Personal Best 2013: Top 2013 Published Titles

personal best 2013 iconWhew! 2013 has come to a close–and I still feel as though it just began! It’s been an exciting and eventful year, especially in reading and writing about reading! Sadly this excitement hasn’t been reflected on this blog for the last few months–balancing a busy beginning to my third year as a full-time librarian and the start of my tenure as a contributor to the amazing YALSA young adult lit blog, The Hub has proved a challenge! However, I hope to improved my balancing act in the new year. But if you’re curious to see where I’ve been focusing all my blogging energy this fall, head over there to check out my posts–and then read all the other wonderful posts written by far more brilliant librarians and writers!

As we enter the new year, many of us try to reflect on the past twelve months.  What important events shaped our lives? What milestones passed? Which resolutions did we keep–or forget?  And for some of us–what did you read? It’s been a good year for book lovers of all ages.  For 2013, I set an ambitious goal to read 150 books.  And amazingly, I actually beat my goal by over 10 books!  Even more importantly, I read a large number of really great books this year.  So I tried to gather together some of my favorites into my own personal best of 2013 list.   For this list, I limited myself to books I read in 2013 that were also published in 2013.  I’m hoping write up an additional post of less recently published titles that I read and loved this year as well.

All annotations are from WorldCat and each title links to Goodreads. 

A Creepy Double Feature

Despite hearing exciting things about her writing, I shamefully didn’t get around to reading any of Holly Black’s fiction until this year.  But it was a great year to start tuning in!  Holly Black published not one but two fabulous novels in 2013–and they were actually two of my favorite reads of the year.  Both novels illustrate Black’s ability to marry interesting–and genuinely creepy–horror fiction with multi-dimensional characters and an emotionally resonant storyline.  Additionally, each novel was excellently suited for its intended audience.

doll-bonesDoll Bones – Holly Black  Zach, Alice, and Poppy, friends from a Pennsylvania middle school who have long enjoyed acting out imaginary adventures with dolls and action figures, embark on a real-life quest to Ohio to bury a doll made from the ashes of a dead girl.

coldest girl in coldtownThe Coldest Girl in Coldtown – Holly Black   When seventeen-year-old Tana wakes up following a party in the aftermath of a violent vampire attack, she travels to Coldtown, a quarantined Massachusetts city full of vampires, with her ex-boyfriend and a mysterious vampire boy in tow.

Do You Believe In Magic?

As many of my recent posts over at the Hub might indicate, I’m a big fantasy fiction reader.  It’s a genre I have followed and adored essentially my entire life.  So I’m always on the hunt for good fantasy fiction–for me and for my demanding fantasy fan students!  This year was a fairly solid year for fantasy fiction, including some fresh voices and exciting contributions from old favorites.  The first title was marketed as adult fiction but have high teen appeal; the later titles are all young adult fiction.

ocean at the end of laneThe Ocean At The End of the Lane- Neil Gaiman  It began for our narrator forty years ago when the family lodger stole their car and committed suicide in it, stirring up ancient powers best left undisturbed. Dark creatures from beyond the world are on the loose, and it will take everything our narrator has just to stay alive: there is primal horror here, and menace unleashed – within his family and from the forces that have gathered to destroy it. His only defense is three women, on a farm at the end of the lane. The youngest of them claims that her duckpond is ocean. The oldest can remember the Big Bang. 

I’m a big Neil Gaiman fan and never more so than after reading this slim but rich gem of a novel.  Ocean was absolutely one of my top reads of the year;  it’s just a perfect jewel of fantasy novel, exploring the darkness and delight of childhood imagination.

SorrowsKnotCoverSorrow’s Knot- Erin Bow  Otter is a girl of the Shadowed People, a tribe of women, and she is born to be a binder, a woman whose power it is to tie the knots that bind the dead–but she is also destined to remake her world.

