Tomboy by Liz Prince

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Labeled as a “tomboy” from a young age, Liz struggles to find a place in a hyper-gendered world. In this unique graphic novel memoir, Prince chronicles her battle with mainstream society in all its awkward glory. With each humiliating, painfully real episode, Liz sheds much needed insight into the consequences of forcing gender on individuals, as well as highlights the need for each person to determine his/her gender identity independently.

I LOVED this book! It’s a graphic novel, so that automatically catches my attention, and it’s a memoir. I love hearing people tell their stories! Liz’s book was particularly good because she talks about what it’s like to not fit in because of the way others perceive you. Because of her looks, people call Liz a boy. Liz doesn’t see anything wrong with being a boy (in fact she likes doing “boy” things), but she’s still made fun of because of it. In short, Liz isn’t allowed to be herself because the way she is isn’t “normal”. It was sad to read some of the parts of her story, but I feel like this is also an important book. Through Liz’s story, readers can really see what it’s like for someone who doesn’t fit into a predetermine role — whether gender or otherwise. This book really got me thinking about how I look at and treat other people, as well as the ridiculous standards society/the media places on gender.

Rating: 5/5 

*Maverick, 2014

For full analysis (including flags and SPOILERS) click here. 

Snow Falling in Spring: Coming of Age in China during the Cultural Revolution by Moying Li

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During the late 1960’s, the government of China attempted to propel its society into the modern century. Following this push to overtake “Westerners” was an uprising that called for Chinese to learn from its peasants, thus adopting a simpler way of life free from western ideas. During this time of political and cultural turmoil, Moying Li struggled to find an identity and secure herself an education. This memoir is an account of that turbulent time, as well as her never-ending fight to achieve her academic and intellectual potential.

Much like some of the other government-upheaval memoirs I’ve read, this one was pretty heavy. It’s heartbreaking to read about how Moying loses everything she loves during the Cultural Revolution, as well as her struggle to obtain basic rights such as freedom of speech and the right to read. If nothing else, Moying’s memoir shows us how lucky we are to live in such a different society (whether or not we always feel that way). If you’re a fan of memoir or are studying Chinese history, give this book a try.

Rating: 3.5/5

*IRA Young Adult Nonfiction Award, 2009

For full analysis (including flags and SPOILERS) click here.

Popular: Vintage Wisdom for a Modern Geek by Maya Van Wagenen

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After finding a teenage popularity guide, Maya decides to try out the advice during her 8th grade year in the hopes that it will bring her the social status she desires. However, her sudden shift into wearing pearls, hats, and sitting with strangers doesn’t quite have the effect Maya hoped. Instead, she finds herself even more of an outcast (if that’s possible). Popular is Maya’s chronicle of her year following 1950’s model, Betty Cornell’s, life advice, and the successes, failures, and changes in perspectives that advice brings.

I loved this book so much!! At first I wasn’t sure any book could top the other YALSA nonfiction nominees for 2015, but this one really was the best. What made it so great for me was the fact that Maya wrote it herself. I’m pretty tough on teen authors, mostly because I feel they are too young for their writing skills to really have developed (that takes serious time). Most also put their name on the book, but have actually used a ghostwriter for most of the writing — I don’t like that. Maya is different. At 15, she’s already an amazing author and I can’t wait to see what she does next. Popular really has it all — it’s heartfelt without being overly “mushy”, Maya learns valuable lessons without hitting you over the head with them or being “preachy”, and, above all, she gains entirely new perspectives. This book would be great for any teen to read (not just girls!); Maya does an incredible job of capturing what it’s like to survive being a teenager in a world obsessed with “popularity”. Go read it!

*Rating: 5/5

*YALSA Award for Nonfiction for Young Adults, Winner, 2015

For full analysis (including flags and SPOILERS) click here.

Meltdown: A Race Against Nuclear Disaster at Three Mile Island by Wilborn Hampton

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A first-hand witness to the near nuclear disaster at Three Mile Island in the 1970’s, reporter Wilborn Hampton recounts the suspense and fear of the United States as scientists desperately tried to keep a nuclear plant from reaching meltdown. Though many Americans supported the idea of nuclear power as a new form of energy, a meltdown of a nuclear reactor would mean death and radiation sickness for decades to come. As residents near the plant fled from the invisible danger, Hampton and his colleague stayed behind to witness and record the events, despite the fact that their lives could be in jeopardy.

