Keep Fighting

Punching the Air by Ibi Zoboi and Yusef Salaam is another 2023 Nutmeg high school nominee.

This book is written in narrative verse which is fitting for main character Amal’s artistic and poetic nature. The story details Amal’s conviction and sentence to a juvenile detention facility following a racially charged fight which landed a white boy, Jeremy Mathis, in a coma. While Amal admits to throwing the first punch, he was not the cause of Jeremy’s hospitalization.

Amal uses lyrics and art to process his feelings of anger, sadness and love as he encounters people who either support or tear him down. The author’s note provides insight and parallels to the “Central Park jogger” case, in which coauthor Salaam was wrongfully convicted and charged along with four of his friends.

This story has a profound message of maintaining hope and strength in the midst of adversity.

Renaissance Man

More Than Just a Pretty Face by Syed M. Masood is another 2023 high school Nutmeg nominee.

Danyal may be extremely handsome, but he has several struggles to overcome. Danyal is known for being a low-achieving student, so it is a major problem when he is chosen to represent his history class for the upcoming Renaissance Man competition. In this competition he will need to present a final essay on his teacher’s topic of choice- Winston Churchill. He must decide whether to tell the truth about Churchill’s part in the Bengal Famine. Doing so may jeopardize whether he passes the class, and also will prevent his lifelong crush, Kaval, from seeing him as a marriage match.

Another conflict is his choice to go against his Muslim upbringing by getting friendly with a marriage prospect who was involved in a sex tape. There is also Danyal’s love of cooking, which is considered a poor future prospect by both his dad and his crush, Kaval.

Danyal is able to navigate all these troubles with support from very different friendships, and with his own heart and mind’s guidance. East Indian religion, history and culture are important parts of this story. It also includes topics such as being true to oneself, forgiveness and standing up for what is right.

Theory of Good and Evil

Notes on an Execution by Danya Kukafka counts down convicted killer Ansel Packer’s final hours before his execution, while also alternating among various female characters.

In the countdown, Ansel’s describes his theory on human nature, the reason for his kills, and how he was able to finally find peace within himself. Unfortunately, these latter events occur too late for him and for his victims. Now he must come to terms with his actions.

There are three women who complete Ansel’s story. All contribute different views and background about his character. Lavender is his mother, who spent four years enduring a controlling, abusive relationship before leaving her husband and two sons behind. Saffy first saw some of his disturbing behavior while sharing a foster placement together. Now she is a detective and Ansel is on her radar again. And finally there is Hazel, twin sister of Ansel’s wife Jenny.

This was a highly entertaining read that had me thinking deeply about human nature and all of the little events and choices that shape us.

Being American

We Are Not Free by Traci Chee is an amazingly well-written compilation of fourteen Japanese American teenagers’ experiences during WW2. The story is historical fiction beginning right after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, progressing through their imprisonment in camps, service in war (for some), and release to an uncertain future three years later.

The characters are all from Japantown, San Francisco, and they all connect as either family or friends. Each character’s personality is so different, yet each imparts the horrifying hostility during this time and its impact on families.

I appreciated how the story began and ended from the same character’s point of view along with one of his drawings at the end which tied so much together. There are other significant touches too, such as the inclusion of news clippings and artifacts of the time period, and the lyrical style showing one character’s conflict between claiming loyalty to Japan or America.

The sign of a well-written story is when you can’t stop yourself from thinking about all of its elements, even down to the author’s note at the end. This story definitely accomplished this for me, and is one that I will not forget.

Human Being

Still Life with Tornado by A.S. King is a beautifully expressive novel. It approaches depression, mental illness, marital issues and abuse with a sensitive touch.

Sarah decides to stop going to school. The reason for her abrupt decision is slowly released, and it’s much deeper than the school bullying incident which acted as a catalyst. Sarah has been settling into a depressive state since she was ten. Spoilers are ahead.

