Round II, Bracket V: Blood Water Paint vs. Dread Nation

Blood Water Paint by Joy McCullough

Her mother died when she was twelve, and suddenly Artemisia Gentileschi had a stark choice: a life as a nun in a convent or a life grinding pigment for her father’s paint.

She chose paint.

By the time she was seventeen, Artemisia did more than grind pigment. She was one of Rome’s most talented painters, even if no one knew her name. But Rome in 1610 was a city where men took what they wanted from women, and in the aftermath of rape Artemisia faced another terrible choice: a life of silence or a life of truth, no matter the cost.

He will not consume
my every thought.
I am a painter.
I will paint.

I will show you
what a woman can do.

Blood, Water, Paint is historical fiction that reads like contemporary fiction, which could be a strength or a weakness depending on your perspective. Employing modern American English, it’s spare on period details and (other than the author’s note at the end) I don’t recall any dates being mentioned. For readers who might be turned off by a novel set in the 1600s, these are pluses. However, readers who aren’t somewhat familiar with Artemisia Gentileschi or Renaissance art may feel a bit lost.

McCullough chose to write primarily in verse, and so as I read I asked myself (as I do every time I read a novel in verse) whether this was the best choice. I think the poems work, often packing a raw, emotional power-punch. I also think that the strongest sections are the stories that Artemisia’s mother told about Susanna and Judith, which are written in prose. Apart from Artemisia, Judith and Susanna are the best-developed characters in the book. Artemisia’s relationships with these Biblical heroines (depending on which version of the Bible you read – you won’t find them in Hebrew or Protestant Bibles) are the closest she has to friendships. They comfort her in her darkest moments and ultimately inspire her to keep painting.

As a story about the artist’s life and work, Blood, Water, Paint is compelling but incomplete, and hopefully will inspire readers to research Gentileschi and her paintings further.

Recommended for:

For all the obvious reasons, I would offer Blood, Water, Paint to teens who are into art, history, law, feminism, social justice and any combination of these. I would also stealthily suggest it to teens I know who might find the religious subjects of Gentileschi’s paintings interesting and the story eye-opening; as well as teens who may be itching for a #metoo narrative but want to hide it for one reason or another. Any recommendation should be accompanied by trigger warnings for rape and torture.

Taglines: Artemesia paints her truth; in the aftermath of rape will she dare to speak it? ANDI will show you what a woman can do.

Dread Nation by Justina Ireland

Jane McKeene was born two days before the dead began to walk the battlefields of Gettysburg and Chancellorsville—derailing the War Between the States and changing America forever. In this new nation, safety for all depends on the work of a few, and laws like the Native and Negro Reeducation Act require certain children attend combat schools to learn to put down the dead. But there are also opportunities—and Jane is studying to become an Attendant, trained in both weaponry and etiquette to protect the well-to-do. It’s a chance for a better life for Negro girls like Jane. After all, not even being the daughter of a wealthy white Southern woman could save her from society’s expectations.

But that’s not a life Jane wants. Almost finished with her education at Miss Preston’s School of Combat in Baltimore, Jane is set on returning to her Kentucky home and doesn’t pay much mind to the politics of the eastern cities, with their talk of returning America to the glory of its days before the dead rose. But when families around Baltimore County begin to go missing, Jane is caught in the middle of a conspiracy, one that finds her in a desperate fight for her life against some powerful enemies. And the restless dead, it would seem, are the least of her problems.

If Dread Nation has a weakness, it is that the first few chapters feel a little formulaic to me. Justina Ireland combines effective world-building and character development to introduce sickle-wielding, etiquette-challenged Jane McKeene and her pretty, perfect arch nemesis, Katherine Devereaux. Handsome rogue Jackson Keats appears soon after, and I think I know where the story is taking this triangle until the girls attend an ill-fated demonstration of a new zombie vaccine. It’s then that Ireland begins to scrape the first layer of scales away from the eyes of her readers. Deeper revelations continue to shape the course of the story, revealing hidden facets to the characters while delivering sharp social commentary.

Dread Nation is eye-opening, and I had thought my eyes were open going in. I found myself constantly re-examining my own perception of our country’s past and present as I read. It’s one of the few series-openers that makes me want to read the whole series not just because I want to know how it ends, but because Ireland has something to say and I want to hear it. I won’t divulge any secrets, but the alternate world Ireland builds is much darker than I at first realized because it’s so close to our reality.

Recommended for:

I would hand Dread Nation to fans of action thrillers, dystopian stories, and zombie apocalypse stories; teens who are into history, social justice, and/or feminism; teens who are sick of love triangles; devourers of series, and teens in search of characters with depth. While teens looking for friendship stories might not be thinking, “zombie alterna-history action thriller,” I would suggest it to them as a stretch/reach choice. Jane and Katherine don’t always like each other, but they respect each other and I found the evolution of their relationship to be refreshing.

Tagline: North Fought South … Until the Dead Rose Up AND: Jane McKeene: Slashing Zombies & Smashing Patriarchies!

The Winner: dread Nation by justina Ireland

Full disclosure, Dread Nation has been one of my go-to booktalks this past year. Badass heroines vs. zombies is an easy sell, but I’ve also sold it on the depth of the characters, relationship dynamics, and abundance of social commentary. If I were to draw a Venn Diagram describing who I would suggest each book too, the circle representing Blood, Water, Paint would be swallowed by a larger circle for Dread Nation. I know it’s not the book for everyone, but I would love for everyone to read Dread Nation, and that’s why I’m picking it to move on.

