Saints and Misfits by S.K. Ali

The indisputable silver lining to the polarizing, political storm clouds raging over our neighbours to the south, and elsewhere, is that publishers are offering more support to the voices of diverse communities, especially Muslim authors. The debut novel Saints and Misfits is a fine example, tempered by the fact that the main character’s faith is only part of her story. Janna’s parents have divorced, she has a crush on a cute boy, she and a childhood friend are growing apart, she’s learning to define her selfhood in new ways, her brother has a new fiancé, her mother might be dating, etc. Janna struggles to accommodate many of these typical teenage challenges, while Muslim practices around clothing, how and when she and other women wear the hijab, aspects of dating, etc. also colour her thoughts and concerns. Her faith informs her selfhood, but never overpowers the narrative. This aspect of the novel augments the story with a mirror and a window for Muslim and non-Muslim readers, respectively. Then a peer attempts to rape her, dwarfing all of her other concerns. Janna’s story is moving! Excellent characterization, a pacey plot, compelling teenage dialogue and deft handling of Janna’s feelings and behaviour regarding her sexual assault, make it hard to believe this is a debut novel.

I highly recommend it and look forward to reading more books by Canadian author, S.K. Ali. 

Young Adult Fiction Hardcover pr1257672


The Upside of Unrequited by Becky Albertalli

Twin sisters Molly and Cassie are 17. Molly has never had a boyfriend and never kissed anyone. Cassie has dated and hooked up with many girls and always tells Molly all about it (usually she tells Molly TOO much about it, for prudish Molly’s liking). Cassie’s always excited, initially, but never been really serious about a romantic relationship. Then Cassie meets her dream girl - gorgeous, sophisticated, exotic Mina. For the first time, Molly’s outspoken, self-assured, courageous, invincible twin seems vulnerable and unsure. She is quiet and reserved and not sharing her feelings with Molly. There are glimpses of the old Cassie. She comes exploding into Molly’s room, June 26th 2015. The Same Sex Marriage Amendment Supreme Court ruling has been announced in the U.S. Cassie is over the moon and practically goes supernova when their two moms decide to get married. The twins jump into the wedding preparations, but their relationship is uneasy. While all of these events are unfolding, Molly starts her first job, meets a boy and quietly falls for him. While her feelings for him are growing, she withdraws from her family and Cassie. She feels vulnerable and unsure, and comes to understand what her sister has been feeling and, like Cassie, finds them very difficult to express. She feels both joyful and sad, recognizing a beginning and an ending.

There are many markers of excellent literature and, frankly, my expectations were very high, having read this author’s fantastic debut, Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda. But, one marker that always resonates with me is when a book expresses something that’s true, from my own experience. I am a twin. This book expresses exactly what it is like when, for the first time, a romantic relationship displaces the twin in your life. There is a moment when the definition of “we” changes from “my twin and me,” to “my boyfriend and me” (or in Cassie’s case, “my girlfriend and me”). It feels wonderful to fall in love. It is exciting, and joyful and impossible to share with your twin without hurting her. Shifting toward someone else is a shift away from her. Other sisters and brothers have similar experiences, I’m sure, but Ms. Albertalli captures exactly what that part of growing up is like for twin sisters, or what it was like for me, anyway.

Obviously, there are LGBTQ characters in this book, but the content about June 26th, 2015, same sex marriage, etc., forms a seamless part of the plot without becoming didactic. In a similar way, there is diversity in Ms. Albertalli’s characters, but this isn’t an issues novel. (Cassie and Molly’s family is Jewish and interracial, Mina is Korean American and pansexual, Molly takes medication for an anxiety disorder, her grandmother thinks she’s overweight, etc.) These and other details are just part of who these lovely characters are. There is much more to say about this book, but that’s enough to express that I loved it.

Recommend this book as an adult crossover novel, to romantic comedy and Jane Austen fans, to artists or nerds, or to astute readers looking for hilarious characters and witty dialogue and texting.