This incredibly fresh fantasy novel was the last book I read in 2013–and what a way to end the year! I heard about this novel a while ago, possibly on the fabulous Diversity in YA tumblr and I was initially just excited to see an original high fantasy set in a non-European invented world–especially a world inspired by North American indigenous cultures.  I finally got around to reading the e-galley I gained through Netgalley this week and wow, am I glad I did! Bow’s prose is just gorgeous, the world unique and incredibly well-developed, the plot epic yet intimate, and the characters beautifully complex.

bitter-kingdomThe Bitter Kingdom– Rae Carson  Elisa, a fugitive in her own kingdom, faces great challenges to rescue the man she loves from her enemies, prevent a civil war, and take back her throne but as her magic grows, Elisa discovers the shocking truth about her enemy’s ultimate goal.

dream thievesThe Dream Thieves – Maggie Stiefvater  Now that the ley lines around Cabeswater are awake, magic is swirling around Blue and The Raven boys and Ronan Lynch’s ability to pull objects from his dreams is almost out of control but worst of all, the mysterious Gray Man is stalking the Lynch family, looking for something called the Greywaren.

These last two fantasy titles are both volumes in existing series by two of my favorite current YA fantasy writers.  The Bitter Kingdom concluded Rae Carson’s break out trilogy begun in The Girl of Fire and Thorns and it was a worthy finale for one of my new favorite high fantasy series.  The Dream Thieves is the second novel in Maggie Stiefvater’s exciting and elegant new Raven Boys series and it was just as thrilling to read as the opening novel–I can’t wait for the next!

The Future Is Now

the-bone-season-cover1The Bone Season– Samantha Shannon  In the mid-21st century major world cities are controlled by a formidable security force and clairvoyant underworld cell member Paige commits acts of psychic treason before being captured by an otherworldly race that would make her a part of their supernatural army.

This futuristic supernatural thriller is already set up for a massive series and possibly a film adaption–and after reading it, I understood why.  It’s definitely a complex and unusual adrenaline-rush of a novel.  The world and story straddle the line between fantasy and science fiction and its futuristic setting might lead one to slot this debut in with the many other dystopian tale filling the shelves.  However, while this novel to be as mind-blowing as hyped, I was intrigued–and I’m excited to see the series continue.

summer princeThe Summer Prince- Alaya Dawn Johnson  In a Brazil of the distant future, June Costa falls in love with Enki, a fellow artist and rebel against the strict limits of the legendary pyramid city of Palmares Três’ matriarchal government, knowing that, like all Summer Kings before him, Enki is destined to die.

I was intrigued by this unusual piece of speculative fiction from the start, at first mainly from a diversity/multicultural perspective.  Then I learned that the author graduated from the school where I work–and I was extra intrigued.  It’s been a few months but I think I’m actually still mulling this one over; there’s just so much going on in here–but the more I think about it, the more I like it.  If I had time, I would love to give this the reread it deserves.  But I can say it’s an exciting book and Johnson is doing some really different and thrilling things here.

Rising From The Ashes

I grouped these next few realistic contemporary novels together because all three focus on girls and young women struggling to deal traumatic pasts and forge a fresh place in the world.  Additionally all three deal with familial relationships in complex ways.  Despite these common themes, these novels are very different but equally highly compelling.

counting by 7sCounting By 7s– Holly Goldberg Sloan Twelve-year-old genius and outsider Willow Chance must figure out how to connect with other people and find a surrogate family for herself after her parents are killed in a car accident.

all the truth that's in meAll The Truth That’s In Me- Julie Berry  Judith can’t speak. But when her close-knit community of Roswell Station is attacked by enemies, Judith is forced to choose: continue to live in silence, or recover her voice.

where the stars still shineWhere The Stars Still Shine- Trish Doller  Abducted at age five, Callie, now seventeen, has spent her life on the run but when her mother is finally arrested and she is returned to her father in small-town Florida, Callie must find a way to leave her past behind, become part of a family again, and learn that love is more than just a possibility.

