s convinced she’ll have an ally—but the LiveJournal entries mention three different women. As Millie sets out to find out which of her dad’s former flames is her mother, she realizes there’s someone else she needs to get to know: herself.

Emma Lord’s When You Get the Chance is an exuberant celebration of all things Broadway, complete with musical theater references on nearly every page. But this gender-bent Mamma Mia! retelling is also a touching exploration of what family really looks like, and a powerful reminder that sometimes everything we need is already right in front of us.

Millie describes herself as “a lot,” and she’s not wrong. With her meticulously styled looks and her “Millie Moods,” which she describes as feeling like “everything is just so much that . . . it’s going to spill out of me if I don’t find a place to put it,” Millie is an unapologetically loud character who is unafraid to take up space. Add in her deep-seated kindness and her single-minded pursuit of her goals, and Millie is a fun and easy protagonist to root for.

The book’s supporting characters come to life just as vividly, from Millie’s steadfast best friend, Teddy, and her drama club rival-turned-crush, Oliver, to her introverted dad and the outgoing aunt who helped him raise her, to each of her potential moms. This rich cast of characters creates an enviable found family that lifts one another up and shows Millie that there might be a better way to achieve her dreams.

Perfect for the “theater dweebs” to whom the book is dedicated, as well as any teen who’s ever felt somehow incomplete, When You Get the Chance is a joyful read that will have readers tapping their toes to the music in Millie’s heart.

Raised by her dad, theater-loving Millie longs to discover her mom’s identity. Does her dad’s old LiveJournal hold the key?

Claudie Durand is 18 years old and knows that she will never marry. She will be useful and dependable, but nothing more. Her father decided this when Claudie was young, after her mother abandoned their family to join a religious order. Claudie’s beautiful younger sister, Mathilde, will marry and begin her own life, while Claudie will take over running the family inn. But when the French Revolution finally reaches the northwestern region of Brittany and the revolutionary army destroys Claudie’s village, both Claudie’s and Mathilde’s plans for the future disappear in the smoke.

The two sisters, the sole survivors of their village, are thrust into the resistance efforts of a group called the Legion. Together, Claudie and Mathilde make their way toward the Breton capital of Rennes and then to England, joining forces along the way with a resistance leader known only as the Rooster of Rennes. Claudie’s intelligence and capability propels them forward, and as she grows closer to the cause—and to the Rooster himself—Claudie finally begins to recognize her worth.

In The Diamond Keeper, Jeannie Mobley (The Jewel Thief) thrusts readers into the midst of the French Revolution, vividly illustrating the horrors of war. Claudie is an appealing protagonist who brings historical events to life for readers as they follow her journey from France to England and her transformation from indifference and insecurity to passion and confidence. Claudie’s romance with the Rooster of Rennes is endearing, if a bit predictable, and it’s enjoyable to see Claudie discover her own strength as she repeatedly saves the day, not to mention the Rooster’s life.

More poignant is the evolution of Claudie’s relationship with Mathilde. Claudie has served as a maternal figure for Mathilde since both girls were very young. Mathilde, it seems, recognized Claudie’s potential long before Claudie ever did, and as Claudie’s emotions toward Mathilde shift from resentment and envy to respect and even admiration, readers will be moved by the new and more mature bond of sisterhood that forms between them.

The backdrop of the French Revolution will pique the interest of young history buffs, and Claudie’s leadership will make the book a hit with readers who’ve questioned their self-worth, their purpose or their path.

This adventurous tale, set during the French Revolution, is grounded by an appealing protagonist and a touching portrayal of sisterhood.

When German-born Eva Gerst arrives at Powell House in New York in the wake of the Second World War, she’s on a mission—but not the mission the United States government thinks they’ve enlisted her for. Yes, she’s searching for the Nazi leader they’ve asked her to find, but she has no intention of turning him over to them as instructed. She knows they’ll only protect him. Worse, they’ll allow him to continue his grotesque psychological experiments, like the ones he conducted on the people imprisoned in the Sachsenhausen concentration camp, in the interest of staying one step ahead of the Soviets. No, Eva is determined to bring this Nazi to justice herself.

In Bluebird, author Sharon Cameron (The Light in Hidden Places) dives deep into the dark, little-recognized period immediately following WWII, when the U.S. raced to secure German technology, including Nazi expertise, equipment and strategy, both for its personal use and to keep it out of Soviet hands. The depth of Cameron’s research on this historical era results in a completely immersive novel. Readers will find themselves dropped directly into postwar Germany and New York City alongside Eva as she witnesses the atrocities of the concentration camps and the racist attitudes of both Germans and Americans. They’ll also find beacons of hope among the American Friends Service Committee, which welcomes Eva to Powell House when she first arrives in America. The AFSC, writes Cameron in a lengthy author’s note, was a real organization that received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1947 for its efforts during both world wars and was “one of the few organizations willing to work immediately with non-Jewish German immigrants” after WWII.

Cameron pulls no punches in Bluebird. Although the novel is rarely graphic and never gratuitous, many of Eva’s experiences, including her physically and psychologically abusive parents and the aftermath of her best friend’s sexual assault, resonate viscerally. Despite the novel’s weighty material, Cameron never loses sight of the heart at the center of the story. Eva’s loyalty to her best friend, her struggle to understand her identity and her budding romance with Jacob Katz, whom the AFSC has assigned to help her settle into her new life in America, all keep Bluebird grounded, providing touchstones of warmth amid the horrors of Eva’s past. And when it comes to the impossible decisions Eva must make, Cameron ensures that readers will be searching for the “right” choice right along with her.

In Bluebird, author Sharon Cameron (The Light in Hidden Places) dives deep into the dark, little-recognized period immediately following WWII, when the U.S. raced to secure German technology, including Nazi expertise, equipment and strategy, both for its personal use and to keep it out of Soviet hands.

Finch Kelly feels most at home on the debate stage, and he knows winning the national debate championship could be his ticket to achieving his dreams: admission to Georgetown University and the first step toward becoming the first transgender member of Congress. But his family’s finances are falling apart, his feelings for his debate partner, Jonah, are growing more and more complicated and the topic for the championship debate will require him to argue against his own human rights. As the pressure mounts, Finch begins to lose confidence in everything he once believed.

In this sharp and emotional first novel, author Peyton Thomas explores the queer high school experience through Finch, who longs to look more like the teenage boy he is and whose feelings for Jonah are causing him to question his sexual orientation. The novel also confronts racism through Jonah’s experience as a Filipino American who deals with microaggressions from debate judges and his gorgeous, Juilliard-bound boyfriend. Add in the socioeconomic woes that are never far from Finch’s thoughts, as his parents grapple with unemployment and his debate opponents' families write huge checks to prestigious colleges, and Both Sides Now is jampacked with timely issues.

Thomas doesn’t pull any punches on difficult topics and never once reduces his characters to objects of pity. Instead, he depicts teenagers who are working hard to find their places in a world that has thrown obstacle after obstacle in their paths. The novel balances serious political conversations and scenes of moving emotional hardship with moments of comedy and a spirit of true camaraderie and respect between Finch and Jonah.

Teens who participate in their schools' debate or Model United Nations programs will especially appreciate the book’s detailed exploration of contemporary political issues, but Thomas’ witty prose, strong pacing and knack for creating vivid, dimensional characters have broad appeal.

Finch Kelly feels most at home on the debate stage, and he knows winning the national debate championship could be his ticket to achieving his dreams: admission to Georgetown University and the first step toward becoming the first transgender member of Congress.

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