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Book Reviews

Stone River Crossing

by TimTingle, 322 pages, Grades 6 and up.

Martha Tom is a member of the Choctaw Nation; her family lives near a river right across from a plantation. The men who manage the plantation are cruel and dangerous.  All the Chocktaw know not to venture across the river, but one day Martha Tom decides to be adventurous and crosses in search of blackberries. There she meets Lil Mo who is an enslaved African American kid on the plantation. She learns that Lil Mo’s mom is about to be sold and sent away, Martha Tom’s heart breaks for Lil Mo and she convinces his family to cross the river and hide among the Chocktaw and be free. Lil Mo and his family are hopeful this will be their salvation, but the enslavers are not going to let what they consider “their property” just walk away without a fight. 

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The author, Tim Tingle, is a Chocktaw himself and has written a number of books for middle school kids. If you enjoyed this book, you might also like: How I Became a Ghost, House of Purple Cedar, and No Name are a few.

Tags: friendship, historical fiction, Choctaw Nation, slavery, enslaved people, Native Americans, adventure, magic

In The Key of Us

by Mariama J. Lockington, 368 pages, Grades 6 and up.

Andi and Zora meet at Harmony Music Camp one summer. They are the only two Black campers and keep getting thrown together which is very annoying to both kids. Each of them have a very different backstory that brings them to camp: Andi has recently lost her mother, and when she died Andi’s connection and passion for music seemed to fade as well; Zora’s passion is really dancing but her family is determined to press her toward excelling at the flute. Even though they are different kids coming from different family circumstances and feel like they have nothing in common, it is true that they are both dealing with overt racism and microaggressions in this mostly white setting. Maybe they actually do have more in common than they think, or, at the very least, it might be nice to have an ally at camp who might really understand how they are feeling in a way their other friends cannot.

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If you like stories that take place at summer camp, you might also enjoy: To Night Owl, from Dogfish, by Holly Goldberg Sloan, Give Me a Sign, by Anna Sortino,  or One Crazy Summer, by Rita Williams-Garcia (which isn’t exactly camp, but has that feel, in a way)

Tags: racism, microaggressions, summer camp, LGBTQ+, realistic fiction, friendship, death, grief, romance

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by Mamle Wolo, pages, Grades 6 and up.

Originally published in Ghana in 2012. Faiza has grown up in Northern Ghana with very few possessions and even fewer prospects for her future. She is a hard worker, clever and friendly, but is working as a “kaya girl,” delivery person, which is one of the lowest types of work. One day she meets Abena and sees there is a completely different type of existence out there in her world. Is there something she can do to change her stars? Will her determination and persistence be enough for her to achieve her dreams despite the many circumstances working against her?

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If you like “underdog” stories (books about kids who beat the odds), you might also enjoy: The Mighty Miss Malone, by Christopher Paul Curtis, The Benefits of Being an Octopus, by Ann Braden, or Between the Lines, by Nikki Grimes.

Tags: Coming of age, adversity, poverty, Ghana, friendship

  • Ghana
  • adversity
  • coming of age
  • friendship
  • poverty
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by Rukhsanna Guidroz, pages, Grades 6 and up.

Samira and her family had to escape their homeland of Myanmar (previously Burma) and are living in a refugee camp in Bangladesh. Everyone in the family has to work to keep afloat; Samira’s job is to walk along the beach and sell hard-boiled eggs. Samira is smart and hardworking; she wishes she could attend school and surf like her brother, but that is forbidden by her family. One day her father becomes unable to work and the family is in an even more precarious financial situation, so Samira decides to secretly enter a surfing competition that offers a big prize. With her brother’s help she hopes she can win the prize money and use it to help her family, but no one can know what she is up to. Samira’s determination might be just the thing to show her family that girl children can also improve the family’s fortune. 