Young Adult Fiction Hardcover pr1232233 

Prince & Knight by Daniel Haack

Once upon a time, a prince and his parents begin to search for his bride. They travel all over their kingdom and he meets many, many ladies, but none make him happy. Just then, a dragon attacks a village in the kingdom. The prince races to protect his people and a knight joins him. Together they defeat the dragon, save each other’s lives and, in classic fairy tale fashion, it’s love at first sight! “As the villagers returned, it became clear to those around, that the prince’s one true love had at last been found.” The prince’s parents are overjoyed. Holding hands, the prince and the knight get married and live “happily ever after.” School Library Journal says “…this book would be a great addition to any library or classroom, especially where fairy tales are in demand.” Librarians, some of whom I’m privileged to know, have been leaders in championing LGBTQ causes. LGBTQ books are in demand, fairy tales are always in demand, voila! This picture book kills two birds – and a dragon – with one stone! Ages 4 to 8

Picture Book Hardcover pr2068364

Ivy Aberdeen's Letter to the World by Ashley Herring Blake

There are many excellent aspects of this book to talk about, and that’s its main distinction. It’s about Ivy finding her selfhood – and voice - in all aspects of her life. She’s a middle child defining her role in a family with twin baby brothers. She’s a sister, trying to understand her older sister Layla’s decisions and redefine their relationship. She’s a best friend, struggling with sharing her feelings with her boy-crazy BFF, Taryn. She’s an artist who wants to prioritize her work. And she’s trying to understand why it makes her feel happy to draw herself holding hands with girls. Then Ivy meets Grace. Grace makes Ivy laugh and think, and feel special and happy. She looks forward to seeing Grace in a way she never did with Taryn. Gradually, Ivy realizes she has a crush on Grace, the way Taryn has crushes on boys. This realization about her selfhood informs, but is only a part of, everything else. She finds her voice in her family, with Taryn and with Grace – and uses her art to do it! Ivy’s mother, father, Layla, Taryn, and Grace all develop through the novel as well. This is a beautifully crafted book that would improve any library collection. I loved these characters and hope the author has more adventures in store for them. Ages 8 to 12

Juvenile Fiction Hardcover pr2038486

Julia Defiant by Catherine Egan

Reading Wuthering Heights was the first time I understood that characters – and, by extension, people – usually believe themselves to be justified and on the “right” side. Also, in the real world and, in excellent novels, most people or characters are neither all good, nor all evil, but make good or evil choices. The theme of choices is often explored effectively in young adult literature, but Julia Defiant - book two in the Witch’s Child series by Canadian, Catherine Egan - explores themes and ideas of good and evil in exceptionally interesting and nuanced ways. This is seen particularly in the heart of the protagonist, Julia, and the fate of the toddler, Theo.

Discussing Julia’s struggles would require detailed world building and plot description, so let’s discuss what happens with Theo. A dark, ancient, powerful magic has been bound to Theo’s life. While Theo lives, the power can’t be taken; but, killing him will release it to his murderer. Julia and Theo’s mother Bianka are unequivocally devoted to keeping Theo safe, while seeking to separate him from this dark magic – and destroy it. This may seem reasonable, but the power in Theo is unstable. Take for instance when a monster that he drew with a stick in the dirt, leapt to life. Theo may have been delighted, but what will his protectors do if he tries to draw a monster with his finger? Theo himself endangers those around him, and, if someone kills Theo and gains the magic - instead of destroying it - the safety of their whole society will be endangered.

This theme is an extension of the greater good theory - when a general advantage can only be gained by harming or losing something (or someone) considered less important. It is usually considered morally just to put oneself at risk for the sake of the whole. It becomes murky when one considers risking or harming someone else, for the sake of society. Equally, is it just to risk society (or more than one person) for the sake of one individual? Although these ideas seem abstract, they are being discussed around the algorithms of self-driving vehicles, for example, as well as in the world’s political policy.

Julia Defiant explores these themes and ideas with intelligence and clarity, making it an outstanding fantasy, together with its intriguing, fast paced plot, and a cast of eclectic, unpredictable, well-drawn and complex characters. It is one of my favourite books written in 2017. As I said in the LBI KIDs Spring 2018 Bestseller List letter, I look forward to reading book three this season - Julia Unbound (pr2026410).

Canadian Young Adult Fiction Hardcover pr1243694

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