Tracey S. Hodges
Reading across genres can be a meaningful experience for teens that allows them to learn about different life experiences while finding the types of stories that specifically draw them in. Identifying the types of stories they enjoy, whether that be fantasy, contemporary realistic fiction, historical fiction, or nonfiction, can cultivate a lifelong love of reading and motivation to find new books of interest. The nine diverse books reviewed in this column are sure to engage teen readers.
Chaos Theory. Nic Stone. (2023). Crown.
While trying to text his ex-girlfriend during a fateful night of heavy drinking at a party, 18-year-old Andy Criddle accidentally contacts 16-year-old Shelbi Augustine, and without knowing who each other is, they continue to text. Aware that he has had too much to drink, she makes him promise not to drive. Andy gets behind the wheel anyway and crashes his car. He again texts Shelbi and confesses what he did, though he still does not know who she is. Once they meet in person, they begin texting regularly and confide their personal struggles (Andy’s alcohol addiction and Shelbi’s bipolar disorder and social anxiety). As they begin spending time together, Shelbi presents Andy with a list of rules about how to interact with her if they are to be friends. The most important rule is that he cannot fall in love with her. However, they do fall in love with each other. But as they are still battling their own mental health problems, high family expectations, and social pressures, author Nic Stone (who in a note tells readers that this is the book she wanted as a teen dealing with her own mental health issues) gives Chaos Theory a hopeful but realistic ending. This beautifully crafted story shows how everyone deserves to be loved, understood, and supported—an important message with the rise in teen mental health concerns. (Gr 9-12) Contemporary Realistic Fiction - Romance
The Davenports (The Davenports #1). Krystal Marquis. (2023). Dial.
The Davenports are a wealthy, elite Black family living in 1910 Chicago. The family’s patriarch, William Davenport, is a former slave turned businessman who amassed a fortune as a manufacturer of carriages. This narrative, based on the fortunes of one of a small group of prosperous Black families in the decades after the Civil War, follows four teens connected to the Davenport family as they navigate societal expectations and romance. Olivia, the older Davenport daughter, is ready to fulfill her duty by marrying well, and Helen, the younger Davenport sister, is interested in working as a mechanic on cars not in marriage. The narrative also follows Ruby, Olivia’s best friend whose family wants her to marry into the Davenport family, and Amy-Rose, a maid in the Davenport home, who is determined to own her own business (and dreams of the impossible, marrying John, the heir to the Davenport fortune). Krystal Marquis’s romance novel includes multiple love triangles to complicate relationships further as it examines issues related to class, race, and gender during this period of American history. (Gr 9-12) Historical Fiction - Romance
In Limbo. Deb JJ Lee. (2023). First Second.
In this graphic memoir, artist Deborah (Jung-Jin) Lee explores issues of immigration, family dynamics, identity, and mental health with expressive illustrations and minimal text. The result is a powerful coming-of-age story of a Korean American who emigrated at the age of three from South Korea and grew up in New Jersey. For Deb, everything feels overly challenging. Teachers cannot pronounce her Korean name, she is bullied for her looks, and her mother is verbally and physically abusive. In high school, her grades are not good enough for her family, and she struggles to maintain friendships. As tension builds, her mental health deteriorates, culminating in a suicide attempt. She describes this period of her life as being “in limbo.” Lee’s engaging storytelling addresses questions of family, heritage, and belonging that are realistic and relatable for teens. (Gr 9-12) Memoir in Graphic Novel Format
My Flawless Life. Yvonne Woon. (2023). Katherine Tegen.
Hana Yang Lerner is a problem-solver and fixer. Using her charm from a life in politics as daughter of a senator and her ability to camouflage into any persona, she is hired by wealthy classmates at her prep school in Washington, DC, to do everything from standing in for a student at a college meet-and-greet event to having drug-related citations removed from school records. How did she get into this business? Her father’s involvement and subsequent conviction in a hit-and-run accident shook her family to its core, destroyed their reputation, and ruined them financially. Now, Hana has nothing to lose. When she is contacted by Three, a mysterious client with a problem, Hana is not sure she wants to commit to fixing it, but she cannot refuse the promised fee—and her life gets even more complicated. This twisty and layered thriller holds readers in suspense as they are propelled to read on wanting to know the truth about Hana’s father and the identity of Three. (Gr 9-12) Contemporary Realistic Fiction – Thriller
Play the Game. Charlene Allen. (2023). Katherine Tegen.