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If you are interested in books with characters who are refugees, you might also enjoy: Nowhere Boy, by Katherine Marsh, Return to Sender, by Julia Alvarez, or Refugee by Alan Gratz.

Tags: refugees, Rohingya Muslims, Myanmar, poverty, surfing, family problems, brothers and sisters, coming of age

  • Myanmar
  • Rohingya Muslims
  • brothers and sisters
  • coming of age
  • family problems
  • poverty
  • refugees
  • surfing
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by Kristy Applebaum, 262 pages, Grades 6 and up

In the future, eldest children are favored and raised with privilege and honor, but when they reach age 14 they are sent to the “Camp”. Maggie, a “Middler”, is jealous of her older brother because he gets a lot more attention and praise than she does; she is also jealous of the eldests in her classes because they always seem to be the ones called out for being smart and doing great work. Maggie wants to be acknowledged for her hard work too--in fact, she is so obsessed with the injustice of being second best all the time, it doesn’t occur to her that the eldest kids who get sent to “Camp” never return. Students in this future world are also told to fear the dangerous “Wanderers” who move about outside the boundaries of the town. One day Maggie meets a girl who pops through some bushes near the boundary. She is kind and funny and they like a lot of the same things. Maggie knows this girl must be a “Wanderer” but can’t help herself from interacting; are they maybe becoming friends? Could “Wanderers” possibly not be as bad as the government thinks? Is anything the way it seems? Maggie is waking up and beginning to question the realities of her world, but she is just a “Middler,” what could she possibly do to change anything after all?

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If you like dystopias, you might also enjoy: Matched, by Ally Condie, Dustborn, by Erin Bowman, or The List, by Patricia Forde.

Tags: dystopias, family problems, coming of age, adventure

  • adventure
  • coming of age
  • dystopias
  • family problems
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by Malla Nunn, 291 pages, Grades 7 and up.

Amandla is growing up in South Africa and, even though, Apartheid (a system of state-sanctioned segregation) is over and it is no longer illegal for races to mix, it is still very uncommon and stigmatized. Amandla was born to a white mother and a Black father. Her mother, Annalisa, tries to be a good parent, but struggles with severe mental health issues which may have been caused by her complicated past. Amandla wants to understand her mother and is curious about her own mixed-race identity, so she courageously begins to seek information about her mother’s past. Amandla is strong, and she will need to be, because sometimes things you don’t know have been hidden by people who don’t want them uncovered and those people will often stop at nothing to keep the secrets from coming into the light.

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If you enjoy historical mysteries you might also like: Dreamland Burning, by Jennifer Latham, Fountains of Silence, by Ruta Sepetys, or The Parker Inheritance, by Varian Johnson.

Tags: mystery, coming of age, family problems, racism, realistic fiction, biracial, mixed race, South Africa

  • South Africa
  • biracial
  • coming of age
  • family problems
  • mixed race
  • mystery
  • racism
  • realistic fiction
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by Aisha Saeed, 284 pages, Grades 8 and up

Naila is 17 and just trying to be a normal American high school student, but her family has other ideas. Naila’s family are immigrants from Pakistan and they want to keep to the traditions they were raised with, after all they have been successful and have created a happy family, right? Consequently, Naila is not allowed to spend time with boys which means her dreams of going to prom are out of the question. Naila is crushing over a Pakistani-American boy, Saif, and they concoct a plan to get around Naila’s parents’ restrictions and sneak off to prom together. When they are caught by Naila’s parents her life takes a sharp turn; her parents are afraid their daughter is becoming too American so they swiftly bring her to Pakistan to reconnect with her family. Obviously Naila is sad to be away from Saif, but she begins to feel happy surrounded by so many relatives and the rich culture feels like home, but then, suddenly she finds herself being forced into an arranged marriage she doesn’t want; this family reunion has become a kidnapping, how can Naila escape and retain this part of her complex identity? 