Another Kind of Survival Story

I am also a lover of historical fiction and two of my recent favorite writers of historical fiction, Elizabeth C. Wein and Ruta Sepetys both published new and very exciting novels this year.  Both deal with young heroines in very different but incredibly difficult situations.  Both young women are determined to survive and each finds a sense of resilience in the unexpected connections she forges with others.

rose under fireRose Under Fire– Elizabeth C. Wein  When young American pilot Rose Justice is captured by Nazis and sent to Ravensbrück, the notorious women’s concentration camp, she finds hope in the impossible through the loyalty, bravery, and friendship of her fellow prisoners.

out-of-the-easyOut of the Easy- Ruta Sepetys  Josie, the seventeen-year-old daughter of a French Quarter prostitute, is striving to escape 1950 New Orleans and enroll at prestigious Smith College when she becomes entangled in a murder investigation.

Love Is A Battlefield

eleanor & parkEleanor & Park- Rainbow Rowell  Set over the course of one school year in 1986, this is the story of two star-crossed misfits–smart enough to know that first love almost never lasts, but brave and desperate enough to try.

Rainbow Rowell’s debut novel for teens has been both a popular and critical darling since its publication earlier this year.  And I can’t deny that I’m among its many fans.  I consumed this book in a single sitting during a train ride; I absolutely couldn’t put it down.  It’s one of those novels that reaches into your chest and grabs you by the heart.  It makes your chest ache, your stomach swoop, and your throat constrict–it packs a very special kind of emotional punch to the gut.  And while I found much to like about her second YA title this year (Fangirl), I found Eleanor and Park a bit more focused and compelling.

Learning To Listen To Your Drummer

I read a lot of really great contemporary YA fiction this year–so many, in fact, that I’ve divided them into multiple groups on this list.  Here are four strong and distinct coming of age tales with complex, lovable (if not always likable) protagonists and equally complex supporting teen and adult characters.  By chance, this group of novels also happen to share another common theme: the intense role the arts (especially music, poetry, and theatre) can play in our lives.

the lucy variationsThe Lucy Variations– Sara Zarr  Sixteen-year-old San Franciscan Lucy Beck-Moreau once had a promising future as a concert pianist. Her chance at a career has passed, and she decides to help her ten-year-old piano prodigy brother, Gus, map out his own future, even as she explores why she enjoyed piano in the first place.

sweet revengeThe Sweet Revenge of Celia Door- Karen Finneyfrock  Fourteen-year-old Celia, hurt by her parents’ separation, the loss of her only friend, and a classmate’s cruelty, has only her poetry for solace until newcomer Drake Berlin befriends her, comes out to her, and seeks her help in connecting with the boy he left behind.

this song wil save your lifeThis Song Will Save Your Life- Leila Sales  Nearly a year after a failed suicide attempt, sixteen-year-old Elise discovers that she has the passion, and the talent, to be a disc jockey.

just one dayJust One Day- Gayle Forman Sparks fly when American good girl Allyson encounters laid-back Dutch actor Willem, so she follows him on a whirlwind trip to Paris, upending her life in just one day and prompting a year of self-discovery and the search for true love.

Most Likely To Encourage Snacking While Reading

relishRelish: My Life In the Kitchen- Lucy Knisley  Lucy Knisley loves food. The daughter of a chef and a gourmet, this talented young cartoonist comes by her obsession honestly. In her forthright, thoughtful, and funny memoir, Lucy traces key episodes in her life thus far, framed by what she was eating at the time and lessons learned about food, cooking, and life. Each chapter is bookended with an illustrated recipe– many of them treasured family dishes, and a few of them Lucy’s original inventions.

Graphic memoirs seems to be on the rise and I couldn’t be happier, especially if they’re as delicious as Relish!  As an amateur baker & cook (and a passionate eater), I found Lucy Knisley’s memoir to be a totally delightful reading experience and the perfect blend of popular sub-genres, food memoirs and graphic nonfiction.

A Girl On Fire

i am malala I Am Malala- Malala Yousafzai & Christina Lamb  When the Taliban took control of the Swat Valley, one girl spoke out. Malala Yousafzai refused to be silenced and fought for her right to an education. On Tuesday October 9, 2012, she almost paid the ultimate price.

