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The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo

Xiomara Batista is a girl who isn’t sure where – or how – she belongs.  A twin and one half of her Dominican parents’ miracle, Xiomara is everything her devout mother is afraid of – full of questions, especially when it comes to faith, possessed of fierce fists she learned how to use a long time ago to protect her twin brother, and with a body she always feels takes up too much space, especially when boys and men are always calling attention to it.  She’s also a girl who loves words and loves to write, her most prized possession a journal her twin, Xavier, gave to her on her birthday.

When her new English teacher, Ms. Galiano, invites Xiomara to join her after-school slam poetry club, Xiomara knows she can’t go.  Confirmation class is at the same time, and there’s no way Mami will allow her to switch it up, even though Xiomara isn’t too sure she’s ready to be confirmed yet – she’s full of too many questions that no one seems to want to hear, much less answer.

But a friendship – and maybe more, although there’s no way Mami will allow her to date – with a boy in her bio class starts to change the ways Xiomara tries to fit in to her world.  Aman feels like the first person to really listen to her – listen, and not judge.  Listen, with respect.  Listen, and understand.  Listen, and give words back to her.  As Xiomara fills up the pages of her journal with poetry, she starts to move toward becoming a girl who can let her words out – and even be proud of them.  But when something happens that sends her words up in smoke, can she be brave enough to keep working her way toward herself?

This book has been on my radar for months, so, after it basically picked up All The Awards this year, I knew I had to take a break from my annual Harry Potter re-read and make some time for Elizabeth Acevedo’s debut novel.  And OH WOW am I glad I did.  Beautiful, compelling, heart-breaking, raw and emotional, and stunning in its expression of one girl’s truth, this has got to be one of the most powerful books I’ve ever read.  Written in free verse, The Poet X is the story of Xiomara’s sophomore year of high school – the story of how one girl finds the words inside herself and uses them to set her true self free.

An Absolutely Remarkable Thing by Hank Green

Book jacket cover of Nine PintsI don’t know whether it’s nature or nurture, but those Green brothers sure can write. John (The Fault in Our Stars, etc) is an established superstar. This is Hank’s debut novel and he (IMHO) knocked it out of the park. Kirkus Reviews (who are quite hard to impress) gave it a starred review, writing: “A young graphic artist inspires worldwide hysteria when she accidentally makes first contact with an alien. Famous multimedia wunderkind Green is brother to that John Green, so no pressure or anything on his debut novel. Luckily, he applies wit, affection, and cultural intelligence to a comic sci-fi novel suitable for adults and mature teens. It’s endearing how fully he occupies his narrator, a 20-something bi artist named April May who is wasting her youth slaving at a Manhattan startup. On her way home late one night, April encounters an armored humanoid figure, which turns out to be alien in nature—”And I don’t mean alien like ‘weird,’ ” she says. She phones her videographer friend Andy Skampt, who posts on YouTube a funny introduction to the robot she dubs Carl. April’s life is turned upside down when the video goes massively viral and immovable Carls appear in cities around the world. After they discover a complex riddle involving the Queen song “Don’t Stop Me Now,” the mystery becomes a quest for April; Andy; April’s roommate/kind-of-sort-of girlfriend, Maya; a scientist named Miranda; and April’s new assistant, Robin, to figure out what the Carls are doing here. “None of us older than twenty-five years old, cruising down Santa Monica Boulevard, planning our press strategy for the announcement of First Contact with a space alien,” says April. April and her friends are amiable goofballs and drawn genuinely for their age and time. Meanwhile, the story bobs along on adolescent humor and otherworldly phenomena seeded with very real threats, not least among them a professional hater named Peter Petrawicki and his feral followers. Green is clearly interested in how social media moves the needle on our culture, and he uses April’s fame, choices, and moral quandaries to reflect on the rending of social fabric. Fortunately, this entertaining ride isn’t over yet, as a cliffhanger ending makes clear. A fun, contemporary adventure that cares about who we are as humans, especially when faced with remarkable events.” I read this book in one sitting and absolutely loved it. Highly recommended!

The Light Between Worlds by Laura E. Weymouth

Six years ago, with bombs and air raid sirens screaming all around them, Philippa, Jamie, and Evelyn Hapwell stepped from the dark and terror of their parents’ London bomb shelter in 1944 and into another world.  The Woodlands are sunlight and starlight and magic, a place where tree spirits sing, rivers have water guardians, centaurs and other mythical beasts roam the forests, and a mighty stag is the Guardian of all its creatures.  The Woodlands are also on the brink of war with the Empire.  Greeted by Cervus, Guardian of the Wood, the three siblings discovered that it was the power of Evelyn’s desperate wish to be free of their own world that allowed Cervus to call them.  And though death and destruction loom heavy on the horizon in the Woodlands, just as in their own world, Philippa and Jamie and Ev agree to help in any way they can – as long as Cervus promises to send them home at the end, with no time lost in their own world.

Almost six years spent in the Woodlands – five years, and a war, and many friends and enemies made and lost.  And now, six years after returning, the Hapwells are the same age they were when Cervus sent them back.  Philippa is in America at college, trying to become her own person, trying desparately to forget and fit into her life.  Jamie is at Oxford, and Ev at St. Agatha’s, her first year at school without her sister to hold her together.  Ev wants only to remember – and to go home.  After all, Cervus made a promise – A Woodlands heart always finds its way home.  And Ev’s heart will forever belong to the Woodlands.  But as she clings to hope and searches for a way home, long after Philippa and Jamie have resigned themselves to an ordinary life in our world, Ev begins to falter under the weight of hope, love, and family.  When she vanishes into the wood behind St. Agatha’s one cold winter night, Philippa and Jamie must decide how far they are willing to go to find their sister – or if she wants to be found.

If you’re the sort of person who looks for magic in the woods and the fields and all the dark, deep green places of the world, and hopes for secret passages in old houses, and talks to trees because you know they might be listening, and feels that fizzing frisson of hope and dread (but mostly hope) every time you step through a stone passage, or a birch ring, or find a fairy ring of mushrooms, this gorgeous book is for you.  Inspired by Narnia and the question of what becomes of heroes after they’re returned to their world, this lovely book is one of my favorite reads of this year.  Haunting, lyrical, and full of a fierce longing for magic found and lost, The Light Between Worlds explores what it would be like to come back and try to live in the world as an ordinary person when you’ve been everything – and everywhere – extraordinary.  If you’re hoping for a little magic to find you in the coming year, you’ll be sure to find it in the pages of this beautiful gem of a book.