Not too cool

The following school-set novels for tween and teen readers touch on identity, friendship, dating, family, education, grief, and more — all issues perennially faced (and grappled with) by real-life young adults.

In Honor of Broken Things
by Paul Acampora
Middle School    Dial    208 pp.    g
3/22    978-1-9848-1664-1    $17.99
e-book ed.  978-1-9848-1665-8    $10.99

Navigating the chaos and social groups of adolescent life can be difficult; in this novel, three friends help one another despite feeling “broken” themselves. Fourteen-year-old Oscar, football star at West Beacon Junior/Senior High School (go Mighty Mules!), has recently lost his younger sister to cancer. Riley, who contends with issues of anxiety and anger, has moved with her single mother back to Mom’s hometown. Noah — spelling bee champ, artist extraordinaire, mathlete — is dealing with his parents’ separation. Both Noah and Riley are new to West Beacon; Oscar, returning to school two weeks after his sister’s funeral, doesn’t want to hang with the cool kids anymore (he feels more like he’s the only member of the “your-little-sister-just-died-and-now-you-sort-of-hate-everybody club”). In Mr. Martin’s ceramics class, the three find themselves forming the group they all need. Clay becomes the central metaphor of the story — that which can be created; broken objects that can be fixed; and the things that can’t, such as sisters dying, robberies, and families changing. With brokenness as a theme, crushing sadness could have sunk the narrative, but Acampora (Confusion Is Nothing New, rev. 7/18) leavens the story with Noah’s humor, Riley’s tell-it-like-it-is feistiness, and Oscar’s openness to receiving help. DEAN SCHNEIDER

Debating Darcy
by Sayantani DasGupta
High School    Scholastic    320 pp.    g
4/22    978-1-338-79769-5    $18.99

This retelling of Pride and Prejudice replaces the Bennets with a ragtag speech and debate team looking to make it amongst the more elite private academies. Leela Bose, an Indian American high schooler, is poised to reach the top this year with her fellow Longbourn High forensicators (“yes, it’s a real word”). But then the team meets Firoze Darcy, a debate competitor for Netherfield Academy (and “Desi hottie”). An obnoxious comment from Firoze makes Leela, who has often faced racism and colorism, feel “ugly” in a way she hasn’t felt since she left the nearly-all-white town where she grew up, and when Firoze becomes a regular presence at her high-school tournaments, she goes on the offensive. In her YA debut, DasGupta (author of the Kiranmala and the Kingdom Beyond middle-grade series) balances everyday teen topics like crushes and arguments with more wide-ranging issues like sexism, sexual harassment, and racism. She evokes the feel of Austen through lots of references to the original and writes with a similar witty tone, while keeping the language contemporary and fresh. With its plucky cast of modern-day teens, this is a great entry point for new Austen fans. AMY DITTMEIER

by Zetta Elliott and Lyn Miller-Lachmann
Middle School    Farrar    224 pp.    g
4/22    978-0-374-31437-8    $16.99
e-book ed.  978-0-374-31438-5    $9.99

Through alternating first-person accounts, and with varied poetic styles, Elliott (A Place Inside of Me, rev. 11/20) and Miller-Lachmann (Rogue, rev. 9/13) present a thoughtfully structured and sensitively rendered verse novel set in early-1980s Brooklyn featuring two memorable protagonists. Seventh grader Pierre “Pie” Velez is an Afro-Latino with a brilliant mind and an artistic talent, both of which shine in the art room and in his graffiti tags (his narration ranges from concrete poetry to tricubes). Most of Pie’s time is devoted to taking care of his younger sister and their mother, who experiences “nervous attacks.” New classmate Joseph John “JJ” Pankowski (who narrates in more straightforward free verse) and his family have arrived in Brooklyn under the cover of night, after his father is blacklisted for union activity. Having been labeled with multiple learning disabilities, JJ is surprised to find himself in honors class at his new public school, until he realizes how disproportionately white students like him are chosen as honor students. Pie and JJ make a halting attempt at friendship, and Pie’s explanations of lessons help JJ follow along in school. Outside racial tensions soon overshadow the relationship, and Pie and JJ are left to wonder whether it can survive. Both authors are adept at evocatively re-creating the setting, with references ranging from Ronald Reagan’s anti-union stance to Jean-Michel Basquiat, Michael Jackson, and the Clash. Authors’ notes give background on various aspects of the novel, including autism as a likely diagnosis for JJ, using today’s terms. EBONI NJOKU

My Mechanical Romance
by Alexene Farol Follmuth
High School    Holiday    272 pp.    g
5/22    978-0-8234-5010-7    $18.99