Donna Block is a Teen Services Librarian at Niles-Maine District Library. She’s into scifi, fantasy, horror, graphic memoirs, and is always tired … so. very. tired. Follow the goings-on of the NMDL Teen Underground on their Instagram: @nmdlunderground.

Previous Post


Round II, Bracket IV: Contagion vs. Dry

Though Contagion is set in space in the distant future, and Dry is set in Southern California at a time very close to now, both books feature teens struggling to survive intense, life-threatening disasters that come dangerously close to apocalyptic.

Contagion by Erin Bowman

It got in us

After receiving an urgent SOS from a work detail on a distant planet, a skeleton crew is dispatched to perform a standard search-and-rescue mission.

Most are dead.

But when the crew arrives, they find an abandoned site, littered with rotten food, discarded weapons…and dead bodies.

Don’t set foot here again.

As they try to piece together who—or what—could have decimated an entire operation, they discover that some things are best left buried—and some monsters are only too ready to awaken.

Contagion might as well have been written with me in mind. I love the intersection of horror and science fiction, and this tale of an unwitting crew sent to investigate a distress call from a secret mining facility on a frigid, desolate planet light years from civilization–well, it is the stuff of which survival horror fans dream. From the movie Alien to the video game Dead Space to books like The Illuminae Files and Pitch Dark, Contagion is part of a long, great horror tradition. Bowman understands what makes the vast unknown of space scary and capitalizes on it with an atmosphere of intense dread; you just know going in that not all of the characters are going to survive. Because of that, most of the characters read more as red shirts than as real people, and even those characters who have viewpoint chapters (and there are several characters as the story is told in third person with a lot of head-hopping) don’t get a lot of development. Bowman quickly sets up each character’s personality and their motivation, often with an info-dump of their backstory, then sets them loose to see how the inter-party conflicts will play out. The two main characters–Nova, a pilot-in-training, and Thea, a biomedical intern–are the ones that teen readers will relate to the most; they are both surrounded by adults making terrible, selfish decisions and yet have all the power.

I think this book is less about the characters, though, and more about the mystery of what happened on this derelict planet, and why, and who knows about it and is keeping it a secret. In that sense, this book is super successful; it’s suspenseful and scary, and the multiple viewpoints help build a strong sense of paranoia and claustrophobia, since readers will see how many characters are keeping secrets from the others. I wasn’t emotionally invested in any of the characters, especially as so many of them made really dumb decisions when confronted with clear evidence of a dangerous contagion, but I did want to know the outcome of the mystery. For anyone who has read a lot of zombie outbreak novels, especially where the zombies come from an alien organism or parasite, the plot here is familiar but well-done, very fast-paced, and the infection itself perfectly gory.

The world-building outside the immediate situation on the planet is not terribly robust but is sketched in with enough detail to suggest rival political factions in the United Planetary Coalition, battling over a sustainable energy source called corrarium and other shared resources. From the ending, I would guess that Book Two will delve into the politics more.

I’d recommend this series opener to horror and science fiction fans, especially those who want a thrilling and scary book that isn’t afraid to kill off some folks. It also has a strong mystery appeal. A bonus factor in recommending this book is its inclusivity: the two main female characters are a Korean-Turkish biomedical intern and a queer black pilot, but that is not the focus on the narrative at all.

Tag line: Zombies! In! Spaaaaaace!

Dry by Neal Shusterman and Jarrod Shusterman

The drought—or the Tap-Out, as everyone calls it—has been going on for a while now. Everyone’s lives have become an endless list of don’ts: don’t water the lawn, don’t fill up your pool, don’t take long showers.

Until the taps run dry.

Suddenly, Alyssa’s quiet suburban street spirals into a warzone of desperation; neighbors and families turned against each other on the hunt for water. And when her parents don’t return and her life—and the life of her brother—is threatened, Alyssa has to make impossible choices if she’s going to survive

I had a much harder time reading Dry than Contagion, mainly because the situation was so plausible that it made me uncomfortable. Water crises have already been in the news, from the lead contamination in Flint, Michigan, to the drought and water shortages in Cape Town, South Africa; and the flooding in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina. What happens in Dry doesn’t seem that far-fetched, especially as the water shortage comes from a thoughtless political maneuver mixed with poor governmental planning and a lackluster media response.

Dry follows five teenagers–Alyssa, Kelton, Garrett, Jacqui, and Henry–who come together by sheer happenstance and are forced to make increasingly desperate decisions to find water. Alyssa and Garrett are siblings, and their neighbor Kelton is part of a family of doomsday preppers; when the Tap-Out happens and their neighborhood devolves into catastrophe, they find themselves without their parents and responsible for their own survival. On their journey they pick up Jacqui, a tough-talking runaway with a dangerous streak, and Henry, a wealthy jerk who upsets the group dynamic with his manipulations. The Shustermans do a solid job developing all of these teen characters and showing them empathy; even at their least likable or most insanely gullible, you understand where they’re coming from, and none of them remain unchanged by what happens over the course of this novel. (Well, maybe Henry.) Like most disaster novels, this one is really about the interpersonal conflicts that happen to a group of survivors over time.