Living in DC is consistently interesting in unexpected ways but it can be especially exciting for a reader.  We have a wealth of great libraries, universities, and bookstores bringing in great authors and speakers constantly.  I was lucky enough to snag a ticket earlier this fall to hear Malala Yousafzai and her father speak at a event hosted by our wonderful independent bookstore Politics and Prose.  It was an inspiring and fascinating evening and I found the book equally compelling.

Then And Now

twoboyskissingcoverTwo Boys Kissing– David Levithan  A chorus of men who died of AIDS observes and yearns to help a cross-section of today’s gay teens who navigate new love, long-term relationships, coming out, self-acceptance, and more in a society that has changed in many ways.

I’m an unabashedly huge David Levithan fan.  I waited in a significant line at the American Library Association conference this summer to grab an advanced readers’ copy of his newest novel and I was not disappointed.  I know that others have found the unusual narration choices and the large cast of characters distracting or difficult to connect with as a reader.  And while I completely understand this concerns, I found the book very emotionally compelling and I found that the unusual narration (especially the Greek chorus of men who died of AIDS) fascinating and quite poetic (in a classic Levithan fashion). It also feels like an appropriate spiritual successor to Levithan’s debut Boy Meets Boy, which celebrated its 10th anniversary this past year.

For a quite different but also delightfully fresh LGBTQ-themed coming of age tale, I also very much liked Openly Straight by Bill Konigsberg this year.

Let’s Hear It For The Boy!

This list has been a little female-heavy in its protagonists, a bit inevitable when working at a girls’ school.  But this year was a great year for male characters, especially in middle grade fiction.  I read a few wonderful novels with lovable, unconventional heroes with a lot of heart.  I especially enjoyed seeing young male-identified characters who don’t fit neatly into masculine stereotypes.  Nate in Tim Federle’s delightful debut also happens to be one of those incredibly funny narrators who can make me giggle and snort out loud when reading on public transportation.

better-nate-than-everBetter Nate Than Ever- Tim Federle  An eighth-grader who dreams of performing in a Broadway musical concocts a plan to run away to New York and audition for the role of Elliot in the musical version of “E.T.”

Texting The Underworld by Ellen Booream and Doll Bones by Holly Black also feature complex, brave boys who break many masculine stereotypes (and some equally complex, brave girls!).

No Words Needed

Journey_by_Aaron_BeckerJourney- Aaron Becker  Using a red marker, a young girl draws a door on her bedroom wall and through it enters another world where she experiences many adventures, including being captured by an evil emperor.

While I absolutely love my job working with middle and high schoolers, I sometimes miss my time working with infants, toddlers, and younger elementary kids.  I miss creating storytimes and singing silly song.  But I especially miss the chance to keep up with picture books.  However, I managed to check out at least one of the new standouts this year and if you only look at one picture book this year, make it Aaron Becker’s Journey.  Picture book creation is a unique art and wordless picture books are a special subset.  This is a gorgeous, delightful narrative told entirely in Becker’s beautiful paintings.  As a believer in the power of art and imagination, I found this book especially lovely.    

So those were a few of my favorite 2013 books.  I have a whole other list of favorite reads that don’t fit the ‘published in 2013’ rule and yet another list of 2013 books that I didn’t get a chance to read yet.  But those will have to wait for another post or two later this week.

Which books made your personal 2013 best lists?

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Two Boys Kissing by David Levithan

twoboyskissingcoverIt’s Saturday morning and on the lawn in front of a fairly ordinary high school two boys are kissing.  Their names are Harry and Craig.  They aren’t a couple–although they used to be–and their kiss is no spontaneous expression of affection or lust.  Harry and Craig are trying to break the world record for the longest kiss.  