When a teacher takes note of newcomer Bel Maier’s natural talents in science and pushes her to try out for the school’s robotics team, high-school senior Bel — who is less ­interested in academics and college plans than many of her classmates — is wary but gives it a shot. She gets off to a rocky start with the team lead, wealthy, beloved school jock Teo Luna, when she criticizes the design of the robot created for competition, but it doesn’t take long for the two to begin collaborating and develop feelings for each other. The lack of support from the team advisor and overt misogyny from competitors are frustrating forces that test Bel’s self-confidence as a girl of color in STEM. This lively teen romance, with alternating narration from Bel and Teo, is packed with humor as well as tender moments, while also reflecting common anxieties around graduating high school. The characters’ multiracial and multicultural family contexts (Bel’s family identifies as “half Filipino”; Teo has Mexican and Jewish heritage) are naturally integrated. Though Bel is unsure of her future plans, she solidifies her friendships, familial and academic support, and most importantly, trust in herself. GABI K. HUESCA

Alice Austen Lived Here
by Alex Gino
Middle School    Scholastic    176 pp.    g
6/22    978-1-338-73389-1    $17.99

Sam, a proud nonbinary seventh grader, has to research a figure of local significance for history class, and they are determined not to write about another DSCWM (“Dead Straight Cisgender White Man”). They choose Alice Austen: prolific photographer, lifelong fellow Staten Islander, and lesbian. Along with best friend TJ, Sam dives into research, delighting at the love between women that Austen showcased in her photographs. Their teacher plans to enter the best report in a borough-wide competition, with a chance to have the subject made into a statue. Sam and TJ think it should be Alice — but with centuries of queer erasure against them, it might take a whole community to bring her story to light. Sam’s confidence in their identity as a fat, nonbinary kid makes for a lovable protagonist, and their narration is funny and enthusiastic. Elements of queer theory and oft-overlooked historical facts are sprinkled into the first-person narration without feeling too preachy. The heart of this book is found in its intergenerational relationships — Sam’s friendships with LGBTQIA+ elders help them learn about fat liberation, queer history, and the value of chosen family. An author’s note provides more information about Austen and includes five black-and-white photos, three of which are Austen’s. BODIE SHANIS

Lulu and Milagro’s Search for Clarity
by Angela Velez
High School    Balzer + Bray/HarperCollins    400 pp.    g
2/22    978-0-06-307178-0    $18.99
e-book ed.  978-0-06-307180-3    $12.99

Unlike her younger sister, Lulu, Milagro has never cared about college. So she’s not thrilled to learn that she’ll be joining Lulu on their Catholic school’s annual spring break field trip, visiting schools across the country. Lulu dreams of going to college far from their Baltimore home like the girls’ oldest sister, Clara. She is scheduled to interview for an internship at Stanford, but their mother wants Lulu to stay closer by. On the trip, the sisters attend classes and club meetings, sneak out to parties — and fight with each other. When they discover that Clara has been lying to them, Lulu ditches the trip to look for her, which ultimately brings the three siblings together for an honest conversation. Alternating chapters fully develop Lulu’s and Milagro’s distinct personalities; they have different interests and priorities, but their admiration and love for each other is clear. The experience also inspires them to reimagine their futures: Milagro considers college as a possibility, while Lulu pursues the internship — and romance, too. (Her relationship with Leo, her assigned trip partner who shares and appreciates her intelligence, is a highlight.) Details from their lives as a family of Peruvian American women add depth to this story of sisterhood and self-discovery. RACHEL L. KERNS

by Jennifer Ziegler
Middle School    Ferguson/Holiday    256 pp.    g
3/22    978-0-8234-4956-9    $17.99
e-book ed. 978-0-8234-5283-5    $10.99

When his (widowed) mother, a professor of rhetoric, has a stroke and can no longer speak, social misfit ­twelve-year-old William Wyatt Orser, nicknamed Worser, feels “utterly alone. Cold. Helpless.” Obsessed with words, the boy carries in his backpack a loose-leaf binder he refers to as his Masterwork, which contains 321 pages of lists of words and observations and questions about how they work. (“If terrific can mean the opposite of terrible, why isn’t horrific the opposite of horrible?”) But all that doesn’t mean he is good at actually using words. He is no Cyrano with the girl he has a crush on, and he is impatient, even caustic, with the aunt who is trying to take care of him and his mother. But Ziegler ably delineates how words help Worser to find a place in the world and evolve from Worser into “Worder,” as he and his nerdy-wordy Lit Club friends carve out a refuge for themselves at a local bookstore. If Worser is not especially likable at first, he and his new friends — including the brusque bookshop owner — find ways to grow and be there for one another. DEAN SCHNEIDER

From the July 2022 issue of Notes from the Horn Book.

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