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Thunderhead
Author: Neal Shusterman
Published: January 9, 2018 by Simon & Schuster

Guest Review by Natalia Sperry

Summary: Rowan and Citra take opposite stances on the morality of the Scythedom, putting them at odds, in the second novel of the chilling New York Times bestselling series from Neal Shusterman.

Rowan has gone rogue, and has taken it upon himself to put the Scythedom through a trial by fire. Literally. In the year since Winter Conclave, he has gone off-grid, and has been striking out against corrupt scythes—not only in MidMerica, but across the entire continent. He is a dark folk hero now—“Scythe Lucifer”—a vigilante taking down corrupt scythes in flames.

Citra, now a junior scythe under Scythe Curie, sees the corruption and wants to help change it from the inside out, but is thwarted at every turn, and threatened by the “new order” scythes. Realizing she cannot do this alone—or even with the help of Scythe Curie and Faraday, she does the unthinkable, and risks being “deadish” so she can communicate with the Thunderhead—the only being on earth wise enough to solve the dire problems of a perfect world. But will it help solve those problems, or simply watch as perfection goes into decline?

Review: Thunderhead packs a punch as a conceptually compelling and action-packed follow up to award-winning Scythe. While at times it moves slowly and teeters on the precarious edge of “middle book syndrome.” Its expansion of the world of the Scythdome helps the book feel more well-rounded. Despite the action, Thunderhead shines most in its explorations of democracy and the implications of AI technology.

Citra’s questioning of identity, though immediately rooted in her struggle between her civilian past and scythedom, provides a good example of identity searching for teen readers. For Citra and Rowan, the stakes are high– despite the novel’s focus on the guiding AI of the Thunderhead, the fate of the world rests not on the shoulders of the political technology or the Scythe’s government, but on the teenage protagonist’s shoulders. Though Thunderhead didn’t invent the trope of teens saving the world, in 2018 it feels all the more prevalent.

Teacher’s Tool For Navigation: As a sequel, Thunderhead will primarily be useful in addition to classroom libraries. However, in discussing the Arc of a Scythe series as a whole, Thunderhead raises interesting questions of power dynamics in politics, democracy, and the role of AI technology. If Scythe is already a text you’ve considered using in literature circles, a discussion about the themes raised in the sequel could provide an interesting supplement to the unit.

Discussion Questions:  Is the Thunderhead justified? Is the Scythedom?  In what ways is the world of the Scythes in MidMerica and beyond a dystopia or utopia?

Flagged: “You may laugh when I tell you this, but I resent my own perfection. Humans learn from their mistakes. I cannot. I make no mistakes. When it comes to making decisions, I deal only in various shades of correct.” (Chapter 4).

Read This If You Loved: Scythe by Neal Shusterman, Illuminae by Amie Kaufman, Jay Kristoff, This Savage Song by Victoria Schwab

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Nice Try, Jane Sinner
Author: Lianne Oelke
Published: January 9, 2018 by Clarion

Guest Review by Natalia Sperry

Summary: The only thing 17-year-old Jane Sinner hates more than failure is pity. After a personal crisis and her subsequent expulsion from high school, she’s going nowhere fast. Jane’s well-meaning parents push her to attend a high school completion program at the nearby Elbow River Community College, and she agrees, on one condition: she gets to move out.

Jane tackles her housing problem by signing up for House of Orange, a student-run reality show that is basically Big Brother, but for Elbow River Students. Living away from home, the chance to win a car (used, but whatever), and a campus full of people who don’t know what she did in high school… what more could she want? Okay, maybe a family that understands why she’d rather turn to Freud than Jesus to make sense of her life, but she’ll settle for fifteen minutes in the proverbial spotlight.

As House of Orange grows from a low-budget web series to a local TV show with fans and shoddy T-shirts, Jane finally has the chance to let her cynical, competitive nature thrive. She’ll use her growing fan base, and whatever Intro to Psychology can teach her, to prove to the world—or at least viewers of substandard TV—that she has what it takes to win.

