The Year We Fell From Space: Mental Health and Surrealism in Middle Grade

Liberty Johansen is going to change the way we look at the night sky. Most people see the old constellations, the things they’ve been told to see. But Liberty sees new patterns, pictures, and possibilities. She’s an exception.

Some other exceptions:

Her dad, who gave her the stars. Who moved out months ago and hasn’t talked to her since.

Her mom, who’s happier since he left, even though everyone thinks she should be sad and lonely.

And her sister, who won’t go outside their house.

Liberty feels like her whole world is falling from space. Can she map a new life for herself and her family before they spin too far out of reach?

So, first of all, thanks to my good friend (and podcast co-host) Tay for snagging an ARC of this book when she was at Book Expo America. I wasn’t sent this on like an official review though, so I’m going a little deeper with this write-up, and it’s impossible for me to be unabiased anyway when it comes to an Amy Sarig/A.S. King book. We’ve both been huge personal fans of Amy’s work since we were teens and have been lucky enough to meet her and/or chat with her on Twitter. This book was on my most anticipated fall middle grade releases. And while I generally enjoyed her first middle grade, Me and Marvin Gardens, The Year We Fell From Space seemed more up my alley.

I also think her books are rather underrated in the educator world, so I’m gonna continue to shout about them because I really loved her YA as a teen and her newest, Dig (which literally motivated Tay and I to start our podcast except we were bad at it then and never released that…yet), is a masterpiece about generational differences in outlooks of white supremacy and the patriarchy.

This book made me emotional, because like when I read other middle grade books, there are moments where I know more than the characters do because I’ve lived more life than they have and I know what they’re going through is even more painful because it’s the first time they’ve gone through it. Yes, I’m being a bit vague on purpose to avoid spoilers. But what’s pretty clear from the beginning is that this book deals with mental health, a topic we need to talk about everywhere more often and in more complex ways. A lot of middle grade books focus only on parents who are struggling, which is certainly important and needed, but a lot of times these things are genetic, and we often fail to realize that symptoms crop up at these younger ages. Suicide is the second leading cause of death for children ages 10-14. Let’s just say a younger character coming to terms with how she’s feeling inside strikes a chord with me.

Liberty is really into space and star maps, which coincides with her emotions. She couldn’t find anything in the stars from the time her father disappeared. At the beginning, there’s a meteor shower and an asteroid lands in her yard, so she keeps it, of course. And then…the asteroid starts talking to her.

This is a typical A.S. King bit of surrealism and absurdism. It’s easy to wonder if kids will “understand,” but not only are kids usually more imaginative, but I’ve been speculating that absurdism, surrealism, and existentialism is going to be a hallmark of today’s kids (Gen Z) because…**gestures at the world** Nonsense seems to make sense now. I think regardless of where you fall on the political spectrum, the world is pretty strange. The headlines and the little things that get focused on in cable news can feel ridiculous. I remember waking up from a nap one day to news alerts about a recently-announced Space Force, and I felt like I’d jumped to another, slightly more sci-fi reality. Kids these days are growing up with the usual kid traumas of divorced parents and depression, and then there’s also that.

I loved that Liberty was flawed and got to be unlikable sometimes, which is always welcome in young female characters because they’re human. She’s very adamant about not getting into a relationship, which I honestly relate to at that age (although I wasn’t dealing with divorced parents). There’s a bit of subtle commentary about Liberty’s neighbors, two boys about the same age as her and her little sister who are starting to internalize a certain kind of masculinity.

It’s hard to wrap up a not-review of a book, and I struggled with this loose format because I felt compelled to cover everything in depth, but honestly, I read this book a month ago. So we’re concluding here, after thoughts about placing this book in the context of middle-grade aged students and the world we live in. Some other middle grade books I like that deal with mental health are Some Kind of Happiness by Claire Legrand, Guts by Raina Telgemeier, and Finding Perfect by Ellie Swartz.