Video games, murder, and clashes with police collide in Charlene Allen’s fast-paced mystery that is sure to give teens a lot to talk about. A young Black student named Ed, a video game creator with sights on winning a competition, is killed by Singer, a police officer, and four months later, Singer is murdered in the same location. To honor his friend, VZ, the protagonist of this story, plays Ed’s game and enters it in the contest. The video game illuminates parallels with the current real word murder investigations. At the same time, VZ’s friend, Jack, is identified as a prime suspect in the murder of the police officer. The teens find support and comfort in each other and their community, which provides them with safe spaces to break away from the trauma of the murders and investigation. Today’s teens will find the dialogue of this novel that weaves the solving of a murder mystery with current societal issues rich and authentic. (Gr 9-12) Contemporary Realistic Fiction – Mystery
The Severed Thread (The Bone Spindle #2). Leslie Vedder. (2023). Razorbill.
In The Bone Spindle (2022), a reimagining of the “Sleeping Beauty” fairy tale, Fi and her sidekick, Shane, are tasked with finding Prince Briar Rose and breaking his sleeping curse with a kiss. Once the prince is awakened by Fi’s kiss, however, the Spindle Witch immediately curses the entire land of Andar. In this sequel, Fi, Shane, and Briar must travel across the land to find a mysterious book filled with the code that can break the spell. The stakes ramp up as the three battle witches and witch hunters to try to save Andar. The trio also has to decide if they can trust Red, Shane’s love who turned on her but who may hold information that can lead them to the book. In a world of curses, Fi also learns more about her own Butterfly Curse that could destroy Prince Briar Rose and Andar. Woven throughout this second story are ties to literature, queer romances, and the discovery of true identity that will leave readers eager for the final book in Leslie Vedder’s complex trilogy. (Gr 9-12) Fantasy
Sun Keep Rising. Kristen R. Lee. (2023). Crown.
Seventeen-year-old B’onca is dealing with the reality of being a single parent with a child to raise without having enough money. She is trying to complete her high school credits, working to pay rent, and considering post-high school plans. B’onca is both working and attending summer school when her ex-boyfriend and father of her daughter, Mia, is killed, and his family begins threatening to seek custody of the baby. B’onca knows that even working several jobs, she cannot afford either raising her daughter or the legal fees. B’onca is approached to help with an illegal scheme to earn money. She thinks it will be a one-time thing, but when the money is good and gives her hope, she may take the risky behavior too far. Author Kristen R. Lee offers teens a story of single motherhood, poverty, and the desperate measures people will take to support those they love the most, topics that are often not explored in young adult literature but are realities facing many young people. (Gr 9-12) Contemporary Realistic Fiction
There Goes the Neighborhood. Jade Adia. (2023). Hyperion.
What would you do to preserve your neighborhood? Best friends Rhea (Black), Malachi (Black), and Zeke (Latino) are faced with this question when Zeke’s family receives an eviction notice after a 60% rent increase. It is clear that gentrification is coming to their South LA neighborhood. Wanting to preserve their community, Rhea devises a bold plan to start a fake gang, SOSI, to deter developers. Her plan starts out innocuously with tagging and internet posting but soon goes awry as the nonexistent gang is accused of being involved in drug deals, murder, and extortion in the neighborhood. The teens are not at fault, but someone is committing crimes and blaming them. The trio of friends shift their focus to “Who is behind all of this?” Trying to answer this question may cost them their friendship, their neighborhood, and even their lives. At the same time, Rhea and Malachi are trying to figure out if they want to take their friendship to a romantic relationship, and they worry about how it will impact their friendship with Zeke. This compelling mystery intertwined with romance and plenty of BIPOC representation will keep teens engaged and motivated to read. (Gr 9-12) Contemporary Realistic Fiction - Mystery
We Don’t Swim Here. Vincent Tirado. (2023). Sourcebooks Fire.
