ALAN Picks (February 2023)

ALAN Picks: The Challenges of First Love

This month’s ALAN Picks features reviews of three books that will engage teens in the complicated aspects of romantic teen relationships and self-love. These young adult books include the first book in a contemporary graphic novel series, Heartstopper, Volume 1, by Alice Oseman, and two verse novels Nothing Burns as Bright as You by Ashley Woodfolk and Vinyl Moon by Mahogany L. Browne. These books explore LGBTQIA+ relationships and issues; struggles associated with teens in their first romantic relationship; and the exploration of recovering from trauma. Check out these reviews for ideas on how to engage students with these books and topics in the classroom. 

ALAN Picks Update: ALAN Picks is now accepting reviews of books published as far back as spring 2020. This gives ALAN members who are interested in reviewing books more great titles to choose from, as well as accommodate some great books released during the beginning of the pandemic that deserve highlighting. If you have some books in mind that you would like to review, please reach out to me!

If you read an ALAN Picks review and end up using the book with your students, let us know! We want to hear all of your great stories and engaging ways you are using young adult and middle grades literature in your classrooms. Remember, ALAN Picks are book reviews by educators for educators! Click on the archives to see previous editions.

–  Richetta Tooley, ALAN Picks Editor

Submit a Review: Would you like to submit a review? Check out ALAN Picks for submission guidelines and email ALAN Picks Editor, Richetta Tooley at with the book title you are interested in reviewing. Rolling deadline.

A Romance That Challenges Stereotypes

Heartstopper, Volume 1, by Alice Oseman

Book Details
Publisher: Scholastic, Inc.
Publish Date: May 5, 2020
Page Count: 288
ISBN: 9781338617436
Genre: Graphic Novel, Fiction, LGBT Romance
Find on Bookshop

Synopsis: After being bullied for coming out as gay in the last school year, Charlie Spring begins the new year by making a new friend and developing a crush on Year 11 student, Nick Nelson. As the two become closer friends and Charlie joins Nick’s rugby team, they both learn to navigate and break down homophobic stereotypes surrounding them. The first volume’s narrative peaks as Nick realizes he too has a crush on Charlie and begins questioning his sexuality. The book concludes with Nick and Charlie kissing at a party, and Charlie worrying that he has made the move too soon.


Oseman uses Nick and Charlie’s budding romance to critique, challenge and break down homophobic stereotypes that can sometimes be found in secondary and tertiary school settings. This graphic novel highlights and explores issues such as cyberbullying, assault, peer pressure, discovering one’s own sexuality and speculating about others’ identities. Being a graphic novel, the amount of text available to read aloud is reduced, but the illustrations effectively illuminate Nick and Charlie’s inner thoughts and emotions. Bringing Oseman’s graphic novel into the classroom would encourage LGBTQIA+ acceptance and equality, through narrating very real experiences of queer adolescents. As the novel does include some strong language, this book may be most suited to students in grade six and upwards.

Suggestions for Curriculum & Classroom Use

Thematic Analysis
Many of the themes explored throughout this graphic novel are crucial for students to be aware of and understand their implications. Teachers can either discuss the themes sequentially as a class, and/or split students into groups to ‘zoom in’ on one specific issue and analyze how it affects the characters in the novel.

  • Bullying (cyber/physical)
  • Peer pressure
  • Speculating about another person’s sexuality
  • Homophobia and LGBTQ+ stereotypes
  • The power of friendship
  • Budding romance
  • The importance of consent
  • Power imbalances

Essential Questions

  • Why should we always promote and practice acceptance and equality, both inside and outside of school?
  • How important is trust in friendships and relationships?
  • How can we overcome stereotypes to be our authentic selves?
  • In what ways can we give room for consent?
Formative/Summative Assessments

Formative: Students can create a timeline and track how one of the themes listed above develops throughout the novel, highlighting how both the text and illustrations address the theme/issue. Students could also pinpoint the illustrations that help them see into the characters’ hidden thoughts and emotions that are sparked by each theme.

