Thursday, April 6, 2017

Colorado Teen Literature Conference

I facilitated the Blue Spruce workshop at the Colorado Teen Literature Conference last Saturday and as always had a wonderful time and got new ideas for future reads.  The keynote speakers were Gail Carriger and Greg Neri and I also attended a "Happily Ever After" workshop with Entangled Teen Crush writer Lisa Brown Roberts.  Gail Carriger is probably best known for her steampunk series called The Finishing School.  Greg Neri refers to himself as a "mashup DJ of a writer" who likes to sample real life and remix it into a story.  Although best known for Tru and Nellie, his re-imagining of the childhood friendship between Truman Capote and Harper Lee, he spent the majority of his talk on Ghetto Cowboy, a book about urban cowboys in Philadelphia. Lisa Brown Roberts did a workshop with fellow romance writer Jenna Lincoln, examining trope driven novels that lead to happy endings. Her latest book Resisting the Rebel is a bad boy/good girl story wrapped around  the fake girlfriend/boyfriend trope.

Gail Carriger's keynote speech was very brief, outlining how she transitioned from archaeologist to YA author. Then she spent the rest of the time eloquently fielding questions from teens in the audience.  I was struck by the fact that when asked what "Harry Potter House" she identifies with, she had a detailed answer.  Investigating further I found quizzes online that place one in the proper house. (She and I are both Ravensclaw)  I wondered if she had been asked that before.  When asked about her favorite character in her own books, she said "Vieve" and talked a bit about her Finishing School series, which begins with Etiquette and Espionage.  Like her adult series the Parasol Protectorate, this series is set in an alternate history version of Victorian era Britain, where supernatural creatures such as werewolves and vampires are part of society.  The first book introduces the headstrong, calamity seeking 14-year-old Sophronia, who is sent by her mother to Mademoiselle Geraldines' Finishing Academy for Young Ladies of Quality.  What her mother doesn't know is in addition to dance, fashion and manners, the girls also are trained in the "fine arts of death, diversion and the modern weaponries." The school is set on a chain of dirigibles  and is manned by mechanical servants as well as "sooties" who work in the boiler room. Sophronia's friend Vieve is a cross dressing lesbian whose aunt is one of the teachers.  She invents many useful devices, such as one that interferes with mechanicals long enough for the students to evade their watchful eyes.  In Etiquette and Espionage the girls are tasked with finding a prototype essential to communications which is sought after by flywaymen who are determined to have it. This spy-school romp includes subtle commentary on race, class and gender identity. Kids will love Sophronia and her band of misfits in this madcap espionage/adventure mashup.  Additional novels in the series include Curtsies and Conspiracies, Waistcoats and Weaponry and Manners and Mutiny.

Greg Neri, (pen-name g.neri) the 2011 Coretta Scott King Author Award winner, was inspired to write Ghetto Cowboy by the real-life inner-city horsemen of Philadelphia and Brooklyn,  The story begins when Cole's mom takes him to live with the dad he's never met in the mean streets of Philadelphia.  The last thing he expects to see there is a stable full of horses complete with black cowboys.  He changes his slacker behavior of skipping school and goofing off, and is soon hard at work in the stables. Then the city threatens to shut down the stable and take away the horse Cole has come to love.  He decides that it's time to fight back and stand up for what is right.  School Library Journal's review says,"Cole's spot-on emotional insight is conveyed through believable dialogue and the well-paced plot offers information about a little-known aspect of African-American history, as well as a portrait of contemporary urban stable life." Neri also has written novels-in-verse, including Chess Rumble and Hello, I'm Johnny Cash, and is soon to release Paulie and Artie, a book about Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel's childhood friendship.