Review: I’ll admit, I’m always a sucker for a strong, sarcastic, and somewhat troubled YA protagonist, and Jane Sinner did not disappoint. Nice Try, Jane Sinner is psychological and philosophical, a little crass and silly, sometimes downright strange, and always full of tremendous heart—but then, isn’t that college? It was refreshing to read an older YA: Jane is right on that cusp of “not really a teenager anymore, but definitely not a full a full-fledged adult.” As she navigates her senior year in high school, taking classes at the local community college, I felt that, even beyond its obvious and intentional quirks, Jane’s story is startlingly unique in how it captures the whirlwind of  emotions felt during that transitional time. It also offered a healthy balance of relationships, featuring Jane’s loving yet tense parents, adoring but annoying little sister, and a cast of friends too diverse to affix any one guiding set of adjectives to.

Written in diary-format, the book is told exactly as Jane wants it to be, which adds an interesting dimension of questionability to her narration. Dialogue is captured in script format, which prompts readers to question at times what’s reality and what’s for show, on House of Orange and beyond. What Jane does and doesn’t tell the narrator about her past, her genuine feelings, and her motivation leads to some interesting twists.  In particular, Jane’s “Doctor/Self” internal dialogues were really compelling. Like the eponymous Jane Sinner herself, however, the book at times deflects the greater thematic issues at hand through its sarcasm and humor. Jane’s story revolves around a personal crisis—one that I wish the book would have delved in deeper to by the end. I did enjoy Jane’s exploration of religion and the expectations young people are sometimes held to, which is a topic I’ve yet to see be fully explored in YA.

For all its quirks and flaws, Jane Sinner has a heart of gold. It conjures up all the emotions of a teen on the brink of “adulthood,” while still maintaining a sarcastic yet thoughtful spark throughout. It’s refreshing to remember that being a young adult doesn’t end at high school, and life doesn’t have to either.

Teacher’s Tool For Navigation: I’ll admit, I’m always a sucker for a strong, sarcastic, and somewhat troubled YA protagonist, and Jane Sinner did not disappoint. Nice Try, Jane Sinner is psychological and philosophical, a little crass and silly, sometimes downright strange, and always full of tremendous heart — but then, isn’t that college? It was refreshing to read an older YA: Jane is right on that cusp of “not really a teenager anymore, but definitely not a full a full-fledged adult.” As she navigates her senior year in high school, taking classes at the local community college, I felt that, even beyond its obvious and intentional quirks, Jane’s story is startlingly unique in how it captures the whirlwind of  emotions felt during that transitional time. It also offered a healthy balance of relationships, featuring Jane’s loving yet tense parents, adoring but annoying little sister, and a cast of friends too diverse to affix any one guiding set of adjectives to.

Written in diary-format, the book is told exactly as Jane wants it to be, which adds an interesting dimension of questionability to her narration. Dialogue is captured in script format, which prompts readers to question at times what’s reality and what’s for show, on House of Orange and beyond. What Jane does and doesn’t tell the narrator about her past, her genuine feelings, and her motivation leads to some interesting twists.  In particular, Jane’s “Doctor/Self” internal dialogues were really compelling. Like the eponymous Jane Sinner herself, however, the book at times deflects the greater thematic issues at hand through its sarcasm and humor. Jane’s story revolves around a personal crisis–one that I wish the book would have delved in deeper to by the end. I did enjoy Jane’s exploration of religion and the expectations young people are sometimes held to, which is a topic I’ve yet to see be fully explored in YA.

For all its quirks and flaws, Jane Sinner has a heart of gold. It conjures up all the emotions of a teen on the brink of “adulthood,” while still maintaining a sarcastic yet thoughtful spark throughout. It’s refreshing to remember that being a young adult doesn’t end at high school, and life doesn’t have to either.

