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Play the Game

Charlene Allen. HarperCollins/Tegen, $17.99 (304p) ISBN 978-0-06-321279-4

Months after Black Brooklyn teenager Ed Hennessey is killed, Philip Singer—the white man who shot him and was not prosecuted—is found dead outside the same restaurant where the event occurred. The incident sparks a new wave of trauma and anger within the community, especially for Ed’s friends, Jack and VZ, both 17, who are still reeling from his death. When the police target Jack as the most likely suspect in Singer’s murder, he goes on the run, leaving VZ and his best friend, Chela, to clear Jack’s name. Meanwhile, VZ, with the aid of his crush and skilled coder Diamond, attempts to finish debugging the puzzle adventure game Ed was working on, planning to submit it to a gaming contest to honor his memory. As the game’s challenges and riddles begin inexplicably tying into VZ’s real-life investigation, he’s forced to reckon with his previously unexplored feelings of grief while desperately seeking closure and justice. Informed by present-day events surrounding structural racism and oppression, and the author’s experience as a restorative justice advocate, Allen compassionately examines themes of community and criminal justice reform in this affecting, noirish debut. Ages 13–up. Agent: Elizabeth Bewley, Sterling Lord Literistic. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 11/25/2022 | Details & Permalink

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Live Your Best Lie (Like Me Block You #1)

Jessie Weaver. Disney-Hyperion/de la Cruz, $17.99 (368p) ISBN 978-1-368-07836-8

An L.A. Halloween murder mystery party turns into a real murder when 16-year-old social media influencer Summer Cartwright is found dead with #TOXIC written on her face. While Summer’s biggest fan, Cora Pruitt; ex-boyfriend, Adam Mahmoud; former roommate, Laney Miyamoto; rival influencer, Avalon James; and best friend, Grace Godwin, are shocked by her death, they’re also privately relieved, as Summer’s upcoming high-profile, tell-all memoir threatened to reveal each teen’s biggest secret. But when Summer’s five million followers begin turning against the teens, labeling them as potential killers, the group joins forces to solve the crime and clear their names before public opinion alters the course of their lives forever. Employing an eye-opening combination of Summer’s social media posts, police reports, and flashbacks, all told via alternating, realistic teen perspectives, Weaver expertly crafts a serpentine plot that moves without tarrying from one suspect to the next. Rapid-fire, wickedly biting dialogue and an almost suffocating air of uncertainty and stratagem cultivate a gossipy debut, which capitalizes on present-day social media obsession and one’s ability to take control of their own narrative. Character descriptions suggest racial diversity throughout. Ages 12–up. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 11/25/2022 | Details & Permalink

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Highly Suspicious and Unfairly Cute

Talia Hibbert. Joy Revolution, $19.99 (336p) ISBN 978-0-593-48235-3

Hibbert (the Brown Sisters series) imbues this enemies-to-lovers romance with whip-smart banter, British sensibilities, and energetic verve. Black high school student and aspiring lawyer Celine Bangura is determined to land a spot in the Breakspeare Enrichment survival course program, win one of the offered full-ride university scholarships, and rub her success in her estranged father’s face. When a squabble with charming Black footballer and former best friend Bradly Graeme leads to the pair attending the program’s info session together, Brad is persuaded to apply, hoping a scholarship can help mitigate his own financial woes. Upon acceptance, the duo participate in Breakspeare’s wilderness-intensive exercises, and realize they must put their past feelings aside and rely on each other if they hope to compete with the other ruthless scholarship-hopefuls. As they rekindle their former friendship and grow close romantically, Celine wrestles with her emotionally avoidant tendencies while Brad manages his obsessive-compulsive disorder amid the program’s competitive, high-stress events. With dialogue that juggles both laugh-out-loud humor and pull-at-the-heartstrings vulnerability amid an outdoorsy premise, Hibbert attentively captures Celine’s feelings of abandonment and resentment, and Brad’s mental health struggles while striking a quintessential balance of romance and comedy in this lively romp. Front matter includes a glossary of British slang and terms. Ages 12–up. Agent: Courtney Miller-Callihan, Handspun Literary. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 11/25/2022 | Details & Permalink

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Cool. Awkward. Black.

