February is Black History Month, the perfect time to remind young readers of beloved heroes and heroines like Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks and Harriet Tubman. This year, new books focus on other important figures, including Malcolm X, the many voices of the Harlem Renaissance and unexpected champions of equality, from unstoppable performers to long-forgotten slaves.
We picked our 10 favorite new books for honoring African-American heroes and heroines. Some of these stories are inspiring, some brutal and unflinching, but all are valuable and educational.
"Kristy Dempsey revisits a watershed moment in performing arts history in her sparkling new book, A Dance Like Starlight. The story’s spirited young heroine, an African-American girl who dreams of becoming a ballet dancer, lives with her mother in Harlem. The year is 1951." Read our full review.
"This lyrical tribute to Sugar Hill, the historic Harlem neighborhood of the 1920s and ‘30s, and its legendary inhabitants packs a lot of information with an economy of words and R. Gregory Christie’s colorful, stylized paintings." Read our full review.
"With appeal for younger and older readers alike, Under the Freedom Tree is both a beautiful tribute to a lasting symbol of freedom and a powerful reminder that one brave action can change the course of history." Read our full review.
"Malcolm Little is a terrific introduction to a polarizing historical figure and an inspiring tale that children can apply to their own lives. We all face adversity at one time or another; it’s how we respond that counts." Read our full review.
"In Josephine, Patricia Hruby Powell writes with great reverence and a vigor fitting to the life of the illustrious performer Josephine Baker. This handsomely designed tribute to Josephine’s life is refreshingly uncluttered in every way: Powell’s free-verse text doesn’t waste any words, and Christian Robinson’s minimalist acrylic illustrations communicate the very essence of Josephine’s vivacious spirit." Read our full review.
The Sittin' Up by Shelia P. Moses
Putnam | Ages 10 and up
"While most African-American children’s literature focuses on either slavery or the Civil Rights movement, Moses gives middle grade readers a glimpse of a time when slavery was recent enough to weigh heavily on the minds and hearts of African Americans, yet a more equitable future was also imaginable." Read our full review.
"Using the framework of Sarah’s unlikely wealth, Bolden offers a wide-ranging book discussing the creation of the Indian Territory and Oklahoma, the rise of black towns and boomtowns, and the greed and corruption that surrounds money. Searching for Sarah Rector draws upon photographs, census records, sensationalist newspaper articles and first-person interviews to tell a fascinating account of a little-known time in American history." Read our full review.
The Port Chicago 50 by Steve Sheinkin
Roaring Brook | Ages 10 to 14
"In The Port Chicago 50, Steve Sheinkin, author of the Newbery Honor book Bomb, tells the harrowing story of the fight for the lives and rights of 50 black sailors." Read our full review.
"Cy in Chains is a difficult, painful novel, but it’s an important one. Cy quickly morphs from a kind, compassionate boy, looking out for his friend before the accident, to a young man who’s been broken by a life of hard work and cruelty, and who comes to see compassion as a weakness he can’t afford." Read our full review.
"In a highly credible fashion, Willow grapples with her choices—she is as afraid of the path of freedom as she is of the certain horrors of continued enslavement. Perhaps most important to Willow, however, are the secrets she learns about the fate of her own mother, a beautiful and educated African woman." Read our full review.
Locker Combinations is a Book Case feature by BookPage contributor and young adult (YA) literature expert Jill Ratzan. Using a variety of literary, cultural and educational perspectives, Jill guest blogs about the latest in YA lit and the general direction, trends and changes of the field.
Last week, the American Library Association announced the winner of the Michael L. Printz Award, the highest award in young adult (YA) literature. Four Honor books were also named. (Marcus Sedgick's Midwinterblood won the top spot.) Interestingly, all five books are set either fully or partially in the past, in time periods ranging from the fourth century to 1986.
Historical fiction creates ample opportunities for YA literature, but it also poses a number of challenges. One such challenge is the role of female characters. How can authors of YA historical fiction stay true to historical realities while also presenting the strong, independent female characters that contemporary readers have come to expect? Read on for four possible strategies.