In between the teens’ story are Snapshot sections that pull back to show the wide-ranging implications the Tap-Out has on everything from keeping the electrical power plants running; to newscasters trying to cover the story without feeling like jackals; to soldiers forced to make tough choices about the use of violence to protect the limited stores of water. These sections do break up the otherwise fast pacing but also are essential to give a greater context; they also pose difficult ethical questions to readers by showing how a variety of people react to the Tap-Out, and how those reactions affect other people, and on down the line.

I found this book utterly convincing until the ending, which has an anti-climatic time jump to some weeks after the Tap-Out ends that ties up everything a little too neatly. It’s unclear how the water crisis ended, and after all the detail that went into the picture of how it started, I would have liked a more comprehensive picture of, well, where the water came from.   

I’d recommend Dry to readers who like dystopias, natural disaster stories, or intense survival stories. Even readers who like zombie survival fiction can get into this one, I think, because the sense of civilization breaking down and the focus on the dynamics of a small group of struggling survivors are essential pieces of both kinds of narratives.

Tag line: When the water runs dry, some will do anything for a drink. What will you do?

The Winner: dry by Neal Shusterman and Jarrod Shusterman

Both Contagion and Dry are suspenseful, intense survival stories, but I give the edge to Dry. In my reading heart, I prefer parasitic space zombies over realistic depictions of man-made disasters, but I feel Dry is the better-written book, with wide teen appeal to a lot of different kinds of readers. The Shustermans’ focus on the characters made their disaster story more immediate and emotionally compelling, without sacrificing fast-paced action. I feel Contagion also suffered from too much info-dumping character backstories and world details, whereas Dry integrated important information into the story. Contagion, while entertaining, didn’t have a lasting impact the way Dry did, either. Days after reading Dry, I turned on the tap to wet my toothbrush and wash my face and realized I’d left the water running the whole time; I feel teens will be similarly aware of thoughtless water usage after reading this convincing novel.

Krista Hutley is a Teen & Adult Services Librarian at the Wilmette Public Library. She also writes reviews for Booklist magazine. When not working or reading All The Things, she’s probably geeking out over horror movies, Dungeons & Dragons, and fun new stickers for her bullet journal.  

Previous Post

Round II, Bracket III: Pride vs. The Prince and the Dressmaker

Pride by Ibi Zoboi

Zuri Benitez has pride. Brooklyn pride, family pride, and pride in her Afro-Latino roots. But pride might not be enough to save her rapidly gentrifying neighborhood from becoming unrecognizable.

When the wealthy Darcy family moves in across the street, Zuri wants nothing to do with their two teenage sons, even as her older sister, Janae, starts to fall for the charming Ainsley. She especially can’t stand the judgmental and arrogant Darius. Yet as Zuri and Darius are forced to find common ground, their initial dislike shifts into an unexpected understanding.

But with four wild sisters pulling her in different directions, cute boy Warren vying for her attention, and college applications hovering on the horizon, Zuri fights to find her place in Bushwick’s changing landscape, or lose it all.

I’ve had this book on my to-read pile for a while, so I was excited for a push to make reading it happen.  I can’t comment about the similarities or differences between Pride and Pride and Prejudice since I never did get around to reading the original (gasp!).  I think this helps my review as I don’t think a majority of teens will pick up this title particularity because they read Pride and Prejudice.  This book truly does stand on its own without relying on character development or plot points known from reading the original.  The voices and characters were authentic. There are times, we’ve all seen it, where YA authors try too hard to emulate the speech and actions of teens and it comes off awkward.  Zoboi does not have that issue. Zuri’s family was full of wonderful characters. I’d actually love to read books focusing on each of their own lives as well. I view that as a sign of great writing.  On the other hand, I felt that there was a lot crammed into this book. I wanted to dive deeper into Zuri’s school visit and her own writing. Pride left me wanting more.  

There’s only one weakness hit me while I was reading Pride: I’ve read this story before multiple times.  I know that’s not really a fair weakness for a retelling, but it’s important.  As I said before, this is not based on reading Pride and Prejudice since I’ve never read it (gasp again!).  However, the story of two teens who start out disliking one another and eventually overlook the origins of their feelings and get along is spun a lot.  I felt the story was more predictable, even though it was entertaining.

I would recommend this book to readers who like subtle romances.  This book is also filled with strong, female characters which is not as easy to find in realistic fiction as in fantasy/dystopian books.  Finally, for those who want to encourage reading diverse books, this is the one for you. Also, if audiobooks are your thing, Pride is a fantastic option.  The narrator fit the characters and kept you engaged.  

Tagline: If Jane Austen lived in Bushwick…

The Prince and the Dressmaker by Jen Wang

Paris, at the dawn of the modern age:

Prince Sebastian is looking for a bride―or rather, his parents are looking for one for him. Sebastian is too busy hiding his secret life from everyone. At night he puts on daring dresses and takes Paris by storm as the fabulous Lady Crystallia―the hottest fashion icon in the world capital of fashion!

