I am happy to support the author of my recent read, Like Vanessa, written by Tami Charles.  Charles is a teacher turned writer, and I was fortunate to see her during an author panel at the JLG Day of Dialog in NYC.  Charles’s book is loosely based on her own feelings, experiences and various people in her life that helped her as a pageant contestant.

Vanessa is the main character in this book.  She is a tall, heavy-set, African American eighth grader who lives with her grandfather, her gay cousin and her dismissive father.  Her father has closed himself away from Vanessa since her mother disappeared when Vanessa was very young.  Vanessa’s mom was involved in pageants and Vanessa is enchanted with this life.  She is fully supported in her dream to join the pageant occurring at her middle school by her grandfather, her cousin and one of her teachers.  The story becomes a bit of a make-over tale as they all work to whip her into shape (physically, emotionally, etc) for the show.  Her dad forbids her to join which creates some family conflict, especially when he finds out she’s been involved in everything behind his back.

Through the story Vanessa encounters struggles with her best friend, and also faces mean girls who stoop very low to wreck Vanessa’s chances of participating in the pageant.

This story is about growing up, but mostly, it’s about accepting oneself .  While Vanessa feels proud that Vanessa Williams just became the first African-American Miss America, she doesn’t know if America will ever accept someone as dark skinned as she is in this role.  She struggles with her appearance through much of the story, but ends the story with love for herself.  She also reconciles with her dad and finds out what actually happened to her mom.  Vanessa overcame her personal doubts, family issues and other obstacles to fulfill her dream.  This should appeal to many teen girls.



The memoir Hey, Kiddo by Jarrett J. Krosoczka will hit home for anyone affected by a family member with an addiction.  This is Jarrett’s story of being raised by his grandparents because of his mother’s heroin addiction.  The story begins with some background into his grandparents’ lives and then his mom’s.  His mom began using when she was only thirteen.  She cleaned up while pregnant with Jarrett, but couldn’t fight her addiction once he was born and through his upbringing.  She served jail time and her relationship with him consisted of periodic visits and letters.  Jarrett didn’t meet his dad until he was graduating high school.

Jarrett’s love of art provided an outlet for him and got him through difficult times at home and school.  His grandparents had their own issues with drinking, but their love for him is apparent throughout his life.  They supported his art by sending him to classes, buying supplies for him to use at home, and helping his application process to art colleges.  I felt endeared to his grandparents (despite some not so great moments) because of his grandfather’s sense of humor and his grandmother’s crassness.   They went through a lot with their daughter as well.

This is a graphic novel with an incredible sense of detail.  Krosoczka used actual drawings that he saved from his childhood throughout the book.  He even used his grandmother’s favorite pineapple wallpaper between story sections.  This book is clearly a labor of love.  Jarrett came to terms with the mixed emotions he had for his mother and her choices and ensured that his life would be positive.  Two important points become evident in this story: the tenacity of the human spirit can push one through difficulty, and home is found where you are cared for and loved.

Souls of War

It is difficult for anyone to fully comprehend what it feels like to be in war unless they’ve been through it themselves.  To me, Alan Gratz’s book Grenade represents the turmoil, aggression, fear, survival instincts, and desperation of war quite well.  The story takes place in WWII Okinawa, where the Japanese army is hoping to slow down the advancement of the American soldiers into Japan.  The author’s afterword is worth a read to get more context too.

The plot shares perspectives between an American soldier named Ray, and Blood and Iron Student Corps soldier Hideki.  Both are young men thrust into this brutal war.  Hideki’s tale begins when his Student Corps are given two grenades; one is to kill as many Americans as possible and the other is to kill themselves.  Hideki’s grenades become a strong symbol throughout the story.  His first grenade is used (SPOILER AHEAD) and it takes Ray’s life.  He contemplates using the second at numerous points in the story, but ultimately places it down before he surrenders.  In doing so, he hopes to spare his life and his sister’s.  His sister is his only remaining living relative, and finding her was his final promise to his dad before he died.

Through the story, first Ray and then Hideki, collect pictures of fallen soldiers with their family members.  These represent the humanity lost from both sides.  The Okinawan people were very much in the middle of this battle.  They were used as sacrifices by the Japanese Army, and they became expendable to both sides fighting around them.  Hideki took note many times of the fear that makes man a killing machine.  It is kill or be killed.  The photos are an important reminder that underneath these “killers” are someone’s brother, father, and son.

Also enmeshed in the story is Okinawan culture.  Mubui is a term that to me is described as a person’s soul.  At first, Hideki has an ancestor’s mubui attached to him which makes him cowardly and afraid.  Throughout the story, Hideki conquers this cowardice by making strong choices for the survival of himself and of others.  Ray’s mubui also attaches to Hideki, and he must make amends with Ray’s death in order to free his soul.