When Cat Winters' spooky historical mystery In the Shadow of Blackbirds opens, the year is 1918 and protagonist Mary Shelley Black is on her way to San Diego to stay with her recently widowed aunt. Mary Shelley's father is in jail for supposed unpatriotic activities, her beau is away fighting in France and the deadly Spanish flu is raging around her. With no one else to provide for them, Mary Shelley and her aunt—like many women of their time—must take on roles previously reserved for men. So, while Aunt Eva's work in a shipyard seems shocking, it brings in much-needed money. And although Mary Shelley's own activities might ordinarily have been looked down on by a husband, father or uncle, the combination of war, sickness and imprisonment mean that she's essentially on her own.
The popularity of crime drama series like "Sherlock" and "Elementary" have made character Sherlock Holmes well known even to those who've never read Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Victorian-era tales. Similarly, Bram Stoker's Dracula has become an icon of pop culture. Fictional Holmes and historical Stoker are known for their intelligence, their curiosity and their interest in the macabre . . . but certainly not for their strict following of social conventions. If the two had teenage sisters or nieces, these young women might naturally be determined to set their own rules. Colleen Gleason's The Clockwork Scarab is the first in a series of mysteries starring the imaginary Mina Holmes and Evaline Stoker. If these two characters seem to be more independent than other women of their times, perhaps that's because they're taking a leaf out of their famous relatives' books.
Historical fantasy—works that combine history with aspects of the supernatural—is emerging as a hot new genre of YA fiction. Unlike traditional historical fiction, historical fantasy doesn't aim to be a perfect reflection of real life in the time and place in which it takes place. Instead, it combines elements from that setting with elements from the author's imagination.
One especially noteworthy historical fantasy series, His Fair Assassin by Robin LaFevers (especially the recent second book, Dark Triumph), revisits the history of medieval Brittany and France by juxtaposing real historical figures with fictional, magically trained warrior nuns. (You read that right.) Because LaFevers' female assassins are intentionally imaginary, they have no need to answer to the standards of demure behavior expected of other women of their time.
In Kerstin Gier's Precious Stones trilogy, translated from the German by Anthea Bell, teenage Gwyneth comes from a family of time travelers, but she's always been the boring, untalented one. An accidental slip into the past, though, reveals her identity as one of the Circle of Twelve, a secret sect with a long-running mission. Beginning with Ruby Red and continuing in Sapphire Blue, Gwyneth (and her cell phone) travel from contemporary London to the eighteenth century, the early twentieth century and various points in between. Again, because Gwyneth is an outsider to the times she finds herself in, her modern sensibility isn't necessarily an anachronism.
Strong female characters are always welcome in YA fiction, and if this year's Printz winner and Honor books are any indication, genre-blending YA historical fiction is here to stay. Combining the two ideas can sometimes be tricky, but these recent offerings show that it can be done with style, sensitivity and pizzazz.
The internationally best-selling novel has been adapted by Ben York Jones (Like Crazy, winner of the 2011 Sundance Film Festival Grand Jury Prize), and it's set to be directed by Marius Markevicius, who directed The Other Dream Team (a documentary of the 1992 Lithuania national basketball team) and produced Like Crazy. Filming will begin in Lithuania this year.
Between Shades of Gray is a Carnegie Medal-nominated tale of a 15-year-old girl's fight for survival during World War II. Set during the little-known yet shockingly true events of the Baltic deportation, Sepetys' debut shocked readers with its brutal honesty, and her heroine won our hearts with her resolve and her refusal to let go of hope. Check out our interview with Sepetys, where she shared her reasons for telling this moving story.
How exciting! And considering the inevitable hilarity of parents trying to hunt down the titles on their children's school reading lists and confusing Between Shades of Gray and Fifty Shades of Grey, what are the chances that a few feisty Redbox users will end up accidentally renting a heartrending tale about Siberian mass deportation? Probably pretty good, I'd say . . . .
We always look forward to the Newbery, Caldecott and Printz Awards, and this morning was filled with delight (and some surprise!) over this year's recipients.
We're perhaps most ecstatic that Kate DiCamillo won the 2014 Newbery Medal for Flora & Ulysses, the adventurous, hilarious story of a cynical, comic-loving girl who befriends a most unusual squirrel. (We were looking forward to this one several months before it came out; watch us chat with DiCamillo about seal blubber, poetry and giant donuts here.)
