ALAN Picks (March 2023)

ALAN Picks: Self-Discovery, Power and Oppression

This month’s ALAN Picks features reviews of four books that delve into the vast experiences of girls and women with oppression, power and everyday life. These young adult books include: two fantasy/science fiction books, Bitter by Akwaeke Emezi and Iron Widow by Xiran Jay Zhao; a contemporary verse novel Chlorine Sky by Mahogany L. Browne; and a memoir You Sound Like a White Girl: The Case for Rejecting Assimilation by Julissa Arce. These books explore rebellion against structural power, relationships and self-identity. 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 Social Revolution Led by Youth and Angels

Bitter by Akwaeke Emezi

Book Details
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf Books for Young Readers
Publish Date: February 15, 2022
Page Count: 272 pages
ISBN: 9780593309032
Genre: Fantasy Fiction
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Synopsis: Bitter, a Black and queer seventeen-year-old girl, who spent most of her life in foster care, has just been accepted into Eucalyptus, a private school that focuses on providing a creative outlet for students in the Arts. She has finally found her “home”; however, the world outside of Eucalyptus isn’t as safe and nurturing. With protests and demonstrations happening within the city limits of Lucille, it is hard to believe that the Eucalyptus kids can remain protected from what’s happening. While some of her friends are out on the battlefields, Bitter keeps tucked away in her art studio, her sanctuary, the only place Bitter feels in control and sometimes finds herself getting carried away and a little too connected with her paintings.


This novel does a beautiful job of raising awareness of cultural and societal issues present in the world today within the Black community.  Akwaeke Emezi is brilliant in challenging the terms such as “monsters” and “angels”, and what it means to be either brings into focus how society chooses to view certain communities. Bitter’s character offers a ‘telescope’ (Toliver 2021) view into the life of an extraordinary young Black girl who battles with self-identity and the struggle of emotions that affect us all. The other characters throughout the novel are also well-developed and have their own strong voices, which helps captivate readers. Although this is the prequel to Pet, published in 2019, Bitter could be a stand-alone book.  Readers are taken on a new journey that unveils the truths behind what the history books and the adults wouldn’t share with the newer generations in Pet. This enchanted and enlightening book is a treat to devour! 

Suggestions for Curriculum & Classroom Use

Thematic Analysis
Bitter covers a variety of themes that educators can explore, based on the maturity of their classroom, of course. Here is a non-exhaustive list: 

  • “Monsters” vs. “Angels”
  • Self-Discovery
  • Rebellion Against the Power & Corruption of the Government and Other Authority Figures
  • Hope for Peace and Liberation
  • Empowerment of Youth

Essential Questions

  • What does “home” look or feel like?
  • What are the implications of untold or misrepresented stories?
  • How can different roles come together to create empowerment & change?

Teaching Strategies and Activities to Use:

  • Discuss and research moments in Black History that align with the book: Black Lives Matter, Black Power and the Black Panthers for Self Defense
  • Close readings of paired texts (especially Pet) that relate to Black culture, acts of rebellion and coming together.
  • Exploration of different art forms such as visual, literature, and performance that act as tools of resistance 
  • Study different social movements and historical rebellions such as the Civil Rights Movement, the Watts Riots, Rodney King Riots, and the Black Lives Matter uprisings 
Formative/Summative Assessments

Formative: Students should keep a reading journal to reflect on passages, scenes, and/or how they feel while reading the novel. Students’ journals should be a space where they can process emotions and areas of resistance or relate to characters within the story. Entries can be inspired and alternate between teacher-led discussion prompts and free write responses by students. Reflections can be shared among small groups, in a Socratic seminar, or in a philosophical chair class discussion.

Summative: Students can work on an Engaged Activism Project that supports student engagement in practices such as personal/social responsibility and integrative/applied learning. Students will need to find a social justice issue or movement they are interested in, compile data and research their topic. They can choose from local engagement or events, an op-ed/public history piece, or teaching/outreach as the container of showcasing their knowledge and research. This is completely student-led, allowing students autonomy over their own learning and how they want to display it.

Reviewed by: Marquita Woods, Preservice Teacher studying at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, Colorado.

