Isn’t it just the best when a book turns out to be a happy surprise? I read a lot of books, but every so often one comes along that really surprises me. Here are four wonderfully surprising books that I’ve read recently, if you’d like to see.
Emmy in the Key of Code, by Aimee Lucido
Wait, so this is a novel in verse about music, growing up, fitting in, and… computer science?
In a reality where women earn only 18% of computer science degrees in the United States (source), representation makes a big difference. There has been an uptick of CS related stories over the past few years, and some great nonfiction about female icons in tech – but I’ve never seen a story with a heroine quite like Emmy in the Key of Code. What grabbed me was Emmy’s love of music, friendship, and other interests traditionally considered “girly”, and the way the author shattered assumptions by proving that those interests belong in the CS lab, too. It’s work that my friend Kim Wilkens has been doing for years through her nonprofit, Tech-Girls, and I love that this book exists. And readers love it – my Library Interns have been passing it around all month, and every single one has raved about it. Here’s a summary, from the publisher:
In a new city, at a new school, twelve-year-old Emmy has never felt more out of tune. Things start to look up when she takes her first coding class, unexpectedly connecting with the material—and Abigail, a new friend—through a shared language: music. But when Emmy gets bad news about their computer teacher, and finds out Abigail isn’t being entirely honest about their friendship, she feels like her new life is screeching to a halt. Despite these obstacles, Emmy is determined to prove one thing: that, for the first time ever, she isn’t a wrong note, but a musician in the world’s most beautiful symphony.
Go with the Flow, by Lily Williams and Karen Schneeman
Wait, so this is a graphic novel about… periods?
Okay, so this the “Book I Didn’t Know I Needed But The World Is So Much Better Now That It Exists” award. Roughly half of the world menstruates, and women will menstruate for an average of seven years in their lifetime (source) – so WHY AREN’T WE TALKING ABOUT IT? I didn’t think much about the shame and cruel jokes surrounding periods until I started teaching middle school. Once the kids grew more comfortable with me, they might whisper a story about a pad being grabbed out of their hands and tossed across the hall, or cry onto my desk about the terror of being caught without a tampon. But one thing was clear – girls didn’t truly understand periods, and boys knew next to nothing about them (other than the fact that they are considered to be embarrassing and gross by men, of course). Period Power has been a huge hit – come to think of it, I haven’t seen it in months, as it travels from locker to locker – but Go with the Flow takes it one step further by providing education and fierce pushback against period shame to an engaging narrative, an inclusive and kind group of friends, and awesome illustrations. Here’s some more information, from the publisher:
Good friends help you go with the flow.
Best friends help you start a revolution.
Sophomores Abby, Brit, Christine, and Sasha are fed up. Hazelton High never has enough tampons. Or pads. Or adults who will listen.
Sick of an administration that puts football before female health, the girls confront a world that shrugs―or worse, squirms―at the thought of a menstruation revolution. They band together to make a change. It’s no easy task, especially while grappling with everything from crushes to trig to JV track but they have each other’s backs. That is, until one of the girls goes rogue, testing the limits of their friendship and pushing the friends to question the power of their own voices.
Now they must learn to work together to raise each other up. But how to you stand your ground while raising bloody hell?
Genesis Begins Again, by Alicia D. Williams
Wait, so prejudice and discrimination can exist between members of the same race?
This is probably not a surprise to some, but remember, I’m still at the beginning of my anti-racist journey. I knew little to nothing about the colorism that exists within communities of color until I started diving more deeply into my antiracist work. I didn’t pick Genesis up thinking that it was an antiracist text, just that it was a new middle grade novel with a whole bunch of impressive awards on the cover, and I was utterly blown away. Genesis’ story is so raw and vulnerable, I couldn’t put it down. Let’s be clear – colorism is not a wonderful surprise. But Alicia D. Williams sharing this story with the world certainly is. The writing is beautiful, Genesis’ character is one-of-a-kind, and the story is one that every human needs to hear and understand. Here’s some more information, from the publisher:
There are ninety-six things Genesis hates about herself. She knows the exact number because she keeps a list. Like #95: Because her skin is so dark, people call her charcoal and eggplant—even her own family. And #61: Because her family is always being put out of their house, belongings laid out on the sidewalk for the world to see. When your dad is a gambling addict and loses the rent money every month, eviction is a regular occurrence.
What’s not so regular is that this time they all don’t have a place to crash, so Genesis and her mom have to stay with her grandma. It’s not that Genesis doesn’t like her grandma, but she and Mom always fight—Grandma haranguing Mom to leave Dad, that she should have gone back to school, that if she’d married a lighter skinned man none of this would be happening, and on and on and on. But things aren’t all bad. Genesis actually likes her new school; she’s made a couple friends, her choir teacher says she has real talent, and she even encourages Genesis to join the talent show.
But how can Genesis believe anything her teacher says when her dad tells her the exact opposite? How can she stand up in front of all those people with her dark, dark skin knowing even her own family thinks lesser of her because of it? Why, why, why won’t the lemon or yogurt or fancy creams lighten her skin like they’re supposed to? And when Genesis reaches #100 on the list of things she hates about herself, will she continue on, or can she find the strength to begin again?
The Crossover (Graphic Novel), by Kwame Alexander and Dawud Anyabwile
Wait, so they made a graphic novel of this beloved novel in verse and it actually stands up to the original?
The Crossover is one of those rare books that reaches almost every reader. Books often fall along interest and identity lines, and it’s a rare gem that can create a waitlist that spans gender, age, interest, reading level, and more – but The Crossover has done it for years. It’s such a cult classic, that when they announced a graphic novel version, my readers and I were skeptical. It’s a little bit like when a book you love becomes a movie. You really want it to be great, but you’re 99% sure it won’t live up to the hype. So imagine our delighted surprise when The Crossover (Graphic Novel) turned out to be somehow totally different than the original book, and completely awesome. Dawud Anyabwile’s illustrations seriously sizzle, but the thing that made it work for me was the formatting of the text, which shapes the story. The book looks lovingly hand-lettered, and the mix of text, illustrations, careful color choice, and brilliant poetry is causing obsessive meltdown in my readers. Here’s some more information, from the publisher:
“With a bolt of lightning on my kicks . . . The court is SIZZLING. My sweat is DRIZZLING. Stop all that quivering. ’Cuz tonight I’m delivering,” raps twelve-year-old Josh Bell. Thanks to their dad, he and his twin brother, Jordan, are kings on the court. But Josh has more than basketball in his blood—he’s got mad beats, too, which help him find his rhythm when it’s all on the line.
See the Bell family in a whole new light through Dawud Anyabwile’s dynamic illustrations as the brothers’ winning season unfolds, and the world as they know it begins to change. (Find the summary of the original novel here).