Lisa Brown Roberts writes for Entangled Teen Crush publishing, which features contemporary romances between 16-18 year-olds with trope driven stories, whose "heat level" can vary from sweet to suggestive. Her latest Resisting the Rebel is a cut above when it comes to teen romance.  In the story Mandy Pennington, the high school spirit committee leader and all around extra-curricular queen, is secretly crushing on her friend, Gus.  When he takes her to a party and then hooks up with her archenemy, Mandy flees and is inexplicably rescued by Caleb Torrs, who has a loner bad boy reputation. He enlists her in a scheme to pose as fake girlfriend/boyfriend so that she can make Gus jealous and he can get his stalker ex-girlfriend to leave him alone.  One of the things that makes this book stand out is Mandy's passion for everything from the 70s.  Her mother, who recently died of cancer, has a closet full of clothes and music from the 70s and embracing the 70s makes Mandy feel closer to her mom. The book's chapters are titles from appropriate 70s songs.  Caleb predictably finds her music annoying, but secretly finds her style adorable.  Unpredictably, he is the good student who agrees to tutor her, so that she can keep her grades up and remain on the dance squad.  Their disagreement over Catcher in the Rye, a book he loves and she hates because Holden Caulfield is such a whiner, makes for hilarious, yet thought-provoking dialogue, as he struggles to help her write a paper about the book. There is no doubt that the two will end up together, but the journey to that destination is an enjoyable one.  If you are looking to recommend PG-13 rated romance for teens, Entangled Teen Crush books are a safe bet.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Inventive Pairings: Frostblood, Defy the Stars and The Impossible Fortress

In order to appeal to both male and female readers, authors of young adult novels attempt to come up with a male/female duo as the main characters for their novels.  This month I am going to recommend three new action packed books with very inventive pairings for their protagonists.  Frostblood by Elly Blake imagines a world filled with Frostbloods whose powers are ice born and Firebloods with fire born powers.  Ruby and Arcus, despite their opposing powers, are drawn together in a plot to overthrow the Frost King.  Defy the Stars by Claudia Gray finds a teen soldier teaming up with an enemy android to end an interplanetary war. The Impossible Fortress by Jason Rekulak is a comedy set in the 1980s that pairs a geeky boy who dreams of being a computer game designer with a female computer programming whiz.

The first book in the new Frostblood Saga introduces Ruby Otera who lives in a world where the ruling class of Frostbloods have abilities that are ice born.  She is a Fireblood who hides her fire born powers, until the day her mother is killed trying to protect her in a Frostblood raid.  Her powers exposed, Ruby is taken prisoner, but is rescued by a band of rebels who hope to use her powers to overthrow the Frost King, a maniacal ruler, who is controlled by the evil Minax.  Ruby is trained by a band of monks, including the mysterious Arcus, whom she comes to love.  When she is once again captured and forced to compete in the king's competitions between Firebloods and Frostblood warriors, Ruby hopes to find a way to destroy the throne and create a new world where Firebloods and Frostbloods can live together in peace.  This thrilling page turner is filled with exciting battles, magic and romance, and sets up an intriguing world for the books to come.The sequel, Fireblood, is available now.

In the new Sci/Fi thriller, Defy the Stars, Earth has used up all its resources and is attempting to take over planets that are connected to it by Gates between the worlds.  Noemi is a teen soldier from the pristine planet of Genesis She is on a practice run before a suicide mission to destroy the Gate and stave off an attack by Earth, when she discovers an Earth ship abandoned during the last war.  Abel, an intelligent robot who seems human, has been waiting there alone for 30 years, hoping to find a way to return to his creator on Earth.  When Noemi rescues him, she finds he has been programmed to recognize any human as his new superior and he knows a way to destroy the Gate.  Enlisting his help, they travel throughout the universe, hoping to recruit other worlds in their mission to destroy the Gate and end Earth's imperialistic wars. Although Abel thinks he must obey Ruby, his passive aggressive behavior toward her adds a great deal of humor to the story.  As the book progresses Noemi finds herself more and more drawn to this android who ultimately overcomes his programming to help her put an end to the wars.  This thought-provoking adventure is filled with philosophical explorations of religion, terrorism and what it means to be human.