Sebastian’s secret weapon (and best friend) is the brilliant dressmaker Frances―one of only two people who know the truth: sometimes this boy wears dresses. But Frances dreams of greatness, and being someone’s secret weapon means being a secret. Forever. How long can Frances defer her dreams to protect a friend? Jen Wang weaves an exuberantly romantic tale of identity, young love, art, and family. A fairy tale for any age, The Prince and the Dressmaker will steal your heart.

First off, while I know my own opinions don’t matter in the grand scheme of Tournament of Books, I feel like I should state that graphic novels are not my favorite.  That being said, there are several amazing things about The Prince and the Dressmaker.  The originality behind this story hits the reader right away.  By looking at the cover, you’d think that this is a type of “Cinderella” story where the prince stumbles upon the dressmaker, Frances, and falls for her, bringing her back to the castle for a makeover to easily infiltrate the society types.  In reality, it’s Prince Sebastian who is the subject of the makeover and takes on his true identity as a woman. The book is full of conflict, both the obvious involving Sebastian’s double-life and the slowly growing conflict between Sebastian and Frances.  The illustrations truly make this story come alive, excuse the cliche. It was exciting to see what new dresses Lady Crystallia would wear from page to page.

As for weaknesses, there’s the obvious one in which outing Sebastian is used as a plot point.  Without revealing too much and spewing out a bunch of spoilers, I can see why she chose to include this, but I can see readers sensitive to this situation not wanting to read this one.  The other weakness is more subjective. I think that the character of Frances could have been developed more. The reason I think that it can be viewed more as subjective is that my feelings might be because I just like Sebastian/Lady Crystallia more and pushed past Frances.

I would recommend this for graphic novel readers and non-readers.  This story and the illustrations tell the story seamlessly. This is also an obvious recommendation for those looking for LGBTQ+ books, but once again, may be a triggering issue for some readers.  Finally, I’d recommend this for those looking for a fairy tale turned on its ear.

Tagline: Forget your pumpkins and slippers, there’s a new Cinderella in town.

The Winner: The Prince and the Dressmaker by Jen Wang

It was a difficult decision to pick the best book from these two.  I believe both of them will find many, many readers. While I usually wouldn’t choose a graphic novel over a novel, I feel I must this time.  The Prince and the Dressmaker is the winner.  Pride was great, but the originality in The Prince and the Dressmaker is what pushes it over the top.  Pride is a familiar tale with a plot that we’ve seen before with different incarnations of characters.  The Prince and the Dressmaker deserves to move on and battle another day.

Brandi Smits is the Youth Services Manager at the Orland Park Public Library.  When not doing the library-thing, she is probably dying her hair, cross-stitching something, or reading books in breweries.

Previous Post

Round II, Bracket II: Odd One Out vs. American Panda

Odd One Out by Nic Stone

Courtney “Coop” Cooper
Dumped. Again. And normally I wouldn’t mind. But right now, my best friend and source of solace, Jupiter Sanchez, is ignoring me to text some girl. 

Rae Evelyn Chin
I assumed “new girl” would be synonymous with “pariah,” but Jupiter and Courtney make me feel like I’m right where I belong. I also want to kiss him. And her. Which is . . . perplexing.

Jupiter Charity-Sanchez
The only thing worse than losing the girl you love to a boy is losing her to your boy. That means losing him, too. I have to make a move. . . .

One story.
Three sides.
No easy answers.

Odd One Out is a book that I really wanted to love. Our three main characters, all of whom take a turn narrating the book in different sections, are wonderful – they’re messy, they feel authentic, they make bad choices and figure out how to work through them. There’s a huge spread of diversity (all three mains are characters of color, two are biracial, and questions of sexual identity make up the thesis of the book) that didn’t feel forced to me. I appreciated that, as I said, our main characters make choices, deal with consequences, and do things that make them pretty unlikeable at times. Jupiter can be abrasive, Rae can be prickly, Courtney is obtuse. They feel real.

Unfortunately, there are a couple of negative aspects to it that kept me from being 100% on it. There is a bit of questionable handling of bisexual identity; while one of the characters comes out as bi at the end, another repudiates that label, and still another says some pretty degrading things about bisexual girls which then doesn’t get addressed as bad. It also struck me as odd that, while the main idea of the book is questioning the value of labels, Courtney, a cis straight boy, is the one character comfortable with himself. The narration in two of the three sections doesn’t flow as well as the first; I felt like Rae and Jupiter have a case of “adults talking through teenage mouths,” which makes them feel more distant and less relatable as characters.

Despite my misgivings, I do think this is a book that teens who are interested in reading about identity and exploring different facets of themselves will enjoy. The final message of the book gives the reader the freedom to either claim a label or disdain them, whichever they feel best represents them. I just feel like that message gets muddled at points. I would recommend this book to teens looking for diverse protagonists, who enjoy high school dramas and soap operas, and who are open-minded about a wide range of sexual identities.

Tagline: Like a triangle, this story has three sides – but no one right answer.




American Panda by Gloria Chao

At seventeen, Mei should be in high school, but skipping fourth grade was part of her parents’ master plan. Now a freshman at MIT, she is on track to fulfill the rest of this predetermined future: become a doctor, marry a preapproved Taiwanese Ivy Leaguer, produce a litter of babies.

With everything her parents have sacrificed to make her cushy life a reality, Mei can’t bring herself to tell them the truth–that she (1) hates germs, (2) falls asleep in biology lectures, and (3) has a crush on her classmate Darren Takahashi, who is decidedly not Taiwanese.

