Category Archives: Coming of Age

Review: Gone Wolf by Amber McBride

Gone Wolf by Amber McBride cover shows a girl with curly hair and dark skin. A pair of light-skinned hands cover her eyes. The eyes of a wolf appear over her collar bones.

Gone Wolf
Amber McBride
Feiwel & Friends
Published October 3, 2023

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About Gone Wolf

Award-winning author Amber McBride lays bare the fears of being young and Black in America, in this middle-grade novel that has been compared to the work of Jordan Peele and praised as ” brilliantly inventive storytelling” by Publishers Weekly.

In the future, a Black girl known only as Inmate Eleven is kept confined — to be used as a biological match for the president’s son, should he fall ill. She is called a Blue — the color of sadness. She lives in a small-small room with her dog, who is going wolf more often – he’s pacing and imagining he’s free. Inmate Eleven wants to go wolf too―she wants to know why she feels so Blue and what is beyond her small-small room.

In the present, Imogen lives outside of Washington DC. The pandemic has distanced her from everyone but her mother and her therapist. Imogen has intense phobias and nightmares of confinement. Her two older brothers used to help her, but now she’s on her own, until a college student helps her see the difference between being Blue and sad, and Black and empowered.

In this symphony of a novel, award-winning author Amber McBride lays bare the fears of being young and Black in America, and empowers readers to remember their voices and stories are important, especially when they feel the need to go wolf.

My Review

The first book I read by Amber McBride was ME: MOTH, which is a novel in verse. I loved the twisty storytelling. It’s one of those books where you reach a point where everything changes, and you look back at everything you’ve read with a new perspective. I loved that about the book.

GONE WOLF is prose rather than poetry. It also has some twisty storytelling, and I felt like there was the same kind of turning-point moment where I looked back at everything through a different lens. (This is hinted at in the cover copy, so I don’t think I’m spoiling anything.)

The book definitely delves into some tough topics in a pretty unflinching way. The juxtaposition of the Civil Rights Movement, slavery, and a futuristic setting was really thought-provoking. It was interesting to see familiar pieces of history alongside dystopian elements. Somehow, it made them resonate more sharply, maybe because it had that awful ring of the worst kinds of history repeating themselves.

I found it easy to get lost in the story and in trying to figure out how the two narratives connected. Future Imogen’s horror at her discoveries about the world she lives in and the ways she tries to break out of that world hit hard. I rooted for her from the beginning to end.

On the whole, I found this to be a truly captivating story. It’s got a young narrator– I think Imogen is twelve– but I would not call this middle grade. I think it’s actually a coming-of-age story.

Content Notes

Recommended for Ages 12 up.

Imogen is Black.

Profanity/Crude Language Content

Romance/Sexual Content

Spiritual Content

Violent Content
Some brief strong violence, including violence against an animal.

Imogen witnesses a woman being beaten. She sees someone execute a dog. Imogen and a friend offer ice to people who’ve been attacked as part of a Civil Rights protest.

Drug Content

Note: This post contains affiliate links, which do not cost you anything but help support this blog. I received a free copy of GONE WOLF in exchange for my honest review.

Review: The Black Flamingo by Dean Atta

The Black Flamingo
Dean Atta
Balzer + Bray
Published May 26, 2020 (orig. 2019)

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About The Black Flamingo

A fierce coming-of-age verse novel about identity and the power of drag, from acclaimed poet and performer Dean Atta. Perfect for fans of Elizabeth Acevedo, Jason Reynolds, and Kacen Callender.

Michael is a mixed-race gay teen growing up in London. All his life, he’s navigated what it means to be Greek-Cypriot and Jamaican—but never quite feeling Greek or Black enough.

As he gets older, Michael’s coming out is only the start of learning who he is and where he fits in. When he discovers the Drag Society, he finally finds where he belongs—and the Black Flamingo is born.

Told with raw honesty, insight, and lyricism, this debut explores the layers of identity that make us who we are—and allow us to shine.

