We are slowly coming out the other side of this awful pandemic after 14 months of being cooped up in our homes, wearing masks when we are out and about, and staying away from our family and friends. Back on March 14, I thought we'd be dealing with this virus for a few weeks and then moving on. That was not the case, and the virus led us humans to become suspicious of each other, fearful of each other, and unkind to one another. The virus fueled a hate that had be simmering below the surface for many years.
At the start of the pandemic, I could not read a book. I didn't have the mental capacity or stamina for it, yet I knew that books would be my saving grace if I could let myself back into their wonders. I allowed myself time to slowly begin engaging with books last spring, and those books quieted my mind. Those books allowed me to leave the world we were currently living. Those books gave me back my sanity in a world filled with news about the virus. Those books were my lifeline. It wasn't easy reading during that time, but I made myself read knowing that's what my heart and mind needed.
Although the summer seemed a little better in terms of the virus, it wasn't gone (or soon-to-be gone), and Americans distrust and fear toward one another only spiraled into hate and scapegoating. To be honest, I didn't know how we would make it as a country with such vitriol, too many hate-crimes (one is too much), and the racism our country has never figured out how to deal with. Again, I kept my nose buried in books. I read books about different races, different political viewpoints, different religions, different sexualities, different everything, so I could share with others what I was reading and to help them understand that reading also opens our minds. My one goal in life is to get people to read more and to read more diverse books. I truly believe people can read their way out of ignorance. (Maybe that's a bit idealistic, but that's me.)
In honor of books quieting the mind and opening minds, here are the books I have read since the end of February (in order of oldest to most-recently read).
Written in Starlight (Woven in Moonlight #2) by Isabel Ibañez
If the jungle wants you, it will have you...
Catalina Quiroga is a Condesa without a country. She’s lost the Inkasisa throne, the loyalty of her people, and her best friend. Banished to the perilous Yanu Jungle, Catalina knows her chances of survival are slim, but that won’t stop her from trying to escape. It’s her duty to reclaim the throne.
When Manuel, the son of her former general, rescues Catalina from a jaguar, a plan forms. Deep in the jungle, the city of gold is hidden, home to the fierce Illari people, who she could strike an alliance with.
But the elusive Illari are fighting a battle of their own—a mysterious blight is corrupting the jungle, laying waste to everything they hold dear. As a seer, Catalina should be able to help, but her ability to read the future in the stars is as feeble as her survival instincts. While searching for the Illari, Catalina must reckon with her duty and her heart to find her true calling, which could be the key to stopping the corruption before it destroys the jungle completely.
(Grade 6 and up)
The Brave by James Bird
Collin can't help himself—he has a unique condition that finds him counting every letter spoken to him. It's a quirk that makes him a prime target for bullies, and a continual frustration to the adults around him, including his father.
When Collin asked to leave yet another school, his dad decides to send him to live in Minnesota with the mother he's never met. She is Ojibwe, and lives on a reservation. Collin arrives in Duluth with his loyal dog, Seven, and quickly finds his mom and his new home to be warm, welcoming, and accepting of his condition.
Collin’s quirk is matched by that of his neighbor, Orenda, girl who lives mostly in her treehouse and believes she is turning into a butterfly. With Orenda’s help, Collin works hard to overcome his challenges. His real test comes when he must step up for his new friend and trust his new family.
(Grade 6 and up)
When Stars Are Scattered by Victoria Jamieson and Omar Mohamed
Omar and his younger brother, Hassan, have spent most of their lives in Dadaab, a refugee camp in Kenya. Life is hard there: never enough food, achingly dull, and without access to the medical care Omar knows his nonverbal brother needs. So when Omar has the opportunity to go to school, he knows it might be a chance to change their future . . . but it would also mean leaving his brother, the only family member he has left, every day.
Heartbreak, hope, and gentle humor exist together in this graphic novel about a childhood spent waiting, and a young man who is able to create a sense of family and home in the most difficult of settings. It's an intimate, important, unforgettable look at the day-to-day life of a refugee, as told to New York Times Bestselling author/artist Victoria Jamieson by Omar Mohamed, the Somali man who lived the story.
(Grade 6 and up)
A Cuban Girl's Guide to Tea and Tomorrow by Laura Taylor Namey
For Lila Reyes, a summer in England was never part of the plan. The plan was 1) take over her abuela’s role as head baker at their panadería, 2) move in with her best friend after graduation, and 3) live happily ever after with her boyfriend. But then the Trifecta happened, and everything—including Lila herself—fell apart.
Worried about Lila’s mental health, her parents make a new plan for her: Spend three months with family friends in Winchester, England, to relax and reset. But with the lack of sun, a grumpy inn cook, and a small town lacking Miami flavor (both in food and otherwise), what would be a dream trip for some feels more like a nightmare to Lila…until she meets Orion Maxwell.