The Impossible Fortress. a nostalgic comedy, opens with 14-year-old Billy and his buddies trying to get a hold of the latest copy of Playboy magazine, which features nudes of Wheel of Fortune's Vanna White. After several failed attempts to steal it from Zelinsky's Office Supply store, they cook up a scheme for Billy to befriend the owner's daughter Mary, who is a whiz at computer programming. Billy, who dreams of being a computer game designer, has been trying create a game on his Commodore 64 computer.  He enlists Mary's help and they develop a game called The Impossible Fortress to enter into a contest for young programmers.  As Billy is falling love with Mary, his buddies are cooking up a money-making scheme, selling copies of the pictures, before they have them.  Filled with period details and pop-culture references, this is a delightful comedy-filled caper. These novels are all appropriate for middle level, as well as high school readers.

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Colorado Blue Spruce Young Adult Book Award

The CO Blue Spruce YA book award winner was announced at the CCIRA conference today, along with the new nominees for 2017.  The 2016 winner is The Amazing Book is Not on Fire by Dan Howell and Phil Lester. The authors are Youtube sensations who share their awkward teenage lives on the internet. The 2017 nominees include *All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven, Carry On by Rainbow Rowell, * The Girl from Everywhere by Heidi Heilig, *I Was Here by Gayle Forman, Outrun the Moon by Stacey Lee, Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo, *The Smell of Other People's Houses by Bonnie Sue Hitchcock, Still Life with Tornado by A.S. King, *Tell Me Three Things by Julie Buxbaum, Thicker Than Water by Kelly Fiore, This Is Where It Ends by Marieke Nijkamp, and The Treatment by Suzanne Young. Those that are starred have already been reviewed in this blog.
Carry On is a companion book to Rainbow Rowell's Fangirl.  In Fangirl, twins Wren and Cath write fan fiction for a fantasy book whose main character is Simon Snow, a wizard who has been compared to Harry Potter. Carry On is Simon's story. Unlike Harry, Simon is not a very good wizard. He can't get his wand to work, his roommate may be a vampire, and he has a monster running around wearing his face.  This book appeared on many best books of 2015 lists, including Time magazine and School Library Journal.
Outrun the Moon is a wonderful historical fiction about 15-year-old Mercy Wong who lives through the San Francisco earthquake of 1906.  She lives in Chinatown, but finagles her way into attending St. Clare's School for Girls. Mercy is an outcast at school until the earthquake forces her and her classmates into a temporary camp at the park, where she rises to the occasion and helps those around her survive. A sequel is said to be in the works.
Six of Crows is the first in a duology starring six dangerous outcasts in the magic infused city of Ketterdam, who are offered vast sums of money to liberate a scientist from a maximum security prison. Kaz, who heads the crew, recruits his friends to help him with the heist. The story is told from multiple points of view and along the way readers find out each person's backstory which leads them to Kaz's gang. This page turner ends with a cliff-hanger ending, followed by the sequel Crooked Kingdom.
Still Life with Tornado, the latest by A.S. King, involves a 16-year-old artist, Sarah, who is devastated when a piece she created for a show is destroyed.  She wonders if life is really worth living.  She has a dysfunctional family, her brother is missing, her art teacher is dismissive and cruel, and she has lost her ability to draw.  Her 10, 23 and 40-year-old selves help her navigate the waters of depression, as she wanders the city trying to find a reason to go on. This book appears on many best books of 2016 lists including The New York Times and Booklist.
Thicker Than Water is a heartbreaking story of family tragedy and drug addiction. Cecelia Price is locked up and forced into treatment, after being accused of killing her brother.  After her mom dies, CeCe's brother, a star soccer player, is injured and gets addicted to painkillers.  As his life spirals downward, and their father is in denial, CeCe takes matters into her own hands to try to save the family.
This Is Where It Ends is a story about 54 minutes during a school shooting. The story is told from the perspectives of four different teens, who all know the shooter and have reason to fear him.  During a school assembly at Opportunity High in Alabama, the troubled teen locks the doors and begins shooting, randomly killing staff and students.  Two boys who were not in the auditorium mastermind a rescue operation.  This debut novel also made many best books of 2016 lists.
The Treatment is the sequel to last year's nominee, The Program, about a futuristic society, that deals with teenage depression and suicidal tendencies, by wiping the troubled teens' memories. The followup finds teens working with rebels to put an end to the program.  Protagonists Sloane and James find the key to unlocking their memories, so they can take down The Program, lies with the Treatment, a pill that can bring back their memories but at a high cost.
Promotional activities, book talks and author responses are available at www.coloradobluespruceaward.org.






Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Realistic YA Romances: The Sun is Also a Star, We are Still Tornadoes, and Our Chemical Hearts

A glowing recommendation for realistic young adult romances frequently reads "for fans of Rainbow Rowell and John Green."  My final three recommendations for 2016 fall in this category.  The highly acclaimed The Sun is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon (Everything, Everything) finds two teen falling in love over the course of 12 hours in NYC.  We are Still Tornadoes by Michael Kun and Susan Mullen is an epistolary romance that takes place in the 80s.  Our Chemical Hearts by Krystal Sutherland follows the unconventional relationship between a traumatized girl and the boy who is determined to save her.

In alternating first person chapters The Sun is Also Star chronicles the romance between Natasha, an undocumented immigrant from Jamaica whose family is being deported the next day, and Daniel, a first generation Korean American whose parents are insisting he become a doctor.  They meet and fall in love during one fateful day in NYC.  Natasha, who is an outstanding science student, is facing deportation because her dad was arrested on a DUI charge.  She is looking for a lawyer who can help her family stay in the US long enough for her to get into college.  Daniel, a dreamer and a poet, is on his way to an interview for admission to Yale.  They witness a shoplifting incident at a record store and he falls in "love at second sight."  (where you meet a person and know you'll fall in love) Their paths continue to converge throughout the next 12 hours and Daniel is determined to make her fall in love with him. Although she is in a race against time, Natasha can't help but be charmed by his insistence that fate means for them to be together.  This book has won numerous accolades, including a National Book Award nomination.

Through an exchange of letters in the 1980s, Scott and Cath, two high school graduates, continue their best friend relationship in We are Still Tornadoes. Even though Cath leaves for college at Wake Forest and Scott stays home in Maryland to work at his dad's clothing store and start a band, they lean on each other for support and advice.  During their first year apart they weather a variety of crises, including crazy roommates and band mates, as well as family problems.  While Scott's relationship with his dad is strengthened, Cath struggles with her parents' divorce and the upcoming arrival of a half sibling.   As the year progresses, Scott finds himself regretting not going to college and Cath works to resolve her feelings of anger toward an unborn sister.  Turning to each other, as they always have, isn't as easy as when they were next-door neighbors, but together they navigate their first year apart and become closer in the process.  The epistolary banter and the 80s music references, as well as Scott's overuse of quotation marks, will keep readers laughing and turning the pages hoping for a happy ending.

When Henry Page first meets Grace Town, the protagonist in Our Chemical Hearts, he is strangely attracted to her, despite her pronounced limp and baggy boy's clothes.  Getting to know her as co-editors of the school newspaper, he is intrigued by her quick wit and occasionally flirtatious behavior.  When researching her on the internet, he finds she looks nothing like her social media pictures of a beautiful smiling athlete. Digging deeper, he finds she is the survivor of a horrific car accident, and has transferred schools in the hopes of starting a new life.  Henry's best friends, Murray, an Australian party guy, and Lola, a lesbian graphic designer, dub Grace a manic pixie dream girl and warn him to stay away from her.  But he dreams of being the one to turn her life around and end up with a happily-ever-after story.  Predictably this is not in the cards. Readers will love this emotionally complex, humorous, heartbreaking tale filled with sympathetic characters and an unusual story line.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

YA Books for Boys: The Bad Decisions Playlist, My Brilliant Idea, Character Driven, and The Haters

