We welcome the start of another school year with some reviews of recently published young adult books.
Unpunished Murder: Massacre at Colfax and the Quest for Justice by Lawrence Goldstone
Scholastic FOCUS (an Imprint of Scholastic Inc.), 2018, 288 pp., $17.99
Law and Crime (NF), History/United States/People and Places/African American
In 1873, Grant Parish, Louisiana, was populated with mostly Black residents, many of whom were “freedmen.” The parish government and militia were largely composed of Black freedmen as well. On Easter Sunday of 1873, in the parish seat of Colfax, a group of over 200 well-armed white supremacist “Redeemers,” led by Sheriff C.C. Nash, attempted to take back the parish government. In so doing, they brutally, mercilessly murdered approximately 105 poorly armed Black men. Most of the perpetrators of this crime were never prosecuted, and none were ever punished.
Author and historian Lawrence Goldstone begins Unpunished Murder by recounting this occurrence, one that most Americans know little about. He then circles back to the beginnings of American history and examines the events and individuals that either indirectly or directly led to this brutal massacre. Goldstone continues by exploring the aftermath and consequences of the Colfax mass murder all the way to the Supreme Court (United States vs. Cruikshank) and beyond.
The chief strength of Unpunished Murder is Goldstone’s meticulous and thorough research. Even those familiar with the events that occurred at Colfax may discover new information. The text is supported with vintage primary resources- documents, newspaper articles, cartoons, illustrations, photos, artwork, etc.
In addition to learning more about the events that occurred at Colfax, this fine work of non-fiction will introduce and reinforce for teen readers the ways in which government works, lessons from our history, the impact that our history has on the present, the importance of quality research, and more.
Unpunished Murder is timely and relevant. The consequences of what occurred in Colfax and similar events can still be felt today. Civil Rights continue to be a primary political and social issue in 2018. Though the publishers suggest the book for grades 3-7 and ages 8-12, the book seems more appropriate for older students (grades 7-12), as the text is dense and fact-filled, and the vocabulary is advanced. Recommended for all libraries that serve teens.
Reviewed by Terri Evans, St. Michael, Minnesota
Grenade by Alan Gratz
Scholastic Press, 2018, 288 pp., $16.99
Historic Fiction/WWII/Japan/Survival/Military and Wars
Grenade by Alan Gratz tells the story of World War II’s Battle of Okinawa through the experiences of an Okinawan school boy and an American Marine. First, we meet Hideki, a fourteen-year-old student whose school has been bombed and who is given two grenades; one to kill Americans and one to kill himself. Next, we meet Ray, an eighteen-year-old Marine who is entering his first battle; afraid and unsure of what to expect. Through alternating chapters that feature Hideki and Ray’s experiences, readers will experience the brutality of war and the fear, hope and terrible choices people are forced to make.
Gripping from the very start, readers are not spared the violence and inhumanity of war. The chaos, fear and panic that Hideki and Ray experience are front and center, as are the terrible loss of loved ones and companions to friend and foe alike. Prior to war, both characters had family issues that they were struggling to understand. For Hideki, it was an ancient curse and for Ray it was his violent and unpredictable father, clearly suffering from untreated post-traumatic stress disorder from his own war-time experience. Hope and bravery in survival drive the plot forward.
Readers will learn about the history of Japan and Okinawa, the culture and customs of the Okinawan people, and the importance of the Battle of Okinawa in WWII. The author gives readers insight into how he came upon the idea for Grenade, and his author notes go into greater detail about the circumstances surrounding the Battle of Okinawa and World War II, as well as how Okinawa has recovered from the battle.
Grenade is an excellent title to accompany any classroom study of World War II. It’s fast-moving action, shorter chapters, and compelling characters will appeal to reluctant readers.
Reviewed by Jane Kaftan, Sandusky, Ohio
The Me I Meant to Be by Sophie Jordan
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 304 pp., $17.99
Realistic Fiction/Peer Relationships/Emotions/Family Issues/Growing Up
We all have an image of the ideal person we think we are supposed to be; the person we want to be, strive to be. The catch, however, is that we don’t always reach that ideal. In fact, sometimes we become the complete opposite. Best friends Willa and Flor know this truth too well. Developing the Girl Code rules, neither expect how difficult putting the rules into action will be. Nor are they prepared for the struggle between who they really are and who they mean to be.
