MG Review: Frederik Sandwich and the Earthquake that Couldn’t Possibly Be by Kevin John Scott

Kevin John Scott’s debut middle grade mystery,  Frederik Sandwich and the Earthquake that Couldn’t Possibly Be, is the first in a series about the corrupt and mysterious culture of the law-obsessed, overly-orderly town of Frederik’s Hill. Whimsical yet poignant, the novel explores what it means to be an outsider in one’s own hometown, and how institutionalized prejudice contributes to unwelcoming cultures.

And, most importantly, what even the smallest and most unlikely heroes can do to change the world around them.

The novel artfully balances the surreal and absurd elements of its setting against a political climate that echoes painful realities of our contemporary social landscape. Frederik’s Hill is a whimsical place where every store, street, and train platform are named Frederik – where the impossible happens daily on both a small and large scale, such as the passing of “hundreds of cyclists, thousands of them, everywhere” constantly in the streets. Yet it is also a town with a dark political underbelly (literally and figuratively, if you count its secret underground train).

For all its quirky hilarity, Frederik’s Hill is also a land that not-so-subtly rejects foreigners and uses diversity events for PR purposes, all while passing legislature to isolate newcomers and discourage equality. While the novel’s setting is fun and colorful throughout, it is also a critical depiction of our modern political landscape: one that rejects refugees and builds walls along international borders. Scott balances the absurd elements of his setting with those that ring painfully true, creating a fun and accessible work for young readers that maintains a meaningful message and packs a powerful punch.

Given the whimsical and surreal setting, the novel runs the risk of confusing readers early on, even before the meat of the mystery is introduced. What makes the novel work so well is, simply, Scott’s prose. Excepting the prologue, the author’s world-building takes place entirely in-scene and through the characters’ (and therefore readers’) interaction with their surroundings. On a micro-level, Scott develops vivid settings, character and action scenes through choppy sentences that focus on sensory detail over wordy descriptors. For instance, while Frederik searches the town library:

“The door creaked. An older room by far. Bare brick and oak panels. He closed the door behind him, listened for footsteps. Nothing. Safe inside.”

Or, as Frederik rushes to rescue his friend Pernille:

“He grabbed and heaved, and the gate swung open. Tipped him down the steps in a tumble. It made a devil of a noise. He looked around in panic. No one there. He picked himself up and ignored a sore elbow and limped through to the sliding door, a solid slab of steel. Open. Just a little. Just enough.”

The use of sensory detail – whether through Frederik’s vision, smell, or hearing – create a vivid and dynamic setting. The alternating sentence structure helps readers focus on the descriptors while also quickening the pace during tense scenes. It works well for a mystery, and particularly well for one that takes place in such a peculiar setting.

Ultimately,  Frederik Sandwich and the Earthquake that Couldn’t Possibly Be is a page-turning, hilarious mystery/adventure about friendship and otherness. As Frederik uncovers the mysteries of his town, he unpacks his own prejudices, including those internalized against himself and his family due to years of exclusion. In the end he learns to celebrate himself and others like him – all with the promise of more mysteries to come, and justice to be served in the town of Frederik Hill.

YA Review: Starswept by Mary Fan

Mary Fan’s latest sci-fi novel, Starswept, follows the journey of a young violinist as she navigates cut-throat professional competition, inter-planetary scandals and – of course – a breath-taking first love. Split into two distinctive parts (and planets), the novel explores Iris’ internal journey to self-acceptance as she pursues a career as a violinist and learns a disturbing truth about her university and career path. Riddled with questions of identity and thoughtful critiques of both capitalism and America’s broken educational system, Starswept will keep readers on the edge of their seats.

At its heart, Starswept is an exploration of identity, primarily interested with how introspection aligns with or contracts the labels and perceptions created by others. At Iris’ school, students receive live rankings based on their performance and the number of accolades left on their profile. Iris feels inferior to her classmates, frequently citing her low ranking as evidence. Her confidence grows as her rating rises even though her level of skill doesn’t change. How listeners perceive her music shapes her identity as a musician, although readers are aware of her talent even when her score is at its lowest. In this way, Fan reflects on how talent and reception may not be codependent, but can still shape the artist’s perception of their identity.