Discussion Questions:  Even in the context of the book, Jane is quite the controversial character to those around her — did you “like” Jane? How might this shape your perception of the book as a reader? Does “likability” matter in protagonists? Think about if Jane was gender-swapped: would this change how we view some of her more questionable decisions or characteristics?

Flagged: “I need to psychoanalyze myself for Intro Psych. I’m not sure how that’s possible; the prof was rather vague on the specifics in class today. I was also caught up in a doodle of my hand. I outlined my hand on my notes because the notes were ugly and otherwise useless. I layered the inside with different-colored gel pens until the outline was fairly thick. In the middle of the hand I drew toasters and toast. The whole thing came together really well. One of my better efforts. But I’m not sure how to psychoanalyze myself. I suppose I’ll have to be both the doctor and patient. Maybe the two of me can come up with some profoundly insightful insight.

A middle-aged man with thinning brown hair and a cozy sweater vest motions for Jane to lie down on the sofa. He takes a seat on the overstuffed leather armchair and crosses his legs like a girl.

THE DOCTOR

Hello, Ms. Sinner.

JS

                          Hi.” (Page 46-47).

Read This If You Loved: Anything by John Green (Turtles All the Way Down in particular),  Highly Illogical Behavior by John Corey Whaley, Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell, The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

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The Forest Queen
Author: Betsy Cornwell
Published: August 7, 2018 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Guest Review by Rachel Krieger

Summary: When sixteen-year-old Sylvie’s brother takes over management of their family’s vast estates, Sylvie feels powerless to stop his abuse of the local commoners. Her dearest friend asks her to run away to the woods with him, and soon a host of other villagers join them. Together, they form their own community and fight to right the wrongs perpetrated by the king and his noblemen.

Review: Anyone familiar with the tale of Robin Hood likes the idea of stealing from the rich and giving to the poor. Betsy Cornwell’s twist on this idea changes it just enough to give the story some flavor and novelty. The characters were compelling and the relationships were truly touching, but everything felt a little too convenient to me. There were several times when characters all but died and ended up making it out without a scrape. In a world where all of the favorable characters are on the lamb, there was a fair amount of luck and inaction that saved nearly every one of them. As a gender bent twist on a fairytale and a lively retelling of an old story, this novel had merit, but there wasn’t quite enough to it to call it a masterpiece.

However, as far as representation goes, Betsy Cornwell hit it on the head. The Forest Queen, as the title lets on, has a female leading things. The role of Robin Hood was usurped by a woman and amplified by the fact that the woman is stealing from her own family to give to the poor. The other females in the novel show strength in the face of things like rape and a shocking lack of agency. There are even LGBTQ characters that add to the sense that women in this world are the epitome of overcoming their circumstances.

Teacher’s Tool For Navigation:This novel is a great outlet in which to discuss rape culture. Although it is not the most prominent part of the story, it plays a part and is represented in an ideal way in relation to discussion. Because this subject is extremely difficult to discuss in general, let alone in a classroom, talking about it within the realm of this fantastical society may make it a bit easier. It would be interesting to reflect upon the similarities between the culture in the novel and our own culture in this society. It is so incredibly important to discuss difficult subjects in the classroom, but when it is in reference to a novel like The Forest Queen, it can be looked at in a more academic way.

Discussion Questions: 

  • Did Sylvie have a right to encourage the village people to rebel against her brother?
  • What do the ties to the story of Robin Hood do for this novel?
  • How do women take power in this story and how does that differ from classic fantasy?

Read This If You Loved: Cinder by Marissa Meyer, Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo, Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo, The Paper Magician by Charlie N. Holmberg

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The Upside of Unrequited
Author: Becky Albertalli
Published: April 11, 2018 by Balzer + Bray

Guest Review by Rachel Krieger

Summary: Seventeen-year-old Molly Peskin-Suso knows all about unrequited love—she’s lived through it twenty-six times. She crushes hard and crushes often, but always in secret. Because no matter how many times her twin sister, Cassie, tells her to woman up, Molly can’t stomach the idea of rejection. So she’s careful. Fat girls always have to be careful.