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Aisha Saeed has written other books we have in our library including:  Amal Unbound, Omar Rising, and a collection of stories called: Once Upon an Eid: stories of hope and joy by 15 Muslim voices. 

Tags: Pakistan, coming of age, families, identity, immigrant experience, teens

  • Pakistan
  • coming of age
  • families
  • identity
  • immigrant experience
  • teens
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by Kheryn Callender, 214 pages, Grades 6 and up.

Caroline knows she is cursed with bad luck. It all started when she was born in the middle of a hurricane, now her mom has run away and left her, she is being followed by a dark spirit, and she is bullied at school for her dark complexion, but that is the lot of a cursed existence. When Caroline makes a friend, Kalinda, she begins to think her bad luck may be fading away, but when she realizes she feels more than friendship for Kalinda she worries her curse is going to ruin everything again. Between this internal conflict and the “woman in black” following her around, Caroline is not sure how she will manage; who can she turn to for help now that her mother is no longer around?

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If you enjoy reading novels in verse you might also like: Serafina’s Promise, by Ann E. Burg, The Lightning Dreamer, by Margarita Engle, or Looking for Me, by Betsy R. Rosenthal.

Tags: LGBTQ+, coming of age, family problems, friendship, novel in verse

  • LGBTQ+
  • coming of age
  • family problems
  • friendship
  • novel in verse
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by Chad Lucas,  279 pages, Grades 7 and up.

Brian feels anxious all the time, even playing basketball which he loves. His dad and mom have always tried to help encourage him and support him, but when suddenly finds himself away from them in foster care his anxiety turns into full blown panic attacks. I mean, the panic is warranted. His father left town escaping some mysterious threat, and his mother, who couldn’t handle the stress alone, attempted suicide which left Brian to look after a younger brother and cope with his anxiety on his own. Luckily a teammate, Ezra, is becoming a new friend to Brian at school, but Brian hardly has enough head space to focus on a new friendship when the rest of his world is crumbling around him.  Ezra has some struggles of his own to contend with; he really wants to be a good friend to Brian, but he is also noticing some other feelings bubbling up. Ezra doesn’t want to compromise their friendship, but he also wants to be honest with Brian about how he feels about him; will there ever be the right moment for that in Brian’s stressful current existence?

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If you like realistic fiction with complex characters you might also like: I’ll Give You The Sun, by Jandy Nelson, I’ll Be There, by Holly Goldberg Sloan, or Piecing Me Together by Renee Watson.

Tags: anxiety, friendship, sports, baseball, LGBTQ+, identity

  • LGBTQ+
  • anxiety
  • baseball
  • friendship
  • identity
  • sports
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 by Ruta Sepetys, 319 pages, Grades 8 and up.

Cristian is growing up in Romania in 1989 when the Communist dictator Ceaușescu was in power. In this place and time people are struggling to get the most basic necessities, and while they struggle their leaders live in luxury and pretend to the rest of the world that they have created a stable country. The dictator’s government keeps its people from exposing their lies by spying on everyone; in fact every person you meet might be a spy for the government, so you cannot trust anyone. Everyday people are compelled to spy on one another when government agents threaten to arrest family members based on false evidence of crimes (and most people arrested are never seen again) or convinced to spy in exchange for food or medicine people desperately need to keep their family members alive. Cristian has the opportunity to meet the American Ambassador to Romania. He sees how differently this family interacts and begins to hope there is a better life out there, or maybe a better future for his country.  Cristian secretly wonders if he might be able to finally get the truth out about the conditions in his country, but what if someone finds out he spoke up? Will they hurt his family? Will they arrest him? How can he make the truth plain to the Americans without risking his family’s safety?

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If you enjoy historical fiction Ruta Sepetys is a master and has written several others you might like as well: Salt to the Sea (WW2), Fountains of Silence (1957 Spain under Franco)  and Between Shades of Gray (1941 Lithuania).

Tags: Romania, historical fiction, suspense, betrayal, family, friendship

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by Nina Hamza, 310 pages, Grades 7 and up.

