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Review: Don’t Look Back by Achut Deng and Keely Hutton

Don't Look Back: A Memoir of War, Survival, and My Journey to America by Achut Deng and Keely Hutton cover shows a landscape with a sky barely at sunrise. Over that is an image of a girl's face so that the sky shows through it.

Don’t Look Back: A Memoir of War, Survival, and My Journey to America
Achut Deng and Keely Hutton
Farrar, Straus, & Giroux

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About Don’t Look Back

In this propulsive memoir from Achut Deng and Keely Hutton, inspired by a harrowing New York Times article, Don’t Look Back tells a powerful story showing both the ugliness and the beauty of humanity, and the power of not giving up.

I want life.

After a deadly attack in South Sudan left six-year-old Achut Deng without a family, she lived in refugee camps for ten years, until a refugee relocation program gave her the opportunity to move to the United States. When asked why she should be given a chance to leave the camp, Achut simply told the I want life.

But the chance at starting a new life in a new country came with a different set of challenges. Some of them equally deadly. Taught by the strong women in her life not to look back, Achut kept moving forward, overcoming one obstacle after another, facing each day with hope and faith in her future. Yet, just as Achut began to think of the US as her home, a tie to her old life resurfaced, and for the first time, she had no choice but to remember her past.

My Review

As I read this book, I found myself thinking about the timeline of the author’s life. What was I likely doing while she fled for her life from soldiers intent on killing everyone in her village? How did I spend my time during the years she lived in the refugee camp in Kenya? It really made me think about how sheltered and safe my life has been and how far that is from the experience so many other people have in their childhoods and lives.

I think the authors did an excellent job describing a child’s view of the horrors of war and of the endless pressure of hunger and waiting during her life in the refugee camp. In the scene in which Achut hides in her closet, contemplating ending her life, the intensity of her hopelessness and feelings of being trapped were absolutely gripping.

All in all, it’s an excellent memoir that delivers a personal account of a child’s life during the war in Sudan, life in a refugee camp, and eventual immigration to the United States. Readers who enjoyed OVER A THOUSAND HILLS I WALK WITH YOU by Hanna Jensen or FINDING REFUGE by Victorya Krouse will want to read this powerful, true account.

Content Notes

Recommended for Ages 14 up.

Achut and her family are Sudanese. She and some of her family members live as refugees in a camp in Kenya for years before immigrating to the United States.

Profanity/Crude Language Content

Romance/Sexual Content
References to women being assaulted by soldiers in villages and in the refugee camp. Later, an older boy sexually abuses Achut. Details are limited and focus on the horror and helplessness Achut feels.

Spiritual Content
Achut’s family have all been given Christian names, which they’re told to use. She never feels like her name, Rachel, suits her and prefers her family name, Achut, instead.

Violent Content
Soldiers fire guns at fleeing civilians, killing many. Soldiers fire rifles into people’s homes, killing some hiding there. In the refugee camp, Achut faces physical abuse by her guardians as well as starvation from rations being withheld. Diseases spread through the camp, killing many. Parasites infect Achut and others and must be pulled from wounds in their legs and feet. A poisonous snake bites a girl, causing her leg to swell painfully. Men who have been caught assaulting women are publicly punished by having their heads shaved roughly, so that they have deep cuts on their scalps. Officials rub salt into the wounds.

Drug Content
Achut’s cousin begins getting drunk to avoid his grief and anger. She worries this behavior will ultimately kill him.

Note: This post contains affiliate links, which do not cost you anything to use, but which help support this blog. I received a free copy of DON’T LOOK BACK in exchange for my honest review.

Review: The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky

The Perks of Being a Wallflower
Stephen Chbosky
MTV Books
Published August 14, 2012 (Orig. 1999)

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About The Perks of Being a Wallflower

Read the cult-favorite coming-of-age story that takes a sometimes heartbreaking, often hysterical, and always honest look at high school in all its glory. Now a major motion picture starring Logan Lerman and Emma Watson, The Perks of Being a Wallflower is a funny, touching, and haunting modern classic.