A teashop clerk with troubles of his own, Orion is determined to help Lila out of her funk, and appoints himself as her personal tour guide. From Winchester’s drama-filled music scene to the sweeping English countryside, it isn’t long before Lila is not only charmed by Orion, but England itself. Soon a new future is beginning to form in Lila’s mind—one that would mean leaving everything she ever planned behind.
(Grade 7 and up)
Men We Reaped by Jesmyn Ward
'...And then we heard the rain falling, and that was the drops of blood falling; and when we came to get the crops, it was dead men that we reaped.' Harriet Tubman
In five years, Jesmyn Ward lost five men in her life, to drugs, accidents, suicide, and the bad luck that can follow people who live in poverty, particularly black men. Dealing with these losses, one after another, made Jesmyn ask the question: why? And as she began to write about the experience of living through all the dying, she realized the truth--and it took her breath away. Her brother and her friends all died because of who they were and where they were from, because they lived with a history of racism and economic struggle that fostered drug addiction and the dissolution of family and relationships. Jesmyn says the answer was so obvious she felt stupid for not seeing it. But it nagged at her until she knew she had to write about her community, to write their stories and her own.
Jesmyn grew up in poverty in rural Mississippi. She writes powerfully about the pressures this brings, on the men who can do no right and the women who stand in for family in a society where the men are often absent. She bravely tells her story, revisiting the agonizing losses of her only brother and her friends. As the sole member of her family to leave home and pursue high education, she writes about this parallel American universe with the objectivity distance provides and the intimacy of utter familiarity.
(Adult book but accessible for high school and up)
The Truth Project by Dante Medema
Seventeen-year-old Cordelia Koenig was sure of many things going into her last year of high school. For one, she wasn’t going to stress over the senior project all her peers were dreading—she’d just use the same find-your-roots genealogy idea that her older sister used for hers. Secondly, she’d put all that time spent not worrying about the project toward getting reacquainted with former best friend and longtime crush Kodiak Jones who, conveniently, gets assigned as Cordelia’s partner.
All she has to do is mail in her DNA sample, write about her ancestry results and breeze through the rest of senior year. Done, done and done.
But when Cordelia’s GeneQuest results reveal that her father is not the man she thought he was but a stranger who lives thousands of miles away, Cordelia realizes she isn’t sure of anything anymore—not the mother who lied, the life she was born into or the girl staring back at her in the mirror.
If your life began with a lie, how can you ever be sure of what’s true?
(Grade 7 and up)
Good Girl, Bad Blood (A Good Girl's Guide to Murder #2) by Holly Jackson
The highly anticipated sequel to the instant New York Times bestseller, A Good Girl's Guide to Murder! More dark secrets are exposed in this addictive, true-crime fueled mystery.
Pip is not a detective anymore.
With the help of Ravi Singh, she released a true-crime podcast about the murder case they solved together last year. The podcast has gone viral, yet Pip insists her investigating days are behind her.
But she will have to break that promise when someone she knows goes missing. Jamie Reynolds has disappeared, on the very same night the town hosted a memorial for the sixth-year anniversary of the deaths of Andie Bell and Sal Singh.
The police won't do anything about it. And if they won't look for Jamie then Pip will, uncovering more of her town's dark secrets along the way... and this time everyone is listening. But will she find him before it's too late?
(Grade 7 and up)
American Betiya by Anuradha D. Rajurkar
Fans of Sandhya Menon, Erika Sanchez and Jandy Nelson will identify with this powerful story of a young artist grappling with first love, family boundaries, and the complications of a cross-cultural relationship.
Rani Kelkar has never lied to her parents, until she meets Oliver. The same qualities that draw her in--his tattoos, his charisma, his passion for art--make him her mother's worst nightmare.
They begin dating in secret, but when Oliver's troubled home life unravels, he starts to ask more of Rani than she knows how to give, desperately trying to fit into her world, no matter how high the cost. When a twist of fate leads Rani from Evanston, Illinois to Pune, India for a summer, she has a reckoning with herself--and what's really brewing beneath the surface of her first love.
Winner of the SCBWI Emerging Voices award, Anuradha Rajurkar takes an honest look at the ways cultures can clash in an interracial relationship. Braiding together themes of sexuality, artistic expression, and appropriation, she gives voice to a girl claiming ownership of her identity, one shattered stereotype at a time.
(Mature Grade 8 and up)
Once Upon a Quinceañara by Monica Gomez-Hira
Carmen Aguilar just wants to make her happily ever after come true. Except apparently “happily ever after” for Carmen involves being stuck in an unpaid summer internship! All she has to do is perform! In a ball gown! During the summer. In Miami.