Peter and Neil are boyfriends, navigating the complexities of being a couple.  When they kiss, it’s a reminder of who they are together.  Avery and Ryan just met.  They haven’t kissed yet but they want to–if only each can get over his fears.  Cooper is alone; he has no one to confide in–let alone someone to kiss.  Worst of all, he doesn’t even care–because he stopped caring about anything quite a while ago.

These boys’ stories are threads, woven together into a tapestry imagining the many forms that love can take–and the power of a single kiss.  

Now, I must put a little disclaimer out there: I am a massive David Levithan fan.  He’s one of the few writers of contemporary YA fiction that I read as a teen–and since I was a selective (and, to be honest, pretty snobby) reader who refused to read fiction set anytime in the last few decades, that’s saying something. So, I might be a little bias in my admiration of this novel.

And for me, this novel is classic David Levithan.  Two Boys Kissing incorporates all the elements integral to Levithan’s best work: poetic prose, a diverse cast of characters, unusual narration, and plot focused on emotional (rather than physical) journeys. And above all, his writing continues to demonstrate respect and care for his teenage readership. This novel in particular feels like a love letter to his readers. It’s a story about being young, about being different, about being LGBTQ-identified–and one told with incredible compassion, sincerity, respect, and love.

As in many of his novels, Levithan juggles a large cast of characters in this novel, shifting between their stories and gently connecting them through shared themes, experiences, and explicit plot events (primarily the record-breaking kiss).  Now, I foresee that some readers might find the large cast of characters and the constant movement between their narratives disconcerting or overwhelming.  However, Levithan takes a premise that could feel sprawling and manages to make the collective narrative feel both seamless and intimate. I love getting to know these characters as we slip in and out of their lives over a two or three day period.  While many of the primary characters appear to fit certain identifiable ‘types’ of gay adolescent males through their situations or relationships, Levithan fleshes each one out into fully formed human characters with unique personalities and motivations, avoiding stale stereotypes.

The unusual narrative voice also sets this novel apart.  The omniscient but still achingly human Greek chorus of gay men who died during the height of the American AIDS epidemic tie the novel’s multiple narratives together while also adding a sense of history and cross-generational connection frequently lacking in YA novels.  Additionally, their narration again demonstrates Levithan’s ability to offer incredible insight on the human experience through deceptively simple statements.

In all, I love following these seeming unconnected characters’ lives as they slowly become intertwined through a single, symbolic kiss.  The story illustrates the very powerful defiance & freedom that kiss represents. Even before reading Levithan’s lovely author’s note and acknowledgements, a reader will sense that this particular novel is incredibly personal–and be grateful that Levithan has chosen to write it. Additionally, it can be no mistake that Two Boys Kissing is being published approximately ten years after the appearance of Levithan’s historic debut novel Boy Meets Boy.  Two Boys Kissing feel like a natural companion to that novel. As a reader, I feel honored to be involved in such a personal and universal story–and as a librarian, I am excited to use my signed ARC as a give-away during a (hopefully) repeated resource share with our school’s queer-straight alliance this fall. Watch for the release of Two Boys Kissing on August 27.

5/5 stars for this lovely and loving novel!

*review written based on an advanced reader’s copy received from the publisher at American Library Association’s Annual Conference. 

The Club Connection: Bringing The Library TO Students!

This post represents a category of content that has been fairly rare on my blog so far: writing about library programming.   I have yet to blog much about library programming, lesson development, or other library activities for several reasons.  Mostly, as a young rookie librarian, I find the amazing, creative programming blogged about by my more experienced peers a bit intimidating. However, I hope the use this summer to change this pattern!  Especially since I believe that offering a break down of my tentative programming will encourage other newbie librarians.  After all, one of the biggest lessons I learned during the last few years as first a library intern and now a full-time librarian is the value of accepting and embracing failure–especially the failure of new activities or programs.  A program or a lesson won’t always work the way you hoped–or work at all.  But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t valuable.

Today, however, I’d like to share a couple of library activities I developed this past year that were actually successful.  These two particular activities were especially successful in connecting specific groups of students with the library and reminding them how the library can be a source for information & support outside their academic needs.  It’s not a particularly new idea but I want to write about the great value in using pre-existing teen groups (such as school clubs) to connect young adults with the libraries in their lives.