Black teenager Bronwyn Sawyer’s dad relocates the family to his childhood home in rural Hillwoods, Arkansas, to care for her dying grandmother. He hopes Bronwyn will reconnect with her cousin, Anais, and extended family who still live in Hillwoods. Almost immediately after moving, Bronwyn, a competitive swimmer, discovers that not only is there no swim team, the school and town’s swimming pools are drained and the lake is off limits. Bronwyn begins seeing shadows and having scary visions related to the lake. Why can’t she go swimming? Why does she remember her cousin telling her that being in the lake would burn? Even more strange, the kids at Hillwood’s high school seem to follow secret rituals but will not tell her what they are doing or why, and there is a rumor of the revengeful the spirit of a girl murdered by drowning who seeks to possess one of the students. This engrossing novel, told from the alternating perspectives of Bronwyn and Anais, tackles issues of racism and the dangers of overlooking the past. (Gr 9-12) Contemporary Realistic Fiction – Horror
Tracey S. Hodges is the Owner of The Empowering Advocate LLC, an educational research and coaching business ( https://empoweringadvocate.com )
Chelsey Bahlmann Bollinger
As young readers embark on literacy journeys, they often discover the joy and excitement of following beloved characters on multiple adventures across different books. Books in series offer a sense of familiarity and continuity, allowing readers to immerse themselves in a familiar world while also experiencing new twists in storylines. This column includes reviews of a diverse array of recently published series books ranging from picture books to illustrated chapter books for eager young readers.
Arctic Animals (National Geographic Kids Readers Level 2). Jennifer Szymanski. (2023). National Geographic.
This nonfiction book shares information about animals who live on land and in the water of the Arctic region. Animals such as ptarmigans, narwhals, beluga whales, and wolverines are depicted with captioned full-color photographs and interesting facts about their biological and behavioral adaptations that enable them to survive the harsh Arctic habitat. Children will enjoy the jokes dispersed throughout the book. For example, “What do whales like to chew?” (“blubber gum!”) Back matter includes six quick facts about Arctic animals, a quiz, and a glossary. (PreK-Gr2)
The Big Cheese (Figgy & Boone #2). Janee Trasler. (2023). Simon Spotlight.
Hungry Figgy, a mouse, asks Boone, a rat, to make him his favorite snack, cheese toast. Unfortunately, there is no cheese, but, as luck would have it, a large wheel of cheese falls from a nearby truck. However, it is going to be tricky for the two rodents to get the large cheese rolled up a hill and into their house. They are not successful until sharing the cheese with friends makes the now smaller wheel manageable. This Level 1 Ready-to-Read Graphics book opens with a “How to Read This Book” section explaining the difference between a speech bubble and thought bubble and how to read the panels from left to right and top to bottom. A note on how to use graphic novels with young readers for parents, caregivers, and educators is included. (PreK-Gr 2)
Dazzle Makes a Wish (Book Buddies #3). Cynthia Lord. Illus. Stephanie Graegin. (2023). Candlewick.