Culture Popped Open Podcast #3: Pose (Season 1)

Totally forgot to promote this over here again, but Tay and I have a new podcast episode up! This one’s about the first season of the TV show Pose (the second season was still airing when we recorded), and if you haven’t seen this fantastic, heartwarming, joyful, sometimes bizarre and funny show, head on over to Netflix to catch up with the first season that’s over there (see what our strategy was?). We went a little wild with academic theory connections here, which makes my nerd heart laugh, and overall I’m so glad we can make academia a little more accessible to the public.

Review: Redwood and Ponytail by K.A. Holt

  • Genre: Middle grade contemporary, novel-in-verse
  • Publisher: Chronicle Books
  • Publication date: October 1, 2019

Told in verse in two voices, with a chorus of fellow students, this is a story of two girls, opposites in many ways, who are drawn to each other; Kate appears to be a stereotypical cheerleader with a sleek ponytail and a perfectly polished persona, Tam is tall, athletic and frequently mistaken for a boy, but their deepening friendship inevitably changes and reveals them in ways they did not anticipate.

I received an eARC in exchange for an honest review. Thanks to Netgalley and Chronicle Books.

Queer girls are really (finally!) having a moment in middle grade literature, so naturally I was looking forward to K.A. Holt’s new middle grade book, and I devoured it in just a couple of days before its release. I haven’t read any of Holt’s books before, but I’d heard they were popular with upper elementary and middle schoolers, and I really appreciated her op-ed about how schools tried to censor her sexuality during her visits.

Redwood and Ponytail, like the rest of Holt’s books I believe, is a novel-in-verse. This one is told in alternating perspectives of Kate and Tam, the real names of the titular characters (Kate has a perfect cheerleader ponytail; Tam is tall like a redwood), and sometimes their poems are side-by-side when they’re individually having a similar crisis. It’s an intensely personal style that still manages to flesh out the characters and the world around them. One way this is done is by a Greek chorus-style group of kids named different spellings of “Alex” that really emphasizes middle school politics and the sense of social anxiety both Kate and Tam have about how they’re perceived.

I loved the relationships Kate and Tam have with adults in their life. Adults are such a big part of adolescence and yet they can often be underwritten in books, but that isn’t the case here. Tam’s mom is goofy but loving, and she also has great models in her old lesbian neighbors (and their pets), but Kate’s got other challenges and lacks these models. Her mom has the perfect plan for Kate to be cheerleading captain, even though she starts to really enjoy being the mascot. Kate also has an adult sister who doesn’t have a great relationship with their mother, only heightening the mother’s expectations of Kate. But the sister, Jill, actually turns out to be another adult figure for Kate to confide in. And ultimately, importantly, there is no tragedy.

I really appreciate that both Kate and Tam get to make mistakes and be unlikable sometimes. They’re kids going through a lot–of course they will! And that just added to the depth and humanity of these characters, as well as suspense. Before everything can work out, they have to confront their own internal issues first. It’s an emotional roller coaster that’s steeped in honesty, not manipulation or plot twists.

I look forward to recommending this book to others and getting this and some of Holt’s other books for my future students if I teach middle school!

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Most Anticipated Fall Middle Grade Releases! (Sept.-Nov.)

Middle grade was my first love, and the market just keeps getting more diverse and delightful. Fall is usually a season of big releases, and this year’s middle grade has got me very excited (and worried about my bank account).

Note: this is entirely my personal anticipated releases, and thus reflect my own reading habits and interests! I don’t read much sci-fi or fantasy right now, and I’m sure there’s books that just haven’t come across my radar. Let me know what you’re excited about in the comments!

Strange Birds: A Field Guide to Ruffling Feathers by Celia C. Pérez (Sept. 3)

I haven’t read Pérez’s first book yet, The First Rule of Punk, but I immediately got interested in her second book from the description alone: A middle grade book tackling activism! It’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot. Here’s some of the summary (from Goodreads):

“Ofelia Castillo (a budding journalist), Aster Douglas (a bookish foodie), and Cat Garcia (a rule-abiding birdwatcher) meet the kid behind the invite, Lane DiSanti, and it isn’t love at first sight. But they soon bond over a shared mission to get the Floras, their local Scouts, to ditch an outdated tradition. In their quest for justice, independence, and an unforgettable summer, the girls form their own troop and find something they didn’t know they needed: sisterhood.”