But when Mei reconnects with her brother, Xing, who is estranged from the family for dating the wrong woman, Mei starts to wonder if all the secrets are truly worth it. Can she find a way to be herself, whoever that is, before her web of lies unravels? 

Similar to Odd One Out, the central conflict of American Panda is one of identity: Mei, our main character and first person narrator, has been brought up in an extremely traditional Taiwanese household, and now that she’s in college she’s feeling the first whiffs of freedom for the first time. The book explores the tension between her desires for herself, her desires to please her parents, and how far she’s willing to push them in her pursuit of the things that fulfill her.

American Panda is a book that feels like cotton candy but also has real emotional weight, and deals with some pretty heavy questions of identity and family. I found Mei to be incredibly charming and relatable – her struggle with her identity, between being who she wants to be (and discovering that in the first place) and who her parents want her to be is a conflict that will resonate with a lot of teens. Gloria Chao, the author, has done an excellent job of making a very specific struggle feel universal. We also get some insight into the experience of immigrants, and the struggle to maintain a cultural identity while also fitting into American society.

The pacing of this book occasionally feels compressed, like the events in it are happening more rapidly than I necessarily want, but Mei’s narration also makes it clear that this book is happening at the end of a long internal struggle. Her romance with a Japanese classmate is very cute, and very secondary to the primary conflict between herself and her parents. I would recommend this book to teens looking for multicultural stories, family dramas, romantic comedies, and stories about identity.

Tagline: Sometimes finding yourself means losing the closest people to you.



The Winner: American Panda by Gloria Chao

These two books are pretty similar in terms of theme, quality of writing, and readability. Both deal heavily with questions of identity and dealing with the consequences of your actions, and both have great casts of extremely diverse characters. What it came down to for me was that American Panda is a more accessible reading experience. Odd One Out had too many sour notes for me that muddied the waters of its message, and American Panda is a more breezy read while still being emotionally impactful.

Martha Sullivan is the Young Adult Librarian at the Geneva Public Library. She enjoys comics, video games, movies, and the shenanigans of her two adorable guinea pigs.

Previous Post


Round II, Bracket I: The Poet X vs. Summer Bird Blue

The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo

A young girl in Harlem discovers slam poetry as a way to understand her mother’s religion and her own relationship to the world. Debut novel of renowned slam poet Elizabeth Acevedo.

Xiomara Batista feels unheard and unable to hide in her Harlem neighborhood. Ever since her body grew into curves, she has learned to let her fists and her fierceness do the talking.

But Xiomara has plenty she wants to say, and she pours all her frustration and passion onto the pages of a leather notebook, reciting the words to herself like prayers—especially after she catches feelings for a boy in her bio class named Aman, who her family can never know about. With Mami’s determination to force her daughter to obey the laws of the church, Xiomara understands that her thoughts are best kept to herself.

So when she is invited to join her school’s slam poetry club, she doesn’t know how she could ever attend without her mami finding out, much less speak her words out loud. But still, she can’t stop thinking about performing her poems.

Because in the face of a world that may not want to hear her, Xiomara refuses to be silent.

  • Strengths: One of the great strengths of The Poet X is its broad appeal to readers. By making the focus of the book Xiomara’s emotional response to problems, rather the problems themselves, readers are able to find easier ways to identify with Xiomara. Even if the reader isn’t facing the specific problems Xiomara must deal with, the concepts of feeling unheard, feeling as if you don’t know how to make everyone happy including yourself, and being afraid to open up to people who could help are things with which most teens could identify. Acevedo did an excellent job building the world of The Poet X. I loved that there was development equality across the various settings with each of the places of import to Xiomara receiving fair treatment. A final strength of The Poet X is that Acevedo gave the readers just enough of the secondary characters to make readers crave a sequel a la Becky Albertalli style.
  • Weaknesses: I had a hard time coming up with weaknesses for The Poet X, but the closest thing I can think of as a downside is that the audiobook is way more incredible than the book, which is saying something because the book is pretty amazing to begin with.
  • I would recommend this book to readers who feel oppressed and unheard. This book is also great for readers who like rhythm, such as those who like poetry or are big music fans. The verse writing format (the book is written as a series of slam poems) would make me inclined to recommend the book to reluctant readers as well, many of whom I’ve found are less intimidated by verse.This book is a good suggestions for readers that enjoy realistic fiction.
  • Tagline:  Unleash your words.

Summer Bird Blue by Akemi Dawn Bowman

Rumi Seto spends a lot of time worrying she doesn’t have the answers to everything. What to eat, where to go, whom to love. But there is one thing she is absolutely sure of—she wants to spend the rest of her life writing music with her younger sister, Lea.

Then Lea dies in a car accident, and her mother sends her away to live with her aunt in Hawaii while she deals with her own grief. Now thousands of miles from home, Rumi struggles to navigate the loss of her sister, being abandoned by her mother, and the absence of music in her life. With the help of the “boys next door”—a teenage surfer named Kai, who smiles too much and doesn’t take anything seriously, and an eighty-year-old named George Watanabe, who succumbed to his own grief years ago—Rumi attempts to find her way back to her music, to write the song she and Lea never had the chance to finish.