According to the U.S. Department of Education, school-age boys read a grade and a half lower than girls.  Boys read more comic books, baseball cards, magazines and non-fiction than novels. This is not surprising when one considers boys identify with men, who, in general, don’t read as many books as women.  Boys’ tastes in books reflect how their brains are wired.  Michael Gurian, author of Boys and Girls Learn Differently! A Guide for Teachers and Parents,writes that boys’ brains engage in less cross-hemisphere activity than girls’. In other words, boys use only half of their brain at any given time.  That means that when boys read, they need an extra jolt of sound, color, motion or some physical stimulation to get their brains up to speed. Thus boys prefer reading sports, adventure stories and fantasies.  Give boys the type books they prefer at a level of difficulty that they are comfortable with and they won’t be as reluctant to read. I am recommending four books this month that are not the typical action adventure or fantasy choices that we think of boys choosing, but rather realistic reads focusing on manic witty self-deprecating  main characters with a penchant for trouble.

The Bad Decisions Playlist by Michael Rubens focuses on Austin Methune, a musically gifted teen, who is his own worst enemy.  Austin's mishaps usually involve trying to impress girls and avoiding schoolwork.  He exhausts his single mother, who has a new boyfriend, and is threatening to send Austin off to a private school  Then his absentee father Shane, a rock star who has made plenty of bad decisions himself, shows up at the door.  Although Austin is angry at him, he is intrigued with the opportunity to play music with him.  Along for the ride are his would be tutor/girlfriend Josephine and his ex best friend/drummer Todd, who never seem to be able to stop Austin from impulsive decisions. This coming of age tale involves sex, drugs, parent issues and romance, and is filled with hilarity and sympathetic characters.  

My Brilliant Idea (and How It Caused My Downfall) was written by Stuart David, the front-man for Belle and Sebastian. Jack Dawson, "the Jackdaw," is a Ferris Bueller type character, whose madcap money making schemes lead him down a rabbit hole of crazy decisions.  Hoping to avoid a future working in a factory next to his dad, he wants to design and market an app to keep kids from getting in to trouble for daydreaming in class. Unfortunately,  Elsie, an eccentric genius who hates Jack, is the only one he knows who has the brains to do the programming.  Elsie will do so in exchange for Jackdaw arranging for her to see her crush Drew naked.  Jack approaches Drew's art school friend Yatesy to arrange the viewing, in exchange for finding someone to take the fall for a fighting incident, which will get Yatesy expelled.  Needless to say, complications ensue.  Jack is an incorrigible dreamer who won't take no for an answer.  Yatesy tells Jack, "Your mind is diseased. It's a sewer.  But I think I'm starting to like you."  Readers, too, will enjoy Jack and the quick paced hilarity and British humor of this novel.

Character Driven by David Lubar (Sophomore and Other Oxymorons) introduces 17-year-old Cliff Sparks who struggles with an angry unemployed father, an overworked mother, two jobs, a dwindling college fund and the recognizable high school bullies.  His one goal is losing his virginity, preferably with his crush Jillian, but any girl will do.  Breaking the fourth wall, Cliff engages the reader in his tale of woe, where close friends, art and books are his only solace. As the story progresses, readers work to decide what is fact and what is fiction in this first person "gotcha" style meta-fiction. For example, Cliff presents an idealized sexual encounter, but then follows it up with a much more awkward but realistic version of the same encounter, making this a book best suited for older readers. 

Finally, The Haters by Jesse Andrews (Me, Earl, and the Dying Girl) is a tale about three jazz camp escapees who form a band and hit the road. Bassist Wes and drummer Corey, are best friends, obsessed with music and hating on everything they encounter that isn't great.  Jazz camp misfits,who call themselves "jazz-nerd chaff" or the "worst of the best" at "Jazz Giants of Tomorrow Intensive Summer Workshop" meet Ash, a lead guitarist with a sense of adventure, who talks them into forming a band and going on a "Summer of Hate Tour." They are both crushing on her and will pretty much follow her anywhere. They load their instruments in her SUV and head South. Needless-to-say, their ideas for their world tour do not go as planned.  Jealousies and travel logistics, not to mention, lack of band cohesion make this a hilarious romp. Asides within the text, such as lists of potential band names, fake Wikipedia entries and screenplay-like flashbacks, help to create a unique contemporary read. 