A Battle Against Patriarchy

Iron Widow by Xiran Jay Zhao

Book Details
Publisher: Penguin Teen Canada
Publish Date: September 21, 2021
Page Count: 391 pages
ISBN: 0735269939
Genre: Young Adult
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Synopsis: Set in a dystopian future where the male-dominated society of Huaxia relies on giant Chrysalises to break a bitter stalemate in a war against the hordes of monstrous Hundun, this is a story that incorporates elements of the spiritual world, ancient Chinese myths, and Gundam/Pacific-Rim-style giant robots. Each Chrysalis is piloted by a dominant man and a female concubine, with the male using his copilot as a one-time power source. The protagonist of this story, Zetian Wu, is a teenage girl whose primary motivation is revenge—she wants to slit the throat of the Chrysalis pilot responsible for her sister’s death.  However, a sudden turn of events leads to Zetian being chosen to accompany her sister’s murderer into battle against the Hundun. She mentally overpowers her copilot and is recognized as an Iron Widow—a female who can use the life force of a male to power a Chrysalis. 


Xiran Jay Zhao crafts a beautiful story that takes pride in its chaotic identity and unfiltered dialogue. The concept of futuristic robots fighting monsters from ancient myths is fascinating—Zhao’s worldbuilding is immaculate—and the social commentary of this story enhances the reading experience massively. The definitive theme of this book is the deep entrenchment of misogyny in Huaxia, and Zetian’s struggle against this systematic prejudice makes the backbone of this story. Zetian is a stoic character whose steadfast commitment to her values is easily observable. A lot of readers will relate to her upbringing in a conservative, unsupportive household and the internal strife that develops as a result. 

Zhao cleverly bypasses the inevitable love-triangle between Zetian and the other two central characters of this story—Yizhi, the son of a rich media mogul, and Li Shimin, the strongest pilot in Huaxia—by involving them in a polyamorous relationship. This allows for emotional growth and healing from past traumas in every member of this triumvirate at a pace that corresponds with the other two. Zetian is a great protagonist and is very easy to root for—she is essentially patriarchy’s reckoning. However, though this creates a fascinating main character, it also results in situations where Zetian feels like a video-game protagonist—a bad-to-the-bone, belligerent heroine who’s always down for a fight—but a character who’s not very dynamic. All things considered, this book is a great crossover between science fiction and ancient mythology, and I believe that it is an enjoyable read if one chooses to approach it as they would a summer blockbuster movie—enjoy the action, don’t question the logic.

Suggestions for Curriculum & Classroom Use


  • Patriarchy
  • Misogyny
  • Women’s rights
  • Growth
  • Oppression
  • Empowerment

Discussion Topics:

  • Introduce and define the concept of patriarchy. Explain the long-term damage of patriarchy by talking about Huaxia’s struggling war effort (the military simply sacrifices all capable women and consequently, they’re losing the war).  
  • The objectification and horrific treatment of women in domestic Huaxian households is a great example of defamiliarization. Introducing the concept of defamiliarization and its utility in unlocking fresh perspectives can help show students how the author’s social commentary on Huaxia is also directed towards the real world.  
  • Zetian’s rise to power and the subsequent backlash she faces from inside the military draws parallels to the struggles faced by women in male-dominated societies. Using examples from this book to demonstrate how to overcome these obstacles is a great way to generate discussion.

Formative and Summative Assessments:

  • Encourage students to sketch specific scenes from the story and/or generate one pagers. 
  • An extended case-study on certain terms in the book related to Chinese philosophy and their importance to the plot/theme/characters.

Reviewed by: Abhiram Saran, student at Purdue University, West Lafayette, Indiana.

Friendship, Growth and Self-Love

Chlorine Sky by Mahogany L. Browne

Book Details
Publisher: Crown Books for Young Readers
Publish Date: January 12, 2021
Page Count: 192
ISBN: 0593176391
Genre: Young Adult Fiction, Bildungsroman, Verse
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Synopsis: The novel in verse follows Sky, as she goes through friendship breakups, relationship breakups, sibling rivalry, lies and betrayal by those around her. Sky loves to swim, play basketball, and spend time with her best friend, Lay Li. Sky lives in the shadow of her best friend, who is the notable “popular girl”. However, as they enter high school, Sky and Lay Li’s friendship becomes strained due to the difference in how people treat the two young girls. Throughout the novel, Sky discovers that while Lay Li may be the sun that she used to orbit around, she has the ability to be her own sun.