  • Strengths: One strength of Summer Bird Blue is it’s appealing plot concept and location. Rumi has just lost her younger sister and songwriting partner in a car accident. With her mother struggling to deal with her grief, Rumi is sent to live with her aunt in Hawaii for the summer. The juxtaposition of a beautiful island paradise with someone who is trying to deal with their own trauma and grief give the book a very unique dynamic. Another strength of Summer Bird Blue is that the author does a really great job of showcasing Rumi’s anger and how explosive the anger of someone grieving can be. These scenes throughout the book offer a great opportunity for those who haven’t had to grieve a close loss to better understand why those who are hurting lash out. A final strength of this book is the Bowman’s ability to clearly present her message to readers – you are not alone the same way Rumi is not alone. Throughout the book she learns the hardships of the strangers turned friends around her and finds ways to identify with their pain.
  • Weaknesses: Unfortunately, character relatability is a weakness for Summer Bird Blue. Rumi spends most of the book working through her grief in relation to the shared love of music she had with her younger sister. As a result, a lot of the emotional content of the book falls flat for readers who aren’t music fans. Another weakness of Summer Bird Blue is that the world Bowman has built is a little too convenient. People or actions kind of just happen right when it would be perfect to advance the story, which could annoy some readers of realistic fiction. The plot needed more transitions to lead us in those directions.
  • I would recommend this book to readers who have a true love for music. I would also recommend this book to readers looking to understand a little bit more about what grief is like – with the acknowledgement that grief is different for every person. This book would also appeal to readers who enjoy realistic fiction in which a character starts over in a new town to avoid/cope with their problems.
  • Tagline: Just because you live in paradise, doesn’t mean you feel like paradise.

The Winner: The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo

The victory for this round goes to The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo. Ultimately, The Poet X appeals to a wider audience due to its broad character relatability by dealing with concepts more commonly experienced by teens and other readers. The world created by Acevedo is believable to readers, which I feel is an essential tenet of realistic fiction. The secondary characters are well-developed and leave readers wanting to know more about what happens next for them. That combined with the intoxicating writing style, makes The Poet X more likely to hook readers and keep them reading.

Colleen Melone is the Adult & Teen Services Supervisor at the Crest Hill Branch of the White Oak Library District. When reading in her free time, she enjoys fantasies and thrillers.

Previous Post

Round I, Bracket XVI: The Belles vs. Girls of Paper and Fire

The Belles by Dhonielle Clayton

Camellia Beauregard is a Belle. In the opulent world of Orléans, Belles are revered, for they control Beauty, and Beauty is a commodity coveted above all else. In Orléans, the people are born gray, they are born damned, and only with the help of a Belle and her talents can they transform and be made beautiful.

But it’s not enough for Camellia to be just a Belle. She wants to be the favorite—the Belle chosen by the Queen of Orléans to live in the royal palace, to tend to the royal family and their court, to be recognized as the most talented Belle in the land. But once Camellia and her Belle sisters arrive at court, it becomes clear that being the favorite is not everything she always dreamed it would be. Behind the gilded palace walls live dark secrets, and Camellia soon learns that the very essence of her existence is a lie—that her powers are far greater, and could be more dangerous, than she ever imagined. And when the queen asks Camellia to risk her own life and help the ailing princess by using Belle powers in unintended ways, Camellia now faces an impossible decision.

With the future of Orléans and its people at stake, Camellia must decide—save herself and her sisters and the way of the Belles—or resuscitate the princess, risk her own life, and change the ways of her world forever.

Set in a futuristic Orléans where beauty is everything, author Dhonielle Clayton’s world-building is vivid and lush and will immediately transport you to the world she’s created. Orléans is filled with imagery that is layered and grows as the story unfolds, which works as a great juxtaposition to the underlying darkness surrounding The Belles. Clayton has a way of diverting attention away from what is really happening in the city by distracting both the characters and readers with lavish parties and gorgeous people so as not to question what’s happening behind palace walls. In the first few chapters, though, it got so heavy handed with descriptions and history in order to set the scene that it not only interrupted the pacing, but one began to lose sense of the world and key plot points. Luckily the story picked up significantly once Clayton found her rhythm and readers were able to fully submerge themselves in the multifaceted mystery she created.

Further elevating the story is Clayton’s cast of richly developed and flawed characters. Main protagonist Camellia Beauregard is by no means perfect, but her growth as a person is seen over the course of the book and we begin to better understand her decision-making process, as well as the moral dilemmas she’s constantly faced with. The reader is also given glimpses of the other Belles’ personalities through their correspondence with Camellia. They were all so charming and diverse that it would have been nice to have spent more time with them in the beginning to strengthen them as characters and show their familial bond. The one character Clayton did focus on developing was Princess Sophia; she wrote her so perfectly vile and cruel that not only were the characters reacting to her, but the reader as well. She was truly the worst and it worked.

Even as twisted as Princess Sophia was, the true evil hidden is the disturbing fascination and importance placed on beauty. The cost to which people go to to achieve beauty is limitless — so much so that they’re willing to risk their lives for it. The worst part of it all is that at the end of the day, they remained unfulfilled and empty no matter how beautiful they may be. Gone are the people they once were and all that’s left is a plastic and superficial version of themselves. In a time when social media and beauty standards are so all encompassing, The Belles addresses these issues in a thought-provoking manner that will serve as great conversation starters. Clayton guides the reader to understanding the dangers behind placing such importance on beauty and giving society the power to dictate how we should look without sounding preachy.