My Review

Early on in the pandemic, I placed a couple of book orders with independent bookstores, and THE BLACK FLAMINGO is one of the books I ordered. Obviously it took me a while to read it, but I’m so glad I finally did.

One of my favorite things about this book is how personal Michael’s journey is. I think part of what makes that work is that he’s a poet himself, and the novel is written in verse, too. Some of the poems are meant to be his, things he has written and performs. I felt like that made the story a lot more intimate if that makes sense?

I also loved the characters, from Michael’s mom and sister, Anna, to his best friend Daisy, to Jack, the repressed construction worker. Even the characters who only appeared for a few moments seemed rich and knowable.

The story begins when Michael is a child and runs through his early time at college, so I think it’s more of a coming-of-age story than traditional young adult fiction. I liked having that long span of time to see different moments in Michael’s life and how they affected him at the time and upon reflection.

All in all, this is a powerful story about self-discovery and courage and learning how to be true to yourself. I think fans of Elizabeth Acevedo will love THE BLACK FLAMINGO.

Content Notes

Recommended for Ages 12 up.

Michael is Greek Cypriot and Jamaican and a citizen of the UK. He’s also gay.

Profanity/Crude Language Content
Mild profanity used infrequently.

Romance/Sexual Content
Kissing between two boys. References to sex between two boys (not shown).

Spiritual Content
A couple minor characters state their belief that being gay is a sin. (Later one person apologizes for this.)

Violent Content
Older boys bully Michael into fighting another boy. Someone leaves homophobic notes in Michael’s backpack. Girls say homophobic things to him.

Drug Content
Michael smokes pot and uses an inhalant with another boy in one scene. He smokes pot and drinks alcohol in several scenes.

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Review: The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie (Flavia de Luce #1)
Alan Bradley
Delacorte Press
Published April 24, 2009

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About The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie

It is the summer of 1950–and at the once-grand mansion of Buckshaw, young Flavia de Luce, an aspiring chemist with a passion for poison, is intrigued by a series of inexplicable events: A dead bird is found on the doorstep, a postage stamp bizarrely pinned to its beak. Then, hours later, Flavia finds a man lying in the cucumber patch and watches him as he takes his dying breath.

For Flavia, who is both appalled and delighted, life begins in earnest when murder comes to Buckshaw. “I wish I could say I was afraid, but I wasn’t. Quite the contrary. This was by far the most interesting thing that had ever happened to me in my entire life.”

My Review

A long time ago, after I reviewed and enjoyed a mystery featuring a young narrator, someone suggested the Flavia de Luce series to me. I borrowed THE SWEETNESS AT THE BOTTOM OF THE PIE from the library but only got maybe halfway through before having to return it. I liked what I’d read, but got sidetracked by other things and didn’t pick it up again until now.

Flavia is spunky and whip-smart. She has an interesting relationship with her two older sisters which mostly consists of giving each other a hard time and playing tricks on one another. There’s an undercurrent of protectiveness and caring in there, too. Sort of the only-I-can-mess-with-my-sister type of thing. It was kind of sweet.

I thought Flavia cleverly followed the thread of the mystery, having her own child-like moments here and there between highly analytical research, experiments and deductions. I feel like it should have been harder to believe that she’s eleven years old, but for some reason, I wasn’t really bothered by that as I was reading.

One section shows her listening to a long recounting of her father’s life at school. It’s interesting because it’s some of the only real interaction we see between them, but it goes on for a long time and sort of shifts the focus of the story to be about him from there on out.

Another thing to note is that there are a couple of racially insensitive (at best) situations or comments in the story. I’ve listed them below in the contents. To be honest, these are the kinds of things I have the most trouble with as a reviewer. This book is set in the 1950s and published in 2009 (which isn’t that long ago). I feel like the face-painting and Flavia’s comment could have been easily left out. They may have been historically accurate representations of ideas at the time, but including them feels insensitive to me, and none of them were critical to the story.

