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All YA Nonfiction Coverage

Delight the teenager on your holiday list with a fabulous graphic novel or gripping true story guaranteed to make them swoon, giggle or gasp.

The Girl From the Sea

For the reader who longs to be carried away on the waves of a fantastical story

In The Girl From the Sea, author-illustrator Molly Knox Ostertag blends myth and realism to create a story about the things we’d rather keep submerged—and what happens when they surface with a splash.

Morgan Kwon is 15 and part of a power clique at her high school that serves as a frothy diversion from her unhappy family life. She’s just biding her time until she can move away from her small island town and finally come out as gay. 

One rainy night at the rocky seaside cliffs that are her favorite place to sit and think, Morgan slips on the wet stones and falls into the water. She’s rescued by a mysterious girl named Keltie, who is kind of cute, really, and an awfully powerful swimmer, but the instant connection between them threatens all the secrets that Morgan’s been carefully concealing from her friends and family. 

Ostertag (The Witch Boy) is an expert at conveying complex emotions and subtly shifting the mood from one panel to the next. Morgan is part of a group text message thread with her friends, which  includes numerous invitations that Morgan declines, at first because of her feelings of loneliness and depression, and later because Keltie is clearly not welcome among the group, even as she and Morgan are tentatively falling for each other. Ostertag initially depicts Morgan’s home life with her stressed mom and angry little brother in stark, silent scenes, but as secrets come to light and Morgan’s family reach out to one another, there’s a warmth to their time together that lifts off the page.

This graphic novel’s narrative flows so smoothly that you might find yourself reading it in one big gulp, and its resolution is bittersweet but hopeful. The Girl From the Sea is a wistful romance that will catch readers by the heart.

—Heather Seggel

Passport

For the reader who has always suspected there was more to their parents than meets the eye

“¿Qué está pasando?” Early in her graphic memoir, Passport, author-illustrator Sophia Glock writes that this phrase—which means “what is going on?”—is her mantra at the Spanish-language immersion high school she attends in Central America. The phrase is a lifeline as Glock navigates the usual challenges of teenage life, but it takes on another meaning when Glock discovers that she is the daughter of CIA agents who have been keeping her in the dark. 

Growing up, Glock lived all over the world because of her parents’ ambiguous “work.” What work is that, exactly? She has no idea. The more questions she asks, the fewer answers she receives. Just keep your head down, her parents tell her. Stay safe, and if you can, why don’t you let us know what your friends’ parents do for a living?

When Glock reads a letter that her older sister, away at college, wrote to their parents, the blanks in her life begin to fill in, though she is too afraid to confront her parents directly. Instead, like any frustrated teen, she exercises her autonomy and starts telling lies of her own. Boys, girls, drinking and partying abound while Glock travels through the gauntlet of adolescence and the tension between her ever-accumulating little lies versus her parents’ one big lie threatens to boil over.

Glock’s depictions of quiet yet consequential moments, such as when she ponders the choices her parents have made, are especially spellbinding. Her sparse, restrained art style evokes the feeling of a memory play, a recollection both real and ethereal. She renders the entire book in only three colors: shades of a reddish pink, a cold blue and white. Her characters aren’t always easily distinguishable from one another, and while that can cause some confusion in the story, the overall effect is satisfying. After all, how much does Glock really know about the people around her? ¿Qué está pasando? In her author’s note, Glock concedes as much. ”These stories are as true as I remember them,” she writes. The CIA’s publication review board nixed some of the particulars of Passport before it was published, which makes the details that did end up in the book all the more dramatic.

A deceptively spare graphic novel chock-full of depth and beauty, Passport is an unusual coming-of-age memoir that’s totally worth the trip. 

—Luis G. Rendon

★ The Dire Days of Willowweep Manor

For the reader who loves spooky castles and fears no gothic terror, not even marauding zombie bunnies

Haley is so exuberantly dedicated to gothic romances that her exasperated teacher orders her to stop writing book reports on Wuthering Heights (and no, she cannot do an interpretive dance about it instead!). After school, Haley sets out for home in the rain, and lo! As she stands on a bridge, dramatically sighing, she sees a man struggling in the dark waters below. She dives in to rescue the floundering fellow, conks out after her exertions and awakens abed in Willowweep Manor, attended by a dour housekeeper named Wilhelmina. Have Haley’s period-piece dreams come true? 

Turns out, Haley has indeed been inadvertently catapulted into a world much like those in her beloved books. There’s a castle (complete with “baleful catacombs” and an on-site ghost) and verdant moors, as well as three handsome brothers—stoic Laurence, brooding Montague and vacuous Cuthbert—who took her in after she saved Montague from drowning.

