When the Moon Was Ours by Anna-Marie McLemore

McLemore, Anna-Marie. When the Moon Was Ours. 273 p. St. Martin’s Griffin, 2016. ISBN 978125005869.

When the Moon Was Ours Book Cover

Since the day the town emptied the rusted water tower and found Miel huddled in the wet brush, she and Samir have been inseparable. In their small town, both of them are outsiders—a girl born from water and a boy “whose family had come from somewhere else.” Sam does not question Miel’s mysterious past or how she grows roses from her wrist. He paints her moons and hangs them in trees throughout town to light her way. Miel has seen more of Sam than he will show to anyone else. The Bonner sisters are outsiders too, but unlike Miel and Sam, they hold power over the town. They enchant and break hearts. No one rejects their advances. At least, no one did until the four Bonner sisters became three when Chloe, the oldest, left to have a baby. Desperate to restore their power after Chloe’s return, Ivy Bonner decides Miel’s roses are the answer. She will go to any length to take them, even if it means revealing Miel and Sam’s secrets to the whole town.

Written in alternating perspectives of Sam and Miel, When the Moon Was Ours tells a story of self-discovery, secrets, and love. The intersection of ownership and identity is a central theme throughout the novel. Samir’s mother demonstrates her love for him by giving him space to discover for himself who he is and how he wants live. At the resolution, Samir and Miel may not have all the answers to their questions, but they have given themselves permission to “become what they could not yet imagine.” When the Moon Was Ours is full of sorrow, hope, and redemption. McLemore’s prose is as magical and poetic as the roses that grow from Miel’s wrist. Fans who remember her richly descriptive style from The Weight of Feathers will not be disappointed. This magical realism novel is an important addition to any young adult collection for its authentic diversity and enchanting story.

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The Art of Being Normal by Lisa Williamson

This is a revision of a review originally posted on Butler’s Pantry.

Williamson, Lisa. The Art of Being Normal. 352 p. FSG, 2016. ISBN 9780374302375.

The Art of Being Normal Book Cover

David’s classmates call her a “freak.” It started when she was eight and shared with the class what she wanted to be when she grew up. Other kids wanted to be sports stars, actresses, or the prime minister, but not David. She wanted to be a girl. Aside from her two best friends, Essie and Felix, she is isolated in her posh high school, where no secrets stay hidden for long. Although she longs to tell her parents the truth and start her life as Kate, fear of rejection keeps her feelings locked inside her.

Leo Denton is desperate to escape Cloverdale. His acceptance into the elite Eden Park High School is his best chance to leave behind the bad memories at his old school and his unstable relationship with his mother. He dreams of finding his father who left when he was a baby. All Leo has to do is keep his head down and stay out of trouble so no one will learn about his past. However, when he finds himself falling for the popular and artistic Alicia Baker, his secrets get harder to hide in the spotlight.

Set in the suburbs outside of London, The Art of Being Normal is a coming-of-age story that explores gender identity, socioeconomic differences, and what it means to fit in. Written in first-person narration, the chapters alternate between the perspectives of Kate and Leo. Overall, the self-acceptance narrative is flawed by a fixation with cis-normative standards of gender expression. Leo “passes.” He is never once denied masculine pronouns except in overt instances of bullying. However, when he chooses to share his story with his father and with the girl he likes, he faces rejection. Kate, on the other hand, gets misgendered throughout the book, even by her allies. No one calls her “Kate” until she starts wearing dresses, and the chapter markers designate her as “David” too. While The Art of Being Normal provides visibility for transgender teens, it fails to challenge cis-normative standards or break out of the gender binary.

Mask of Shadows by Linsey Miller

This review was originally posted on Butler’s Pantry. My copy of Mask of Shadows was an advanced reader.

Miller, LinseyMask of Shadows. 352 p. Sourcebooks Fire, 2017. ISBN 9781492647492.

Mask of Shadows Book Cover

All the nobles of Igna fear the might of the Queen’s Left Hand, four elite assassins known only as Emerald, Ruby, Amethyst, and Opal. When Sal Leon, a thief and a street fighter, steals a poster advertising auditions for the new Opal, they seize the opportunity to seek revenge on the nobles who betrayed Sal’s homeland during the last war. Kill or be killed, the auditions require strength and subtlety. Participants must eliminate their competition without arousing suspicion. Any moment might be Sal’s last.

A fusion of fantasy and political intrigue, Mask of Shadows is a dark and suspenseful read. Miller delves into themes of gender identity, prejudice, and privilege. The positive exploration of Sal’s genderfluidity makes this book an important addition to Young Adult collections. Sal’s identity is never portrayed as a hardship. Although Sal dresses to show how they wish to be addressed, they are not focused on cisnormativity, but rather on being who they are. They explain, “I always felt like Sal, except it was like watching a river flow past. The river was always the same, but you never glimpsed the same water. I ebbed and flowed, and that was my always.” Throughout the book, Sal grows as a character and learns to trust someone they initially saw as an enemy. Miller develops a compelling romantic subplot. The cliffhanger ending of this debut novel will leave readers dying for the next installment in the duology.

Looking for Group by Rory Harrison

This review was originally posted on Butler’s Pantry.

Harrison, RoryLooking for Group. 368 p. HarperTeen, 2017. ISBN 9780062453075.

Looking for Group Book Cover

Dylan might not be dying anymore, but he isn’t well either. His cancer is gone, but he doesn’t know how to start his life over again. It doesn’t help that he’ll never convince his mother, who works a late night shift, to come to his high school so he can re-register for the spring semester. Instead of starting classes, he steals his mother’s car and drives to Amaranth to find his only friend Arden, who he met online in World of Warcraft. Arden is perfect—“Everything dark burns away when she smiles”—but they come from different worlds. She has everything and has been everywhere, while he has nothing except the fifty dollars in his pocket and some Tic Tacs. Still, Arden wants to escape from her father who won’t accept her gender identity and she’s ready for adventure when Dylan invites her on an IRL quest. Together they embark for California to find a sunken pearl ship lost in the Salton Sea. Along the way they discover friendship, life, and love.

Funny, geeky, and hopeful all at once, Looking for Group explores what it means to love others and yourself. Dylan struggles with his feelings for Arden, because he has always been sure that he’s gay. He doesn’t want to love her for the wrong reasons. Overcoming self-doubt and rekindling his desire to live are central to his character development throughout the novel. Harrison’s portrayal of Arden, a transgender teen, is strong for its resistance of cisnormativity. The character’s identity and expression are never glossed over or depicted as a deficit. While over the last few years transgender teens have become more visible in mainstream young adult literature, books often focus on characters who “pass” as cisgender or who aspire to pass. What makes Harrison’s portrayal of Arden special and groundbreaking is that Arden does not pass, but she is unashamed and beautiful. Although the last chapter brings the book to a sudden ending, it doesn’t detract from the overall value and quality of the narrative. This 2017 Spring release deserves a place in every young adult collection.