Mad props to our teen literature expert, Jill Ratzan, for predicting the Printz winner! She shared her prediction for Midwinterblood by Marcus Sedgwick, saying, "Midwinterblood makes its readers work hard to uncover its secrets. That makes it a top Printz contender in my book." Seven intertwined narratives, full of blood and magic, unfold in reverse chronological order on a mysterious, remote island.
We are also tickled that Brian Floca won the Caldecott Medal for Locomotive, a gorgeous picture book about the beginnings of the transcontinental railroad in the United States.
Here's a (partial) list of the 2014 Youth Media Award winners. Find the full list here, and click the links below to read coverage in BookPage.
2014 CALDECOTT MEDAL
Locomotive by Brian Floca (Atheneum)
CALDECOTT HONOR BOOKS:
2014 NEWBERY MEDAL
Flora & Ulysses by Kate DiCamillo (Candlewick)
NEWBERY HONOR BOOKS:
2014 PRINTZ AWARD
Midwinterblood by Marcus Sedgwick (Roaring Brook)
PRINTZ HONOR BOOKS:
MARGARET A. EDWARDS AWARD (lifetime achievement in writing for young adults)
Markus Zusak (The Book Thief)
So, what do you think, readers? We're definitely thrilled by some, surprised by others.
For even more recommendations for fantastic children's and teen books, see our list of the Best Children's Books for 2013.
Young adult mysteries and thrillers tap into some really creepy ideas—often with the help of a supernatural element—that keep teen readers burning through the pages. Few characters in YA mysteries are like cops and spies—they're not out looking for trouble, but it finds them anyway, and the pursuit of the truth is impossible to resist. And this year, it's all about the girls.
17 and Gone by Nova Ren Suma
Seventeen-year-old Lauren has visions of girls who have gone missing—always without a trace. As the missing girls reveal their stories to Lauren, she becomes obsessed with one girl in particular: Abby Sinclair, who vanished from summer camp. What happened to her? Is she dead like the other missing girls? A chilling psychological thriller with whispered warnings for young readers.
The Caged Graves by Dianne K. Salerni
It's 1867, and Verity Boone has just moved to Pennsylvania to live with her father and meet her future husband. But when she discovers that her mother and aunt, who both died 15 years before, are buried in unhallowed ground outside the cemetery and are guarded by a cage, she begins to dig into the mystery of the two women's deaths—and the secrets of her father's town. A great historical mystery.
What We Saw at Night by Jacquelyn Mitchard
Three kids with Xeroderma Pigmentosum (or XP, a disease that requires complete avoidance of sunlight) take to the nighttime rooftops, practicing Parkour and slighting their own vulnerability. But one night, they spy through an open window a possible murder in progress. The daredevils begin an investigation, and it seems to be no limit to their ability to risk their own lives.
This Is W.A.R. by Lisa and Laura Roecker
Revenge is sweet for an unlikely alliance between four girls. When popular girl Willa Ames-Rowan is pulled from the lake at Hawthorne Lake Country Club, everyone knows golden boy James Gregory was the last person to see her alive. Willa’s friends Sloane and Lina, Willa’s sister Madge and outsider Rose team up to solve Willa's death and make the killer pay.
The Waking Dark by Robin Wasserman
Coming September 10
The publishers are calling this one an homage to Stephen King, and that's dead on. This horror thriller finds 12 people dead, killed by five murderers who were all friends and family. Only one murderer didn't take her own life, and she has no idea why she did it. It falls to five survivors to stop whatever's happening. A terrifying, thrilling read.
Anyone up for something creepy?
Astrid Krieger is not your typical little rich girl. She lives in a rocket ship prototype in the backyard of her parent's estate and believes "forgiveness is for those who are too weak to hold a grudge." After being kicked out of her private school, The Elite Bristol Academy, she is now facing the worst punishment possible: public school. Astrid is in for some fast lessons on the ins and outs of public school as her normal firecracker personality is no match for the public school student body.