My Jasper June by Laurel Snyder (Sept. 3)

I can’t say I know much about Laurel Snyder or this book, but I’ve seen educators raving about it and it features close female friendship and grief. I’m always up for heartbreaking middle grade.

More to the Story by Hena Khan (Sept. 3)

This is a recent addition to the list because I saw a play version of Little Women, and now I want to see how the story is interpreted in different ways! This follows four Pakistani-American Muslim sisters, one of which (the Jo?) wants to be a journalist, and it looks adorable.

Guts by Raina Telgemeier (Sept. 10)

I confess the only Telgemeier I’ve read is Drama, but the wildly popular middle grade graphic novelist is back at it with Guts, which from what I understand is a memoir about anxiety. And I’m always here for more anxiety representation.

The Backstagers and the Final Curtain (Book 3) by Andy Mientus (Sept. 24)

Followers of this blog know I’ve loved the Backstagers novels, which I’ve been fortunate enough to be able to review the first and second of (and Andy Mientus is a Broadway fave of mine). I even read the comics recently, which were great. This looks like it might be the last, which makes me sort of sad, but I’m excited to see what magical theatre and real-world shenanigans the kids get up to this time.

Maybe He Just Likes You by Barbara Dee (Oct. 1)

A middle grade novel about sexual harassment and assault? Yes, please. Middle school is an unfortunately frequent time for sexual harassment between students, so this is a much-needed novel to have on hand. (I also might have made lesson plans last semester that would dovetail with this book perfectly…) I’ve enjoyed Barbara Dee’s writing in the past with Star-Crossed.

Redwood and Ponytail by K.A. Holt (Oct. 1)

I’ve got an ARC of this one I’m excited to get to soon! It’s a novel in verse about two girls falling for each other, what’s not to love?

I’ve also been really appreciating how Holt has been speaking up about how schools have been trying to censor her because of her sexuality, too.

The Best at It by Maulik Pancholy (Oct. 8)

An #ownvoices book about a gay Indian-American kid in Indiana? I need this! There’s very few (especially ownvoices) middle grade books about queer kids of color, it’s in Indiana (where I’m from/live/will teach and Pancholy spent time as a kid), and the main plot centers around Rahul trying to figure out what he’s really good at in life so he can focus on that because of middle school/growing up anxiety. I’m fully aware I’m 22 and have wanted to be a writer since I was 5, but….RELATABLE.

(I admit I haven’t watched 30 Rock, Pancholy’s most famous acting credit, but I’m glad he’s branching into middle grade!)

Friend or Fiction by Abby Cooper (Oct. 8)

Another one I’ve got an ARC of. I enjoyed Abby Cooper’s debut, Sticks and Stones, and I’ve been meaning to read more from her. This one follows a girl going through tough times who needs a friend so she writes one, and then she comes to life. Who hasn’t wanted to do that? But is it everything she wanted?

Hazel’s Theory of Evolution by Lisa Jenn Bigelow (Oct. 8)

This summer I read and loved Bigelow’s middle grade debut Drum Roll, Please, so I’m excited to see what she has up her sleeve. Plus, this is about a girl who is questioning her sexuality who accepts she is aromantic asexual (aroace), representation rarely seen. I’ve heard great things. And one of her moms is having a baby and she’s worried she’ll miscarry again. And it looks like she has a dog…

The Year We Fell From Space by Amy Sarig King (Oct. 15)

NEW A.S. KING BOOK ALERT! While I generally liked her first middle grade, I’m way more excited about this one. (Also, have you read her new YA Dig yet? You should. It’s my new favorite.) This looks like a quiet and beautiful book about parents splitting up, a sister with depression, and finding yourself in the midst of all of that. And…I might have an ARC of it…(thanks, Tay!)