Then a cute new girl enters Cassie’s orbit, and for the first time ever, Molly’s cynical twin is a lovesick mess. Meanwhile, Molly’s totally not dying of loneliness—except for the part where she is. Luckily, Cassie’s new girlfriend comes with a cute hipster-boy sidekick. Will is funny and flirtatious and just might be perfect crush material. Maybe more than crush material. And if Molly can win him over, she’ll get her first kiss and she’ll get her twin back.

There’s only one problem: Molly’s coworker Reid. He’s an awkward Tolkien superfan with a season pass to the Ren Faire, and there’s absolutely no way Molly could fall for him. Right?

Review: This heart-warming, flirtatious, love-filled book will bring you a wave of nostalgia. From the sunny summer days to all of Molly’s firsts, Becky Albertalli’s story is sure to set your heart a-flutter. The main characters make up an interracial family with LGBTQ members and an amazing affinity for love and forgiveness. With every passing page, the characters grow a little more, figuring out how to live their own lives while still making time for each other. There can be no doubt for the reader that despite all the conflict, Molly and Cassie will survive their teenage years with their strong relationship intact. Albertalli’s firm grasp on young love makes this book sweet and fun, with twists and turns that will make you read until the last word. This is a must read for any young adults, parents of teens, teachers, or anyone who enjoys a quick, uplifting read.

Teacher’s Tool For Navigation: The Upside of Unrequited can start a lot of amazing conversations in the classroom. One really important aspect of the story is the main character, Molly’s weight. She has felt her whole life as though she deserves the harsh words people send her way simply because of her weight. It could be very interesting to start a conversation with students about bullying and the effect it can have on people in the long run. Another important aspect of the story that can be brought up in the classroom is identity. In the novel, Molly self-identifies as fat. She doesn’t necessarily want to become skinnier or have people stop looking at her as fat, but she wishes that her weight didn’t matter. She adopts it as part of her identity and wants acceptance for it. It would be really beneficial to discuss identity and the specific positives and negatives that can stem from it.

Discussion Questions: 

  • What did the first-person point of view do for the story?
  • Did you find the adult characters in this novel realistic?
  • What was important about the familial relationships in this novel?
  • What is the poignancy of the title?

We Flagged: “I think this is me letting go. Bit by bit. I think these are our tiny steps away from each other. Making not-quite-identical footprints in not-quite-opposite directions. And it’s the end of the world and the beginning of the world and we’re seventeen. And it’s an awesome thing.”

Read This If You Loved: Simon vs. The Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli, Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz, Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell, I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson

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Picture Us in the Light
Author: Kelly Loy Gilbert
Published: April 10, 2018 by Disney-Hyperion

Guest Review by Rachel Krieger

Summary: Danny has been an artist for as long as he can remember, and it seems his path is set, with a scholarship to RISD and his family’s blessing to pursue the career he’s always dreamed of. Still, contemplating a future without his best friend, Harry Wong, by his side makes Danny feel a panic he can barely put into words. Harry and Danny’s lives are deeply intertwined and as they approach the one-year anniversary of a tragedy that shook their friend group to its core, Danny can’t stop asking himself if Harry is truly in love with his girlfriend, Regina Chan.

When Danny digs deeper into his parents’ past, he uncovers a secret that disturbs the foundations of his family history and the carefully constructed facade his parents have maintained begins to crumble. With everything he loves in danger of being stripped away, Danny must face the ghosts of the past in order to build a future that belongs to him.