Edited by Karen Strong. Viking, $18.99 (336p) ISBN 978-0-593-52509-8

This fandom-focused, genre-spanning anthology edited by Strong (Eden’s Everdark) is a love letter to geek culture, populated by Black teens who are unafraid to indulge in their interests, whether anime, cosplay, or LARPing, among others. In Amanda Joy’s “The Panel Shows the Girl,” a queer high schooler battles extreme loneliness until her anime drawings literally come to life. Roseanne A. Brown’s “Wolf Tracks” follows Daniel Martins, who must contend with a family curse that turns him into a wolf—“claws, fangs, the whole nine yards”—upon falling in love. And in “The Hero’s Journey” by Tochi Onyebuchi, a boy who uses his writing to sort through his own feelings struggles with a bout of writer’s block. Featuring 18 authors, including Elise Bryant, Tracy Deonn, Kwame Mbalia, and Ibi Zoboi, these stories—several of which are open-ended, hinting at larger worlds—proudly foreground geek culture. Utilizing varying literary genres including fairy tales, fantasy, realistic contemporary, and science fiction, the creators deftly interrogate issues of racism, homophobia and transphobia, and intimate partner violence, and depict everyday joys and pains of varied Black experiences. Ages 12–up. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 11/25/2022 | Details & Permalink

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Blood Circus

Camila Victoire. Blackstone, $19.99 (350p) ISBN 979-8-2008-1608-8

Debut author Victoire tackles themes of environmentalism and prejudice via a bone-chilling plot in this dystopian fantasy. Sixteen-year-old adopted Ava Sparrow lives inside the fenced area of Red River, a settlement in a future Canada, with other human survivors following an ecological and near-societal collapse almost a millennium prior. Though she’s safe from terrifying humanoid beasts known as Klujns, she struggles to evade bullies and prepare for the hostile winter approaching. Having grown up fearing the Klujns, whom her people hunt for their crystal claws and protein-rich meat, she’s especially frightened when she’s captured by a group of Klujn alongside 13 other teen girls and forced to fight to the death in a macabre ritual known as the Blood Race. While captive, the girls realize that the beasts seem more human than their respective settlements have led them to believe. Weighty plot points involving murder and governmental corruption are touched on only lightly, but vividly wrought imagery, steady pacing, edge-of-the-seat action, and a gutsy cast accompany a harrowing, Hunger Games–level atmosphere, making for a thrilling adventure. Ava reads as white; supporting characters are intersectionally diverse. Ages 12–17. Agent: Mollie Glick and Abby Walters, CAA. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 11/25/2022 | Details & Permalink

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The Windeby Puzzle: History and Story

Lois Lowry, illus. by Jonathan Stroh. Clarion, $16.99 (224p) ISBN 978-0-358672-50-0

Alternating via five sections between conversational history and evocative storytelling, Newbery Medalist Lowry creates a contemplative narrative around an Iron Age bog body found in northern Germany. A factual introduction describes the 1952 discovery of the 2,000-year-old body, Lowry’s fascination with the “small-in-stature, middle school–age blond person” called the Windeby Girl, and the author’s assembling known facts into a narrative to “solve the puzzle” of the figure’s story. The first resultant telling centers 13-year-old Estrild, who longs to become the first female warrior in her Iron Age community and secretly practices warrior chants with her friend, budding naturalist Varick. A subsequent historical section reveals a recently discovered detail about the body, leading to a second fictional reimagining of the story involving Varick. In this brief, evocative work that examinines the past through a meta lens, a vividly sketched portrayal emphasizes the community’s rigid gender roles and rhythms of daily life amid the natural world. Occasional art by Stroh links the sections with a recurring motif. Includes a bibliography, discussion questions, and b&w photographs. Ages 10–up. Agent: Emily van Beek, Folio Literary. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 11/25/2022 | Details & Permalink

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Hands

Torrey Maldonado. Penguin/Paulsen, $16.99 (144p) ISBN 978-0-593-32379-3

With help from his friend and neighbor Pete, 12-year-old Trev begins learning how to box, hoping to use these skills to defend his mother and sisters from his jealous and violent stepfather, who maintains he’s the “only man in the house” and is returning home from two years in jail for physically abusing Trev’s mom. Trev also finds solace in artistic pursuits, particularly his love of illustrating superheroes, after whom he models his athletic goals: he also often pushes himself to his limits while training to become a competent boxer like his grandfather. This training starts impacting Trev’s studies and his relationship with his community, however: after he smashes a window with his bare hands, scaring a younger neighbor, he reckons with the consequences of unchecked emotions surrounding his newfound physical strength and stemming from internalized toxic masculinity. Trev navigates his trauma by seeking advice from older men in his neighborhood and adapts to what he believes is positive masculinity. This intense page-turner by Maldonado (What Lane?) perceptively explores the complexities of one Black tween’s experience facing difficult situations, the effect that violence has on one family’s future, and the value of community when working through hardship. Ages 10–up. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 11/25/2022 | Details & Permalink

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Trashed!