But Haley soon discovers another side to Willowweep. It’s a gasket universe, a liminal space between Earth and an evil dimension laden with a substance called bile that destroys everything in its globby, neon green path. Can Haley help the brothers fend off the encroaching forces of darkness before it’s too late? 

The Dire Days of Willowweep Manor is a hoot right from the get-go, but when everyone bands together to defend the manor, author Shaenon K. Garrity’s tale becomes ever more hilarious and exciting. Humorous metafictional quips fly hither and yon as the characters take up arms, squabble over strategy and realize they’ve got to break a few rules (and defy a few tropes) if they want to prevail. 

Christopher Baldwin’s art is full-bore appealing. He has an excellent command of color: Brooding browns underlie characters’ stress while sky blues highlight Haley’s growing confidence. Facial expressions are little comedies unto themselves, including horses who side-eye Cuthbert’s silliness, and slack-faced bile-addled bunnies who adorably chant “Destroy.” 

The Dire Days of Willowweep Manor celebrates and satirizes a beloved genre while encouraging readers to defy the rules and become the heroes of their own stories.

—Linda M. Castellitto

Find more 2021 gift recommendations from BookPage.

Looking for something to please a choosy teen reader? Look no further than these gripping graphic tales.

On June 1, 1921, a mob of white people descended on the Greenwood district of Tulsa, Oklahoma, known as “Black Wall Street.” They killed hundreds of Black residents and bombed, burned and otherwise laid waste to a neighborhood that spanned 35 blocks. In Black Birds in the Sky: The Story and Legacy of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, author Brandy Colbert recounts this history for teen readers and shows how its echoes continue to reverberate today.

As she does in her middle grade and young adult fiction, including the Stonewall Award-winning Little & Lion, Colbert draws readers in with richly detailed settings, and she describes Greenwood with vibrant imagery. Its Black residents built their own economy from the ground up. They could not freely choose where to spend their money in the wider region, but as it recirculated within Greenwood, it created a booming business community. Colbert captures a sense of lively growth that makes the neighborhood’s eventual destruction hit home with visceral impact.

Poor white Tulsans' feelings of grievance and jealousy were factors that led to the massacre, and some local media outlets escalated tensions through false, inflammatory reporting. As the violence spread, the police and the National Guard aided white vigilantes by imprisoning Black residents in internment camps. A grand jury investigation later blamed Black men for inciting violence when they had actually been trying to stop it.

Colbert’s meticulous research holds the book together. Informative sidebars add vital context and will help readers make sense of an almost incomprehensible crime that was driven by white supremacy. A chilling postscript explores efforts to bury this history and the ongoing resistance to its revival. Black Birds in the Sky tells the truth about an event that every American should know about. It’s a horrifying account told with great care.

Black Birds in the Sky tells the truth about an event that every American should know about. It’s a horrifying account told with great care.

Deborah Wiles was 16 years old on May 4, 1970, when she heard the news that the National Guard had opened fire on college students who had been protesting the Vietnam War at Kent State University in Ohio. Four students were killed and nine were wounded, one of whom was left paralyzed. Two of the students killed had simply been walking to class. Fifty years later, the award-winning author revisits the tragedy in Kent State, an extraordinary and passionate recounting written in free verse from multiple points of view. “The earthquake of its enormity has never left me,” Wiles reflects in an author’s note.

Like a meticulous theater director, Wiles opens by carefully setting the stage, then coming out from behind the curtain and addressing readers directly. “You are new here,” she writes, “and we don’t want to scare you away, / but we want you to know the truth.” She explains that the military draft provoked angst and uncertainty across Kent State’s campus, and describes mounting student anger at Nixon’s decision to bomb Cambodia.

Wiles’ decision to write in free verse, rather than prose, effectively harnesses her meticulous research and enables her to convey her four-day chronology of events through collective, often conflicting, voices. She captures the vigorous debates and frequent clashes that occurred between these voices, which include white and black students, townies and National Guard soldiers. The opinionated participants remain anonymous on the page, distinguished through careful and varied typography, but together, they form a diverse chorus that offers readers a mix of opinion, memory, fact and misinformation. Wiles also intersperses the lyrics of protest songs through the book, including Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s “Ohio,” which was written by Neil Young in the aftermath of what happened and, as Wiles explains, “helped change the national conversation about the war in Vietnam.”


ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Deborah Wiles shares the book that inspired Kent State’s verse format and her personal memories of May 4, 1970.