Saturday, October 15, 2016

New Film Related YA Novels: The Movie Version, My Unscripted Life and You in Five Acts

As the chair of the programming committee for the Boedecker Art House cinema, I find myself drawn to young adult novels that are movie related.  Three new fall releases in this category are on my list of recommendations this month.  The Movie Version by Emma Wunsch is about Amelia and her brother Toby, who are obsessed with movies and living their lives as though they are in one, until Toby goes through a drastic personality change.  My Unscripted Life by Lauren Morrill (The Trouble with Destiny and Being Sloane Jacobs) focuses on Dee Wilkie, who lands a summer job as a PA on a movie which stars a teen heartthrob on whom she has a crush. Finally, You in Five Acts by Una LaMarche (Like No Other) is a poignant story about five students at a performing arts school in NYC who are preparing for graduation.

In The Movie Version Amelia Anderson has always taken a back seat to her popular older brother Toby, whose goal is to live the "movie version" of his life.  Obsessed with movies, the two of them have always been close, but lately Toby hasn't been himself, disappearing into his room to write in his journal or hanging out with the stoners and doing drugs.  Amelia is in the throes of first love with a boy who lives in NYC, but finds herself distracted with Toby's struggles and covering up for his erratic behavior.  When he is finally diagnosed with schizophrenia and institutionalized, she is devastated.  Ultimately, she will have to decide if she will let Toby derail her life, or let go and focus on her own hopes and dreams. Wunsch, a film critic turned author, provides detailed movie references that are a cinephile's dream.  Toby's flamboyant behavior which spirals into mental illness is heartbreaking and Amelia's reluctance to accept that the brother she idolizes is no more, will touch teens who are interested in realistic reads about teens dealing with family issues involving mental illness.

My Unscripted Life is a first person narrative about Dee Wilkie, an artistically talented teen, who is devastated when she is rejected by a summer fine arts program, but rebounds when fate throws her the opportunity to work on a movie set in her Georgia hometown.  Dee is thrilled to find the film stars Milo Ritter, a famous pop-star she has had a crush on since middle school, but she is then disappointed when he turns out to be a jerk. As they are continually thrown together, she gets to know him and realizes there is a reason for his standoffish behavior, and she may just be the girl to change his attitude. Although this is a fun light read, the author inserts movie script elements and stage directions into the text, making this a cut above many teen rom/coms. Dee's internal monologues reveal a girl who is in the process of self-discovery and decisions about life after high school and it all plays out on a movie set.  What's not to enjoy?

You in Five Acts is written from five points of view, telling the story of a diverse group of friends at Janus Academy, a high pressure performing arts school, in the months leading up to their final performances that will determine their futures. Joy, the African American ballerina, partners with the phenomenal Latino dancer Diego, who hopes their performance will move him out of the friend zone.  Ethan, the Russian American playwright hopes to turn his muse, the Puerto Rican actress Liv into something more, while she crushes on Dave, the movie celebrity, who recently transferred to Janus and is her costar in Ethan's play.  In each Act the narrator refers to the object of affection as "You." The plot is like a Shakespearean play in that love interests are continually shifting and emotions are misunderstood.  Ethan's passion for Classic American film informs his play and he tries unsuccessfully to get his friends to share his obsession. Although Liv is supposed to be his girlfriend, she is decidedly uninterested in a romance with him. Her snarky relationship with Dave belies the crush she has on him, while he tries to disregard the feelings he has for her, because she is supposedly Ethan's girl.  Diego and Joy indulge in dance films like Save the Last Dance and Center Stage, as they slowly acknowledge the passion they feel on the dance floor has blossomed into their offstage lives. The love relationships slowly work themselves out, as the story moves toward a tragedy that will change everything.  The well-written sympathetic characters, the frequent movie references and the author's clear understanding of life at an arts academy make this a truly compelling read.  It's release date is November 1, 2016.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Noted authors trying something new: Something in Between, And I Darken, and Kids of Appetite