Ahmed is not excited about moving to his father’s hometown of Minnesota. Apart from the surroundings and weather being pretty much the polar opposite to what he is used to having grown up his whole life in Hawaii, it also means trying to fit in in a whole new school environment in middle school. First of all, the kids in Minnesota seem to have never met anyone with the name Ahmed before and can’t seem to pronounce it right, in fact, maybe these kids have never met anyone Muslim before either. Even though it is not easy to find a community in his new school, most of the kids are, at least, trying to be kind. That is, except Jack, who seems determined to crush Ahmed’s spirit and ruin his chances for finding friends here. Jack, unfortunately,  is Ahmed’s neighbor and so Ahmed is unable to avoid his bully, and Jack doesn’t seem to care that Ahmed is going through one of the most challenging moments of his life. Ahmed’s family moved to Minnesota to try to save his father’s life; the hospital there is one of the few in the country that has the new treatment that might keep his father from succumbing to the genetic disease that killed his uncle. It is a lot for Ahmed to carry, and it remains to be seen if these obstacles will help Ahmed become a better person, or if they will break him entirely.

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If you enjoy books about finding friends, personal identity and growing up, you might also like: Every Soul a Star, by Wendy Mass, Crunch, by Leslie Connor, Here to Stay, by Sara Farizan, Tiffany Sly Lives Here Now, by Dana Davis, or My Basmati Bat Mitzvah, by Paula J. Freedman.

Tags: bullying, coming of age, racism, friendship, school stories, Hawaii, Minnesota, moving

  • bullying
  • coming of age
  • friendship
  • illness
  • schools
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by Jonathan Stroud, 421 pages, Grades 6 and up.

The future in the U.K. is desolate and contaminated with radiation and strange dangerous creatures such as blood-otters and large wolves, but Scarlett is a scrappy orphan who uses cleverness and ingenuity to get by. She is technically a thief, but you can’t help but appreciate the imaginative ways she goes about relieving banks and other people of their money. She does have a kind heart, as it turns out, which is how she becomes connected to Albert Browne. He is a bit of an oddball that she picks up in the wreckage of a bus crash, and though she thinks she is only helping him get to safety so she can continue her solitary outlaw life, their lives are quickly entangled. Albert may not be the innocent needing protection that he seems to be, or is he? Albert and Scarlett narrowly escape death and capture many times as they find themselves on the adventure of lifetime together.

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If you like a good adventure you might also enjoy: Aurora Rising, by Amie Kaufman, Renegades, by Marissa Meyer, Refugee, by Alan Gratz, or The Reader, by Traci Chee.

Tags: adventure, suspense, dystopias, friendship, fantasy

  • adventure
  • dystopias
  • friendship
  • suspense
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by Becky Albertalli & Aisha Saeed, 436 pages, Grades 7 and up.

Canvassing for a candidate when you are not even old enough to vote is not how Jamie, a white Jewish kid from Atlanta, expected to spend his free time, but here he is. Maya, a Pakistani American Muslim kid, feels passionate about defeating the current senator who wants to ban the wearing of hijabi which feels Islamophobic and threatening to Maya’s community. This is how Maya finds herself partnered with Jamie for canvassing to elect a more progressive candidate. Jamie is, at first, painfully shy, but the two become friends as they grow as activists. Life is complicated; everyone’s story has more depth than you can see on the surface and it takes time to really understand people even when you spend a lot of time together working toward a shared goal.

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If you enjoy books about friendship and personal identity, you might also like: Waiting for Normal, by Leslie Connor, A Good Kind of Trouble, by Lisa Moore Ramee,The Parker Inheritance, by Varian Johnson, A Mango Shaped Space, by Wendy, Mass, or The Firefly Code, by Megan Frazer Blakemore.