The Forgotten Girl by India Hill Brown (Nov.5)

THIS COVER. But more importantly, THIS PREMISE. The Forgotten Girl is a spooky ghost story, yes, but it’s also about the history of racial segregation in graveyards and how Black graves were left forgotten–something I admit I didn’t know about. I’m excited to read this and I think kids would enjoy and learn from it.

What books are you looking forward to this fall?

“But your kids are gonna love it”: Introducing the 80s movies project!

That’s a quote from Back to the Future…a movie from the 80s I’ve actually seen.

We’ve been in an 80s pop-culture nostalgia moment for a while now, amplified by Stranger Things (a show I mostly enjoy, though not for that reason), endless remakes and reboots and sequels, Guardians of the Galaxy‘s soundtrack, and other 80-set properties like the new It, The Americans, and Pose (a show I deeply love). But the 80s also fascinate me, because as I get older, I’m noticing a split between the nostalgia pop culture side of the 80s/my parents’ own praises of the decade (not to mention its role in current politics–“Make America Great Again” often seems to mean “back to the Reagan era,” and Trump himself gained prominence in the decade) and what I’ve learned about the history myself. I studied the Cold War extensively in high school, I’ve done some deep dives into the economic effects and the War on Drugs through books and documentaries, and being queer and a theater geek I’ve researched and immersed in alternative 80s stories about the queer community and the AIDS crisis where there could be joy and love, but ultimately not a great time to live (Rent, Angels in America, Falsettos, The Normal Heart, and of course Pose).

The catch: I haven’t seen MOST of these movies. The ones on my tentative list–curated from Internet lists, box office charts, and lasting cultural impact through references in other movies, etc–that I have seen are: Back to the Future, Footloose, both Star Wars films, Airplane!, Die Hard, The Princess Bride, Dead Poet’s Society, The Black Cauldron, Clue, A Christmas Story, and National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. A weird assortment? Yes, absolutely. But the only one properly of my childhood and rewatched aplenty was Back to the Future, and in my defense I had seen the stage versions of The Little Mermaid and Little Shop of Horrors, as well as Star Trek Into Darkness which was basically a Wrath of Khan remake.

There are some acceptable reasons for this:

  1. My parents are a little older than most parents my age (their childhood and teen years lie mostly before the 80s…getting a PhD is a pretty good birth control method).
  2. My family and I tend to gravitate more to TV rather than movies. We talked about how we should get around to watching Indiana Jones or E.T. for a family movie night, but never followed up.
  3. I tend to avoid teen movies, romcoms, and action movies, which are overrepresented in the “stand-out” films from the decade.

I can make excuses all day, but look: fact is once I became more aware of what movies are out there and which ones I like to watch, I’d been pretty turned off of the decade. Perhaps it’s the Stranger Things or Ready Player One effect, but…it seemed like the pop culture nostalgia came from a lot of touchstones focusing on white boys and heterosexual romances, and meanwhile I knew there was so much more going on that just wasn’t represented.

Apparently I was (and am) an adolescent and young adult of the 80s nostalgia period, and that nostalgia seemed mostly focused on family-oriented and teen movies. Kids my age experienced the 80s through these films and their parents’ anecdotes. But what do these films actually say about the culture of the time, and how does that relate to its actual history? That’s what I want to explore with this. And, hopefully, how we can practice critical literacy (with or without nostalgia), learn from the past, and find a way to move artistically forward into creating new stories that build on the foundations and celebrate the margins.

Is this something I hope will be research and rough drafts for a bigger nonfiction project in the future? Yes. But since these movies are so popular and people are so amazed I haven’t seen most of them, it seemed like a fun idea to invite you all along on the ride.

Culture Popped Open Podcast #2: The Prom (The Musical)

I’m a little late with this, but Episode 2 of the podcast I co-host is out!! It’s all about The Prom, which is a Broadway musical (that just closed today…but there’s going to be a tour and a movie so it’s far from gone) set in Indiana about a girl who just wants to bring her girlfriend to prom. It sounds perfect for us, doesn’t it? Tay ended up seeing it twice and I’ve just listened to it, and we have complicated feelings, mostly about the prominence of the adults in the show and some of the comedy. It was an interesting discussion and we’re excited to cover more musicals soon!