With trademark humor—he's known to television audiences as a writer for FOX's "New Girl" and NBC's "Up All Night"—author David Iserson has created a uniquely witty story with Firecracker. Be sure to read our full review and watch the book trailer below created by the author and featuring some special guests.
Could public school be that bad? Will you read Firecracker to find out?
Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell
St. Martin's Griffin • $18.99 • ISBN 9781250012579
Published February 26, 2013
Ages 13 and up
Pretty much every YA novel that comes out these days has at least some element of romance. With all those twitterpated hormones in teen readers, it's practically a requirement for YA characters to find their soulmate at 16. There is no growing up with typical fictional true love: It is eternal and halting, with ever after more a natural progression than a rare gift.
But it rarely works like that, doesn't it? That's what makes young love such an incredible thing. Its intensity is nearly impossible to maintain.
That's why I found Eleanor & Park so special. Neither character really believes in ever after. They do, however, get to experience every surprising moment of young love, every second of anticipation as they fall for each other. Rowell's new book for teens is one of my favorite depictions of teenage love, and adult readers will find it to be a wrenching, wonderful reminder of their own first loves.
Keep an eye out for my interview with the author in the March issue of BookPage! And read on for an excerpt from one of my favorite parts, when Eleanor and Park hold hands for the first time. From Park's perspective:
Holding Eleanor's hand was like holding a butterfly. Or a heartbeat. Like holding something complete, and completely alive.
As soon as he touched her, he wondered how he'd gone this long without doing it. He rubbed his thumb through her palm and up her fingers, and was aware of her every breath.
Park had held hands with girls before. Girls at Skateland. A girl at the ninth-grade dance last year. (They'd kissed while they waited for her dad to pick them up.) He'd even held Tina's hand, back when they "went" together in the sixth grade.
And always before, it had been fine. Not much different from holding Josh's hand when they were little kids crossing the street. Or holding his grandma's hand when she took him to church. Maybe a little sweatier, a little more awkward.
When he'd kissed a girl last year, with his mouth dry and his eyes mostly open, Park had wondered if maybe there was something wrong with him.
He'd even wondered—seriously, while he was kissing her, he'd wondered this—whether he might be gay. Except he didn't feel like kissing any guys either. And if he thought about She-Hulk or Storm (instead of this girl, Dawn) the kissing got a lot better.
Maybe I'm not attracted to real girls, he'd thought at the time. Maybe I'm some sort of perverted cartoon-sexual.
Or maybe, he thought now, he just didn't recognize all those other girls. The way a computer will spit out a disk if it doesn't recognize the formatting.
When he touched Eleanor's hand, he recognized her. He knew.
Do you make room on your TBR list for excellent YA reads? Will you check this one out?
Sometimes, it seems like the phrase "YA trend" is an understatement. Topics don't just become popular or frequent in teen lit—they explode.
It's like a game of musical chairs, and when the music stops, everyone wants the same chair. Lately, that chair is the thriller chair, with a dash of paranormal. A paranormal seat cushion, if you will.
It's not as dramatic or strange as vampires and dystopias, but a sizeable chunk of current YA could be categorized as "psychic thriller." The deluge of murder-plus-magic makes the rare realistic thriller stand out even more.
(Why the constant mash-ups in YA? Are teens so disillusioned that authors think they can't write a thriller without the protagonist seeing ghosts, having visions or predicting the future? Is the need for escapism that great? Am I thinking about this too hard?)
Here are a few YA thrillers—paranormal and realistic—to watch for:
Paper Valentine by Brenna Yovanoff
Someone in Hannah's peaceful suburban neighborhood is killing girls, but that's not all she's dealing with. Her best friend Lillian, who died six months ago, is still hanging around as a ghost. She also won't stop pressing Hannah to investigate the string of murders. Coming in January.
The Believing Game by Eireann Corrigan
No spooks in this one; it's all psychological. When Greer Cannon is sent off to a rehab center for troubled teens, she falls hard for handsome Addison Bradley. However, Addison's mentor Joshua is unbelievably creepy, but he makes Greer feel understood—until things go completely out of control. Coming December 1.
