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.

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.

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!).

Camp Week

Flamer by Mike Curato is a coming of age graphic novel. It is another 2023 high school Nutmeg nominee.

The story is set in 1995 during one week of boy scout camp. Aiden is fourteen years old, and is about to change to the public high school after years in a parochial school. At school, Aiden was bullied for behaving differently, and for being biracial. Camp is similar, although he does have a few friends, and a devoted pen pal.

During the week, Aiden realizes that he is attracted to his bunkmate Elias. Situations at camp force him to face his bullies, his feelings for Elias and an attempt to harm himself. He learns lessons about being yourself and never giving up.

Note: There are a few scenes involving either sexual language or masturbation.

All the Colors

The Astonishing Color of After by Emily X.R. Pan explores the aftermath of a loved one’s suicide. This is a 2023 high school Nutmeg nominee.

Leigh’s mother had been showing signs of depression for quite a while. After her suicide, Leigh feels intense sadness and guilt. Her mother visits her as a red bird, leaving behind a message to remember along with items from the past. This sets Leigh on a course to Taiwan, where she meets her mother’s parents for the first time.

Leigh experiences important places and people from her mother’s past, some in reality and some through dream-like visions. All help her to better understand her mother and father, while also allowing her to confront her own feelings. Leigh’s artwork and relationships are important pieces of the story as well.

This is an artistic look at love, loss, mental illness, culture and family.

Staying Strong

Fire Keeper’s Daughter by Angeline Boulley is one of my favorites so far this summer.

Daunis Fontaine is Native American but has never been officially accepted in her father’s Ojibwe tribe due to circumstances surrounding her birth. She still maintains close relationships with her father’s sister and family traditions/culture.  Learning the cultural traditions surrounding death, celebration, and prayer throughout this book were deeply interesting.

Due to her uncle’s death and her grandmother’s illness, Daunis decides to attend college close to home instead of away.  This decision allows her to meet a handsome newcomer, Jamie, who will be playing on her brother’s hockey team. 

Jamie isn’t just another player and his uncle isn’t just the new teacher in town. Both are undercover investigators of meth-x, a drug that is turning up in Native and hockey communities.  Daunis becomes a confidential informant once her best friend is killed.  Lines become blurred between family, friends and a love interest, making this a riveting story that my little summary does no justice to.  

Daunis is a remarkable character- strong, intelligent and fiercely loyal to friends and family. The characters, gripping plot and culture make this an unforgettable read.   

Triple Threat

You’ll Be the Death of Me by Karen M. McManus combines all the elements of great teen movies (drama, love, humor) added to the main plot of a murder mystery.

After drifting apart after middle school, Ivy, Mateo and Cal decide to recreate one of their “best days ever” by skipping a day of school their senior year. The day starts going downhill quickly once they cross paths with a dead classmate. Ivy is considered a possible suspect, which sets them on the investigative trail. Their search has them questioning classmates, family and teachers who may have been involved in a drug deal gone terribly wrong.

Chapters alternate among each friend, giving their back story and adding depth to the already intense situation.