Fine. Except that Carmen’s company is hired for her spoiled cousin Ariana’s over the top quinceañera.
And of course, her new dance partner at work is none other than Mauro Reyes, Carmen’s most deeply regrettable ex.
If Carmen is going to move into the future she wants, she needs to leave the past behind. And if she can manage dancing in the blistering heat, fending off Mauro’s texts, and stopping Ariana from ruining her own quinceañera Carmen might just get that happily ever after after all.
(Grade 7 and up)
A Pho Love Story by Loan Le
If Bao Nguyen had to describe himself, he’d say he was a rock. Steady and strong, but not particularly interesting. His grades are average, his social status unremarkable. He works at his parents’ pho restaurant, and even there, he is his parents’ fifth favorite employee. Not ideal.
If Linh Mai had to describe herself, she’d say she was a firecracker. Stable when unlit, but full of potential for joy and fire. She loves art and dreams pursuing a career in it. The only problem? Her parents rely on her in ways they’re not willing to admit, including working practically full-time at her family’s pho restaurant.
For years, the Mais and the Nguyens have been at odds, having owned competing, neighboring pho restaurants. Bao and Linh, who’ve avoided each other for most of their lives, both suspect that the feud stems from feelings much deeper than friendly competition.
But then a chance encounter brings Linh and Bao in the same vicinity despite their best efforts and sparks fly, leading them both to wonder what took so long for them to connect. But then, of course, they immediately remember.
Can Linh and Bao find love in the midst of feuding families and complicated histories?
(Grade 7 and up)
Neighborhood Girls by Jessie Ann Foley
When Wendy Boychuck’s father, a Chicago cop, was escorted from their property in handcuffs for his shady criminal practices, she knew her life would never be the same. Her father gets a years-long jail sentence, her family falls on hard times, and the whispers around town are impossible to ignore. If that wasn’t bad enough, she gets jumped walking home from a party one night. Wendy quickly realizes that in order to survive her father’s reputation, she’ll have to make one for herself.
Then Wendy meets Kenzie Quintana—a cigarette-smoking, Catholic-school-uniform-skirt-hiking alpha—and she knows that she’s met her savior. Kenzie can provide Wendy with the kind of armor a girl needs when she’s trying to outrun her father’s past. Add two more mean girls to the mix—Sapphire and Emily—and Wendy has found herself in Academy of the Sacred Heart’s most feared and revered clique. Makeover complete.
(Grade 7 and up)
Dead Girls Don't Lie by Jennifer Shaw Wolf
Rachel died at two a.m . . . Three hours after Skyler kissed me for the first time. Forty-five minutes after she sent me her last text.
Jaycee and Rachel were best friends. But that was before. . .before that terrible night at the old house. Before Rachel shut Jaycee out. Before Jaycee chose Skyler over Rachel. Then Rachel is found dead. The police blame a growing gang problem in their small town, but Jaycee is sure it has to do with that night at the old house. Rachel’s text is the first clue—starting Jaycee on a search that leads to a shocking secret. Rachel’s death was no random crime, and Jaycee must figure out who to trust before she can expose the truth.
In the follow-up to her powerful debut, Jennifer Shaw Wolf keeps readers on their toes in another dark, romantic story of murder and secrets.
But complete is far from what Wendy feels. Instead, she faces the highs and lows of a vapid, toxic friendship, the exhaustion that comes with keeping up appearances, and the only loss that could hurt more than losing herself.
(Grade 8 and up)
Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson
The Pulitzer Prize–winning, bestselling author of The Warmth of Other Suns examines the unspoken caste system that has shaped America and shows how our lives today are still defined by a hierarchy of human divisions.
“As we go about our daily lives, caste is the wordless usher in a darkened theater, flashlight cast down in the aisles, guiding us to our assigned seats for a performance. The hierarchy of caste is not about feelings or morality. It is about power—which groups have it and which do not.”
In this brilliant book, Isabel Wilkerson gives us a masterful portrait of an unseen phenomenon in America as she explores, through an immersive, deeply researched narrative and stories about real people, how America today and throughout its history has been shaped by a hidden caste system, a rigid hierarchy of human rankings.
Beyond race, class, or other factors, there is a powerful caste system that influences people’s lives and behavior and the nation’s fate. Linking the caste systems of America, India, and Nazi Germany, Wilkerson explores eight pillars that underlie caste systems across civilizations, including divine will, bloodlines, stigma, and more. Using riveting stories about people—including Martin Luther King, Jr., baseball’s Satchel Paige, a single father and his toddler son, Wilkerson herself, and many others—she shows the ways that the insidious undertow of caste is experienced every day. She documents how the Nazis studied the racial systems in America to plan their out-cast of the Jews; she discusses why the cruel logic of caste requires that there be a bottom rung for those in the middle to measure themselves against; she writes about the surprising health costs of caste, in depression and life expectancy, and the effects of this hierarchy on our culture and politics. Finally, she points forward to ways America can move beyond the artificial and destructive separations of human divisions, toward hope in our common humanity.