The critically acclaimed debut novel from Stephen Chbosky, Perks follows observant “wallflower” Charlie as he charts a course through the strange world between adolescence and adulthood. First dates, family drama, and new friends. Sex, drugs, and The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Devastating loss, young love, and life on the fringes. Caught between trying to live his life and trying to run from it, Charlie must learn to navigate those wild and poignant roller-coaster days known as growing up.

A years-long #1 New York Times bestseller, an American Library Association Best Book for Young Adults and Best Book for Reluctant Readers, and with millions of copies in print, this novel for teen readers (or “wallflowers” of more-advanced age) will make you laugh, cry, and perhaps feel nostalgic for those moments when you, too, tiptoed onto the dance floor of life.

My Review

I read this book (last year!) because a friend recommended it, and I’d been curious about it already. I already owned a copy, so it was an easy choice. One of the few things I knew about the book going in was that it’s been challenged or banned a LOT in schools, so I figured there would be some heavy content.

My copy of THE PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER has editorial reviews on the first page, so those were the first thing I read. Let me just say I have some questions for the person who reviewed this book for the LA Times. This is from the review: “Charlie is such a completely good, pure human being… In this culture where adolescence is a dirty word, I hope nothing bad happens to this kid.”

I’m not sure I read the same book that person did, because like… wow. SO MANY BAD THINGS HAPPENED TO CHARLIE!! It makes me wonder, does this person think those things weren’t so bad? Did this person accidentally skip those scenes or something? Not to spoil the story or anything, but seriously. This is not a light read. It’s a compelling, aching read. I think it lives up to the comparisons to Holden Caulfield in CATCHER IN THE RYE. But I’d never call it light.

Please do not pick up this book thinking you’ll make it to the back cover carrying the hope that nothing bad will happen to Charlie.

So… what did I love about this book? I loved the friendships between Charlie, Sam, and Patrick. I liked the way they were protective of each other and listened to each other. In the relationship between Sam and Charlie especially, I liked the way she challenged him to take action and make choices for himself. I liked that she tried not to judge him as he struggled to figure things out.

I think readers who enjoyed LOOKING FOR ALASKA by John Green or SURRENDER YOUR SONS by Adam Sass will like this book.

Content Notes for The Perks of Being a Wallflower

Content warning for suicide, rape, sexual abuse, homophobic slurs, graphic violence, alcohol and drug use. Details below.

Recommended for Ages 16 up.

One of Charlie’s best friends, Patrick, is gay.

Profanity/Crude Language Content
Extreme profanity used pretty frequently.

Romance/Sexual Content
Kissing between boy and girl. Kissing between two boys. References to sex between two boys. A couple scenes shows making out between a boy and girl without their shirts. In one scene, they touch each other sexually.

One scene shows a boy raping a girl. In another scene, a character remembers being sexually abused as a child. Other scenes reference the fact that a character was sexually abused and that it ruined her life.

There’s a reference late in the book to the sexual abuse of a child, but it’s referred to as a man “fooling around” with the child, which implies that it isn’t criminal or serious, which it is.

Spiritual Content

Violent Content
A boy hits Charlie’s sister. Charlie beats up a kid at school who was bullying him. A boy’s father walks in on him having sex with another boy and begins hitting him. A boy directs a homophobic slur at another boy. He and his friends beat the boy up. Charlie joins the fight trying to even the odds against his friend.

Early in the book we learn that one of Charlie’s friends committed suicide. He gave Charlie a poem before he died which includes a graphic description of suicide at the end of it.

Drug Content
A boy begins using alcohol and drugs daily. Charlie drinks alcohol with his friends, smokes pot, and tries LSD. Sam and Patrick smoke cigarettes, too. Charlie begins smoking cigarettes.

Note: This post contains affiliate links, which do not cost you anything to use, but which help support this blog.

Review: All Boys Aren’t Blue by George M. Johnson

All Boys Aren’t Blue: A Memoir-Manifesto
George M. Johnson
Farrar, Straus, and Giroux
Published April 28, 2020

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About All Boys Aren’t Blue

In a series of personal essays, prominent journalist and LGBTQIA+ activist George M. Johnson explores his childhood, adolescence, and college years in New Jersey and Virginia. From the memories of getting his teeth kicked out by bullies at age five, to flea marketing with his loving grandmother, to his first sexual relationships, this young-adult memoir weaves together the trials and triumphs faced by Black queer boys.