Similarly, the thought-control used by the Adryil blurs the lines of self. Iris is frequently unsure how to differentiate between her own thoughts and those implanted in her mind, most prominently after her first encounter with Dámiul. It’s unclear whether Dámiul’s instinct that Iris was trustworthy, or his thoughts urging her not to betray him, caused her to protect his identity and mission. Iris’ “faces grows cold” when she realizes her thoughts belonged to Dámiul, despite being “sure they came from [her] own mind.” Iris identifies herself as someone worth trusting once Dámiul identifies her as so, and there is no way to know for sure whether this is true because it is inherent to her character or because he perceived her as such and, therefore, made it true. Fan delivers these broad questions with subtle expertise, never stepping out of scene to explore the greater themes. However, they exist throughout the novel like a soft heartbeat beneath the skin, drawing readers to reflect on perceived identity and how it relates to the vulnerable and exposed life of being an artist.

Perhaps one of the novel’s most elegant and complex features is the parallel love stories between Iris and  the handsome Dámiul and Iris and her viola. The “endless reaching” she feels working in the Arts mirrors her yearning for Dámiul; she feels the music “possessing everything” she is, just as her growing love for him does as the novel progresses. When Iris gains a sponsor, she sacrifices it all for Dámiul, all the while wondering “what kind of person rejects a safe, worry-free life” doing the thing they love. She risks her career and passion for Dámiul, but “doesn’t regret trading the world [she] knew for someone” she loves. This decision could easily have come across as a woman choosing a man over her career, but is written with such grace and sincerity and Iris’ choice seems like the only possible one.

Beyond its timeless explorations of identity and love, Starswept is also a very current novel in its analysis of higher education and the job market. Despite taking place in a fictional universe, Fan’s novel is a timely and scathing critique of America’s student debt crisis. Readers are sure to identify with Iris’ looming student debt, and her apprehension given her close-to-none career aspects. Whether you’ve come for the sci-fi, the romance, or something else entirely, each reader is sure to find some part of Mary Fan’s latest YA novel that resonates with them and challenging choices they face today.

YA Review: Trusting You and Other Lies by Nicole Williams

Searching for a swoon-worthy YA to add to your beach reads pile? Nicole Williams has you covered with Trusting You and Other Lies, a contemporary YA romance set at a woodsy summer camp and featuring a delicious slow-burn romance.

The novel centers around the summer romance between camp counselor Phoenix and her supervisor, Callum. She’s athletic but more academically inclined, while he’s a mountain-warrior with the lowest GPA in his class. The two balance each other well, pushing one another out of their comfort zones and towards better versions of themselves. And although Phoenix was immediately attracted to Callum, her heart took a while to catch up; though it’s obvious the two will eventually get together, it never feels contrived or unnatural. When they finally (over halfway through the book) admit their feelings, the romance moves from slow-burn to heated fast. But Williams places emphasis on consent; Callum even says to Phoenix that he “won’t do anything without checking with her first,” sending a sex-positive, consent-oriented message to teen readers.

Despite being a light and fast summer read, Trusting You packs emotional depth; as Phoenix’s father grapples with years of unemployment, their family’s bond is tested by heavy financial stress. Secrets surrounding foreclosure and poverty form resentment between Phoenix and her parents, who she sees as lying to her and failing to properly care for her younger brother, Harry. These complex family dynamics not only add depth to the novel, but also complicate her relationship with Callum. Especially (as the title suggests) regarding issues of trust.

