Posted in Fiction, Realistic Fiction, Teen, Young Adult/New Adult

Hearts Unbroken is strong, smart #ownvoices YA

Hearts Unbroken, by Cynthia Leitich Smith, (Oct. 2018, Candlewick), $17.99, ISBN: 9780763681142

Ages 13+

High school senior dumps her jock boyfriend when he makes disparaging comments about Natives in front of her. You see, she’s Native: Creek nation – Muscogee – to be precise. She shakes off his badmouthing and focuses on the school year: she’s on the school newspaper staff and she’s paired with Joey Kairouz, the new photojournalist. Her brother, Hughie, is a new freshman at the same school, too, and lands a coveted spot in the school play: he’s going to be the Tin Man in the school production of The Wizard of Oz. Not every parent is thrilled with the diverse casting, though: a group calling themselves Parents Against Revisionist Theater starts lodging complaints and pressuring local businesses against supporting the play. Hughie and other actors of color start receiving anonymous hate mail. Battle lines are drawn throughout the student body and faculty. Joey and Louise try navigating a relationship while they work on the paper together, but Louise’s worries about “dating while Native” may cause more hurt to Joey than she expects.

Hearts Unbroken is just consuming. I didn’t want to put it down until I finished it. There are such rich, realistic characters, and Louise is just brilliant. She’s no simpering heroine – the book starts with her breaking up with her boyfriend for disparaging Natives, and she never looks back. Cynthia Leitich Smith creates such textured, layered characters and educates readers on Native life and language, giving me an even deeper respect for #ownvoices work than I already had. She gives Louise and her family challenges both common and unique: Louise has a bad breakup; she is self-absorbed and isn’t a mindful friend when her friend Shelby needs her; she works through her feelings about sex and when she will be ready. Louise and her family also deal with racism and whitewashing among their own neighbors and classmates. Hughie agonizes over discovering that L. Frank Baum, who created the wonderful world of Oz, so rich in its own diversity, was a virulent racist who published pro-genocide editorials surrounding the death of Sitting Bull and the massacre at Wounded Knee. It’s heartbreaking and infuriating to read, but it’s real, and she transfers this ache and this anger to her characters, giving them big decisions to make on their own while educating readers, too.

Cynthia Leitich Smith, who, like Louise is a citizen of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, provides a Mvskoke/English Glossary to help readers with some of the phrases that appear in the book, and an author’s note that talks about parallels between Louise and herself, and the writing of Hearts Unbroken. Dr. Debbie Reese has a fantastic write-up of Hearts Unbroken on her page, American Indians in Children’s Literature.

An absolute must-add to your YA collections. Read a sample chapter and the author’s note on the Candlewick page.
Posted in Fiction, Fiction, Humor, Middle Grade, Middle School, Puberty, Realistic Fiction, Tween Reads

Realistic Fiction that works: Still a Work in Progress

still-a-work-in-progressStill a Work in Progress, by Jo Knowles, (Aug. 2016, Candlewick Press), $16.99, ISBN: 9780763672171

Recommended for ages 9-13

Noah’s trying to make it through seventh grade: his friends are weirding out, girls are weird, and his home life… don’t ask. His older sister, Emma, has been acting strange again. Her increasingly difficult food demands are driving Noah crazy – he really doesn’t like seitan; he just wants a burger – and she’s doing things like wearing lots of bulky clothing layers, moving her food around the plate without actually taking a bite, and arguing with everyone. Just like she did when The Thing They Don’t Talk About began last time. Noah’s only solace these days seems to be in the art room, where he can express himself without stress.

Still a Work in Progress is one of those great middle grade books that tackles tough issues within the framework of every day life: meaning, there’s a lot of laughter, a lot of confusion, and some pain. Overall, the book, narrated by Noah, is hilarious. The dialogue between him and his friends sounds like things I’d overhear my kids talking and arguing about, and Jo Knowles really captures Noah’s inner dialogue beautifully: the mixture of anger and concern for his sister, in particular. Ms. Knowles gives readers a realistic novel that brings together school life, home life, friend life (any kid will tell you friends are a separate sphere), and the frustration of moving through these areas while in the pull of something much, much bigger than you. I also loved the real star of the book: a hairless cat named Curly, who lives at the school and hangs out with the kids (Curly’s on the cover of the book, so you know this is an important cat.)

Great middle grade novel for realistic fiction readers. There’s always a call for good, realistic fiction in my library, so this one will get a good booktalk. Check out Jo Knowles’ author website for a link to the book’s Pinterest page and downloadable discussion guide.

Want more? Here’s Jo Knowles talking about the inspiration behind Still a Work in Progress.