Both a primer for teens eager to be allies as well as a reassuring testimony for young queer men of color, ALL BOYS AREN’T BLUE covers topics such as gender identity, toxic masculinity, brotherhood, family, structural marginalization, consent, and Black joy. Johnson’s emotionally frank style of writing will appeal directly to young adults.

My Review

George M. Johnson’s writing style definitely drew me in. He has this ability to dive into places in the human soul that I think we are often afraid to travel openly. He said things that challenged me but also things that resonated with me so deeply that I still feel their echoes.

The book is divided up into four parts, each part made up of chapters about different topics. He describes family connections and the way that his family consistently pulled together to love one another, acknowledging their imperfections, but recognizing the gift those relationships have been to him.

He also shares some vulnerable experiences in order to talk about how little information he had and how that affected choices he made. Some of the descriptions of these events are graphic. I really liked that he offered the context for his decision to include those stories, though, and his desire to help foster better education for the generation coming after him.

All in all, this is a poignant, brave, and articulate memoir that has a lot to offer its readers in terms of identity, culture, and masculinity.

Content Notes

Recommended for Ages 14 up.

George is Black and queer. Some of his family members and friends also identify as LGBTQIA+

Profanity/Crude Language Content
Extreme profanity used infrequently. The author also uses racist and homophobic slurs at times in the book. He explains his choices in an opening letter to readers.

Romance/Sexual Content
George describes a night when he was 13 and an older cousin molested him.

George also describes sexual experiences he had in college in one chapter.

Spiritual Content
George attended a Catholic high school.

Violent Content
Descriptions of a fight between boys in which two boys held George down while another kicked his front teeth in. Later, he references a cousin who was killed in a fight on the street.

Drug Content
Brief description of kids sneaking liquor from their parents’ cabinet. In college, George drank alcohol and smoked marijuana. He talks about how his smoking habit impacted his college attendance and grades.

Note: This post contains affiliate links, which do not cost you anything to use, but which help support this blog.

Review: #MeToo and You by Halley Bondy

#MeToo and You: Everything You Need to Know About Consent, Boundaries, and More
Halley Bondy
Zest Books
Published February 2, 2021

Amazon | Bookshop | Goodreads

About #MeToo and You

The #MeToo movement has changed the way many people view the world, but how well do tweens understand it? Middle-grade readers are ready to learn about consent, harassment, and abuse, as well as healthy boundaries in all their relationships.

#MeToo and You includes essential terminology, from consent to assault, from just plain yes to just plain no. Author Halley Bondy explores the nuances of emotions, comfort, and discomfort in sexually charged and emotionally abusive situations. Detailed scenarios, both real and hypothetical, provide valuable examples of what’s acceptable and what is not, along with tools to help everyone treat others appropriately and to stand up for themselves and their peers.

My Review

One of the things I really liked about #MeToo and You is how practical it is. The first chapter focuses on some simple ways to tell if a relationship you’re in is safe and healthy or if it’s toxic and potentially abusive. That checklist can be used to evaluate any relationship, and it’s very easy to understand.

Throughout the book, the author will introduce a concept, such as a way to be a good ally, and then a story follows which illustrates the concept. Bondy also includes a breakdown of each story, discussing what the people involved did well or what things that happened were wrong.

I appreciated the section that talked about reporting and what someone’s rights are as well as what the reporting process can look like. While the author doesn’t sugarcoat any of it, and while the process still felt a bit overwhelming, I think it’s helpful information to have. Understanding the overview of the reporting process might help people feel more prepared to come forward to report abuse.

In every chapter, Bondy writes with sensitivity and though she’s frank, she also tries to be encouraging and to point readers to healthy, trustworthy resources. #MeToo and You includes a list of call centers and websites for help and support.