(Adult book but easy to understand: High school and up)
The Gilded Ones by Namina Forna
Sixteen-year-old Deka lives in fear and anticipation of the blood ceremony that will determine whether she will become a member of her village. Already different from everyone else because of her unnatural intuition, Deka prays for red blood so she can finally feel like she belongs.
But on the day of the ceremony, her blood runs gold, the color of impurity--and Deka knows she will face a consequence worse than death.
Then a mysterious woman comes to her with a choice: stay in the village and submit to her fate, or leave to fight for the emperor in an army of girls just like her. They are called alaki--near-immortals with rare gifts. And they are the only ones who can stop the empire's greatest threat.
Knowing the dangers that lie ahead yet yearning for acceptance, Deka decides to leave the only life she's ever known. But as she journeys to the capital to train for the biggest battle of her life, she will discover that the great walled city holds many surprises. Nothing and no one are quite what they seem to be--not even Deka herself.
(Grade 7 and up)
Angry Management by Chris Crutcher
Chris Crutcher fills these three stories with raw emotion. They are about insecurity, anger, and prejudice. But they are also about love, freedom, and power. About surviving. And hope.
Every kid in this group wants to fly. Every kid in this group has too much ballast.
Mr. Nak's Angry Management group is a place for misfits. A place for stories. And, man, does this crew have stories.
There's Angus Bethune and Sarah Byrnes, who can hide from everyone but each other. Together, they will embark on a road trip full of haunting endings and glimmering beginnings.
And Montana West, who doesn't step down from a challenge. Not even when the challenge comes from her adoptive dad, who's leading the school board to censor the article she wrote for the school paper.
And straightlaced Matt Miller, who had never been friends with outspoken genius Marcus James. Until one tragic week—a week they'd do anything to change—brings them closer than Matt could have ever imagined.
(Grade 7 and up)
Sia Martinez and the Moonlit Beginning of Everything by Raquel Vasquez Gilliland
A Mexican American teen discovers profound connections between immigration, folklore, and alien life.
It’s been three years since ICE raids and phone calls from Mexico and an ill-fated walk across the Sonoran. Three years since Sia Martinez’s mom disappeared. Sia wants to move on, but it’s hard in her tiny Arizona town where people refer to her mom’s deportation as “an unfortunate incident.”
Sia knows that her mom must be dead, but every new moon Sia drives into the desert and lights San Anthony and la Guadalupe candles to guide her mom home.
Then one night, under a million stars, Sia’s life and the world as we know it cracks wide open. Because a blue-lit spacecraft crashes in front of Sia’s car…and it’s carrying her mom, who’s very much alive.
As Sia races to save her mom from armed-quite-possibly-alien soldiers, she uncovers secrets as profound as they are dangerous.
(Grade 7 and up)
List of Ten by Halli Gomez
A harrowing yet hopeful account of a teen living with Tourette Syndrome and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder . . . and contemplating his own mortality.
Ten: three little letters, one ordinary number. No big deal, right? But for Troy Hayes, a 16-year-old suffering from Tourette Syndrome and Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, the number ten dictates his life, forcing him to do everything by its exacting rhythm. Finally, fed up with the daily humiliation, loneliness, and physical pain he endures, Troy writes a list of ten things to do by the tenth anniversary of his diagnosis—culminating in suicide on the actual day. But the process of working his way through the list changes Troy’s life: he becomes friends with Khory, a smart, beautiful classmate who has her own troubled history. Khory unwittingly helps Troy cross off items on his list, moving him ever closer to his grand finale, even as she shows him that life may have more possibilities than he imagined. This is a dark, intense story, but it’s also realistic, hopeful, and deeply authentic.
(Grade 7 and up)
Out of the Easy by Ruta Sepetys
Known amongst the locals as the daughter of a brothel prostitute, Josie Moraine wants more out of life than The Big Easy has to offer. She devises a plan to get out, but a mysterious death in the Quarter leaves Josie tangled in an investigation that will challenge her conscience, her loyalties, and her darkest fears. Caught between the dream of an elite college and a clandestine underworld, Josie must choose -- between who she is now and who she longs to become, between when to hold on and how to let go.
With characters and atmosphere reminiscent of the great Southern novels, Ruta Sepetys creates a rich story of secrets, lies, and the haunting reminder that our decisions shape our destiny.
(Grade 8 and up)