When choosing books to read, I admit I am tempted to choose books by recognizable authors with a proven track record.  This month I will review new novels by three popular authors, who are trying something different. Melissa de la Cruz, who is well-known for her popular vampire series Blue Bloods, has written Something in Between, a stand alone novel about a Filipino girl who wins a National Scholar Award, only to find out she is undocumented. Kiersten White, who teens will recognize as the author of the Paranormalcy series, has penned And I Darken, the first book in a new historical romance trilogy. Finally, David Arnold, author of the critically acclaimed Mosquitoland, offers Kids of Appetite,  a murder mystery, whose main character is a boy with Moebius syndrome, the inability to move one's facial muscles.

In Something in Between Jasmine de los Santos, who emigrated from the Philippines at age nine, receives the National Scholar Award, complete with a full ride to the college of her choice. Naturally, she thinks her dreams of attending Stanford are within reach.  Expecting her parents to be thrilled, she is shocked when they reveal that they are undocumented immigrants and her accepting the scholarship could jeopardize their freedom.  All her years of striving for success, academically, as well as on an award winning cheerleading team, could go unrewarded.  To complicate matters Jasmine has started dating Royce Blakely, another Stanford hopeful, whose father is a California congressman, who has sponsored an anti-immigrant bill.  As Jasmine's family struggles to obtain visas, so that she can pursue her dreams legally, she searches for a solution through Stanford's need-blind international student program.  The story is semi autobiographical for the author, who attended Columbia on a need-blind scholarship, which she discusses in an author's note.

And I Darken, the first book in a new historical romance series, introduces Lada and Radu, children of Vlad Dracul, prince of Wallachia, who offers them as hostages to the Ottoman Empire, in the  hope of securing his throne.  They befriend Mehmed, the Ottoman heir, and the three grow up together, awaiting Mehmed's ascension to the Ottoman throne.  Homely, but fierce, Lada trains as a warrior, whereas, the beautiful Radu seeks peace and converts to Islam; yet both fall for the charismatic Mehmed.  As political intrigue and changing loyalties abound, the strange love triangle moves toward a denouement, setting up the sequel. This historical romance, set in the Ottoman Empire during the early to mid 1400s, weaves historical fact, including the real-life figure who served as the inspiration for Dracula, into an action-packed tale of war and romance.

In alternating chapters in Kids of Appetite, teens Vic and Madeline are individually questioned by the Hackensack Police Department about a recent murder.   In flashbacks to the days leading up to their interrogations, we meet the Kids of Appetite (KoA), a group of semi-homeless kids, who take in Vic, a boy with facial paralysis known as Moebius Syndrome, after he runs away from home.  Vic's father recently died from cancer, and when his mother's new boyfriend proposes, Vic grabs the urn filled with his dad's ashes and leaves. He is on a mission to scatter his ashes, as per dad's cryptic instructions, around NYC, and the group decides to help him.  Baz, a 27-year-old refugee from the Congo, is the group's father figure.  His mute brother Zuz and snarky 11-year-old Coco take a back seat to Madeline, Vic's love interest.  She is dealing with grief over her parents accidental deaths and abuse at the hands of her uncle, who takes in her and her demented grandmother after the accident. As the group helps Vic with his quest, he begins to feel a sense of belonging, and the stirrings of first love when he experiences his first kiss with Madeline. The solution to the murder mystery is secondary to the story of Vic's healing process, as he shows the KoA what it means to be a "heart thinker."  This is a book for kids who enjoy quirky reads with lots of character development. An added bonus is Madeline's obsession with S. E. Hinton's The Outsiders which she references frequently.