Willa and Flor have always been able to count on each other when it comes to dealing with life’s problems. When Flor’s mother abandons her, and her father gets involved with a younger woman, Willa is there. When Willa’s sister divorces and moves back home with her young child, Flor has her back. Through insecurities and break-ups, family drama and growing up, they know they can count on each other. But, what if they can’t? What if one of them breaks the very first rule in the Girl Code: Never date a friend’s ex or a guy your friend is really into? What if daily life gets in the way of the person each means to be?
New York Times best-selling author Sophie Jordan captures what it means to navigate through life, the good times and the bad times. She explores tough issues, from abandonment to betrayal, from first loves to deep, lasting friendships. Readers will experience love and hate, anger and joy, while hoping for the best and ultimately accepting the actions of both Willa and Flor. They will recognize, as the two main characters do, that life is messy and that sometimes it’s okay to be the me we are instead of the me we were meant to be.
Reviewed by Melissa Comer, Oak Ridge, Tennessee
Dear Rachel Maddow by Adrienne Kisner
Feiwel and Friends, 2018, 265 pp., $17.99
Family/Social Activism/Alcohol and Drug Abuse/Relationships/LGBTQ
Brynn Harper is a former honor student who has struggled since the drug overdose death of her older brother Nick. When her grades and her self-esteem tumble, she is moved from honors courses to the applied classes in the basement of her high school. An assignment in one of her new classes causes her to write and email to MSNBC host Rachel Maddow. When Brynn surprisingly receives a reply, she begins to write a series of unsent emails to her new-found hero. She tells Rachel about her brother, her unhappy home life, her ex-girlfriend, and all the other trials and tribulations in her life.
When Adam Graff, Brynn’s former classmate and honor student, volunteers for the student spot on the selection committee for the new superintendent, Brynn realizes that he will only serve the needs of those select students. Who will be the advocate for students like Brynn and all the others that fall between the two extremes? Brynn hesitantly decides to take on the task of representing the whole student body, not just the honors students, in the selection of their new leader. Throughout her journey of civic involvement, she continues to tell her story to Rachel Maddow, using Maddow as a measuring stick for what is the right thing to do.
In her debut novel, Adrienne Kisner tells Brynn’s story in the epistolary format. While the voice of the novel is mainly that of the protagonist, Kisner effectively develops the other characters who play a significant role in Brynn’s life. Kisner makes the reader want to stand up and fight for the rights of all. In a world that doesn’t always think along these lines, Adrienne Kisner’s Dear Rachel Maddow is an inspiring breath of fresh air.
Reviewed by Joe Godina, Hutchinson, Kansas
That’s NOT What Happened by Kody Keplinger
Disney-Hyperion, 2018, 361 pp., $17.99
Social and Family Issues/Violence/School Shootings/Media/Teen Fiction
When tragedy strikes, who is left to tell the truth? How do the stories get told? Three years after a school shooting at Virgil County High School, the surviving witnesses struggle with their grief, their fears, and the distorted stories that continue to haunt them. Senior Leeann Bauer knows that her best friend, Sarah, did not die the martyr the media portrayed her to be, and telling the truth may hurt those who cling to that belief. She comes to understand that allowing the lie to continue may be more harmful than staying silent. As she digs into the truth via letters from the other witnesses, she learns how easily the truth gets distorted, the ways in which media manipulates language to sell stories, and how easily people choose to believe those stories even when presented with conflicting information.
This timely and relevant novel taps into our country’s raw emotions without politicizing or diminishing the tragedies of school shootings. Keplinger creates powerful, diverse, and nuanced characters as she focuses on the impact of violence on the victims. Rather than exploring the shooter or his motivation, she never once names him and, instead, attends to the perspectives of the witnesses who continue to face anguish and post-traumatic stress. The novel’s well-paced twists remind us to question the narratives we are provided in our quest for the truth.