Tags: family, friendship, identity, religion, politics, canvassing

  • canvassing
  • families
  • friendship
  • identity
  • politics
  • religion
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by Amber McBride, 248 pages, Grades 8 and up.

Moth lost her family in a car accident and now is living with her aunt in Virginia.  She used to dance, but can’t anymore because of injury and grief. Sani, who lives across the street from Moth in Virginia, is half Navajo but being raised by his white mother and her new husband who is abusive. Until Sani, Moth felt invisible and alone, but Sani sees her because he recognizes her heartbreak as something familiar and Moth understands Sani’s grief as well. The two friends go on a journey out west to find Sani’s biological father and they exchange stories along the way. The stories help them grow as friends and support one another as they slowly heal from their tremendous struggles. 

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If you enjoy reading novels in verse, you might also like: The Black Flamingo, by Dean Atta, Punching the Air, by Ibi Aanu Zoboi, The Poet X, by Elizabeth Acevedo, Crossover, by Kwame Alexander, or Forget Me Not, by Ellie Terry.

Tags: family problems, teens, tragedy, death, teens, novels in verse,

  • #death
  • family problems
  • friendship
  • novels in verse
  • teens
  • tragedy
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by Reyna Grande, 325 pages, Grades 8 and up.

Reyna Grande recounts the story of her life in a small village, Guerrero, Mexico, and her family’s hopes and dreams to travel to “el otro lado” (the other side, or the United States). The parents decide to leave the children behind with their grandmother while they try to find footing in the U.S., but Reyna and her siblings feel abandoned by their parents and cannot possibly imagine what life might be like in “el otro lado.” Their mother returns from time to time to visit the children, but they do not see their father for years, until one day when he finally manages to bring them to the U.S. But, even when they have achieved their dream of living in the United States, things are more complicated than anyone could have imagined.

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If you enjoy memoirs you might also like: Every Falling Star, by Sungju Lee, This Star Won’t Go Out, by Esther Earl, Belonging, by Nora Krug, or Just Mercy, by Bryan Stevenson.

Tags: memoir, autobiography, Mexico, teens, adventure, family problems, identity, immigration

  • Mexico
  • adventure
  • autobiography
  • family problems
  • identity
  • immigration
  • memoir
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by Lisa Moore Ramee, 407 pages, Grades 6 and up.

Shaya and her best buddies call themselves the United Nations because they all come from different backgrounds. She and her friends are good students and have been close friends throughout elementary, but middle school is proving to be a little different. Each of the girls is exploring different interests and Shayla is worried the Nations might be becoming less “United.” At home, her family has been devastated by the not-guilty verdict of a police officer who killed an unarmed Black man; Shayla’s sister and father decide to attend a Black Lives Matter protest, and Shayla decides to show her support by wearing a black arm-band to school. Turns out this action gets Shayla sent to the office and she finds herself in trouble at school for the first time ever. On top of the shock of an arm-band getting her in trouble, her buddies don’t really understand what she is going through either, luckily Shayla’s sister helps her navigate the rocky road of racism and the importance of A Good Kind of Trouble.

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If you like books about social justice, you might also like: All American Muslim Girl, by Nadine Jolie Courtney, Between the Lines, by Nikki Grimes, or Trell, by Dick Lehr.

And if you would prefer nonfiction on the subject, you might like: Stamped: Racism, Antiracism and you, by Jason Reynolds, or Just Mercy, by Bryan Stevenson.

Tags: Black Lives Matter, coming of age, school stories, realistic fiction, families, identity

  • Black Lives Matter
  • coming of age
  • diversity
  • families
  • identity
  • realistic fiction
  • schools
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by Sungiu Lee, 314 pages, Grades 7 and up.