Review: Me, Myself, And Him by Chris Tebbetts

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  • Genre: YA contemporary/speculative fiction
  • Publisher: Delacorte Press
  • Publication date: July 9, 2019

Perfect for fans of Becky Albertali’s Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda and A. S. King’s Still Life with Tornado, this story of parallel time lines cleverly explores how our choices can change and shape us–as well as the ways in which choices don’t change the core of our being at all.

When Chris Schweitzer takes a hit of whippets and passes out face first on the cement, his nose isn’t the only thing that changes forever. Instead of staying home with his friends for the last summer after high school, he’s shipped off to live with his famous physicist but royal jerk of a father to prove he can “play by the rules” before Dad will pay for college.

Or . . . not.

In an alternate time line, Chris’s parents remain blissfully ignorant about the accident, and life at home goes back to normal–until it doesn’t. A new spark between his two best (straight) friends quickly turns Chris into a (gay) third wheel, and even worse, the truth about the whippets incident starts to unravel. As his summer explodes into a million messy pieces, Chris wonders how else things might have gone. Is it possible to be jealous of another version of yourself in an alternate reality that doesn’t even exist?

With musings on fate, religion, parallel universes, and the best way to eat a cinnamon roll, Me Myself & Him examines how what we consider to be true is really just one part of the much (much) bigger picture.

Goodreads

Disclaimer: I recieved an eARC in exchange for an honest review. Thanks to Netgalley.

Me, Myself, & Him is a fairly quick read about a premise you’ve probably seen before: a major event happens (in this case, Chris does whippets) that could have very different possible outcomes (telling the truth and being forced to spend the summer with his dad, or lying and keeping things the same except for paranoia about the truth getting out), and then we see this play out in parallel storylines that dovetail nicely. (Or am I the only one who loves the Broadway musical If/Then?) This isn’t necessarily a criticism–it’s just the best way to explain the book. The flipping between storylines can be engaging as a reader–you are left on a cliffhanger and then have to read another chapter before you get a resolution, during which you reach another cliffhanger–or you can put the book aside and dread reading the storyline you aren’t enjoying as much. For me, I found the book short enough that after it got going I was quite invested in both storylines.

That said, the thing about the parallel universes is sometimes the parallels are a little too coincidental, and this book has plenty of wink-wink moments, which didn’t exactly add depth to the concept. Later on, though, it raised the stakes and got more imaginative. It became less cheesy and more beautiful. Everything came together well.

I wish I knew a little more about Chris’s life pre-incident, particularly with his friends, because at the beginning it was difficult to understand exactly why he felt his relationship with his best friends was changing–I didn’t know completely it was like before to fully empathize. Still, some of the secondary characters were more fleshed out than I expected, and I liked the theme of finding out more about people you think you know. It captured that in-between feeling between high school and college very well.

I also loved Chris’s voice. The formatting gets creative with charts and concept maps to illustrate his thought processes, which I found quite relatable and worked well even in the Kindle ARC formatting. Meanwhile, there’s a great therapy session, which I always welcome in YA. I also loved that Chris was just casually gay, and even though the romance in one of the parallel stories was convenient, it was sweet.

Overall, Me, Myself & Him might not live up to its comparison titles in my mind, but it was still an enjoyable read with plenty of interesting and creative moments I don’t see often in YA.

Pride Month (June) Wrap-Up!

Yes, I know this is a bit late, but I’ve been busy. (Have you subscribed to my knew podcast yet?? We recorded one on queer book recommendations that will be out soon-ish!) I didn’t read as much as I wanted to (see: my ambitious TBR) during Pride, but I read some pretty fantastic books! These aren’t going to be full reviews, because they each deserve something more in depth I just don’t have time to give them right now…but you should pick these up.

I Wish You All the Best by Mason Deaver

This is an #ownvoices story about a non-binary teen whose parents kick them out and they start a new stage of life living with their sister, laying low at a new school, going to therapy, and meeting a rather cute boy. I loved the mental health representation and the discussions about gender and sexuality are some of the most nuanced and current I’ve seen in YA—you can tell it was written by someone in the community. Also, the dialogue is fantastic! As tough as it could be at times, there were still many funny, hopeful, and sweet moments.