Dazzle is a stuffed unicorn with a “twisty horn and a sparkly pink tail” and has a name tag that also says unicorns grant wishes. Hoping he can grant his own wish, Dazzle wishes for a home and a child of his own. He thinks his wish is about to come true when a grandmother purchases him from the toy store for her soon-to-be-born grandchild. After waiting and waiting, Dazzle finds himself on a yard sale table and overhears that the baby was a boy, and the grandmother didn’t think he would like a unicorn. Luckily, Anne, a librarian, buys Dazzle to add to the Book Buddies collection of toys that children can check out. He is borrowed by Maya and her brother, who are new in town, and experiences his first adventure on the siblings’ first playdate. While his original wish doesn’t come true, Dazzle ends up happier than he ever imagined he could be. Black and-white digital illustrations appear throughout this chapter book for newly independent readers. (PreK Up)
Henry, Like Always (Henry #1). Jenn Bailey. Illus. by Mika Song. (2023). Chronicle. Henry is a boy who needs routine and order. He appreciates the Big Calendar hanging in Classroom Ten that shows what will happen each day. However, one day Mrs. Tanaka, his teacher, moves things around on the schedule. Share Time is shifted to Thursday because there will be a parade on a Friday. Henry takes some time to process this scheduling change. He even expresses the feeling that “the whole day felt very orange” (his least favorite color). Henry’s classmates try to make him feel comfortable about the parade, but it is Henry who comes up with a plan that helps both himself and another upset classmate participate in the parade. Mika Song’s expressive illustrations rendered in watercolor and ink complement this warm and gently humorous first book in this early chapter book series about a young child who appears to be on the autism spectrum and was introduced in the picture book A Friend for Henry (2019). (PreK-Gr 2)
Interrupting Cow and the Horse of a Different Color (Interrupting Cow #4). Jane Yolen. Illus. by Joëlle Dreidemy. (2023). Simon Spotlight.
“AHHHH!!!” Interrupting Cow is awoken from his comfy bed to loud screams and wild neighing of animals fleeing the barn. He investigates and finds a “horse of a different color”—a zebra—crying on the other side of the barn. Cow introduces himself using one of his jokes and finds that Zebra (unlike the cows and horses) also enjoys a good joke. The two become fast friends and decide to follow the train tracks to find the circus where the ringmaster will help them learn new jokes. Joëlle Dreidemy’s colorful cartoon illustrations for this Level 2 Ready-to-Read book are humorous and kid friendly. Emerging readers can look forward to another adventure and more of Cow’s jokes in Interrupting Cow and the Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing, out in August. (PreK-Gr 2)
Izzy Azumi, F.D.O. (Future Dog Owner). (Judy Moody and Friends #14). Megan McDonald. Illus. by Erwin Madrid. (2023). Candlewick.
In this latest book in Megan McDonald’s popular series for newly independent readers, dog-loving Izzy Azumi really wants her own dog. She’s even added F.D.O for Future Dog Owner to her name. When she asks her mom if she can get her own dog, she replies, “Someday”; when she asks her dad, he says, “We’ll see.” Izzy doesn’t believe someday will ever come. She admires all of the dogs at the park and wishes she had her own dog to take on a walk and teach tricks. One day, she decides to write a letter to her future dog to tell it about what they will do together. She puts the letter in the empty doghouse in the backyard. Then Izzy’s father gets Judy and Stink Moody to help with a big surprise. Coming home from school, Izzy finds a letter in the mailbox from the new puppy she later finds in the doghouse! (PreK-Gr 2)
Lola’s Nana-Bibi Comes to Visit (Lola Reads #8). Anna McQuinn. Illus. by Rosalind Beardshaw. (2023). Charlesbridge.
This latest Lola Reads picture book begins with her grandmother flying on an airplane from Africa to Lola’s home. Lola is excited for Nana-Bibi’s visit. She helps Mommy get a bed ready and make a special dinner for her grandmother’s arrival. Once Nana-Bibi arrives, they have a week of joyful activities: eating breakfast out, buying gifts for family back in Tanzania, cooking special recipes, doing each other’s hair, dancing, sharing stories, and planting seeds for a garden. Rosalind Beardshaw’s colorful digital illustrations warmly depict the special bond Lola, her mother, and her grandmother share. (PreS Up)
Make Way for Butterfly (Very Impatient Caterpillar #4). Ross Burach. (2023). Scholastic.