I enjoyed the mystery elements, and felt like the characters are believable and interesting. I wish it hadn’t included those few references.

Content Notes

Recommended for Ages 12 up.

Takes place in England.

Flavia’s father and a friend had a performance routine in which they dressed up as a Chinese man using make-up and an unflattering accent. Flavia later makes an off-hand comment about colonization “civilizing” the indigenous people– though it’s unclear if she says this sarcastically. These things may have been historically accurate representations of feelings and behavior at the time the story takes place, but are at the least racially insensitive and prejudiced.

Profanity/Crude Language Content
Mild profanity used infrequently.

Romance/Sexual Content
Flavia sees a young man kiss a young woman.

Spiritual Content

Violent Content – Trigger warning for bullying, suicide and murder.
Flavia is the youngest of three sisters, and her older sisters boss her around and bully her sometimes. Flavia also commits pranks against her sisters. She also learns of a student her father knew who was bullied.

Description of a man throwing himself from a rooftop. Flavia discovers the body of a stranger in the garden who appears to have been murdered.

Contains situations of peril. Two scenes show Flavia tied up and locked away.

Drug Content
Adults drink alcohol socially.

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Review: Starfish by Akemi Dawn Bowman

Akemi Dawn Bowman
Simon Pulse
Published September 26, 2017

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A half-Japanese teen grapples with social anxiety and her narcissist mother in the wake of a crushing rejection from art school in this debut novel.

Kiko Himura has always had a hard time saying exactly what she’s thinking. With a mother who makes her feel unremarkable and a half-Japanese heritage she doesn’t quite understand, Kiko prefers to keep her head down, certain that once she makes it into her dream art school, Prism, her real life will begin. 

But then Kiko doesn’t get into Prism, at the same time her abusive uncle moves back in with her family. So when she receives an invitation from her childhood friend to leave her small town and tour art schools on the west coast, Kiko jumps at the opportunity in spite of the anxieties and fears that attempt to hold her back. And now that she is finally free to be her own person outside the constricting walls of her home life, Kiko learns life-changing truths about herself, her past, and how to be brave.

From debut author Akemi Dawn Bowman comes a luminous, heartbreaking story of identity, family, and the beauty that emerges when we embrace our true selves.

A William C. Morris Award Finalist; A New York Public Library Best Book for Teens of 2017; A Junior Library Guild Selection

My Review

I’m a total sucker for books about an artist– and STARFISH absolutely scratched that itch for me. I loved the way descriptions of Kiko’s drawings ended every chapter, and the way the disconnect between her sketches and her paintings played such an important role in the story.

Mom issues are harder for me to read. Maybe because I am a mom? Maybe because they make me want to jump into a book and slap someone. Kiko’s relationship with her mom causes her a lot of self-hate and shame.

When Kiko goes to California, she finally begins looking at her life through eyes that aren’t her mom’s. She discovers connections with her Japanese heritage and begins to dismantle the shame she learned to feel about the way she looked. I loved the emotional journey of STARFISH. I couldn’t help falling in love with Kiko– sweet, insecure, talented Kiko– and kept rooting for her all the way through the last page.

Fans of E. Katherine Kotaras or SISTER PACT by Stacie Ramey will love the focus on and healing power of art in STARFISH.

Recommended for Ages 14 up.

Kiko and her siblings are half-Japanese. She meets a Japanese man and his family.

Language Content
Extreme profanity once.

Sexual Content – Sexual Abuse Trigger Warning (And Spoiler)
Kissing between a boy and girl.

Early in STARFISH, Kiko goes to a party and a boy leads her into a bedroom. He forcibly kisses her, which she does not want him to do, but she freezes up and feels unable to stop him. Later, he asks her not to tell anyone that it happened, so she doesn’t.