Review: This book is filled to the brim with interesting plot points. While most novels would focus on one to two major things that are going on in a character’s life, this one has several. I found this to be both engaging and chaotic. Some of the time I felt that if Danny was a real person, he would simply explode during the course of events in the book. Danny was dealing with things well beyond what most people his age experience and manages to mostly keep it together despite. There are entire novels that deal with immigration, adoption, death of a loved one, suicide, sexual orientation, poverty, college preparedness, or love, but this one contains all of these ideas, among others. Though it felt like too much at times, this became one of the great aspects of the novel as well.

Throughout the story, Danny struggles with his morality at the same time as struggling with everything that life is dragging him through. Even though he is dealing with more than any human should have to, he still has time to feel the things that remind the reader that he is a person. So many of Danny’s feelings are perfectly reflective of what I and many others feel at points in life. The best part is that no matter who you are or what you have been through, you can connect with one of the topics addressed in this book. Gilbert’s inclusion of so many salient issues substantially increases the relatability.

Teacher’s Tool For Navigation: There are so many great things to talk about in the classroom in relation to this book. Although most reviews look at this novel as an exploration of sexuality, there are several other lenses with which to look through to spur great discussion. The issue that comes to mind first and foremost is immigration and the effect that it can have on a family and especially children in a family. Although Danny himself never went through the process of immigration, his parents did, and this has a huge effect on their family. Through the normal ups and downs of the life of a high schooler, Danny also discovers many things throughout the story that are connected to his family’s immigration and it only adds to his strife.

Many young students know little to nothing about the process of immigration—having never immigrated themselves—and Picture Us in the Light can do a lot to change that. It would be such a beneficial discussion to address the immigration experience that this family has and to even talk about the danger of a single story: that no family or persons story of immigration is exactly alike. It could also be interesting to teach this book alongside a classic tale of immigration such as Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle. There is a lot of material that can be taken from this book and I can see it being a very helpful tool in the classroom for discussing pertinent issues.

Discussion Questions: 

  • Is this novel hypercritical of students dealing with the suicide of a peer?
  • Does this novel reaffirm too many stereotypes?
  • How does this novel do well in talking about the exploration of sexuality?
  • How does it do poorly?
  • Do you believe Danny was as immoral a person as he thought he was?
  • What do the second person, in-between chapter bits do for the story?

We Flagged: “But in that instant, the one where you saw that flash of recognition strike him like lightning, you felt what you came here to see if you’d feel: the same strike at the same time, an atomic pull you can’t explain.”

Read This If You Loved: Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz, I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson, Simon Vs. The Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli, American Street by Ibi Zoboi, It’s Kind of a Funny Story by Ned Vizzini, Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher

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Isle of Blood and Stone
Author: Makiia Lucier
Published: April 10, 2018 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Guest Review by Rachel Krieger

Summary: Nineteen-year-old Elias is a royal explorer, a skilled mapmaker, and the new king of del Mar’s oldest friend. Soon he will embark on the adventure of a lifetime, an expedition past the Strait of Cain and into uncharted waters. Nothing stands in his way…until a long-ago tragedy creeps back into the light, threatening all he holds dear.

The people of St. John del Mar have never recovered from the loss of their boy princes, kidnapped eighteen years ago, both presumed dead. But when two maps surface, each bearing the same hidden riddle, troubling questions arise. What really happened to the young heirs? And why do the maps appear to be drawn by Lord Antoni, Elias’s father, who vanished on that same fateful day? With the king’s beautiful cousin by his side—whether he wants her there or not—Elias will race to solve the riddle of the princes. He will have to use his wits and guard his back. Because some truths are better left buried…and an unknown enemy stalks his every turn.

Review: I absolutely adore this book. Makiia Lucier did an excellent job of incorporating strong characters, resistance to discrimination, mystery, romance, and interesting elements of the fantastic all in one novel. The plot had me completely riveted and I spent a lot of time while not reading thinking about the big reveal I knew was coming. Lucier had strong female characters who consistently proved to be as independent and capable as their male counterparts. The quest narrative was something new and fascinating that will certainly have all readers sticking around until the end. And best yet, this was the first book I have ever read about map-making. The incredible world building required no info dump, nor unrealistic exposition, because Lucier’s characters are often seen either drawing or studying maps. The issues discussed, the characters created, and the world formed came together to make a wonderfully mysterious and incredibly fun novel to read.