Yet always at the forefront of this chorus are the victims, to whom Wiles dedicates Kent State. Allison Krause was “attractive in every way” and died in her boyfriend’s arms. She was 19 years old. Jeffrey Miller had recently chatted with his mother by phone, telling her, “Don’t worry. I’m not going to get hurt.” He was 20 years old. Bill Schroeder had just met with his ROTC advisor and eventually planned to help frontline solders as a military psychologist. He was 19 years old. Sandy Scheuer was a “delightful square” who loved Dinah Shore and Perry Como. She was 20 years old. Wiles doesn’t mince words when describing the circumstances of their deaths: “America turned on its unarmed children, in their schoolyard, and killed them.”

In Kent State, Deborah Wiles has created a powerful work of art that serves as both as a historical record of a national tragedy and a call to action for every American, but especially for young people. After all, as she writes, “It has always been the young / who are our champions / of justice. / Who stand at the vanguard / of change.”

Deborah Wiles was 16 years old on May 4, 1970, when she heard the news that the National Guard had opened fire on college students who had been protesting the Vietnam War at Kent State University in Ohio. Four students were killed and nine were wounded, one of whom was left paralyzed. Two of the […]

Deborah Wiles proved herself a master of historical fiction with her Sixties trilogy. Now she turns her formidable gaze toward the horrific events at Kent State University when, 50 years ago, the National Guard killed four students protesting the Vietnam War. Kent State is ambitious, elegiac, powerful—and urgently contemporary.

Kent State has a very distinct style. How did you arrive at this form?
I call this form “lineated prose.” It’s a conversation among six voices. In trying to find a way to tell this story, I worked closely with my editor, David Levithan. We had some conversations about “ways of telling,” and a book we’d both loved, George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo, came to both of us as a way to use disembodied voices to tell the story from afar. David then had the idea to use “collective memory” to tell the story of an event that has so many different angles of truth and myth that it’s hard to pinpoint exactly what happened and be totally factual.

May 4, 1970, was three days before your 16th birthday. What do you remember of your experience in that moment?
What I remember is kids whispering on the school bus on the way home from school and not knowing what they were talking about but understanding that it was ominous. Then, on the nightly news, there it was, the killing of four Kent State students and the wounding of nine more by the Ohio National Guard. I still remember the hair on the back of my neck standing on end, my throat closing, the skitter across my shoulders, thinking, “How can this happen in America?” and the talk at school for days and days after, trying to process it. We were all just stunned, and so was the country. It changed everything for me in how I looked at the war—and I was an Air Force kid, with a dad who was flying missions to Vietnam, taking supplies over and bringing bodies back. I wanted the war to end as much as those kids at Kent State did.


ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our starred review of Kent State.


In your author’s note, you write that any storyteller worth her salt tries to “go there,” if possible. Did you go to Kent State before you decided to write this book, or after? What was it like? How did “going there” inform what you could bring to the page?
This is such a good question. I’d decided to write the book before I went to Kent State. I traveled there three times, and each time was different. The first time I went with my husband, and we met our helpers at the May 4 Visitors Center so they could guide us through the landscape and general history. We participated in the all-night silent vigil on May 3 and the yearly remembrance/observance on May 4. Anyone can go and take part in the vigil and observance each year. There is nothing like being there to give you a sense of the gravity of what happened there, and to know that the country is still grieving, still trying to come to terms with this slaughter. It’s a powerful experience, and it doesn’t leave you. 

On subsequent trips, I interviewed survivors and worked in the Special Collections archive at Kent State’s library, which was a rich mother lode of meaningful information for the book, and where I discovered the BUS—Black United Students—and their story, which became an essential part of the book.

Can you discuss your decision to include what you call “faulty memory” in the book? 
I grew up living with people who couldn’t or wouldn’t hear me when I tried to reason with them, so I know how helpless that feels and how powerless that renders the person who becomes invisible to others. People get desperate when they feel they have no voice. In this country, we’re in a time where people seem so divided in their worldviews that it’s hard to hear one another. The Kent State story is one where people couldn’t communicate, and where viewpoints about what led to the shootings and why they happened are so diverse and divided and so passionately held that I felt they deserved to be heard. From “They should have killed more of you” from the townies, to “We were just kids” from the students, to “You see a white man holding a gun and you don’t think it’s loaded?” from the Black United Students, to “We didn’t want to be there” from the National Guard. It was mayhem, and yet, taken all together, we have a story of a time and a place, and everyone is heard. They don’t have to agree. They need to be heard.

What gives you hope?
I hope it’s not too corny to say that the American people, as fractured as we appear to be at times, give me hope. At our best—and we are seeing this right now—we know what is most important, for ourselves and for the world. We hold these truths to be self-evident. And we have to be activists for those truths. People out there on the front lines right now, in all walks of life, are heroes. Those staying home and caring for one another are heroes, too. There will be time for other actions. And we will come together, I feel certain.