Ross Burach pairs colorful mixed-media cartoon artwork and playful dialogue between Butterfly and Bumblebee to present the final adventure in the Very Impatient Caterpillar picture book series told entirely through speech bubbles. After learning from Bumblebee about being a pollinator, Butterfly desperately wants to do as important a job as Bumblebee. “LOOK OUT ECOSYSTEM . . . I’m going to collect the MOST POLLEN EVER!” Butterfly’s attempts at bee-like transformations are silly and unsuccessful, and with Bumblebee’s persistent “just be a butterfly,” he finally understands that he doesn’t need to collect as much pollen as a bee does to be an important pollinator. This giggle-inducing story offers young children an informative introduction to pollination—and a gentle lesson on being oneself. (PreK-Gr 2)
Sabrina Sue Loves the Sky (Sabrina Sue #4). Priscilla Burris. (2023). Simon Spotlight.
Sabrina Sue is a chicken who loves the sky. Seeing all the birds flying around in the sky and how happy they are, she thinks, “I am a bird. I want to fly too!” She dreams about flying and talks to the other farm animals about flying. Although they say her idea is silly and warn her not to try it, Sabrina Sue is determined to fly. She gets her flying gear (flying goggles and backpack with parachute included) ready, hops into the farmer's truck, and makes a journey to a place where she and her unnamed frog friend eventually fly. She even takes a selfie. Sabrina Sue loves flying and decides she will do it again one day. Children just starting to read on their own who enjoy this Level 1 Ready-to-Read book may want to read about this silly chicken’s three earlier adventures while they await the next book in the series. (PreK-Gr 2)
Stink: Superhero Superfan (Stink #13). Megan McDonald. Illus. by Peter H. Reynolds. (2023). Candlewick.
Stink Moody, who has an obsession with superheroes, is excited that at Saturday Science Club they will be investigating the science behind the superpowers of their favorite superheroes. Meanwhile, the Moody family is planning a yard sale. While Stink is looking for items of his own to sell, he comes across his dad’s old collection of Super Gecko comic books. A girl tries to buy the comic books, but Stink decides not to sell them. After the yard sale, Stink begins to receive mysterious messages supposedly from Super Gecko. The first message indicates that there will be a new Super Gecko comic book coming out soon. Knowing that it can’t actually be Super Gecko sending him these, Stink will need to use his own superpower of observation and deduction to find out who is. (PreK Up)
Tiny T. Rex and the Grand Ta-Da! (Tiny T. Rex #3). Jonathan Stutzman. Illus. by Jay Fleck. (2023). Chronicle.
In this third picture book featuring Tiny T. Rex and Pointy, a stegosaurus, the best friends decide to enter a talent show as magicians and make something disappear as the highlight of their act. The two decide they need magic top hats, wands, a special assistant (Bob the teddy bear), and a special word to make something disappear. TA-DA! They practice and have some trouble in making their disappearing trick work, but they are persistent. The day before the show, they both get nervous, and just before it is time for their act, Pointy is overcome by stage fright. Tiny T. Rex must carry on alone. This delightful friendship story ends with a twist, an unexpected appearance rather than a disappearance—a “Grand Ta-Da!” (PreK-Gr 2)
We Don’t Lose Our Class Goldfish (Penelope Rex #3). Ryan T. Higgins. (2023). Disney Hyperion.
Penelope Rex, the only dinosaur in Mrs. Nodelman’s class, is afraid of the class goldfish, Walter. She describes the class pet as having menacing fins, a hungry belly, bitey teeth, and unblinky eyes. Things get incredibly worse for her when the teacher announces that each member of the class will get to take Walter home for a weekend. When her turn comes, Penelope cannot seem to do much except worry and even dreams about getting bitten by Walter—until she wakes up and finds that Walter is gone. As she courageously sets out to find him, Penelope begins to realize that maybe Walter isn’t such a scary fish after all and just maybe she is starting to like him. Walter is found. Penelope Rex has not lost the class goldfish. Ryan T. Higgin ends this humorous story with Penelope getting a surprise from her parents. She may be facing something else that is scary. (PreK-Gr 2)
Chelsey Bahlmann Bollinger is an assistant professor in the Early, Elementary, and Reading Department at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia.
These reviews are submitted by members of the International Literacy Association's Children's Literature and Reading Special Interest Group (CL/R SIG).