Martha Freeman. S&S/Wiseman, $17.99 (304p) ISBN 978-1-6659-0535-0

Eleven-year-old Arthur Popper likes his comfortable, familiar life living above his family’s thrift store, Universal Trash, in Boulder, Colo. But his quotidian existence is derailed when a funeral for the pet mouse of younger sister Ramona brings about an accidental rodent haunting. Supernatural conundrums deepen when a chipped teacup with a puzzling past, previously thought stolen, suddenly resurfaces in the shop. The ghost mouse, named Watson, takes up residence inside the teacup and persuades Arthur to unravel the mystery behind the item’s appearance. Doing so uncovers an even larger enigma at the store, with far-reaching consequences that prompt him to begin seeing his neighbors, friends, and family in a new light. A subplot tackling issues of prejudice and racism raises vital questions about but fails to explore the societal forces that perpetuate systemic racism. Freeman (Noah McNichol and the Backstage Ghost) uses pastoral, omniscient third-person narration to drive the overarching mystery. Nestled between hunting for clues and interviewing witnesses is a portrait of a busy, lovingly rambunctious family trying to run a beloved thrift store while navigating myriad internal conflicts and engaging in thought-provoking personal growth. Arthur reads as white. Ages 8–12. Agent: Jennifer Mattson. Andrea Brown Literary. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 11/25/2022 | Details & Permalink

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The Infinite Questions of Dottie Bing

Molly B. Burnham, illus. by Fanny Liem. Dial, $17.99 (208p) ISBN 978-0-593-40666-3

Ten-year-old Dottie Bing processes grief surrounding her grandmother Ima’s death in this earnest novel by Burnham (the Teddy Mars series). Following Ima’s passing, Dottie’s mission of building a tree house to honor her (“She told me how she was sure that if there was a tree house to play in, she would have been the happiest kid in the world,” Dottie says) is interrupted by her grandfather Walter’s sudden decision to stay with Dottie and her parents. Dottie feels that Walter’s grief is something she needs to fix, believing that if she can make him happy, “everything will be perfect.” She endeavors to figure out a new plan with her trans friend Sam, who’s working through complicated feelings regarding his mother’s pregnancy, and cantankerous neighbor Miles, who’s navigating uncertainty amid his parents’ divorce. Tender b&w illustrations by Liem artfully depict the youths’ adventures. As Dottie learns more about her grandfather and works through her own feelings of loss—which manifest as metaphorical “animals” churning in her stomach—she maintains a curious, constantly questioning attitude. Through Dottie’s evolving, conciliatory relationship with grief-stricken Walter, Burnham conjures a warm and compassionate tale about myriad paths toward healing. Characters read as white. Ages 8–12. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 11/25/2022 | Details & Permalink

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Dragonboy (Heroes of Havensong #1)

Megan Reyes. Labyrinth Road, $17.99 (416p) ISBN 978-0-593-48237-7

In Reyes’s ambitious fantasy debut, a series opener, four children must learn to trust one another after self-aware magic and gold threads of destiny bring them together to save the world. Blue, a dragon who was once a stable boy turned king, and his Rider, River, who never wanted to be bonded to a dragon, awaken from a decade-long hibernation to discover that the world is on the brink of war. Thirteen-year-old, tawny-skinned Shenli, in service to a cruel chancellor, balances his desire to protect his family with his yearning to rebel against corrupt royalty. According to her seer grandmother’s prophecy, brown-skinned 13-year-old Wren, hailing from a mysterious island of long-lived people, will bring all four tweens together; to do so, she must defy her people’s strictest laws while attempting to rein in her own erratic magic. In this complexly plotted adventure told in a nonlinear chronology, Reyes slowly weaves together seemingly disparate narrative threads—some of which take place over the course of several years—and often hints at long-hidden secrets tied to deeper worldbuilding, sowing excitement for the planned sequel. Character descriptions imply racial diversity throughout. Ages 8–12. Agent: Joanna Volpe, New Leaf Literary and Media. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 11/25/2022 | Details & Permalink

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