Reviewed by Cindi Koudelka, Wenona, Illinois
Where She Fell by Kaitlin Ward
Point, 2018, 304 pp., $17.99
Science Fiction/Social Issues/Emotions and Feelings/Friendships
Sixteen-year-old Eliza has social anxiety. She wants to be a geologist when she grows up. She wants her friends to like her, so she tolerates it when they drag her along on their adventures. However, Meg and Sherri have finally agreed to do something Eliza wants to do- go explore a cave near her house. When the day comes, Eliza packs a survival bag and begins to plan out the day, but Sherri and Meg want to make an unplanned pit stop at Drowner’s Swamp. The land is known to be unsafe, being riddled with sinkholes, dangerous creatures, and other potentially deadly things, and the thought immediately spikes Eliza’s anxiety. It only gets worse when Eliza falls through a sinkhole into an immense, beautiful, terrifying cave system. Lost and alone, Eliza realizes that she must do something to help herself survive, so she does the only thing she can. She begins looking for a way out.
In a story filled with adventure, strange creatures, and (literal) cliffhangers, Ward has developed a story that is equal parts science fiction, horror, and beauty. The descriptions of the cave systems are intricate and awe-inspiring. Through Eliza, readers will vicariously experience how frustrating social anxiety can be. Where She Fell is perfect for readers who enjoy adventures with unlikely heroes trying to survive in a strange, but beautiful setting.
Reviewed by Sydney King, Murfreesboro, Tennessee
Come November by Katrin van Dam
Scholastic, 2018, 384 pp., $18.99
Family/Sibling Relationships/Mental Health Issues/First Love
Rooney Harris is doing her best to juggle family responsibility and her senior year of high school, but it’s a battle. Rooney’s mother, a dedicated member of the Next World Society, believes they will soon depart the Earth for a new world, a world free of Earth’s pollution and devastating climate change. With a mother who is physically present, but emotionally unavailable, and an estranged father, Rooney, must take on the role of parent and primary bread winner for herself and her brother, Daniel. Debut author Katrin van Dam has created realistically flawed characters whose actions ring true and a plot that naturally unfolds.
Rooney is beautifully flawed. She is often wrong, sometimes right, but always honest. She’s a smart young woman doing her best to act like an adult while also trying to balance high school and friendship. Her relationship with her best friend, Mercer, is the sweetest thing, and readers will easily embrace and relate to their closeness. Mercer and Daniel are Rooney’s shelter and tether, respectively. Mercer is who she turns to when it all becomes too much, and Daniel is her reason to keep going.
Daniel’s sensitivity is written into his every scene. The reader is told that he is sensitive, but his gentleness and desperation are clear through his words and actions. He’s a heartbreaking character who is trying to hold on to a splintering family. It comes as no surprise when he too falls victim to the Next World Society. Through it, he finds a troubling way to reclaim the mother he’s never really had, but in the process, loses a great deal more.
In Come November, the adults are given substantial and pivotal roles in the unfolding family drama. It becomes clear early on that Rooney’s mother is struggling with mental health issues, but van Dam doesn’t trivialize or diagnose. Instead, the reader is shown how fears and searching for a way to alleviate those fears can be all consuming. The estranged father with a growing new family is a surprisingly sympathetic character once all the pieces fall into place. This story is rooted in family. Certainly, the family we are born into, but also the families we make throughout our lives. As a result, it is no surprise when a caring teacher offers her home as a haven for Rooney and Daniel.
Katrina van Dam’s debut novel effectively weaves together a story about family, sibling relationships, first love, and mental illness with an even and enjoyable hand. There are times when Rooney’s situation seems insurmountable, and while the reader may hope for a happy ending, van Dam doesn’t wrap everything up with an unrealistic conclusion. Instead she forces her reader to confront and embrace the mess and complications of real life. Buried within this story of family, first love, and mental health issues is a warning about the environment that asks readers to consider the choices they make and how those choices impact the Earth and future generations. Ultimately though, Come November is a story of family and future.