Sarah interacts with herself at various ages: ten, twenty three and forty to name a few. Each age imparts some hidden truth, but ten is most important. This is when she first witnessed her father’s physical abuse of her older brother. She hasn’t had contact with her brother since.

Sarah begins slowly confronting her various selves as she wanders her town, spends time “in school” at an abandoned building, follows a homeless artist and interacts with her parents. Ultimately she is able to reach out to her estranged brother and speak about her pain. Gradually, she is able to return to one of her true loves, art, and find comfort with her brother and mother.

This is often a heavy read that reveals the powerful depth of human emotion.

Soccer Star

Furia by Yamile Saied Méndez is about overcoming obstacles to achieve one’s dreams. It is also a 2023 high school Nutmeg nominee.

In Argentina, women are disregarded and young girls go missing without much attention. All the attention and praise seems to go to the men, especially those earning a name for themselves in soccer. This includes Camila’s brother and her childhood crush Diego. But Camila is a very good soccer player too, nicknamed Furia. She wants to pave her own way to success and move to the States to play soccer.

Camila’s team won their division and now she has a chance to get attention in the finals tournament. Camila will need to work harder than ever to get ready for the tournament, while also dealing with family conflict because of her abusive father, and her rekindled relationship with Diego, who is now a Juventus player.

This story includes important ideas about culture and empowerment.

Special Friends

The Accomplice by Lisa Lutz is first and foremost a story about friendship with a couple of murder mysteries thrown in.

Owen and Luna have been best friends since college. This friendship remained through various family dynamics, and through Owen’s ex-girlfriend’s murder investigation.

As adults, they encounter police scrutiny once again when Luna finds her friend and Owen’s wife murdered. This new investigation brings up additional details and secrets from their pasts.

Is their friendship strong enough to endure?

Treading Water

Nightcrawling by Leila Mottley is the raw story of Kiara’s life on the streets in Oakland.

Seventeen-year-old Kiara and her older brother Marcus have been on their own ever since their dad’s death followed by their mom’s incarceration. Marcus becomes determined to become a music star, and Kiara finds herself on her own to pay rent. She makes a dangerous decision to make her money in the streets, and in doing so gets caught up in a terrifying sex trafficking ring within the police department. Through all of this, she also takes on the responsibility of caring for her young neighbor whose mom is a neglectful drug addict.

Each scene and character is conveyed with a combination of straightforward reality, desperation, and strength in the midst of life’s brutal challenges. I couldn’t stop reading this book in hope for justice and a positive ending for Kiara and those she cared about.

Falling in Love

All Eyes On Her by L.E. Flynn is a young adult crime mystery.

Tabby is a beautiful, manipulative high school senior who gains major media attention after her college boyfriend Mark dies from a high fall during a hike together.

Chapters build the story of their relationship and the crime details by alternating points of view among Tabby’s sister, her best friend Elle, Tabby’s texts to Mark, Mark’s best friend Keegan, and media reports. Yeah- there’s lots to keep track of, but enough repetition to keep it straight. Ultimately readers need to decide for themselves whether they believe Tabby did it or not.

Time to Unpack

What I Carry by Jennifer Longo is yet another 2023 high school Nutmeg nominee (I’m almost halfway through them!). This was a moving, uplifting read about Muir’s final year in foster care before she ages out.

She has learned how to follow the rules and has kept herself from getting too attached by switching families regularly. Now she just needs to continue this pattern in one last placement before she turns eighteen. However, she begins building important relationships with a friend, boyfriend and her foster mother. Will she be able to turn away from everyone at the end of the year?

Through the chapters is a meaningful “unpacking” of items that represent different households Muir has lived in. Readers learn about her past, including her profound love for nature (due in part to her namesake John Muir), while also partaking in her new relationships.

I appreciated that this book handled important topic areas without explicit content. It was an uplifting book and reminded me of a grown up version of Pictures of Hollis Woods (a book I read with 7th graders years ago!).