YA BOOKS: Spring 2021

This listing includes ten titles about identity and culture for Young Adolescent Readers. Several books happen to connect with others on the list, particularly with a focus on race, on the refugee theme and/or stories are centred on coming out gay.  

HOW IT ALL BLEW UP By Arvin Ahmadi

Opening: First, Let me get one thing straight: I”m not a terrorist. I’m gay. On the day of his high school graduation, 18 year old Amir Azadi has taken off for Rome. Amir is tormented by the fact that he can’t come out to his Muslim family and after receiving a blackmail threat by some students, Amir takes action and when he arrives at the airport and spontaneously books a flight to Italy. He is swept up into the world of some out, very good looking, older men and develops friendships and enjoys the lifestyle of Italian sites, food and parties. His family is desperate to learn about son’s safety but he is worried that he won’t be understand. The story unfolds with different episodes of his days (and nights) in Rome and is interwoven with conversations in an airport interrogation room. For many young people it is hard to tell the truth and the whole truth. Many will identify and cheer on Amir’s self-discovery.  The author writes that the story was inspired by events that he experienced one summer spent in Rome. But the encounters that Amir experiences seemed rather lucky (the stuff of fiction) and I’m not sure that all such escape adventures for a teenager trying to find himself would be as fortunate or joyful as this young man’s. Still, it is great to have those adventures to help you through life’s journeys and identity quest. I absolutely rooted for Amir.  And I longed to visit Italy. 

COME ON IN:15 stories about immigration and finding home by Adi Alsaid (ed.) Short stories

15 stories written by diverse YA authors and describe journeys and settlements from such places as Ecuador, Fiji, Mexica, Argentina, an India.  Like any short story collection, some worked better than others but each effectively descries a journey of families taken from home to find a new place called home. They are stories of leaving things behind, crossing borders, and finding a place of belonging and acceptance. Ultimately, each story answers the question “But where are you really from?”


Adam Eli is Jewish and queer.  Eli grew up with Talmud teachings: All Jewish people are responsible  for one another” and dreams of living in a world knowing that “Queer people anywhere are responsible for queer people everywhere.” After all, wouldn’t you want someone to fight for you. Ali is the founder of Voices 4 a non-violent direct-action activist group committed for advancing global LGBTAIAA+ liberation. In this slim volume, Adam Eli recounts his own experiences of coming out and argues,  for some changes that need to be made to ignite the responsibilities of gay people everywhere. The book is framed around ten recommendations (e.g. ‘We approach all gay people with the principles of identification and kindness”; ‘Recognize that the playing field is not equal’. 

This slim book is one of a series of 8 books published under the Pocket Change Collective “born out of a need for space. Space to think. Space to connect. Space to be yourself.”  The  activism titles  in the series ask big questions and offer solutions for teenager to reflect upon and learn from. These little books are a call for social justice and possibilities. Some topics include:  equality for those who are deaf (Continuum by Chella Man); the Global movement to eliminate single-use plastics (Taking on the Plastics Crisis by Hanna Testa), the climate crisis (Imaginary Borders by Xiuhtexcat Martinez) reimagining the gender binary (Beyond the Gender Binary by  Alok Vaid-Menon).

SAY HER NAME by Zetta Elliott (Poetry)

At the top of the book cover, there is a highlighted subtitle: ‘Poems to Empower’.  These are powerful poems by a powerful Black poet, celebrating and empowering Black women.  Elliott finds inspiration from world events, often brutal, and from Black poet mentors.  A feature of this book is the inclusion of  Notes and these are worth reading to discover how Black youth, historical figures and poems have spurred Elliott on to write these powerful poems about equal justice and a call to Black Lives Matter. The art  illustrations by Loveis Wise that appear throughout may, at first glance, seem to decorate the words, but these images add poetry of their own to the collection. 

Say Her Name (excerpt)

Say her name and solemnly vow

Never to forget, not allow

Our sisters’ lives to be erased;

Their presence cannot be replaced.

This senseless slaughter must stop now. 

THE HILL WE CLIMB by Amanda Gorman (poem)

This slim volume is the in-print version of Amanda Gorman’s poem presented on January 20, 2021, the day of President Biden’s inauguration. Activist and poet, Gorman, age 22, was the youngest poet to deliver a poetry reading at an inauguration and in the preface to this publication, Oprah Winfrey writes, ‘they don’t come very often, these moments of incandescence where the welter of pain and suffering gives way to hope. Maybe even joy.”