Summative: Students can compose a letter to their State Department of Education to propose that teaching and promoting LGBTQIA+ acceptance is made a compulsory module in all schools. They can refer to their theme timelines to highlight how students’ wellbeing and emotional development will be positively impacted by this.

Other Creative Components:

The Heartstopper series has now been adapted into a Netflix show. Students may be encouraged to watch it, either during class for extra discussion or in their own time.

Review by: Lauren Woodall, English Education student at Purdue University, West Lafayette, Indiana.

A heart-wrenching exploration of the fickleness of first love

Nothing Burns as Bright as You by Ashley Woodfolk

Book Details
Publisher: HarperCollins
Publish Date: 04/05/2022
Page Count: 288
ISBN: 9780358655350
Genre: Fiction, Queer Romance
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Synopsis: Narrated in first-person, Nothing Burns as Bright as You is the story of two unnamed, Black queer girls crossing the line between best friends and lovers, beginning with the couple’s decision to set fire to a dumpster behind their high school. Loosely tied to the repercussions of this fateful day, the novel jumps in time and space as we journey through their relationship from friends to lovers. The story is about the trials of queer love and how to cope when the person you were drawn to like a moth to a flame, ends up burning your wings. 


I hope this book can hold you as you cry the way writing it held me – Ashley Woodfolk

A story that rips your heartstrings as you fall headfirst into the narrator’s tumultuous relationship, Nothing Burns as Bright as You is a tragedy about destructive love. Woodfolk’s writing is lyrical, her free verse as emotionally charged as the story she details. Her verse novella will enrapture audiences of all ages. Nothing Burns as Bright as You is a unique tale about an abusive queer relationship. Woodfolk writes, “We are told, as young girls, to be wary of boys and to guard our hearts around them. Yet we are not warned about girls, about how their love, too, can destroy us.” Woodfolk breaks the mold of a typical young adult coming of age love story — there is no knight in shining armor, no happily ever after. There are only two girls, intricately intertwined —  too loose to be considered lovers, but tight enough to suffocate each other. 

Suggestions for Curriculum & Classroom Use

Thematic Connections:
Educators can introduce the concept of a verse novel and teach students about poetic elements. Educators can also talk about examples of how poetry conveys intricate emotions like love. Some thematic elements in the text are:

  • Love
  • Identity
  • Loyalty
  • Infatuation
  • Self-love
  • Sexuality
  • Race

Culturally Responsive Teaching Strategies: Poem Analysis
The story is full of literary devices and techniques. Students can be asked to pick their favorite poem, identify these devices and explain how they contribute to the writer’s effect, creating a model for literary analysis. An example of this is dental alliteration and the anaphora in the poem “A lie”. The poem reads: “Opposites distract. Opposites destroy. Opposites decimate. Opposites detonate.” This creates a sense of doom, foreshadowing the abusive nature of their relationship. 

Students can also talk about how their chosen poem ties into the overall narrative. Alternatively, they can read other love poems and contrast the romance in those poems with that of the novel. 

Culturally responsive formative and/or summative assessments

  • The novel is divided into two parts  —”A Truth” and “A Lie”. Students can form two reading groups and discuss the form, structure, devices, and diction and make a mind map. Groups can then compare their mind maps and talk about the difference between the two parts. How does the writing compare in each section? What is the intention behind the choices Woodfolk makes? How do they reflect the emotions of the protagonist?
  • Students can make a visual one-pager, following a rubric set by the teacher, to summarize the novel and identify key ideas and themes.
  • To complement their literary analysis, middle grade/ high school students can also attempt to write their own poem in the same style as the novel with two or more of the same underlying themes. This would make them analyze how poetic style complements the themes of the poem. How would the style change if their poem was about a dreamy movie romance? What if it was about a rivalry?

Review by: Manasi Rajan, Student at Purdue University, West Lafayette, IN.