Author photo © David DeVries

Two-time National Book Award finalist Deborah Wiles reckons with a dark moment in American history.

Sometimes a story can be told solely through prose, but these two graphics make it clear that some stories need more than just powerful words. Addressing themes of death, grieving, angst and longing, these books find that love can survive loss, and that the world is perfused with wonder.

Tyler Feder confronts loss with a gentle smile in Dancing at the Pity Party: A Dead Mom Graphic Memoir. No stone is left unturned as Feder recounts her mother’s cancer diagnosis and reflects on her own ever-present grieving process. Feder walks us through her journey in hilarious, moving detail, and the illustrations enable us to experience her pain even more deeply.

When Feder and her sisters go to the mall to get “black mourning clothes,” they stumble into Forever 21, where 2000s-era neon dresses are comically lurid against their sullen faces. Feder jokes lovingly about this experience. She also shares insights into the grieving process that recall Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, as when she refuses to let anyone clean out her mother’s closet or when she admits to feeling like her mom is “just on a long trip somewhere far away.”

While Feder’s experience is uniquely Jewish American, including kriah ribbons and a shiva, her memoir looks beyond culturally specific ideas about death to face loss and grief on a personal level. With a mix of sadness, compassion and joy, Feder tells a touching story for anyone who has lost someone—or really, for anyone who loves someone.

Borja González’s A Gift for a Ghost is the ensorcelling, strange yet familiar tale of the intertwined fates of a 19th-century girl who longs to be a horror-poet and a 21st-century high school punk band. The story and images are reminiscent of something Kurt Cobain wrote about the Raincoats, another amateurish band: “Rather than listening to them, I feel like I’m listening in on them. We’re together in the same old house and I have to be completely still, or they will hear my spying from above, and if I get caught, everything will be ruined.” The novel creates a similar effect: The story unfolds slowly and endearingly, and you find yourself drawn in to its air of mystery and magic. 

As Teresa prepares for her poetry debut, and as bandmates Gloria, Laura and Cristina try their hands at songwriting, the story builds, with anxiety rising in all of their lives. As the four girls struggle to decide which sides of themselves to embrace, González’s artwork can be both spare and hyperfloral. We begin to wonder who the girls will become and what brought them all together in the first place. Once (some of) these questions are resolved and the story reaches its end, you can’t help but feel that you missed something, but that feeling is actually just a desire to read the book all over again.

Addressing themes of death, grieving, angst and longing, two new graphics find that love can survive loss, and that the world is perfused with wonder.

A clear-eyed examination of racism, a rollicking coming-of-age memoir and a romance that’s truly for everyone top this month’s best audiobooks.

★ Stamped

In Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You, Jason Reynolds uses his own voice to reinterpret Ibram X. Kendi’s Stamped From the Beginning for young readers. He traces the origins of racism in the United States back hundreds of years, to when Greek philosophy and the Bible were first used to justify enslaving Africans with dark skin. In an engaging storytelling style intended for a young audience but appealing to anyone, Reynolds delves into different periods in American history to uncover the racism hiding in plain sight and how it connects to today. He equips listeners with the tools to notice when something is racist and to be antiracist in their own lives. Reynolds’ narration has a poetic, hip vibe that keeps the book flowing and never feeling like homework. This would make a great listen for the whole family, especially when incorporating breaks for discussion.

Everything I Know About Love

Dolly Alderton’s Everything I Know About Love, a touching memoir of early adulthood’s hilarious highs and relatable lows, is a must-read for anyone who grew up learning to talk to a crush through instant messengers. Alderton breaks up the memoir’s chapters with lists of the absolute truths that she believes about love at different ages in her life; the lists charmingly contradict each other as she gains maturity and perspective. Alderton makes for a delightful narrator despite, as she mentions, hating her posh, British boarding school accent. Her wit shines through, especially when narrating an imaginary, over-the-top bachelorette party from hell.

Undercover Bromance

Undercover Bromance, written by Lyssa Kay Adams, delivers on the goofy action the title promises. The bromance book club is made up of Nashville’s movers and shakers, from the city’s top athletes to its elite businessmen, including nightclub owner Braden Mack. When Braden accidentally gets Liv fired from her dream job as a pastry chef, he helps her get revenge on her sexual harasser boss. The fun cast of characters includes a hippie farmer landlord, a Vietnam vet who’s a softy at heart and a Russian hockey player who tells it like it is. Narrator Andrew Eiden’s macho, tough-guy voice is suited to this testosterone-laden romance novel that fully embraces the form and proves that romance can be for anybody.

A clear-eyed examination of racism, a rollicking coming-of-age memoir and a romance that's truly for everyone top this month’s best audiobooks.

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