While the emotional relationships are the heart of the story, Williams keeps readers on the edge of their seats through the natural obstacles presented by the camp site – from a dangerous white rafting expedition to a dramatic accident on a mountain biking trail. But these physical obstacles aren’t just exciting distractions to add oomph to the plot; instead, they mirror the emotional terrains the characters navigate internally. It’s a near perfectly balanced novel that will fulfill a reader’s sense for adventure, resolution and, of course, faith in summer love.

YA Review: Future Leaders of Nowhere by Emily O’Beirne

Bursting with charm, Future Leaders of Nowhere juggles themes of power, gender, sexuality, and – like any good YA – growing pains, all while maintaining sharp focus on the idiosyncratic and diverse cast of lovable characters. Set at a leadership camp for top-of-the-class high schoolers, the novel follows protagonists Finn and Willa as they lead groups of classmates in a forest survival test. Navigating a fabricated political system, lingering tensions from their outside lives, and the terrifying vulnerability of first love, Finn and Willa explore one another’s identities and their own, inviting the reader along for the ride.

With a cast consisting entirely of over-achievers, scholarship-earners and valedictorians, Future Leaders presents the unique task of exploring the challenges facing the kids who seem to have it all. Seemingly applauded by adults and effortlessly brilliant, the cast could have easily presented as privileged or perfect. However, O’Beirne’s characters are burdened with expectation, both academically and personally, as they juggle school, family, and work – all with little time to focus on what they truly want. Ambitious and over-achieving teens will surely identify with these challenges, which are often not taken seriously because they come with so much outer success. However, as Willa tells Finn in the novel, no one else’s struggles invalidate your own.

Although there’s much to love about Future Leaders (the group banter, the political relevance…) Finn and Willa’s romance steals the show. Sweet yet sincere and adorable yet complex, the  couple’s relationship is built on balance and respect. Throughout the course of the novel, the reader gets to know the characters – who reveal little about their personal lives in the opening section of the novel – as they get to know one another, layers exposed inch by inch as their intimacy develops. Through Finn’s eyes, the “ice queen” Willa moves from mysterious to alluring to irresistible. And through Willa’s eyes, Finn inspires the best in others and pushes their the boundaries of the camp’s quasi-nation. O’Beirne’s depiction of the pair is romantic, passionate and gentle all at once, and she covers issues of sexuality, consent, and vulnerability with such grace and ease it seems effortless.

The sequel, All the Ways to Here, is due in November.

YA Review: The Football Girl by Thatcher Heldring

Told in alternating point-of-views, Thatcher Heldring’s novel The Football Girl challenges what it means to be a girl in sports and explores the burdens of being a trail-blazer, all while accurately depicting the subtle and awkward moments that mark the transition from middle to high school. Summer lovers and soon-to-be-freshmen Tessa and Caleb must reevaluate their futures – and relationship – when Tessa decides to join the boys at football camp.

Tessa is a force of nature, written with an expert blend of self-possession and impulsiveness. Guided by instinct, Tessa bravely chases her dreams even when she’s not entirely sure where they’ll bring her. Tessa is determined to be her own person – apart from her parents and friends – by being the first female football player in her town. Once Tessa gets a taste for individuality, she no longer wants to be “another face in the crowd waiting to get noticed, hoping someone would pick her for the team, ask her to the dance, or tell her how smart she was. From now on I wasn’t going to ask for permission or say sorry.” Although Tessa isn’t positive she wants to be on the football team once she enters high school, she knows that decision is only hers to make. Tessa’s unapologetic determination is the novel’s greatest strength, casting an inspirational example for young readers.

As expected, Tessa’s decision to join football camp does not go over well. Though he’s not her most vocal adversary, her boyfriend Caleb (who shares the novel’s narration) is strongly against her choice for the majority of the novel. Caleb’s position is unique; he endures jokes and harassment from his male friends due to Tessa, and acutely feels the lack of a role model for his situation. His point of view serves to attract male readers, balancing respect for tradition with an introduction to gender equality. However, his side of the story may ultimately do the novel a disservice. When Caleb muses that he “really, really didn’t want Tessa to play on the football team” at the end of the novel, it feels like a let-down. Though there are moments he sticks up for Tessa in the middle of the book, it is challenging to remain invested in his story while the conflicts he faces are mere reactions to the active narrative Tessa creates.