My collaborations with student groups this past year represent two different methods for the creation of such events: the ‘active search & approach by librarian’ method and the ‘eager seizure of an unexpected opportunity’ method.  The first collaboration came about when I initiated contact with a student leader of a club and made a direct proposal. After spending the last week of June 2012 attending a wonderful conference of multicultural education–The Georgetown Day School’s Equity Collaborative, I began the school year  determined to find new ways within my particular sphere of influence to make our school a more explicitly supportive, inclusive, and safe environment.  One fairly simple act was to quietly reach out to our Queer-Straight Alliance and offer to share some LGBTQ-specific resources available in our library.    Initially my offer was, in fact, too quiet and it was lost in the bustle of the new school year.  However, I tried again in the spring and was able to make a connection.  Through quick conversations with our QSA’s president, it was decided that I would come and visit their next meeting to share a list of resources relevant and interesting to LGBTQ youth.  I spent just over a week pulling together a resource list that included a diverse group of YA fiction featuring young, LGBTQ protagonists, a few key nonfiction titles, and a couple of good websites.  I also put together a quick Power Point presentation that allowed me to give an overview of the list’s contents.  My goals were: to show them rich diversity of currently available fiction and nonfiction for & about LBGTQ youth, to explain explicitly where they could find these resources and get good information, and to demonstrate that their library is safe place where they have adult allies.

Now, as I stated at the beginning, this simple activity is neither revolutionary nor extraordinary.  However, I am very proud of it because it accomplished a rare feat:  I actually achieved all my initial goals and it will likely be a repeatable activity! Students who attended checked some books out right away and some came back & asked for more later.  The president of the club requested a digital copy of the resource list to share with club members unable to attend the meeting and the group’s faculty advisor was enthusiastic about the idea of repeating this event early next fall.

Here are my presentation and resource list, both of which I plan to update slightly over the summer 🙂

The second collaboration with a student group came about through pure chance and, even more excitingly, a direct approach from a student.  This year my newborn Student Library Advisory Board (SLAB, as its members like to call the group) and I planned & ran two very fun movie nights in the library.  Our second movie night was a Valentine’s Day theme and had around 25 students in attendance–which is awesome, especially considering the relatively small size of our school, the many other options for Friday night activities, and the geographic spread of our student body.  Afterwards, a student that attended this movie night emailed me, saying how much she enjoyed the event and that she was interested in doing a movie night event for a student group she had recently helped begin on campus. She asked if I could give her some tips about setting up such an event.  I happily responded, offering to help her plan the event.  The group is focused on spreading awareness about various issues related to adolescent health and the members wanted to do a movie night as a fun way to begin a discussion about adolescent mental health issues.

I was thrilled to be asked and so we worked together to plan a small Friday evening event during which we would show the recent film adaption of Ned Vizzini’s It’s Kind of A Funny Story.  Both the student leader and I connected with a member of our school’s awesome counseling department and she agreed to open the event with a informational discussion about adolescent mental health and mental illness.  Meanwhile, I, of course, offered to create a resource list of websites (based on suggested from our wonderful counselor) and fiction dealing with adolescent mental health issues.  To create this list, I made use of one of the best resources out there: other librarians!  I sent out a request for fiction titles related to adolescent mental health to the yalsa_bk listserv.  In response I received an amazing wealth of titles! So again, thank you to the wonderful subscribers of the yalsa_bk listserv!  The event went wonderfully–the opening discussion was really informative,  the movie touching and funny, and the resource list well received–with a digital copy requested to be emailed out to friends 🙂

Here is the resource list I created with the help of our wonderful counseling department and the awesome subscribers of the yalsa_bk listserv.