Excerpt (page 29)

When day comes, we step out of the shade

Aflame and unafraid.

The new dawn blooms as we free it.

For there is always light,

If only we’re brave enough to see it,

IF only we’re brave enough to be it. 

THE TALK: Conversations about Race, Love and Truth by Wade Hudson & Cheryl Willis Hudson (editors).

This is a collection of 17 short pieces by 30 diverse and award-winning authors and illustrators that offer frank discussions, advice, and pleas to young people about identity, about racism and about self-esteem and about finding and using their voices. Selections are told in letter format (Not A China Doll by Grace Lin;  poetry (Tough Tuesday by Niki Grimes, lists (Ten by Tracey Baptiste) short stories (The Bike by Wade Hudson,and essay format (Why Are There Racist People by Duncan Tonatiuth, each author believing that they can give inspiration, hope and each knowing  that TALK is the way to begin.  Wade Hudson and Cheryl Willis Hudson are the coeditors of the anthology We Rise, We Resist, We Raise Our Voices

HERE THE WHOLE TIME by Vitor Martins

The opening line: “I am fat”. From page one of this novel, readers want to put their arms around Felipe, a large 18 year old  gay Brazilian boy, who seems to be filled the insecurities (he goes to therapy). The plot begins quickly, when Felipe learns that his mother agreed to let Caio (the very handsome, sexy neighbour) stay with them while his parents are away. Felipe has had a crush on Caio for a long time. How will he talk to hCaio? What will he say? How can he handle his infatuation? How can he handle his insecurities? Caio is in the household (and eventually shares Felipe’s bedroom) over 15 days and in 15 chapters a strong friendship, a  growing trust and yes – a mutual ‘love’ unfolds.  Both boys need admire each other and both boys need each other. The character of Felipe can be a hero for many adolescents who are always looking into the mirror and seek a place of belonging and acceptance. A candid and funny gay story .  The book is translated from the Brazilian Portuguese. 

GONE TO THE WOODS: Surviving a Lost Childhood by Gary Paulsen

Gary Paulsen has always been a favourite author of mine. Every since reading Hatchet, The Winter Room, The IslandI always looked forward to buying any new Paulsen title in hardback. in 1993, I read his biography Eastern Sun, Winter Moon and was wowed by the description of harrowing events in the author’s life. I had the honour of meeting him at a Language Arts conference years ago. Me in my navy blazer; Mr. Paulsen in his denim. What do you say to an author you so admire. As I passed on a copy of his autobiography to sign, I said: “Mr. Paulsen, you are a hero.” He signed: “For Larry – Also a hero – Gary Paulsen.

I was excited to receive his new book, a memoir, describing his life growing up. Again I was wowed! What this guy has been through seems to be the stuff of fiction, but he lived through these daunting events. The world that he lived through – being abandoned by his mother, fishing on a Minnesota lake, feeding chickens, hiding away in a ship, witnessing a brutal shark attack, escaping drunken parents, battling. mosquitoes, and geese and rats, and bullies, working in a bowling alley, sweeping floors in a bar, hiding alone in a basement eating peanut butter sandwiches, going to vocational school to learn about television repair, joining the army. Paulsen’s world is so far removed from my own urban life. He is at one with nature.  He is a survivor. 

The most heartwarming section of this memoir (written in the 3rd person where he describes the life of ‘the boy’ was his entrance into the world of the library, when a kind librarian handed him his first book, his first library card. As a struggling young adolescent reader he came to devour books. And then the librarian handed him a notebook and where he too could great word pictures and stories for others to read.
The rest – over 200 books – is history.

Mr Paulsen, you are a hero.

Excerpt (page 300)

(He) realized that he could know ore, maybe be more from reading.


He wanted more as if he was… what? Thirsty. Like his brain was thirsty and wanted more things to know the way he wanted water if he was dry. And not just that he wanted more, but he had to have it, like water. That’s what came from books, the knowing of new things and then wanting more. 

REFUGEE BOY by Benjamin Zephania

Allem, a young adolescent boy from Africa finds himself without any family in London, England. His father is Ethipian and his mother Eritrean and their countries are at warm. Through assistance with the Refugee council e comes to settle comfortably in a caring foster home but is challenged by a system that is not easily giving him asylum. Readers will absolutely cheer on this smart, determined teenager. This novel, originally published in 2001, resonates with refugees today who seeking a place of safety and freedom. In the introduction to this publication, the author writes that he was meeting refugees every day and each one of them had a unique and usually terrifying story to tell. Refugee Boy borrows from many stories that Zephania heard and it is one story that remarkable serves as a case study for the refugee experience which includes, education, bullying, friendships, racism, government policy, protest, trauma and hope.