While stories about war are not normally top picks for me, this one was so well written.  There is attention to detail and realism in the representation of both soldiers’ and civilians’ deaths.  My recent visit to the Scholastic Book Summit gave me the early copy of Grenade.  Before even receiving this book, two other people mentioned Gratz’s other book, Refugee.  This author is getting good buzz, and I will definitely be looking to read Refugee soon.


The book Nine, Ten: A September 11 Story by Nora Raleigh Baskin (another 2019 Intermediate Nutmeg nominee) opens by recalling the weather.  It was a beautiful day in which nobody could have possibly foreseen the tragedy about to occur.  We sometimes talk about the weather when we are not quite sure what is the right thing to say.  It is a fitting start to the horrors of 9/11; a day we will never forget.

Baskin does a phenomenal job of weaving together four very different characters.  Their stories begin on Sept. 9th at O’Hare Airport.  Sergio is an African American teen who is returning to NYC after receiving a special math award in Chicago.  He lives with his grandmother in NYC.  Naheed is a Middle Eastern Muslim girl from Columbus, Ohio.  She is with her family waiting to pick up her visiting aunt and uncle.  Aimee is transplanting  from Chicago to California due to her mother’s new job.  Will is a boy from Shanksville, Pennsylvania who is still healing from his father’s death one year ago.  His family is just returning from a trip to Disney that was donated by their town.

The book moves everyone to their individual homes, with their own situations to work through.  Timing is critical in that a couple of these characters almost lose loved ones to the events.  Sergio’s newly met mentor is a firefighter who rushed to the scene to help.  Aimee’s mom is scheduled to have a conference in the World Trade Center that very morning.  The author captures the fear, chaos and heavy sadness of this day.

The characters come together at Ground Zero to conclude the story.  The message that we are all connected is a powerful part of the book and one that touched me in the ending quite a bit (definitely some tears).

Grave Life

Everlasting Nora by by Marie Miranda Cruz was aptly titled for me because the time it took me to read this book seemed everlasting!  I don’t mean this in a mean way, but that it wasn’t a quick, light read.  I started this shortly after going to the JLG Day of Dialog and just finished it this past week.  It is a book rich in culture, family, friendship and the strength of the human spirit.

I think this book has a lot to offer, but might be a bit tough for some younger readers to get into without some background and enrichment along the way.  As an educator, I see the ways that someone could delve into all these important topics.  The author seems very conscious of teaching readers a lot of what she knows about Philippine culture.  Food and language are two strong components which would be fun to pair with actual samples, along with strong visuals of the area and people.

The story explores the struggles Nora must face with her mom after losing her dad in a house fire.   They are forced to make their home among the cities’ poorest folk in the cemetery shantytown right with her father’s tomb.  This would be difficult enough, but Nora’ mother has a gambling addiction which matches her up with some terrible people.  Nora, only a twelve-year-old girl, must stay strong through the ordeal that this creates and finds some true friendships along the way.

Overall, this is a well-written book with a lot to offer for a reader looking to learn.


13 Minutes by Sarah Pinborough is a memorable read.  I say that because I finished it almost two weeks ago and I still remember so much (unusual for me)!  Let me try to do this review in 13 sentences:

  1. Natasha is part of the most popular group in school coined the “Barbies.”
  2. Natasha almost drowns and suffers amnesia after the incident.
  3. Natasha questions her two “Barbie” friends; were they involved in her near-death accident?
  4. She reaches out to a former, more trustworthy friend (Becca) for help.
  5. Becca is willing to try being friendly with Natasha to help her.
  6. Becca helps Natasha by hinting to the other girls that Natasha is getting her memory of that night back.
  7. The girls are getting nervous and it seems they are guilty.
  8. Meanwhile, Becca’s current friend is feeling left out.
  9. Suddenly, another terrible accident occurs, and this time there’s a casualty.
  10. Everything twists in an unexpected way!
  11. I didn’t see it coming at all and I am not giving away spoilers on this one!
  12. Becca proves to be a smart, strong person.
  13. The ending is the only part that I just couldn’t figure out; it made no sense to me!!


Ready Player One by Ernest Cline transported me into another world.  The setting is a bleak future in which the majority of the population prefers spending time in the virtual reality world named Oasis.  This video game is free to users and is wildly popular, even giving its users the opportunity to shop, dress their avatars, socialize with other players in personally designed chat rooms, AND go to school!  Players can either acquire special powers or accessories through experience points.  They can teleport to locations within the Oasis universe.

There is SO much to this story.  The central plot deals with the main character, Wade, who lives in a towering trailer home with an aunt and other random family members.  He uses the Oasis to escape his miserable life.  When one of the Oasis’s founders dies, he leaves behind a massive treasure hunt to discover his multi-billion dollar fortune by following clues in his game.  Wade and a couple of his on-line friends are eager to win, but less savory characters are also after the prize.  These people will stop at nothing, including murder and cheating, to get the money.  Enmeshed with this is an unbelievable amount of 80s throwback references, including music, movies and TONS of video games.

Cline’s attention to detail in representing this world was amazing