Kiko’s rotten experience with men doesn’t stop there, though. She battles memories of abuse by a family member who touched her lower leg while masturbating in her bedroom in the middle of the night. She pretended to be asleep but told her mom, who refused to believe her.

Spiritual Content

Violence – Suicide Trigger Warning
One character in STARFISH makes a suicide attempt. It happens off-scene, and we don’t learn the details of how it happened. Just a warning for sensitive readers that it’s in there.

Drug Content
Kiko goes to a party where teens drink alcohol. She feels pressured to drink with them, but a friend gets her a soda instead.

Review: Hurricane Season by Nicole Melleby

Hurricane Season
Nicole Melleby
Algonquin Young Readers
Available May 7, 2019

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Fig, a sixth grader, wants more than anything to see the world as her father does. The once-renowned pianist, who hasn’t composed a song in years and has unpredictable good and bad days, is something of a mystery to Fig. Though she’s a science and math nerd, she tries taking an art class just to be closer to him, to experience life the way an artist does. But then Fig’s dad shows up at school, disoriented and desperately searching for Fig. Not only has the class not brought Fig closer to understanding him, it has brought social services to their door.

Diving into books about Van Gogh to understand the madness of artists, calling on her best friend for advice, and turning to a new neighbor for support, Fig continues to try everything she can think of to understand her father, to save him from himself, and to find space in her life to discover who she is even as the walls are falling down around her.

Nicole Melleby’s Hurricane Season is a stunning novel about a girl struggling to be a kid as pressing adult concerns weigh on her. It’s also about taking risks and facing danger, about love and art, and about coming of age and coming out. And more than anything else, it is a story of the healing power of love—and the limits of that power.

My Review

One of my favorite things about HURRICANE SEASON is the evolution of Fig’s relationship with her dad. At the beginning she really idolizes him and feels super defensive of him, even when he’s doing things that make her life a lot harder. She blames their problems on her teacher who called social services. Or on hurricane season for drawing her dad to the shoreline during its dangerous storms.

As Fig’s dad’s behavior deteriorates and starts to affect her relationships at school, she grows to resent him and his mental health problems. She feels guilty and frustrated at herself, and eventually frustrated with her dad when he’s not able to do things with her that she needs, like going to an art exhibit that’s important to her, or going to her art show at school.

Even as their relationship frays, Fig and her dad continue to share rituals that bond them. I loved their exchange: “I love you.” “Double it.” “Love you, love you.”

And in the midst of it all, a miracle happens. A new person joins their family, and as so often happens when a situation is out of control, it’s that person who helps everyone realize how untenable things have become. I liked this catalyst character in the story, too, though at times he seemed almost too perfect.

I loved the way HURRICANE SEASON used details about Van Gogh’s life and his work to frame what was happening with Fig’s dad and even Fig herself.

Also worthy of note: this is a medication-positive story. Fig’s dad eventually begins taking medication to regulate his mental health, and while the solution isn’t perfect– the story shows some difficulty getting dosage and prescriptions right for him– it’s clear that it makes a positive difference in all of their lives.

Readers who enjoyed THE BENEFITS OF BEING AN OCTOPUS by Ann Braden or NEST by Esther Ehrlich need to put HURRICANE SEASON on their reading lists.

Content Notes

Recommended for Ages 10 to 14.

All the major characters are white. Fig’s dad is from London. Fig likes girls. A man begins a romantic relationship with another man.

Profanity/Crude Language Content
Mild profanity used once.

Romance/Sexual Content
Two men kiss. A girl has a crush on another girl.

Spiritual Content

Violent Content

Drug Content 

Note: I received a free copy of HURRICANE SEASON by Nicole Melleby in exchange for my honest review. This post contains affiliate links which cost you nothing but which help support this blog.

Q&A with Martin Hospitality Author Abigayle Claire

One of the books that caught my attention lately is Martin Hospitality by Abigayle Claire. It’s about a pregnant teenage girl who finds refuge with the Martin family. I love the sweet premise and couldn’t resist learning more about what inspired the story. Abigayle has graciously taken time to answer my questions, and I’m sharing her answers here. First, let me tell you a little more about the book.