Like a Love Story by Abdi Nazemian

This was the perfect read for preparing for Season 2 of Pose. (If you aren’t watching Pose…get on that. Season 1 is on Netflix.) Set during 1989-1990 in New York City and following three alternating POVs , the story tackles sexuality, class, and race and has a lot to say about queer history and queer culture. There’s Reza, an Iranian newly upper-class boy (his mother remarried) who knows he’s gay but has no model of Iranian gays and is afraid of AIDS; Art, an upper-class rebel who is fiercely, openly gay and involved in ACT UP; and Judy, aspiring fashion designer, middle-class with social climbing parents, straight, who Art’s best friend, with a dear uncle who has AIDS. It’s beautiful.

The Mighty Heart of Sunny St. James by Ashley Herring Blake

This is totally a cheesy pun but…am I Sunny’s transplant donor? Because this book STOLE MY HEART. That aside…you know I love Ashley Herring Blake: I loved Ivy Aberdeens Letter to the World (her first middle grade) last year and her YA Girl Made of Stars in May. Sunny has such an honest and perfect 12-year-old voice, determined to pursue what she wants but also afraid of admitting, because of a bad experience, she thinks about kissing girls as well as boys. She’s also got a difficult relationship with her guardian and her recovering alcoholic mother who is now sober enough to come back into her life. And a new girl she meets changes everything. I’ll admit one of the reasons this book stood out to me compared to some other queer girl middle grades (including IVY) is a spoiler and the journey there sent me on an emotional roller coaster you deserve to experience for yourself.  But suffice to say this book is so, so important.

Red, White, and Royal Blue by Casey McQuinston

I think this book gets called “fluffy” and “cute” a lot, and I don’t read enough New Adult or Romance to tell you how it fits into those categories. But saying that does this book a disservice, because a lot of the plot does revolve around political intrigue and also contains some really tough outing situations. I thought this was all handled well, but be aware when you read. Anyway, yes, this was a great romance between the first son of the U.S. and the Prince of Wales with great secondary characters, character development, and LOTS of funny dialogue and realistic texting. I also really appreciated how Alex, the biracial and bisexual first son, points out how he’s a product of Texas and proud of it, and if we just take the elitist coastal view of giving up on these areas, we put many marginalized people at a disadvantage. It’s one of the reasons I want to stay and teach in Indiana.

Bonus: Feet of Clay by Terry Pratchett

So I admit I actually finished this book in July, but I was attempting to read this book in the background of the reads above. (Spoiler: It didn’t work.) I don’t think I’ve properly talked about Discworld here or much at all, but let’s just say it’s a loosely connected series (really made up of smaller series following different characters) set in the same world (that is, indeed, a disc on the back of a turtle on top of elephants I think?) that Terry Pratchett used as a vehicle for satire and social commentary about the present, famous fictional worlds, and more. Feet of Clay is the fourth book I’ve read in the series and the third in the City Watch series, following the reformation and integration among various species in the police of the city of Ankh-Morpork. The reason this was on my pride list is because one of my friends who adores Discworld was rereading it and really connected to the trans dwarf in it, so of course I had to pick it up. Yes, there is a trans dwarf, and while it’s certainly fantasy, it balances the satire well with pointing out how assigned gender is different from sex (all dwarves are gendered male, but of course they still reproduce). It’s always difficult to describe the twisty plot of a Discworld book, even if it’s fundamentally a mystery, but: (dwarf) bread was a murder weapon, the Patrician of the city was almost assassinated, and meanwhile there’s a golem rules by words who gets a taste of freedom.

ANNOUNCEMENT: I (co)-made a podcast!

My friend and fellow blogger Tay and I are constantly texting each other getting way too deep and enthusiastic about books, TV, musicals, and other such pop culture…so we decided to start a podcast to share our thoughts. It’s really something I’ve been wanting to do for a while and I’m so glad I’ve found the perfect partner in it, even if we’re still figuring out snags with technology.