Reviewed by Alison Daniels, Hanover, Maryland
Anything but Okay by Sarah Darer Littman
Scholastic Books, 2018, 343 pp., $ 17.99
Peer Relationships/Politics/Diversity and Inclusion/Social Media
As much a polemic on social media literacy as it is on the perils of learning about and respecting difference, Littman’s novel presents timely conflict for its protagonist, Stella, whose diverse peer group regularly clashes over fair representation of race, ethnicity, and religion at her high school. In addition, her brother has returned from his last tour in Afghanistan with PTSD caused by the traumas he witnessed. To combat singular views of groups and to change her school’s culture, Stella, intent on putting into place a more inclusive agenda, runs for class president. Her campaign is marred when her brother, Rob, witnesses a racist act perpetrated against a Sikh teen by one of Stella’s classmates. Rob assaults the boy at a local mall eatery and is arrested. The event pushes Rob, Stella, and their prominent military family into the local spotlight, where opinions about Rob’s service and the family’s loyalty to America—Stella’s best friend Farida is Iraqi—swirl in a social media firestorm.
Littman’s fast-paced dialog mimics the fear and fury the family experiences. The dialectic between characters as they work to reveal the truth of the mall encounter for themselves and in the media make this text an important one, as readers are immersed in Stella’s world and must learn through trial and error to encounter, grapple with, and resolve differences- even in the era of fake news.
Reviewed by Angela Insenga, Carollton, Georgia
The Agony House by Cherie Priest, Illustrated by Tara O’Connor
Arthur A. Levine Books, 2018, 256 pp., $18.99
Mystery and Detective Stories/Comic and Graphic Novel
After moving back home to New Orleans, Denise Farber, her mom and her stepdad, begin repairing their new home. Denise calls it “The Agony House” because she can’t pronounce the correct French name, but this slip in name becomes her literal nightmare. The house is broken in almost every possible way, including her worst fear- the space may be haunted.
When Denise and her new friend and neighbor Terry find an old, hand-drawn comic book in the attic, accidents begin to increase. As Denise starts investigating, she uncovers the eerie similarities between “The Agony House” and the house drawn in the book, leading her to shocking revelations about who occupied these rooms before and what they want now.
In her latest novel, author Cherie Priest combines traditional text with comic book elements that feature a crime-fighting character named Lucida Might. Lucinda and Denise are near reflections of each other, both attempting to uncover the truth.
A mysterious, page-turning story. Denise is a relatable teenage heroine who is spunky and witty. Readers will root for her until the very last word.
Reviewed by Tita Kyrtsakas, Ontario, Canada
Hearts Unbroken by Cynthia Leitich Smith
Candlewick Press, 2019, 286 pp., $17.99
Cultural Conflict/Teen Romance/Contemporary Native American Culture
Louise Wolfe doesn’t have a problem with people speaking their mind. What she does have a problem with is people talking trash about her heritage. So, when her boyfriend mocks another Native American girl, Louise kicks him to the curb. Cam isn’t the only one in their predominately White Kansas town to harbor prejudices, though, and Louise quickly finds out that “dating while Native” is a real challenge. To take her mind off boys and to avoid running in the same circles as her super-jock ex, Louise drops the cheer squad and joins the school newspaper, where she instantly meets Joey.
Outspoken and cocky, Joey vies with Louise for the coveted position of writing features for the paper. Although the editor assigns them to work together, their relationship is more competitive than collegial, that is, until Louise’s younger brother lands a part in the school play. This spurs the formation of a protest group called “Parents Against Revisionist Theater.” As Louise investigates the acts of hostility being directed at those involved in the play, she becomes aware that everything is connected. She must decide if standing up to the deeply-held prejudices of her community is worth the consequences it may cause for the people she cares about.
As an enrolled member of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, author Cynthia Leitich Smith is uniquely positioned to share her perspective on growing up in American schools. This quick-paced story dispels stereotypes by crafting rich characters that reflect humanity’s complexity. As readers follow the domino effect of Louise’s decisions, they will sympathize with how paralyzing it can be to realize the gravity of the choices we make.
Reviewed by Katherine Higgs-Coulthard, Notre Dame, Indiana
ALAN Picks is a regular book review column compiled and edited by Dr. Bryan Gillis of Kennesaw State University. It features the newest YA titles, reviewed by teachers and librarians. A complete archive of all ALAN picks is available on this page.
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