About Martin Hospitality

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Goodreads

Gemma Ebworthy is eighteen, pregnant, and alone. Now that she’s been evicted, she finds herself sleeping in a barn, never dreaming that tomorrow could bring kindness of a life-changing magnitude.

The Martins aren’t a typical family—even for rural Kansas. With more kids than can be counted on one hand and a full-time farm, Gemma must make a lot of adjustments to fit in. But despite their many differences, Gemma finds herself drawn to this family and their radical Christian faith.

When Gemma’s past collides with her yet again, she must begin revealing her colorful history. With every detail Gemma concedes, she fears she will lose the Martins’ trust and the stable environment she desires for herself and her unborn child. Just how far can the Martins’ love and God’s forgiveness go?

Q&A with Abigayle Claire

I find that a story was often inspired by a question. Was there a question that inspired you to write Martin Hospitality?

A crazy dream I had inspired Martin Hospitality, so I’ve never really thought about it from the question standpoint! But I suppose one of the questions I sought to answer was what would  a family similar to mine look like to someone completely foreign to the faith and how might they be influenced.

Who is your favorite character? Were there things about him which couldn’t be included in the novel?

My favorite character in book 1 is actually Mr. Martin, a controversial character. (Although Gemma and Josiah are of course close seconds as the MCs.) I think about his past and future in relation to book 1 all the time, so yes! Lots not included that still shaped him as a character.

Is there a scene or moment in your novel that really sticks with you? Can you tell us a little bit about it?

Chapter 12 was actually the first chapter I wrote and takes place during a fall festival which makes me very happy. I also really love Gemma’s strength and all the tiny developments in that chapter with the drama.

In Martin Hospitality, Gemma wrestles with judgment and forgiveness. What made you want to write about these themes?

I think the themes came along easily with Gemma being a lost, pregnant teen. I wanted her to glimpse God through unexpected kindness long enough for her to stand up for herself and seek the God behind it in her own right. Plus, I think both judgment and forgiveness are things that both nonbelievers and believers alike deal with during their lifetime.

What do you most hope that readers take away from Martin Hospitality?

Tough question! One of the big things is God’s sufficiency. It sounds simple, but it’s so easy to forget. Gemma has to reach her own end over and over again and decide whether or not to trust God each time. But He is worth trusting, He is always there, and He is always capable. And often He’s just waiting to be asked.

What is one question about your novel you are often asked by readers?

“How did you write it?” The answer is that it wasn’t me. It came through a dream and developed a depth and intricacy that no amount of planning or editing on my part could have produced. Soli Deo Gloria.

I also get “Mr. and Mrs. Martin are your mom and dad, right?” from people who know me. While there are general similarities, I don’t consider them the same people by any means.

What have you read recently that you loved, or what’s one book on your reading list that you’re super excited about finally getting to read?

I just finished reading Fawkes by Nadine Brandes in September. I loved her other books, so I expected to like it, but the expansive themes and intense reality of the internal turmoil (with plenty of outside turmoil to make a great story of course!) really blew my mind. I’m already hoping to reread it soon which I don’t do often. Talk about changing people with your fiction! It’s wonderful to see characters grapple with their idea of God in a way that deepens your own faith.

About Abigayle Claire

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Abigayle has been a writer ever since her mother taught her how to hold a pencil. However, she devoted more time to reading words with her green eyes than penning them with her left hand. Inspired by a crazy dream at the age of sixteen, she set off on a journey to self-publish her first novel, Martin Hospitality. Since then, Abigayle has devoted herself to sharing what she has learned through the mediums of freelance editing and her blog … when period drama films are not calling more loudly. None of her successes, including winning a 2017 Readers’ Favorite Award, would be possible without the support of her Savior, large family, and online community.