A Book that Could Serve as a Mentor Text for Both Teacher and Student

Vinyl Moon by Mahogany L. Browne

Book Details
Publisher: January 11, 2022
Publish Date: Crown Books for Young Readers, an imprint of Random House Children’s Books, a division of Penguin Random House
Page Count: 176
ISBN: 978-0-593-17643-6
Genre: Realistic Fiction; Novel in Verse; Coming-of-Age
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Synopsis: After a fight with her boyfriend, Angel is forced to leave her mom and four siblings in California to move in with her uncle in New York City. Besides figuring out her new neighborhood in Brooklyn, Angel is navigating her past experiences, guilt, and insecurities. At her new school, Angel joins an advisory group and English class that connects her with others through reading, poetry, and music. In the process, she explores herself and begins healing. With encouragement from her new community, Angel starts creating playlists as a way to express herself—both who she was before and who she is working to become.


Told through poetry and prose detailing Angel’s present and recent past, Vinyl Moon by Mahogany L. Browne offers much to readers in just 176 pages. Angel’s story of finding hope and self-compassion will resonate with many readers who have experienced challenges related to coming of age, including love, family, and self-acceptance. This novel will also appeal to readers who appreciate music, poetry, and literature. In a sense, the novel functions as a type of recommended reading and listening list of Black writers and artists and thus offers many possibilities for paired texts. 

Finally, Vinyl Moon presents a teacher character, Ms. G, whose praxis can serve as a mentor for culturally sustaining teaching, particularly with Black girls. Vinyl Moon could be read by preservice teachers as a professional mentor text in addition to supplemental resources, such as Cultivating Genius: An Equity Framework for Culturally and Historically Responsive Literacy by Gholdy Muhammad and/or Literacy Is Liberation: Working Toward Justice Through Culturally Relevant Teaching by Kimberly N. Parker. 

The novel does touch on challenging topics, including abusive relationships and homophobia, and thus should be approached thoughtfully and through intentional, humanizing pedagogies.

Suggestions for Curriculum & Classroom Use

Thematic Connections and Essential Questions
While many connections can be made to Vinyl Moon depending on a course’s needs and students’ interests, the novel especially supports generative conversations about coming-of-age experiences and speaking truth through self-expression. A focus on coming-of-age stories could include questions such as, What experiences define growing up (or coming-of-age), and how do those experiences influence perspectives, identities, and adulthood? Readers will find possibilities by examining Angel’s story as well as the stories of her mom, Elena, and her Uncle Spence. 

Alternatively, a unit of study exploring self-expression and the power of telling our truths could investigate questions such as, How do the arts (e.g., poetry, music) help us to connect to ourselves and others? In what ways can the arts be used to express ourselves, particularly with regard to various genres, mediums, and technology? These questions would help readers to make connections to Angel’s creative process toward reckoning with and sharing her truth and in turn, discover new pathways for their own unique processes of self-actualization.

Teaching Strategies and Activities
As mentioned previously, Angel’s teacher, Ms. G, utilizes culturally responsive and sustaining practices with her students. Teachers could incorporate Ms. G’s approach through the following ideas that help students make connections between the novel and their own lives: 

  • Safe Space: Beginning class with community check-ins and a protected space for students to share their lived experiences is one way to connect to the text. 
  • Community: Additionally, asking students to listen to or read excerpts from some of the artists and writers referenced in the novel could provide a deep understanding of Angel’s experiences of finding community through words. 
  • Arts Culture: Providing opportunities for students to share the texts that make up the bookshelves and soundtrack of their lives would also facilitate conversations around Angel’s experiences being transplanted to Brooklyn. 
  • Geography: Studying excerpts where Angel discusses the new music, literature, and food she finds in Brooklyn could provide opportunities for community-based writing in your contexts.

Assessment Possibilities
Because readers will certainly find inspiration in the artistry shared within Vinyl Moon, offering students options for engaging with the text through the various genres presented—poetry, prose, rap, playlists—would be a powerful way for students to make connections to the characters while finding their own forms of self-expression. Students could reflect on their own growth by speaking their truth in a spoken word piece. Taking Angel’s approach, others might decide to curate a playlist of music that illustrates a pivotal experience in their lives. Like in the novel, classroom or community open mics could serve as possibilities for assessing student work inspired by their reading of Vinyl Moon.

Review by: Shelby Boehm, Doctoral Candidate in English Education and Literacy at the University of Florida, Gainesville, FL