Still, we’re both rather proud and getting better each recording session, so now that we have released our FIRST EPISODE (discussing Ben Platt’s debut album, Sing to Me Instead, which we parodied in the cringy meme above) and you can listen, download, subscribe, rate, review, and whatever else you do with podcasts. Links below! You can also check this out at any time on the Podcasts page of this site and follow us on Twitter @CPO_Podcast.

Also, if any of you would like to throw us $1 or more a month for support in exchange for fun perks and bonus commentary on Patreon, we would really appreciate it! It helps with our hosting fees, and we’re working on saving for a new mic!

Blog Tour: Tell Me How You Really Feel by Amina Mae Safi

  • Genre: YA contemporary/romcom
  • Publisher: Feiwel & Friends
  • Publication Date: June 11, 2019

Sana Khan is a cheerleader and a straight A student. She’s the classic (somewhat obnoxious) overachiever determined to win.

Rachel Recht is a wannabe director who’s obsesssed with movies and ready to make her own masterpiece. As she’s casting her senior film project, she knows she’s found the perfect lead – Sana.

There’s only one problem. Rachel hates Sana. Rachel was the first girl Sana ever asked out, but Rachel thought it was a cruel prank and has detested Sana ever since.

Told in alternative viewpoints and inspired by classic romantic comedies, this engaging and edgy YA novel follows two strongwilled young women falling for each other despite themselves

Disclaimer: As part of this blog tour, I read an ARC of this book. All opinions are my own. Thanks to the publisher.

First of all. THIS COVER. I understand that, unfortunately, it’s not an “under the radar” book that closeted kids can freely read without others scrutinizing them for it. But. Also. Blatant desire and joy between two girls?? Hardly seen before. Not to mention they’re both POC. I kept staring at the beauty.

This book is billed as a hate-to-love f/f romcom, and while I’m not much of a romcom connoisseur, I do think that description might be a little limiting. The tropes are definitely there, and when the story gets there, the attraction/desire is palpable. But there’s a little bit more than what you might expect from a romcom (though perhaps that says more about society’s biases than romcoms)–character development and broader discussions/messages.

I do think the writing style was a little clunky with too much description or information that bogged it down, especially early on (and the smaller-than-usual-for-YA print wasn’t helping), which didn’t contribute to the quick reading style I expected. Once I got into it, though, I found that it flowed better. I think it helps that the POV switches become more frequent when they’re together and understand each other better.

Sana and Rachel as characters first appear in clear types albeit with clear motivations, but then they become more fleshed out. These are two very ambitious and strong-willed students. Rachel the dedicated film student seems to hate Sana because she’s a cheerleader, but actually it turns out they have more of a history that reveals Rachel’s insecurities. Sana is basically Rory Gilmore (the dedication pretty much confirms this), but desires something a little different from the path she’s been on her whole life. They work together to move past the “girl hate” and have very cute and honest discussions. We get to know them as they get to know each other.

I appreciated how Mafi didn’t bother to explain Persian Culture 101 (the family celebrates Nowruz together, a Zoroastrian holiday, but otherwise Sana does not appear to be particularly religious), so the representation isn’t there to “teach” white readers. There’s a nice mention of Rachel’s Mexican Jewish community and how that is a resource to her, and Sana finds that her upper-class Persian family tends to ignore that she likes girls. Rachel and Sana discuss how they fit into Hollywood and films, and Sana’s mother has worked herself up from the bottom in the industry. So if you’re something looking to feel represented by this book: there isn’t that much discussion of identity, but it’s still woven throughout, and it doesn’t focus on pain or hardship.

Ultimately, I liked the themes that emerged from this story as a result of Sana and Rachel’s relationship. They discuss the differences between feelings and ambition and the importance of making their own choices in their live.s Feelings vs. ambition… Making choices. Writing your own story. This character development almost takes precedence over and compliments their relationship which I really liked. As a result the emotions of the relationship are light in a way, but at the same time deepened because we know so much about them? It’s different, but I liked it.

Check out the rest of the blog tour!