This book was equally interesting and terrifying. I didn’t know much about the events at Three Mile Island until now, but what I learned was pretty scary. With more pressure on the world to look for alternative fuel sourcing, nuclear power continues to gain attention. However, as Hampton’s book shows, it can be a dangerous resource. Aside from Three Mile Island, the book also talks about the nuclear bombs dropped on Japan in WWII and the nuclear accident in Chernobyl. there’s a lot to think about when it comes to using nuclear energy. If you’re at all interested in environmental issues, science, or physics, this may be a good book for you. The author witnessed the events he writes about first-hand, which makes the action extremely exciting and suspenseful. Give it a read!

*Rating: 4/5

*IRA Young Adult Nonfiction Award, 2002

For full analysis (including flags and SPOILERS) click here.

Tasting the Sky: A Palestinian Childhood by Ibtisam Barakat

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Told in flashback form, Barakat’s childhood self narrates this memoir of her life during and after the Six-Day War of 1967. To add context for readers unfamiliar with Middle Eastern history, the author provides a historical note before the memoir which explains the region’s tumultuous history. Though just a young child, the author endures separation from her family, life in an orphanage, poverty, and other wartime hardships. Barakat’s decision to tell most of her story through her three to six-year-old eyes gives the piece a highly emotional resonance, sure to reach all readers.

A truly powerful piece that illustrates the fact that the Middle Eastern crises effects even the youngest members of society. Barakat’s use of her childhood-self narrator certainly made me feel sympathetic toward her, as her thoughts and fears came across exactly as a frightened child’s would. What’s more, this piece made me highly grateful for my own childhood, as it was not riddled with midnight flights from an army trying to slaughter my family, starvation, and uncertainty. However, as powerful as Barakat’s memoir is, I still feel that some aspects of it are underdeveloped. The purpose of the first section remained unclear to me, and I wanted more by the time the book ended. The lack of focus does not detract from the message of the book, but may leave you unsatisfied if you like clearer endings.

Rating: 3.5/5

*IRA Children’s and Young Adult’s Book Award for Young Adult–Nonfiction, 2008

For full analysis (including flags and SPOILERS) click here.

Laughing at My Nightmare by Shane Burcaw

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Diagnosed with spinal muscular atrophy at age two, Shane Burcaw has little memory of his life without a wheelchair. As his disease progresses, Shane must rely more heavily on those around him to survive, and he knows that his life will be severely shortened by his condition. But Shane refuses to let his situation dominate his thoughts and actions. Where many people would become depressed and bitter at the injustice of the disease, Shane responds with humor and goodwill. Though the odds are overwhelmingly against him, Shane starts his own nonprofit, Laughing at My Nightmare, INC., a movement dedicated to helping others meet adversity with positivity.

I LOVED this book! Shane is both hilarious and honest, presenting the struggles of his life while still being grateful for every experience. This is not your typical “sick lit” book. Shane doesn’t want your sympathy. His message is simple: you have no excuse not to live every day to its fullest; no excuse not to work hard to achieve your dreams and make life better for others. Though he would certainly have every right to complain about his circumstances in life (how many of us take for granted the “simple” ability to walk?), Shane instead decides to take what he has and run (or wheel) with it. Founder of a nonprofit, motivational speaker, significant social media personality, and now an accomplished author, Shane has accomplished more (with less!) than others may have thought possible. But Shane never lets the opinions of others limit his life choices. If you are interested in more of what Shane has to say, follow him on Twitter at @shaner528 and on Tumblr: http://laughingatmynightmare.tumblr.com/

*Rating: 5/5

*YALSA Award for Excellence in Nonfiction for Young Adults, Finalist, 2015

For full analysis (including flags and SPOILERS) click here.

Beyond Magenta: Transgender Teens Speak Out by Susan Kulkin

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Using beautiful photography and interviews from transgender teens, Kulkin offers this unique look into what it’s like to struggle with gender identity. All teens featured in the book have begun the process of expressing their true gender, each has faced a differing level of opposition and intolerance. As stories are presented using first-person narratives readers get a direct look at an issue which is becoming more prevalent in today’s society: pink and blue do not accurately reflect all gender identification. Gender is a spectrum and each individual must find his or her (or their) own place on it.

While I think the message of this book is very important, the presentation is a little off. The photography is truly gorgeous and definitely carries the message well, but the prose is choppy and doesn’t flow quite right. I believe the author wrote the sections based off interviews she conducted with her subjects, but the transfer from interview transcript to first-person narrative didn’t go as well as planned. I feel it would have been better for Kulkin to publish the transcripts or to have the subjects write their own sections. That said, I think it’s extremely valuable to hear from transgender teens, as this is a population that is often discriminated against and/or ignored. You don’t have to be transgender to appreciate this book; its unique insight offers much for all readers.

*Rating: 3/5

*TAYSHA, 2014

*For full analysis (including flags and SPOILERS) click here.