Although Tessa ultimately decides not to continue football, a reader’s disappointment is subdued by the inspiration she sets for other ‘football girls’ and her conviction that any choice she makes is her own. At this point, she’s expected to be nothing more than the ‘football girl,’ so the act of turning away is just as powerful as continuing may have been.

 

 

YA Review: 10 Things I Can See From Here by Carrie Mac

In Carrie Mac’s YA novel 10 Things I Can See From Here, protagonist Maeve copes with life’s obstacles through the lens of crippling anxiety. Maeve explains that “ninety-seven percent of people worried just fine. They felt the range of related emotions, but they could still do life, even simultaneously. The remaining 3 percent? We were incapacitated.” Whether dealing with something as minor as an unanswered text or something as major as her father’s spiral into alcoholism, Maeve is constantly drawn to the worst-case-scenario, often times to the point that she is unable to fully function.

Yet Maeve doesn’t always reject her anxieties of the intensity of the emotions she experiences. While her girlfriend, Salix, wants to offer comfort and distractions as a sort of solution to Maeve’s anxiety, there are times Maeve prefers to be “pissed off and scared and awash in panic and anxiety” when the “situation called for it.” In this way, Mac portrays the severity of Maeve’s anxiety, but also presents mental illness as something that doesn’t necessarily need fixing – and something that certainly cannot be cured by even the strongest love.

Maeve’s anxiety manifests on the page through her imagined obituaries, which appear in her most heightened states of anxiety. If, for instance, her father fails to answer a call, she imagines the worst possible outcome in the form of an ironic obituary. This form of dark humor not only allows the reader to understand the intensity of Maeve’s anxiety, but also allows Mac to portray an internal state of mind in a concrete manner on the physical page. While some of Maeve’s internal dialogue around worst-outcome-scenarios bogged down the narrative, the fictional obituaries were a great break for readers while still accomplishing what Mac set out to show about Maeve’s anxiety.

The novel also dealt with addiction and sexual assault, but with nuance and empathy that allowed Mac to explore the topics without theme-mongering. For instance, when Maeve opens up about her friend Ruthie pushing herself onto her, Salix says “just because she’s a girl doesn’t mean she can get away with forcing herself on you.” Same-sex sexual assault is rarely mentioned in media, let alone YA, and Mac handles the complexities of the topic with grace. Similarly, Mac balances showing Maeve’s love for her addict father with the pain she goes through watching her father fall to temptation and substance abuse.

10 Things I Can See From Here tackles current and pressing topics surrounding mental health, addiction, and sexual assault. It doesn’t focus on sexuality, despite the narrator being a lesbian, which works in the novel’s favor and maintains the focus on the real problems at hand while normalizing same-sex love. At times, Maeve’s internal dialogue prevented the narrative from running smoothly. Yet overall, the novel managed to portray Maeve and her anxiety in realistic, sympathetic ways.

 

 

 

 

 

MG Review: Jelly Bean Summer by Joyce Magnin

Jelly Bean Summer by Joyce Magnin is a heartfelt, historical middle grade novel about the struggle to find home and belonging in emotionally challenging times. The book’s young protagonist – named for the author, hinting at autobiographical inspirations – moves onto her roof and then contemplates running away to Arizona as tension boils in her home after her brother goes missing in Vietnam. This theme of dislocation prevails throughout the the novel as Joyce searches for belonging: sharing a room with her guinea pig and UFO-obsessed older sister, struggling to connect the stars in the night sky from her tent on the roof, and with her west-bound friend, Brian, who will soon leave for his new home in Arizona. Ultimately, Joyce must learn that she has to “live with” the pain and loss within her family, whether “here or in Arizona.” She discovers that the home she’s looking for isn’t one she needs to find, but one she already has that needs a little bit of time and healing to feel right again.