I somewhat stumbled into this method of library outreach over the past year but I’m very excited about these small successes since they were fairly simple to implement but powerful in their impact.  As a result, I’ve created relationships with more students and I’ve found ways to share the library’s resources in targeted doses to interested audiences.  I’m hoping to continue this type of outreach next year by repeating events like the QSA resource share and by seeking out other student groups who might be open to collaboration.

How have you used pre-existing student/youth organizations or clubs to connect teens to YOUR library?  I’d love to hear more ideas in the comments!

The Sweet Revenge of Celia Door by Karen Finneyfrock

sweet revengeCelia Door has turned Dark.  After powerful popular girls  Sandy and Mandy did something unspeakable to her at the end of eighth grade, Celia spent the summer transforming herself into Celia the Dark with big black boots and a heart bent on revenge.  But then the attractive & stylish new boy Drake approaches her despite her carefully constructed Darkness and suddenly Celia has a friend other than her trusty poetry notebook.  However, even when Drake entrusts Celia with his deepest secret, she can’t bring herself to share her own hidden obsession with revenge and soon she will have to make a decision: is her personal quest for justice worth risking her new friendship with Drake?

In her first foray in to fiction, poet Karen Finneyfrock has crafted a poignant debut as full of pain, hope, fear, and confusion as that universally awkward freshman year of high school.  Celia Door bursts onto the YA lit scene with the determined thud of combat boots, the whisper of notebook pages, and the vibrant voice of brave rebel and an injured soul.  She’s unforgettable and her story will stick with readers long after they finish reading its final pages.

But why am I gushing?  What’s so great about this novel, with its quirky title and its teenage angst-filled summary?  Well, allow me to explain.

10 Things I Adore About The Sweet Revenge of Celia Door

1. Celia is a smart, word-obsessed, bibliophile who views libraries as her sanctuaries and has found salvation in poetry.  But, she doesn’t always get the last word; her instinctual comebacks to bullies aren’t long witty sentences but the rare cuss word or blunt statements.  She’s an intelligently snarky narrator but she’s not continuously pithy in conversation.

2. Did I mention she loves libraries–and books?  She’s got a literary crush designated in each genre and has decided to read her way through every Dewey Decimal section of the library.  She’s my kind of girl 🙂

3. Now it might seem a little bizarre to connect this book with Elizabeth C. Wein’s brilliant historical thriller Code Name Verity but bear with me for a moment.  Like Code Name Verity, Celia Door is a story about the transforming power of friendship.  While two novels have virtually nothing else in common, the two story share the key feature that their protagonists find their lives utterly altered by a friendship–rather than a romance.

4. The adults are alternately wonderful, frustrating, imperfect, and life-saving.  The adults in Celia’s life–from her head-in-the-clouds mom and her suddenly distant dad to her memorable eighth grade English teacher and her seemingly strict ninth grade language arts teacher–are all different and none are simple, cartoon villains.

5. Celia keeps secrets–even from the readers! While Celia refers to the traumatizing events of the previous year early on, we don’t find out the full truth until the final act of the story, when she chooses to share her secret with Drake.

6.  The story paints a painful realistic picture of bullying and its effect on an individual.  However, this doesn’t read as a problem novel or a single issue story;  it’s a much more complex narrative about a range of topics (including familial change, social isolation, depression, homophobia, and first love) where bullying plays a significant role in the protagonist’s journey.  Additionally, as an educator working with middle and high school girls, many aspects of the bullying portrayed here sounded sadly familiar.

7. Poetry is powerful!  Celia is a poet–and as her creator is also a poet, we get to read many of Celia’s poems.  And not only do they fit very organically into Celia’s narration–they’re also just plain great! The story eventually reveals that poetry has become more than Celia’s hobby–poetry saved her life.

8.  While she has many admirable qualities, our intrepid protagonist is far from flawless.  While her obsession with revenge is understandable and sympathetic, it leads her to make a series of unwise decisions.  She makes mistakes–and learns from them.

9. Celia and Drake are incredibly lovable, sympathetic, and interesting characters.  They sneak into your heart & mind and absolutely refuse to leave.  I celebrated with their triumphs, got teary eyed during their heartbreaks, and chewed my fingernails ragged during their moments of crisis.  I was cheering for Celia and Drake–and for their newborn connection–from the first chapter.

