Clichéd but full of heart.


Johnson’s semiautobiographical debut is a small-town story of letting go of the past.

Lester Smith, a blond, white high school senior, is living in a small, mostly white seaside town on Puget Sound in 1996. Struggling to cope with his father’s absence, he is obsessed with “Johnny” Milton and Paradise Lost (his father wrote a retelling set in the 1960s). When a young, new, white teacher, Jeff Traversal, takes over AP humanities and the yearbook, Lester’s two favorite classes, and tries to shake things up, Lester is less than pleased. His friends don’t really understand: Freesia, Hermione-like, is excited by the prospect of a teacher who is invested in their learning, and “BF” James (“BF” standing for best friend, not boyfriend), his one black friend—tall but untalented in basketball—isn’t in the class. While Lester starts out seeing Traversal and his push for change as the enemy, they ultimately, perhaps inevitably, join to form a Dead Poets Society–like gang. While the writing is at times pretentious and awkward (“the day Frisbees me forward irrevocably toward fifth period”), it is perhaps fitting for a story narrated by someone who could be well on his way to being @guyinyourMFA. Lester’s carefully crafted sardonic apathy may frustrate readers as much as it does his friends, family, and teachers, but his voice is, for the most part, undeniably compelling.

Clichéd but full of heart. (Historical fiction. 14-18)

Pub Date: April 11, 2017

ISBN: 978-1-58988-118-1

Page Count: 260

Publisher: Paul Dry Books

Review Posted Online: Feb. 3, 2017

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 2017

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This grittily provocative debut explores the horrors of self-harm and the healing power of artistic expression.

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After surviving a suicide attempt, a fragile teen isn't sure she can endure without cutting herself.

Seventeen-year-old Charlie Davis, a white girl living on the margins, thinks she has little reason to live: her father drowned himself; her bereft and abusive mother kicked her out; her best friend, Ellis, is nearly brain dead after cutting too deeply; and she's gone through unspeakable experiences living on the street. After spending time in treatment with other young women like her—who cut, burn, poke, and otherwise hurt themselves—Charlie is released and takes a bus from the Twin Cities to Tucson to be closer to Mikey, a boy she "like-likes" but who had pined for Ellis instead. But things don't go as planned in the Arizona desert, because sweet Mikey just wants to be friends. Feeling rejected, Charlie, an artist, is drawn into a destructive new relationship with her sexy older co-worker, a "semifamous" local musician who's obviously a junkie alcoholic. Through intense, diarylike chapters chronicling Charlie's journey, the author captures the brutal and heartbreaking way "girls who write their pain on their bodies" scar and mar themselves, either succumbing or surviving. Like most issue books, this is not an easy read, but it's poignant and transcendent as Charlie breaks more and more before piecing herself back together.

This grittily provocative debut explores the horrors of self-harm and the healing power of artistic expression. (author’s note) (Fiction. 14 & up)

Pub Date: Aug. 30, 2016

ISBN: 978-1-101-93471-5

Page Count: 416

Publisher: Delacorte

Review Posted Online: May 3, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 15, 2016

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An ode to the children of migrants who have been taken away.


A Mexican American boy takes on heavy responsibilities when his family is torn apart.

Mateo’s life is turned upside down the day U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents show up unsuccessfully seeking his Pa at his New York City bodega. The Garcias live in fear until the day both parents are picked up; his Pa is taken to jail and his Ma to a detention center. The adults around Mateo offer support to him and his 7-year-old sister, Sophie, however, he knows he is now responsible for caring for her and the bodega as well as trying to survive junior year—that is, if he wants to fulfill his dream to enter the drama program at the Tisch School of the Arts and become an actor. Mateo’s relationships with his friends Kimmie and Adam (a potential love interest) also suffer repercussions as he keeps his situation a secret. Kimmie is half Korean (her other half is unspecified) and Adam is Italian American; Mateo feels disconnected from them, less American, and with worries they can’t understand. He talks himself out of choosing a safer course of action, a decision that deepens the story. Mateo’s self-awareness and inner monologue at times make him seem older than 16, and, with significant turmoil in the main plot, some side elements feel underdeveloped. Aleman’s narrative joins the ranks of heart-wrenching stories of migrant families who have been separated.

An ode to the children of migrants who have been taken away. (Fiction. 14-18)

Pub Date: May 4, 2021

ISBN: 978-0-7595-5605-8

Page Count: 400

Publisher: Little, Brown

Review Posted Online: Feb. 22, 2021

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2021

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