The novel balances emotion and subtlety. While the characters emote openly (such as “crying buckets of tears” when Elaine’s guinea pig, Jelly Bean, died) the details around Bud’s disappearance are gradually unveiled throughout the narrative. There is no major exposition or gratuitous display of painful emotion in his absence. Instead, many emotional scenes are deflective.  Joyce says her mom “ignores things” because “adding any more upset-ness into the air could ignite the whole house on fire.” Her father hides in the basement, working on a secret project. And when Joyce craves her sister to forgive her for having a role in Jelly Bean’s death, it’s evident that the words she longs to hear – “it’s OK” – are just as much about her missing brother as they are the deceased pet.

While Jelly Bean Summer doesn’t offer a sugar-coated happy ending, its final pages ring with hope. Joyce’s family is reunited, even if their dynamic is a bit damaged and not quite as it was before the war. Brian drives to his new home in Arizona and though his father will not move with him, he joins for the ride. Joyce cannot fill the void loss leaves in her heart; even when she buys her sister an adorable new kitten, she realizes nothing can undo the accident with Jelly Bean. But when Elaine finally assures her “it’s OK,” Joyce decides that’s “good enough.” She can “live with ‘it’s OK'” because no matter what she goes through, Joyce will find a way to remain put and simply live.

 

YA Review: Get It Together, Delilah!

Erin Gough’s Get It Together, Delilah – originally published in Australia – follows protagonist Delilah as she discovers what she wants to fight for and, perhaps more importantly, how. Short-tempered and easy to deny support from others (especially adults), Delilah’s snap-judgements tend to cause more problems that solutions. Tasked with saving her father’s failing café and grappling with her love for a closeted girl, Delilah discovers that “true bravery is not punching out the stranger who insults you…maybe it’s taking risks with your heart.”

The novel explores f/f relationships in a notably honest manner. Delilah’s first high school love was not the novel’s primary romance, but a failed relationship between Delilah and a girl with homophobic, self-loathing tendencies. The other was with Rosa (her main love interest), who Delilah idealized from afar but almost had to give up when she realized Rosa had no desire to come out to her family. Delilah discovers that her stubbornness – both in regards to love, friendship, and the café – are ultimately holding her back from experiencing the things she desires (including Rosa!)

Perhaps the most interesting part of the novel was the honest conversation around high school and college as choices rather than requirements. Delilah skips school for the majority of the book, focusing instead on the family business. Although her friends and teachers argue with her decision, it’s never seen as a totally wrong choice, even when Delilah ultimately returns to school. The novel’s frank conversation about education and choice is one of its many unique qualities that will surely attract young readers.

 

 

YA review: COMING UP FOR AIR by Miranda Kenneally

Coming Up for Air tells the story of pre-Olympic swimmer Maggie as she struggles to find her pace both in the pool and in the bedroom. Consumed by swim practice and homework, Maggie has never had time for a social life, and definitely not for boys. That is, until she makes a no-ties pact with her best friend, Levi, in exchange for him teaching her how to hook up.

The sports plot not only adds thrilling tension to the novel, but mirrors Maggie’s emotional arc as well. Maggie constantly feels behind in swimming, as she has yet to qualify for Olympic tryouts. Similarly, she’s convinced everyone at her high school has more “hook-up” experience than her. In order to amend what the considers to be her shortcomings, Maggie pushes to swim faster  (despite her coach’s warnings about perseverance) and explores her sexuality through a no-strings-attached experiment with her best friend.

But Maggie must learn to accept her own pace in swimming and in love. She comes to discover that she is better at the 400 meter than the 200 because of her duration skills and that she is better at freestyle than backstroke. Similarly, she learns that she prefers feelings and trust to hook-ups, even though she feels pressure to do the latter. And just like she must accept the change in her swimming style, she learns to understand the shift from friendship to love with Levi.