Sungju used to live with his parents in North Korea and while they were struggling to have enough, they, at least, had each other. One day his family is exiled into a remote part of the country forced to live in extreme famine and poverty, and then his parents disappear as well. Now Sungju is forced to survive on his own. He resorts to joining a gang of street kids teaching himself to steal, and fight just to stay alive. He is constantly living in fear of being caught by the authorities, or being beat up by another street gang, or simply not finding enough food or shelter to stay alive, and no one seems to be coming to his rescue. Because this is his memoir, we understand he does survive but the path is a terrifying roller coaster without an end in sight.

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If you enjoy memoirs and harrowing survival stories you might also enjoy: Red Scarf Girl, by Ji-li Jiang, A Land of Permanent Goodbyes, by Atia Abawi, or Never Fall Down, by Patricia McCormick.

Tags: memoir, North Korea, sad stories, coming of age, survival, adventure

  • Young Adult
  • adventure
  • coming of age
  • memoir
  • sad stories
  • survival
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by Ivi Zobol, 386 pages, Grades 8 and up.

Amal is in prison, accused of hurting a peer. This book, written in verse, is a collection of his musings about hopes he had for his life, and dreams about what he would become in the world as well as what it is like being in prison as a Black man. He is only 16, can you really be counted as a man at 16? Prison life is frightening, dehumanizing, and psychologically taxing.

He has so much of his life still in front of him, but now he finds himself trapped, without hope, wondering how he will go on. 

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If you enjoy novels in verse about difficult subjects you might also like: Out of the Dust, by Karen Hesse, Long Way Down, by Jason Reynolds, The Poet X, by Elizabeth Acevedo, or Paper Hearts, by Meg Wiviott.

Tags: identity, incarcerated youth, prison, novels in verse, realistic fiction, sad stories, social justice

  • identity
  • incarcerated youth
  • novel in verse
  • prison
  • realistic fiction
  • sad stories
  • social justice
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by Erin Bowman, 422 pages, Grades 7 and up.

Delta lives with her pack (extended family) in a barren dusty wasteland. Survival is a struggle but they are a scrappy bunch who stick together and protect one another. There is one place that has enough water and food for its people, but it is ruled by The General who is cruel and harsh. He works people to death so that he can enjoy the luxuries of food and water. Of course, there is also the mythical land they call “the verdant” where there is supposed to be water enough for everyone. Delta was hoping to find one day, but so far, no one has a readable map to find it. The story begins when Delta is away trying to get her pregnant sister some help from healers; her sister is having trouble giving birth. While she is away their pack is attacked and those who are not killed are kidnapped by The General. It becomes Delta’s mission to rescue her people, but now she has to do that with Baby in tow.

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If you like dystopian adventures you might also enjoy: The List, by Patricia Forde, On The Edge of Gone, by Corrine Duyvis or Killer of Enemies, by Joseph Bruchac. If you like a science fiction adventure you might also enjoy Contagion also by Erin Bowman.

Tags: dystopias, adventure, science fiction, survival

  • adventure
  • dystopias
  • science fiction
  • survival
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by Sophie Gonzales, 346 pages, Grades 8 and up.

Darcy has a secret; she is the owner and operator of Locker 89. Students drop anonymous letters into the locker requesting relationship advice leaving a little cash and their email with the request, then Locker 89 responds with advice. No one knows who is running the locker, until Brougham sneaks up on Darcy one day after swim practice. He doesn’t actually see the letters, but it is clear Darcy’s secret is out. All Brougham says he wants is a little love life advice himself, but Darcy definitely feels coerced into cooperation worried that her identity will be revealed. To complicate matters Darcy only attends this private school because her mom is a teacher here; they could never afford it otherwise, so there is a lot more than the locker income at stake here.

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If you enjoy realistic fiction with a bit of mystery you might also enjoy: Heist Society, by Ally Carter, or if you are looking for another prep school story, and you don’t mind a little fantasy, you might like Carry On, by Rainbow Rowell.

Tags: LGBTQ+, friendship, identity, romance, school stories, teens

  • LGBTQ+
  • friendship
  • identity
  • romance
  • schools
  • teens

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