YA performance

The main characters in these five arts-focused YA novels are talented, determined — and ready to leave their marks. For more YA arts-related recommendations, see Guide/Reviews Database booklists Theater Novels (Older) and Dance (Older).

by Tami Charles 
High School    Scholastic    400 pp.    g 
2/21    978-1-338-67352-4    $18.99 
e-book ed.  978-1-338-67353-1    $11.99 

This timely and lyrical verse novel offers a heart-wrenching, unflinching look at the underbelly of the music industry and its exploitation of those who dream of making it big. Three best friends, all talented singers and girls of color who dream of a life outside of their small, mostly white Pennsylvania town, slip away to Newark and find their way into the orbit of Sean “Mercury” Ellis, the “King of R&B.” Merc encourages their ambitions and takes them under his wing. His promises of fame and fortune not only fuel their dreams but also their insecurities, which Merc is able to capitalize upon as he begins to morph from a smooth, crooning mentor into a sinister, controlling abuser. Charles (Like Vanessa, rev. 3/18, and others) takes on the difficult topics of emotional manipulation, sexual exploitation, and abuse. These vulnerable young women’s stories are, sadly, not uncommon [see also Tiffany D. Jackson’s Grown, rev. 9/20, and Sharon G. Flake’s The Life I’m In, rev. 3/21], but their tight bond as friends continues to offer hope in the midst of sacrifice, broken promises, secrets, and lies. The writing at once urges readers to relish the verse and catapults them toward a breathless, satisfying conclusion. MONIQUE HARRIS 

by Melanie Crowder 
High School    Philomel    352 pp.    g 
2/21    978-0-525-51674-3    $17.99 

In 1959, seventeen-year-old Mazie suddenly finds herself with the funds to leave Nebraska and spend six weeks in New York City pursuing her Broadway dreams. At first she’s overwhelmed and lonely, living in the big city at a boardinghouse for “theatrical young ladies” and learning the auditioning ropes. Repeated rejections make her question her singing and dancing talents, not to mention her appearance (“I come from…solid Nebraska stock”). Crowder’s novel takes readers on an enjoyable trip back to a golden age in theater, providing an inside look at the business while name-dropping hit songs and shows and introducing readers to a little-known piece of history: industrial musicals, shows sponsored by companies to advertise their products. In her last week in the city, Mazie finally lands an understudy role in an “industrial” traveling across the Corn Belt to promote a new tractor. During the ten-show run, she winds up with the lead, gets to visit her family (and former boyfriend), and learns about herself and what really matters in life. Crowder believably weaves in complicated romance — for both the protagonist and a few queer secondary characters — but the focus is on Mazie’s determination to prove to herself and others that she’s got what it takes to succeed, an inspiring example for anyone with a similar dream. CYNTHIA K. RITTER 

by Julie Murphy 
High School    Balzer + Bray/HarperCollins    336 pp.    g 
5/21    978-0-06-288045-1    $17.99 
e-book ed.  978-0-06-288047-5    $11.99 

Waylon Brewer does not fit in at Clover City High School. He’s fat; he’s gay; and he loves drag, particularly a drag-competition TV show called Fiercest of Them All. But no one, not even his twin sister, Clementine, knows that he wants to actually perform in drag: that is, until his audition video for the show, starring “Miss Pumpkin Patch,” is accidentally posted publicly on Facebook. It goes viral, naturally, earning Waylon immediate mockery at school and a nomination to prom court — as queen. Along with Clementine’s girlfriend, a similarly gender-bending candidate for king, Waylon embraces the joke and campaigns to win the crown; it doesn’t hurt that his cute classmate Tucker is a fellow nominee (for king). This third story set in Clover City, Texas, features a genuine and unbreakable sibling bond; a strong romantic connection; and a cast of well-developed supporting characters, including guest appearances from Willowdean (Dumplin, rev. 11/15) and Callie and Millie (Puddin’, rev. 5/18). Like those protagonists, Waylon learns to love who he is and refuses to settle for anyone who doesn’t. Or as he tells Tucker: “I’m done being with people who are embarrassed by me…I’m too good to keep secret.” It’s easy to cheer for Waylon — who eventually triumphs both as himself and as Pumpkin — in this celebration of individuality and self-expression. RACHEL L. SMITH 

Between Perfect and Real
by Ray Stoeve 
High School    Amulet/Abrams    304 pp.    g 
4/21    978-1-4197-4601-7    $18.99
e-book ed.  978-1-68335-951-7    $15.54 

Until senior year, seventeen-year-old Dean had identified as a “tomboy lesbian” but now increasingly identifies as a guy. When a forward-looking theater teacher casts him as Romeo in a production of Romeo and Juliet, Dean, who finally feels like himself in the role, comes out as transgender. Each new step — changing his pronouns, getting a chest binder — makes him feel more comfortable in his body, as does acceptance by his best friend and the new friends he makes in a support group. But his relationship with his girlfriend deteriorates (she’s a lesbian who, understandably, struggles with Dean’s transition: “I don’t want to be some guy’s girlfriend”), and he worries about how his parents will react. Dean authentically and accessibly describes his experience as a trans man; his body, for example, “literally doesn’t fit me. Like it’s a piece of clothing that shrank in the dryer. It’s not terrible most of the time, but it’s weird.” Dean’s story demonstrates the courage that it takes to come out: he faces loneliness, a breakup, and bullying, and knows that it could be even worse (the film Boys Don’t Cry helped Dean understand that he was trans). But by year’s end, he sees freedom and possibility in life after high school: “I’m closer to being myself than I ever have been…I wouldn’t trade who I am for anything.” RACHEL L. SMITH 

Zoe Rosenthal Is Not Lawful Good 
by Nancy Werlin
High School    Candlewick    352 pp.    g 
4/21    978-1-5362-1473-4    $17.99 

Zoe Rosenthal is a rule follower and a planner, attached to her bullet journal (whose pages are interspersed). She’s a devoted girlfriend, hoping to attend the same college as her boyfriend. And she’s a fan of the sci-fi TV show Bleeders, a women-led vehicle about a virus that turns each victim, briefly and graphically, into “a bleeding sack of skin.” Such a fan, in fact, that in an out-of-character move, she secretly flies from Boston to Atlanta to attend a comics convention that is screening the season two premiere. When it appears that the future of Bleeders is in jeopardy, Zoe’s new “Bloodygit” friends agree to keep attending cons to promote the show and try to save it. And Zoe continues to lie to her parents and boyfriend in order to join in. The novel highlights the unique atmosphere of the con — a community in which “anybody belonged who wanted to be here” — and brings its attendees, in all their passionate, cosplaying glory, to life, including Zoe’s friends: Sebastian, who’s on the autism spectrum and who (hilariously for plot purposes) faints at the sight of blood; Cam and Liv, affable twins who are gay and nonbinary, respectively; and Meldel, an enthusiastic fanfic author and reformed bully. Their influence helps Zoe to discover her spontaneous side and imagine a different, less-scripted future for herself, in this joyful story of fandom, friendship, and finding common purpose. RACHEL L. SMITH 

From the July 2021 issue of Notes from the Horn Book.

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