What We Saw at Night by Jacquelyn Mitchard
Three teens with XP (an allergy to sunlight) spend all their time roaming around town at night, and when they start practicing Parkour, they accidentally spot what appears to be a murder in progress. Coming in January.
Beautiful Lies by Jessica Warman
These twins with an Escape to Witch Mountain-esque bond can feel each other's pain, so when one of them disappears, the other knows something is horribly wrong. The twins can't trust anyone except each other, and our reviewer warns this "might not be a book to read when one is alone in a lonely, dark house."
One of the biggest complaints I hear about YA is that parents have no idea what to expect from a book, whether they'll find it appropriate for their teen or not. These crossover writers are a safe bet (and create potential lifelong readers for that author).
Said James Patterson in a New York Times interview, "The reality is that women buy most books. . . The reality is that it’s easier, and a really good habit, to start to get parents when they walk into a bookstore to say, ‘You know, I should buy a book for my kid as well.’ ”
Harlan Coben's Mickey Bolitar novels pick up where the Myron Bolitar novels left off. Mickey has a lot in common with his Uncle Myron—tall, likes basketball, has great sidekicks, solves thrilling mysteries, etc.—except that he also deals with high school, crushes and bullies. Read our review of the first Mickey Bolitar novel, Shelter.
Have you noticed this trend? Why do teens need a dash of the paranormal with their thrillers?
More and more often we're hearing about self-published e-book sensations that go viral and eventually get scooped up by traditional publishers. With more than 150,000 e-books sold in the U.S. (not to mention the weeks it has spent on the New York Times bestseller list), Tammara Webber's Easy definitely fits into that category. Penguin took over the rights in October, and Berkley published a trade paperback edition on November 6. Many readers are already hooked on this story of a 19-year-old who deals with tough issues in college—from sexual assault to falling in love again.
However, there's an interesting "trend" angle to this novel that makes it unique. Easy is part of an emerging subgenre called "New Adult" literature. NA books are appropriate for older teens and adults, and they typically feature characters who are transitioning from teendom to adulthood. Webber is very passionate about writing stories that explore this life stage. In a guest blog post she tells us what "New Adult" means—and why it's important.
New Adult—or just new marketing?
By Tammara Webber
I confess, my initial reaction to the term “New Adult” was lukewarm, because I thought it was a seriously dumb label for a literary category. Who wants to be called a new adult? When I was a college student, a bookstore couldn’t have paid me to walk down an aisle with that designation at the head of it.
What intrigued me, though, was the concept behind the harebrained title. A long-standing decree from publishers warned agents (and therefore, authors) against submitting manuscripts with main characters older than 18 or younger than mid-20s. The justification? They won’t sell.
Enter the birth of digital self-publishing, the rapid growth of the e-reader market, and more recently, widespread apps that turn any smart phone into an e-reader. Those college-aged protagonists no one wanted to read about? Indie authors offered those stories to readers directly. Lo and behold, the previously nonexistent audience appeared.
Shocking? Not really. Much of the “NA” audience is just an extension of the YA audience, as well as a natural progression from it. Is an 18-year-old—who is a legal adult—an adult in every sense of the word? Not until she’s financially independent. Until then, she’s on the same coming-of-age path she was before—she’s just closer to her goal. A professor friend told me that she hadn’t realized how young her students were until her own sons were in college. “They have adult bodies and more advanced language skills, but their thought processes and reasoning haven’t quite caught up,” she said.
This leads me to confession number two: I’m not convinced publishing needs a new category. Heck yeah, I slapped a “New Adult” tag on each of my “Mature YA” books, because I’m not stupid. If everyone is going to say I’m writing “NA,” and that tag helps readers find my books, then by all means, I’ll add it. But what needed to happen has happened: Authors are writing and selling novels with characters in the college age range, without benefit of a distinct category.
Where those books should be “shelved” is something brick-and-mortar retailers will have to figure out. The idea that these stories can be edgier because the protagonists are 18 and up is unnecessary. Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you know that plenty of YA books are edgy—they contain swearing, drinking, drugs and sex. In other words, reality.