The novel earns major bonus-points for the sex-positive message that accompanies Maggie’s story. Maggie feels judged at times for her choices, but says “it’s my body, my life, my needs. And I’ve been happy.” Kenneally shows readers that it’s okay to not know the outcome, or have your entire future planned out. It’s okay to live in the moment if the moment makes you happy.

Coming up for Air also encourages girls to be open about their sexuality. Maggie is awkwardly honest about her “urges,” and at one point Kenneally writes “it seems guys can do whatever they want sexually…but girls have every right to experiment, too,” calling out the double-standard when it comes to sexual exploration.

The novel also promotes safe sex. Not only is Maggie certain to use a condom (resulting in a hilariously terrible run-in with her father at the super market) but her partner, Levi, ensures her that he’s clean before they consummate their relationship.

And this review wouldn’t be complete without mentioning my love for Coach Josh. Not only is he Maggie’s #1 ally, but his awkward rants about “swimcest” are laugh-out-loud great.

MG Review: THE PANTS PROJECT by Cat Clarke

Cat Clarke’s The Pants Project could not be more timely. The novel – which follows the anti-uniform campaign of a transgendered boy forced to wear a skirt – offers a fresh and joyful voice to middle grade literature. Structured around Liv’s fight against the principal’s archaic dress code, the novel explores Liv’s journey towards being himself, including embracing his nontraditional family, finding his voice both in public and at home, and accepting that friends come and go as one’s self and needs change. The novel is a source of hope for transgendered adolescents and the people who love them. While The Pants Project recognizes that there is no perfect ending (Liv never meets his bigoted grandfather, who dies still ostracizing Liv’s two moms) it also assures young readers that it is possible to live fully, happily and, most importantly, truthfully, regardless of who you are.

 

Liv is an electric character, bubbling with charisma and driven by admirable bravery. Even when he wakes up with a “sick, heavy feeling in his stomach” at the thought of facing school, bullies, and the dreaded skirt, he stubbornly pushes forward on behalf of himself and his cause. Liv’s voice bursts with color and originality on every page; readers will enjoy his take on the simplest of things, such as comparing being transgendered to being a transformer. Readers will root for Liv’s noble anti-skirt cause, will empathize when Liv sacrifices hobbies such as swimming due to dysphoria, and will fall in love with his best friend Jacob, the only person who treats Liv the way his readers know he deserves.

 

Despite how hopelessly lovable he is, Liv is not a perfect person; when a fellow bully victim offers help, he rejects her out of fear, and a sort of relief that she is treated worse than he is. But these details about Liv’s character make him even more real, someone readers will see mirrored in themselves. And through the moments when Liv reveals his “anger problem,” or slips into the liar or bully he loathes others for being, he strives to recognize his flaws and rise above them. It’s noble and inspiring, and a beautiful, complex representation of not only what it means to be transgendered or pre-pubescent, but to be a human.

 

The novel is not only a form of representation, but discusses and analyzes the role representation through the course of the plot. Liv finds the word for what he is experiencing – transgendered – because of “sites and blogs and tons of videos on YouTube.” He says “it was just the best thing. I wasn’t alone.” This feeling of community through online representation is what gave Liv the initial courage he needed to understand who he was. By the end of the novel, he is a form of representation for his classmates. A seventh-grader comes up to him and admits “he’d been too embarrassed to tell anyone” his father remarried a man, “but now he wasn’t” because of Liv’s outspoken efforts for gender and LGBT equality. Not all forms of representation are positive, though. Clarke makes sure to recognize problematic portrayals of LGBT peoples in media when Liv’s family watches a movie featuring a lesbian family. Liv says “we hardly ever get to see movies or TV shows with families like ours, and when we do, they’re usually kind of depressing.” Liv’s critique of LGBT representation is even more poignant because of the novel’s ending: a “mostly happily ever after” that acknowledges the bigotry of the “occasional idiot” while still maintaining hope for a future with equality. In this way, not only is the novel itself a way to represent minority youth, but it’s a commentary on current media representation.