If there had to be a flaw though, it would be the romance. It not only lacked any depth and purpose, but stalled the story every time. Whenever Camillia began to find her voice, that relationship set her back. There was never any point to it and was so obviously inserted just for romance’s sake, that it became annoying — romance isn’t always necessary to make a story work. The Belles is such a well written and developed book that anyone who enjoys fantasies and mysteries would enjoy. Not only that, but it’s a book with a powerful message of acceptance and self-love that anyone can get behind.

Read A-Likes:
The Queen’s Rising by Rebecca Ross
Little White Lies by Jennifer Lynn Barnes

Girls of Paper and Fire by Natasha Ngan

Each year, eight beautiful girls are chosen as Paper Girls to serve the king. It’s the highest honor they could hope for…and the most cruel.

But this year, there’s a ninth girl. And instead of paper, she’s made of fire.

In this lush fantasy, Lei is a member of the Paper caste, the lowest and most oppressed class in Ikhara. She lives in a remote village with her father, where the decade-old trauma of watching her mother snatched by royal guards still haunts her. Now, the guards are back, and this time it’s Lei they’re after–the girl whose golden eyes have piqued the king’s interest.

Over weeks of training in the opulent but stifling palace, Lei and eight other girls learn the skills and charm that befit being a king’s consort. But Lei isn’t content to watch her fate consume her. Instead, she does the unthinkable–she falls in love. Her forbidden romance becomes enmeshed with an explosive plot that threatens the very foundation of Ikhara, and Lei, still the wide-eyed country girl at heart, must decide just how far she’s willing to go for justice and revenge.

TW: violence and sexual abuse.

Through her own experience growing up in Malaysia and knowledge of Asian mythology, author Natasha Ngan weaves a tale of oppression and abuse set alongside a rich fantasy world not quite seen in recent times. The world Ngan creates is heavily inspired by her Malaysian upbringing and together with her powerful writing, transports readers into this environment of riches and wonder. To contrast the beauty of the palace, Ngan doesn’t shy away from describing impoverished areas and the suffering its people face on a daily basis. While the world Ngan creates isn’t real, the reality of it is and something many might be familiar with.

However, even though Ngan is a great storyteller, she jam packs too much imagery and description into the story, causing it to lag; Girls of Paper and Fire doesn’t pick up its pace until nearly 2/3 of the way in. The story becomes repetitive and while the mundane lives the characters live is evident, it didn’t need to be dragged out for a third of the book for us to understand the tragedy of it. It takes entirely too long for much of anything to happen and leaves the reader wondering if the book is going anywhere. Ngan was too worried with building her world and creating its complicated cast system that her storyline suffered and the climax felt rushed. The book could have easily benefitted with losing about 100 pages.

As a protagonist, Lei demonstrated strength, fear, and vulnerability with no reservations or apologies. She beautifully embodied the complexities behind all of her actions and reasons why her choices held such weight. You could feel her pains and frustrations, as well as understanding of how the consequences from her decisions weren’t just hers to bear. Not only that, but readers went on a journey of self-realization with her when he came to come to terms with who she was and the emotions she felt towards fellow Paper girl Wren. Lei’s character arc was profound and complicated, but important.

The colorful cast of Paper girls around Lei lacked development though. We caught glimpses of their personalities and personal journeys, but it left me wanting more. At the core of everything going on was the relationship between them. The book shined when they all came together to listen, support, and fight for each other. It wasn’t just Lei’s story, but all of theirs and we never got it. Ngan had complex and diverse characters who came from different backgrounds, so it was disappointing to see a lack of development and follow-through with them. The saving grace was Lei’s evolving relationship with Wren. It was great that while she was supportive of Lei, she had her own issues to deal with that were bigger than them; it was refreshing to see such independence in not just female characters, but in a romantic relationship.

Above all else, Girls of Paper and Fire is a book about identity, self-discovery, sexual abuse, and more. It tackles head on how the abuse of power and rampant misogyny can easily lead a community into believing the justification and sexual abuse of women is valid and acceptable. Women are viewed as less than men and are given no rights. Ngan doesn’t shy away from these issues or tiptoes around them, but calls them for what they are. It was deeply moving to see how these women not only faced their abuse, but found different ways to begin the healing process in order to be able to survive it. It’s also important to note that there was a trigger warning in the beginning and resources in the end for anyone who might need them and to prepare readers on what to expect when picking up this book.

Girls of Paper and Fire is meant for mature readers who not only love a good fantasy, but diverse group of characters navigating social constructs and female empowerment. Readers who may have dealt with some form of trauma, especially sexual abuse, or are curious about the subject matter would enjoy the book and use it to spark a conversation.