10.  The writing is sharp and lyrical.  Finneyfrock’s poetic roots show through in her use of vivid language and unexpected but highly visual metaphors.  I’m looking forward to seeing more from this bold new voice in young adult literature.

Readalikes:  This novel could be handed off to younger fans of John Green–or even some David Levithan–for its literary wit, quirky characters, snappy writing, and balance of light & dark topics.  It also might work well with novels in verse or stories about creative souls.

A big 5/5 stars from me!

Beautiful Music for Ugly Children by Kristin Cronn-Mills

beautiful music for ugly childrenGabe might have been born Elizabeth but he’s knows that he’s truly a boy.  And now, after years of living as Elizabeth, he’s decided to start living as Gabe–outside his room.  His family still isn’t sure how to react to Gabe’s decision and his apparently supportive best friend Paige keeps sending him mixed signals.  But through his new gig as a DJ on the local radio, Gabe starts to find his voice, connect with a surprisingly large group of late night listeners, and walk the difficult path towards acceptance & survival.

Whew! What a fresh, authentic, and, yes, truly beautiful novel about finding the courage to stand up for yourself, to seek out your passions, and to pursue your dreams–even in the face of hatred and fear.

Cronn-Mills adds an exciting new voice to young adult fiction through her marvelous protagonist Gabe. He’s worried about transitioning from his past life as Elizabeth and he longs for the freedom to be himself (and for his best friend Paige to notice him as more than a friend).  However, somehow Gabe maintains a sense of humor as he tells his story–a fact that makes his emotional moments all the more powerful.  Gabe is sarcastic, vulnerable, shy, funny, passionate, and caring; his love of music, his dreams of becoming a DJ, and his close, complicated relationships with his best friend Paige, his neighbor and mentor John, and his family all make him an incredibly appealing, relatable character.

This tender and thoughtful coming of age story explores Gabe’s senior year, describing  both simple (and not so simple) everyday incidents and well-placed moments of intense action & nail-biting tension.   While certain events might be a little too serendipitous and the conclusion a bit too quick, the plot overall is well paced and the story refreshingly combines the harsh realities faced by trans youth (including harassment, threats, physical attacks, etc.) with positive relationships & well-earned triumphant moments.  I love the way Cronn-Mills uses Gabe’s passion for DJ-ing and music to guide his journey and structure the story.   Additionally, as I’ve already indicated, the supporting cast of characters is first rate.  Between his conflicted but supportive best friend Paige, his cool, kind neighbor John, his quirky boss, his confused yet loving family, and the strange collective of fans that emerges from his radio show, every character add something important to the reader’s understanding of Gabe’s story–and of Gabe himself.

A welcome addition to a growing group of excellent novels focused on trans youth–especially because Gabe is fully fleshed out character, with passions and interests and problems beyond his identity as a young trans man.  Beautiful Music For Ugly Children is a lovely, quirky, and hopeful coming of age story that will appeal to anyone who’s ever felt trapped or invisible under the pressure of other people’s expectations.  The concluding author’s note featuring information about trans identity and resources for trans youth & their family and friends is a great bonus.

Readalikes:  This novel could be matched with readers via a few different routes.   It might be passed on to students expressing an interest in reading contemporary coming of age stories about LGBTQ teens (recent examples include The Vast Fields of Ordinary by Nick Burd & Ask The Passengers by A.S. King). It could also be paired up with other stories about trans youth (such as I Am J by Cris Beam, Luna by Julie Anne Peters, Parrotfish by Ellen Wittlinger, or Almost Perfect by Brian Katcher).  However, Beautiful Music for Ugly Children could also fit wonderfully with a collection of other quirky musical novels such as Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist by Rachel Cohn & David Levithan, If I Stay and Where She Went by Gayle Forman, or The Disenchantments by Nina LaCour.

A strong 4/5 stars!