If by edgy one means tackling tough topics—well, anyone who reads YA on even the most intermittent basis knows that’s been done and done well: Speak, Thirteen Reasons Why, The Sky is Everywhere, Looking for Alaska, Some Girls Are, Shine, I Know It’s Over . . . No one needs to look for a New Adult designation to find edgy, or dark, or titillating literature—and thank God for that.
Lest you question my credentials for welcoming edgy content to YA, I have an incontestable qualification: I’m the parent of three children between the ages of 17 to 23. I love that my son brought Going Bovine into my room at 2 a.m. with tears on his face and said, “Read this.” I love that my daughter and I could discuss and contrast Alex Fuentes (from Perfect Chemistry by Simone Elkeles) with “real boys.” I’m a parent who welcomed the edgy stuff, and recognized the importance of it for creating dialogue with my kids. It wasn't about what I wanted to talk about—because I can do that without assistance from literature or celebrity-endorsed commercials, thanks—but about what they wanted to talk about.
I’ve heard that NA seeks to appeal to readers “18 to 35.” Or 34. Or 30. Or starting at 17. Again, unnecessary. The elimination of the weird dearth of characters in the 19-23 year-old age range was the essential thing. The placement of those stories should be based on content, not the ages of the protagonists. If a book has a YA voice, if it speaks to serious issues as archetypal YA does, then it should be categorized as YA, and perhaps given a “mature” label to let the parents of 14-year-olds know that this book should be parentally-guided. Books like Easy and Slammed fall into that category. As for those 20-somethings (and older) being able to find them? We already read YA. We’ll find them just fine.
As a self-published author, I found enough readers to put Easy on the NYT bestseller list for nine weeks—three of those on the combined and the e-book lists. The audience is there. Now let’s publish for them.
Readers: What do you think of the "New Adult" designation? Do you like to read about protagonists who are in that stage between living at home and being a full-on adult?
Out of the Easy by Ruta Sepetys
Philomel • $17.99 • ISBN 9780399256929
On sale February 12, 2013
When we blogged about Sepetys' new book a month ago, BookPage readers were so excited. So, in honor of Teen Read Week (October 14-20), we're reading her upcoming novel, Out of the Easy, set in the French Quarter of New Orleans in 1950.
Sepetys made major waves with her first novel, Between Shades of Gray, the story of a teenager named Lina in 1940s Lithuania. Lina and her family are forced by the Soviet secret police to leave their home and travel in a miserable, crammed train car to labor camps in Siberia. In an interview, Sepetys shared why she felt the world needed to learn about the Baltic deportations during Joseph Stalin's regime:
“It’s as if the voice of an entire generation was swallowed. . . . The story sort of went dark and now the people that still have ties to it are in their late 80s. A whisper is left and we’re just about to lose it.”
Sepetys has made a home of edgy historical fiction with Out of the Easy, the story of plucky, resourceful Josie Moraine. She's the daughter of a brothel prostitute, and she dreams of getting out of NOLA for good. However, a murder leaves Josie scrambling for someone to trust. Atmospheric, clever and sharp, Out of the Easy is the rich follow-up we all hoped Sepetys would deliver.
Dive into the first chapter, when Josie flashes back to her first day in New Orleans:
My mother's a prostitute. Not a filthy, streetwalking kind. She's actually quite pretty, fairly well spoken, and has lovely clothes. But she sleeps with men for money or gifts, and according to the dictionary, that makes her a prostitute.
She started working in 1940 when I was seven, the year we moved from Detroit to New Orleans. We took a cab from the train station straight to a fancy hotel on St. Charles Avenue. Mother met a man from Tuscaloosa in the lobby while having a drink. She introduced me as her niece and told the man she was delivering me to her sister. She winked at me constantly and whispered that she'd buy me a doll if I just played along and waited for her. I slept alone in the lobby that night, dreaming of my new doll. The next morning, Mother check us into our own big room with tall windows and small round soaps that smelled like lemon. She received a green velvet box with a strand of pearls from the man from Tuscaloosa.
"Josie, this town is going to treat us just fine," said Mother, standing topless in front of the mirror, admiring her new pearls.
Are you one of the many BookPage readers who look forward to Out of the Easy?
Also, be sure to check out our four favorites for Teen Read Week.