While this book won’t be for everyone as it includes some graphic content, I think it makes a good resource for people who’ve experienced abuse or assault or are in dangerous relationships and are trying to work out what to do next. #MeToo and You also makes a great resource for anyone looking to become a better ally and wants information about how to help someone in their life who has experienced or is currently experiencing abuse.

Content Notes

Recommended for Ages Readers ages 12 up could easily read the first chapter, which describes how to tell when a relationship is healthy vs. toxic or dangerous. Readers 14 up could read the whole book. (See the rest of the content section.)

The author writes to include all gender identities and sexual orientations.

Profanity/Crude Language Content

Romance/Sexual Content – Trigger Warning for Descriptions of Sexual Assault/Abuse
Each chapter heading has a section with any trigger warnings in it. The author encourages readers to read only the chapters they feel comfortable with. Chapters 2-6 contain some stories about people who’ve experienced sexual assault or abuse. A few of the stories give some brief graphic information. At the end of each story, the author breaks down what happened in terms of the outcome and what parts were toxic/wrong and what to do.

Spiritual Content

Violent Content
See section on romance/sexual content.

Drug Content
One victim’s story involves a young girl who drinks a beer given to her by an older boy. The drink was also drugged.

Note: This post contains affiliate links, which do not cost you anything to use, but which help support running this blog. I received a free copy of REA AND THE BLOOD OF THE NECTAR in exchange for my honest review.

Review: Freerunner by Kathy Cassel

Kathy Cassel
Elk Lake Publishing
Published May 16, 2020

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Book Depository | Indiebound | Goodreads

About Freerunner

Night is Kia’s favorite time, when she freeruns to outdistance the memories of abuse she suffered as a young child. But when former reality television star Terrence Jones arrives at their school as the new head track coach, things begin to change in unpredictable ways.

Kia tries out for the team to fit in, but just as she’s gaining a new sense of normal, her abuser steps back into her life. Not only that, but being on the track team causes even more turmoil. Why does the assistant coach, Cassandra Clark, dislike Terrence Jones so much, and even more troubling, why does Coach Clark dislike her so much?

As the pieces of the puzzle begin to come together, Kia realizes she has to choose between running from her past or saving a child from the same sort of abuse she suffered. But will she have the courage to do so?

Set against the backdrop of the sport of freerunning, Kia must decide whether she will continue running or face her past abuser in order to save another child.

My Review

I feel like this is going to be a difficult review to write– not because the book was bad, but because I am still sorting through my feelings on it.

First, what I liked: the easy friendship between Thorn and Kiana was great. I loved the way they stuck up for each other and bonded over their shared love of freerunning. I liked that the story wasn’t about them developing a romantic relationship.

The family relationships are complicated (in a good way). Kiana’s mom isn’t making good choices, but she reads as a desperate woman who’s barely keeping her head above water. That’s no excuse for the things she does, but it makes her a complex character.

As I read, I felt the sinister nature of the relationship between Kiana and her grandfather. There are no graphic descriptions of him hurting anyone, but I had no trouble believing him capable of it. And the way he flipped things around to deflect blame from himself and used charm and fake innocence to avoid judgment or consequences was super creepy. Believable and creepy.

On the other side, the story raises a couple of issues that get left unaddressed. In one scene, Kiana’s grandfather leads a little girl from the church toward his car, claiming he has permission to take her home. The children’s director tells him no one is authorized to do this without having written consent from the parent first.

Not long after that, Kiana’s coach insists on giving her a ride home from the church because it’s dark out, and he feels it’s unsafe for her to walk home.

Kiana also discovers her grandfather lurking around her school and track meets, and immediately she feels creeped out by this. In one scene, her track coach finds Kiana and Thorn freerunning in a sketchy part of town.

In both of those sets of instances, both men do very similar things. Obviously Kiana’s history with them makes a huge difference in how she feels about this, but I wished that the story drew a more clear line on what’s safe versus unsafe behavior. I felt like, though his motives seemed to be pure, Kiana’s coach should not have crossed those lines.

I think having those two characters– the coach/hero and the creepy grandfather both committing some of the same actions is what made it stand out to me.

Overall, though, I enjoyed reading a story that followed a girl interested in freerunning and track. I think fans of THE THING WITH FEATHERS by McCall Hoyle will find FREERUNNER to their liking.