Read A-Likes:
The Cruel Prince by Holly Black
Blanca and Roja by Anna-Marie McLemore

The Winner: The belles by Dhonielle Clayton

While both books are amazing within their own right, in the end, The Belles claims victory. Inevitably, the pacing and more immediate grab of the reader’s attention is what gives The Belles the edge. Girls of Paper and Fire takes entirely too long to get to its point and is redundant for over 100 pages. While The Belles also has pacing issues, Clayton finds her footing a little sooner in order to get to the story quicker. The allure of the mystery surrounding The Belles makes it a page turner and will keep teens easily engaged. Girls is not as accessible to readers and will unfortunately lose them early on with its lack of direction. It’s heartbreaking because the themes and issues of Girls is a breath of fresh air in teen fiction, but Ngan struggles to find her rhythm and with it, her readers.

Marion Olea is the Teen Librarian at the Northlake Public Library District. Her hobbies include traveling, board gaming, and submerging herself in all things pop culture.

Previous Post

Round I, Bracket XV: The Brilliant Death vs. Children of Blood and Bone

The Brilliant Death by Amy Rose Capetta

For Teodora DiSangro, a mafia don’s daughter, family is fate.

All her life, Teodora has hidden the fact that she secretly turns her family’s enemies into music boxes, mirrors, and other decorative objects. After all, everyone in Vinalia knows that stregas—wielders of magic—are figures out of fairytales. Nobody believes they’re real.

Then the Capo, the land’s new ruler, sends poisoned letters to the heads of the Five Families that have long controlled Vinalia. Four lie dead and Teo’s beloved father is gravely ill. To save him, Teo must travel to the capital as a DiSangro son—not merely disguised as a boy, but transformed into one. 

Enter Cielo, a strega who can switch back and forth between male and female as effortlessly as turning a page in a book. Teo and Cielo journey together to the capital, and Teo struggles to master her powers and to keep her growing feelings for Cielo locked in her heart. As she falls in love with witty, irascible Cielo, Teo realizes how much of life she’s missed by hiding her true nature. But she can’t forget her mission, and the closer they get to the palace, the more sinister secrets they uncover about what’s really going on in their beloved country—and the more determined Teo becomes to save her family at any cost.

Capetta weaves together a story rich with family history, suppressed magic, and queer romance. Teodora is complex, but quietly so, until she meets Cielo, who introduces her to a new way of thinking about herself and what her magic can do. Capetta’s writing is clear and she keeps the reader constantly aware of correct pronouns to address the genderfluid Cielo. Her prologue and first chapter grab the reader right away as we begin to understand what Teodora’s life is like as the second daughter of a powerful mafia family and as she begins to use her magic as a means of protecting her family’s power. As Teodora immerses herself more into a world she did not know existed, she realizes the power of familial and romantic love. The world is beautifully constructed and readers will delight in the hidden places Teodora must discover. This book is a well-thought out romance featuring two nonbinary characters with enough action and excitement to keep the pages turning.

Who would you recommend this book to?

Readers who love to read fast paced action fantasy with characters who are not only motivated by revenge, but are willing to do (or become) whatever it takes to protect those they love.

Read A-Likes:
Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo
Sea Witch by Sarah Henning
The Wrath and the Dawn by Renée Ahdieh

Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi

They killed my mother.
They took our magic.
They tried to bury us.

Now we rise.

Zélie Adebola remembers when the soil of Orïsha hummed with magic. Burners ignited flames, Tiders beckoned waves, and Zélie’s Reaper mother summoned forth souls.

But everything changed the night magic disappeared. Under the orders of a ruthless king, maji were killed, leaving Zélie without a mother and her people without hope.

Now Zélie has one chance to bring back magic and strike against the monarchy. With the help of a rogue princess, Zélie must outwit and outrun the crown prince, who is hell-bent on eradicating magic for good.

Danger lurks in Orïsha, where snow leoponaires prowl and vengeful spirits wait in the waters. Yet the greatest danger may be Zélie herself as she struggles to control her powers and her growing feelings for an enemy

Adeyemi has written the most exciting young adult fantasy novel in several years. This unputdownable novel takes readers on a truly engaging and harrowing journey. Adeyemi has seeped her novel full of myth and magic and the world comes alive for the reader from the first few pages. The history of the world and the magic system feels thoroughly researched and executed. Following the story of four young people, all of whom have diversified motivations and points of view, readers will embark on the journey of a lifetime to restore magic back to Orisha before it is too late, and their magic vanishes forever. While the narrative is original, excellently paced, and engaging enough on its own, this novel is also Adeyemi’s response to several important social justice issues. Racism, oppression, and prejudice fuel some characters’ motivations and they must wrestle with the ramifications of their hatred. The characters, world building, and complicated points of view make this one of the best fantasy novels written for teens in a long time.

Who would you recommend this book to?

Fans of Black Panther, readers who love myth, romance, action, complex magic systems, and characters who have complicated and diversified points of view.

Read A-Likes:
Dread Nation by Justina Ireland
Akata Witch by Nnedi Okorafor
The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

The Winner: Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi

Children of Blood and Bone won this round for me because the world building was so carefully and exquisitely done. The characters were realistic and complicated in their own ways. The social issues took center stage without feeling too “preachy” and this book was a joy to read. I was impressed by the time the author took to really build this world and the people who inhabit it. 

A lover of literature, Beth VanCurine has a BS in English Education from Olivet Nazarene University, a MSLIS from the University of Illinois, and an MA aim English Literature from Northwestern University. Beth works as a researcher remotely and has recently started working at the Baraboo Public Library. She enjoys reading, traveling, and analyzing movies. 

Previous Post

Next Post