Teacher’s Tool For Navigation: This book is a great way for students to look at discrimination. Although the races represented in this novel are of a fantastical nature, they are still ripe for discussion. You can ask your students to think about the real-life connections to the way that Mercedes is treated, being of mixed race. There are many books that address this type of racism directly, making it one of the main aspects of the story. Lucier addresses the issue a few times but does not make it a major plot point. It would be really interesting to discuss this as a plot element but not a form of social commentary.

It could also be interesting to look at and start a discussion on the treatment of illness in our society. There is an island in this novel where lepers are quarantined, often against their will. Although we have nothing exactly like this in society, there are certainly loose parallels in the ways that we treat people with diseases and disorders. It would be really beneficial to start a conversation with students about this form of social imprisonment that is rarely discussed.

Discussion Questions: 

  • What parts of this novel reaffirm gender stereotypes, and which break away?
  • Can you think of any ways that Mercedes’s treatment in the novel is reflected in the real world?
  • What does this novel say about the way that illness is treated in society?

We Flagged: “It was not the first time someone had spat at Mercedes, or even the fifth, but it had been some years since Elias had witnessed the insult.”

Read This If You Loved: Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs, The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern, Graceling by Kristin Cashore, Scythe Scythe by Neal Shusterman

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On the Come Up
Authors: Angie Thomas
Published: February 5, 2019 by Balzer + Bray

GoodReads Summary: Sixteen-year-old Bri wants to be one of the greatest rappers of all time. Or at least make it out of her neighborhood one day. As the daughter of an underground rap legend who died before he hit big, Bri’s got big shoes to fill. But now that her mom has unexpectedly lost her job, food banks and shutoff notices are as much a part of Bri’s life as beats and rhymes. With bills piling up and homelessness staring her family down, Bri no longer just wants to make it—she has to make it.

On the Come Up is Angie Thomas’s homage to hip-hop, the art that sparked her passion for storytelling and continues to inspire her to this day. It is the story of fighting for your dreams, even as the odds are stacked against you; of the struggle to become who you are and not who everyone expects you to be; and of the desperate realities of poor and working-class black families.

My Review: After reading this book, I promptly went into my course syllabus for next semester and swapped out another book to include this one. There are so many things that I love about this book. In particular, I really liked how this book tackled the issues of violence against and the assumptions stereotypically made of black females. There are only a few other recent books that tackle these issues, and they are critically important. I get incredibly frustrated by assumptions like “aggressive black female.” Angie Thomas deftly addresses these assumptions and provides a variety of angles for readers. Bri, the narrator, is incredibly strong, and I admire her greatly. I will never have a daughter, but if I did, I would be so proud if my daughter turned out to be like her. This book just feels different from any book that I’ve read. It offers something different that is going to make for great classroom conversations.

Teachers’ Tools for Navigation: I am going to be using this book in a Social Movements and Collective Action course. I will be using it with other texts to talk about the history and currency of the #blacklivesmatter movement. I am very excited that this book exists in the world, and I know that my students will love it.

Discussion Questions: How does the author craft dialogue? What might other writers learn from her work?; What messages does the text reveal? Which messages are less obvious but implicit in a reading of the text?; What connections does this text have with the world today?

Flagged Passage: “There’s only so much you can take being described as somebody you’re not.”

Read This If You Loved: The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas; All American Boys by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely; by Ilyassah Shabazz and Kekla Magoon; The Rock and the River by Kekla Magoon; How it Went Down by Kekla Magoon; Freedom Summer by Deborah Wiles; Audacity by Melanie Crowder; The Boy in the Black Suit by Jason Reynolds

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