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!).

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.

Crazy Times

The Mad Girls of New York by Maya Rodale provides a peek into the male-dominated world during the late 1800s, with specific attention to Nellie Bly’s break into New York’s bustling newspaper industry.

Nellie Bly is escaping her hometown secret by doing everything in her power to secure a job as a reporter. She luckily meets a group of lady reporters (women’s pages), which lands her a chance to meet an editor who previously refused her. Her pitch is to go undercover in the infamous Blackwell’s insane asylum. This place is known for not letting any reporters in, and is spoken about for its deplorable conditions. Getting this story could be Nellie’s big break, but is it worth the risk?

Nellie manages to get herself committed. She sees firsthand the wretched treatment, food and conditions, while also building relationships with several of the women inside. Each “inmate” adds her own persona to the story. Meanwhile, Nellie has competition with a new male reporter who is trying to scoop her story while she is locked up. Nellie must remain hopeful that she will be released in time to share her viewpoint, and to make a difference for women.

There is an authentic, old-fashioned feel to the story, which combined with human interest and Bly’s bravery make this an interesting read.