EVERYTHING SAD IS UNTRUE (a true story) by Daniel Nayeri

  “Like Scherezade in a hostile classroom, author Daniel Nayeri weaves a tale of Khosru (Daniel) trying to save his own life: To stake his claim to truth. And it is (a true story)” (jacket blurh)

WOW! What a great great book! This title – winner of the Printz award 2021 for best YA fiction -,  claims to be simultaneously be fiction (sad but untrue)  and nonfiction (a true story). It recounts Daniel Nayeri’s life experiences as an Iranian youth, who immigrated to Oklahoma with his mother and sister. Nayeri is the young student telling stories in a middle school classroom to those who listen with curiosity and disbelief (and disinterest).  The stories told rise from early years in the author’s life back in Iran and his family’s escape as refugees, recent years experiences in a U.S. community  and decades ago in his ancestor’s lives and long ago centuries in Iranian lore. 

If I counted, I’m sure there 1001+ stories within the pages of Everything is Sad But Untrue:  blood slopping from the throat of a bull; a giant rug 150 feet long, woven with gold and silk and gems; a fatwa put on his Mother’s head for switching over to Christianity; eating egg sandwiches in the bathroom of the local library; an abusive stepdad who beats up Nayeri’s mother (they got married 3 times); Twinkies; a school bully who flicks the ears of poor little kids until they scream in pain; preparing goody bags for American soldiers; church barbecues; paper clip missiles; falling in love (in your mind) with an Armenian princess; a stolen baseball cap; standing at the back of a cafeteria line; a sister’s pinky dealing by a thin string of skin; bathrooms without ‘chairs; pants poop; nailing shingles on a roof; a refugee camp outside Rome; a father’s baptism; a gold Cadillac; getting stitches ina hospital in Dubai; Alexander the Great; Persian markets; the history of the Shiites and Sunis; the tragedy of saying good-bey to a beloved stuffed toy named Sheep Sheep; telling story upon story upon story. 

Interesting enough, after reading about 30 pages, I found myself grabbing a pencil to make note of some astonishing sentences. Some might turn down pages, some might get use sticky notes  but I found myself pausing and pondering on many many statements. 

“A patchwork memory is the shame of a refugee.” (p. 49)

“I won’t lie t you. The deck marked ‘life’ is stacked full of bum cards.” (p. 108)

RUMI: “You are not a drop in the ocean. You are the entire ocean in a drop.” (p. 124)

“Would you rather be a god who listens or a god who speaks?” (p. 216)

“Every story is nestled somewhere within another story.” (p. 258)

Reading some online comments, it seems that there is some ‘concern’ about who this audience for the book. It’s YA+. For many years, Nayeri worked to find the best way to tell his story and as an intended YA read, he’s spot on. Maybe not an easy ‘sell’. Maybe, not a stick-with-it read for teenagers expecting plot or linear style. (There are no designated chapters in this bouncing back and forth storytelling). I think every Iranian teenager needs to read this book. I think every non-Iranian teacher would learn from this book. They will discover an authentic narrative about the refugee experience, about bullying, about heritage and culture, history and about memory.

Of course, every book we read, prepares us to read others. Along the way in our reading journey we are met with surprises. I’m thinking of APEIROGON by Column McCann which I found to be astonishing in its blend of fiction and nonfiction. It’s a worthy comparison to Nayeri’s book since they both are expert storytellers of life experiences and they both explode in factual information. I recently read HOMELAND ELEGIES by Ayad Akhatar, describing the author’s life as a Muslim in America. which claims to be a novel but is another title that is a hybrid of style. Each of these books have profound narrative voices. I would say that Nayeri’s narrative voice is the most unique I’ve read since meeting Salinger’s Holden Caulfield.  I love books like this where you really seem to get in the minds of the characters as they share their views of the world. 

Nayeri is always aware of the reader peeking over his shoulder and slithering into his mind:

“I’m not going to introduce\e myself. You will know me by my voice. In your mind, we are sitting together… In here, you host me. I am your guest and you probably think of me like you think of yourself – human.” (p. 11)

I will be re-reading this book someday.