Content Notes

Recommended for Ages 12 up.

Kiana’s mom is white and she believes her dad is black. Her grandfather sexually abused her when she was younger.

Profanity/Crude Language Content
A couple of racial slurs and references to them.

Romance/Sexual Content
References to sexual abuse. No graphic descriptions. Reference to a couple being caught having sex (not shown).

Spiritual Content
Kiana joins a church group and learns about trusting God from her track coach.

Violent Content
Multiple references to sexual abuse (not graphically described). References to physical abuse and brief descriptions of a woman killed by her abuser. Reference to a group attacking a man in prison, leaving him in critical condition. A man kidnaps a girl. Someone dies falling from a building.

Drug Content
A woman drinks beers after work.

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

Review: Chirp by Kate Messner

Kate Messner
Bloomsbury USA Children’s
Published February 4, 2020

Amazon |Book Depository | Goodreads

About Chirp

From acclaimed author Kate Messner comes the powerful story of a young girl with the courage to make her voice heard, set against the backdrop of a summertime mystery.

When Mia moves to Vermont the summer after seventh grade, she’s recovering from the broken arm she got falling off a balance beam. And packed away in the moving boxes under her clothes and gymnastics trophies is a secret she’d rather forget.

Mia’s change in scenery brings day camp, new friends, and time with her beloved grandmother. But Gram is convinced someone is trying to destroy her cricket farm. Is it sabotage or is Gram’s thinking impaired from the stroke she suffered months ago? Mia and her friends set out to investigate, but can they uncover the truth in time to save Gram’s farm? And will that discovery empower Mia to confront the secret she’s been hiding–and find the courage she never knew she had?

In a compelling story rich with friendship, science, and summer fun, a girl finds her voice while navigating the joys and challenges of growing up.

My Review

I got kind of nervous as I started to read this book. The way it talked about Mia having a secret, I assumed it had something to do with an adult having inappropriate contact with her, and I wasn’t sure how explicit or intense that would be. Since I’m pretty sensitive to the topic, I felt a little tense until I got to that part of the story. It didn’t include anything nightmarishly explicit. I don’t say that to downplay what Mia experienced at all, simply that as a reader, it didn’t end up being something I couldn’t handle reading.

Mia’s grandmother made me smile so much. She’s strong and brave and pretty committed to her course. I liked the relationship she has with Mia, and the way each encouraged the other. Mia’s friendships with Clover and Anna were great, too. I loved how they bonded over their shared passion for their Launch Camp projects and then over other experiences.

Solidarity Between Women

At one point in the book, after Mia has heard from several of the women in her life about experiences where they were harrassed or treated inappropriately by men, she wonders if this is something that all women experience. I felt like it’s such a reasonable question, and such a hard part about growing up, right? Because too many women do have those stories. I know I do.

While it’s heartbreaking watching someone realize something troubling about the world, I loved the way it becomes part of Mia’s healing, too. She’s not alone. She’s not wrong for feeling the way she did, even though at the time, she felt completely alone and ashamed for feeling uncomfortable.

I also loved that, even though I thought the topic was really well-addressed, the story wasn’t only about these things. Mia is never defined by that experience. She’s always many things– a girl with lots of interests and talents and relationships.

Plus I have to talk about the cricket farm. I know I say this every time I read a book with a protagonist with an unusual interest or talent, but I love that the author brought such a different family business to the story– not only a cricket farm, but crickets for a food source! I thought that was really fun.

Readers who are looking for a balance of light and heavy topics will enjoy CHIRP a lot, especially fans of BE LIGHT LIKE A BIRD by Monika Schröder or FLORA & ULYSSES by Kate DiCamillo.

Content Notes

Recommended for Ages 10 to 14.

Mia’s friend Anna is Indian. A couple other minor characters are also Asian.

Profanity/Crude Language Content

Romance/Sexual Content
Mia recalls situations in which a man made her uncomfortable and left her feeling icky.

Spiritual Content
A brief mention that Mia’s family has gone to church on Sunday.

Violent Content
A man verbally threatens a girl.

Drug Content

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