This novel was a book that was surprisingly hard to put down. Chlorine Sky leaves the reader wanting to learn more about Sky and the supporting characters of the novel, including Inga, Essa, and Lay Li. Mahogany L. Browne’s writing allows the readers to see the depth of Sky and how she views herself and those around her. While the novel is a relatively fast read due to its verse style, it still leaves its mark on those reading it in how the Sky finds her self-love and her worth outside of how her friends view her.

Suggestions for Curriculum & Classroom Use

Thematic Connections:
The themes in the novel are relatable to all people, but young girls can especially relate to Sky through her development as a woman and how she is treated by those around her. 

Some themes represented:

  • Self-love
  • Sisterhood
  • Teen angst
  • Friendship
  • Race
  • Family

Essential Questions:

  • How does Sky’s self-esteem transform throughout the novel?
  • How does Sky’s and Lay Li’s friendship develop and how does this make friendship a relevant theme?
  • How do you grow from your past and present friendships?

Teaching Strategies & Activities:

  • Write your own poem with “rules”. These could be unspoken and unwritten rules. Some options for a poem on rules are:
    • Your guardians have for you
    • Your friendships abide by
    • Your romantic relationships follow
    • Schools operate by 
    • Sports teams follow
  • Write Around:
    • Have multiple pages of papers with questions listed at the top. Some possible questions and/or writing prompts are:
      • What themes do you think are the most prevalent in the novel so far? How is the author developing the theme?
      • What has been your favorite scene, moment, or poem thus far? Why?
      • How would you characterize Sky? What textual evidence can support your opinion?
      • Write a quick review of the book so far. The review should include a brief summary, praise or criticism of the book, recommendation of whether or not to read it, and how many stars you would give it.
    • Start writing on your paper for 2 minutes.
    • Pass your paper to the left. 
    • Read what the person before you read and then either start to respond either to them, the prompt, or both for 3 minutes.
    • Repeat until you have your paper back. 
    • Read the original paper and debrief with the class. 

Formative and Summative Assessments:

Formative: Students can respond with their own poem after each section of reading, or respond to what Sky is saying in the form of a journal. 

Summative: Students write an “epilogue” to the book. They can either write it in verse so it follows the rest of the novel or in normal speech so that it is reflective of each of the students’ mindsets after reading the novel.

Reviewed by: Eleanor (Ellie) Arrowood, English Education Student, Purdue University, West Lafayette, Indiana.

An honest look into the oppression of assimilation and what it means to reject the white gaze

You Sound Like a White Girl: The Case for Rejecting Assimilation by Julissa Arce

Book Details
Publisher: Flatiron Books
Publish Date: March 22, 2022 
Page Count: 208
ISBN: 1250787017 
Genre: Non-fiction/Memoir 
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Synopsis: The book follows Julissa Natzely Arce Raya as she breaks down her experiences living as a Latina in the United States. She explains her backstory and why learning English and trying desperately to fit in with white society was doing harm to her and her community. Julissa combines cultural commentary, unshared history, and personal narrative to show how the system is designed to oppress Brown and Black immigrants. You Sound Like a White Girl takes a deep look into how the Latine community internalizes oppression while encouraging the next generation to turn away from the white gaze.


This book is a bold promise that paves a new path forward for people of color in the United States. It offers a new way to embrace identity for the young readers it is sure to reach and gives a glimpse into the oppression and ostracization Arce has faced in a personal narrative style set to the tone of the racist ideation set in American culture. Julissa Arce beautifully weaves together all the intricate moments of white supremacy that have led us to where we are today, from the erasure of Latine history to the Black Lives Matter movement. This is a must read for anyone looking to embrace their identity by turning away from the white supremacist ideals rooted in assimilation and the idea of belonging in America.

Suggestions for Curriculum & Classroom Use

Thematic Analysis: This memoir is told through a social and reformative justice lens that focuses on:

  • Race
  • Intersectional Feminism 
  • History
  • Self Discovery 
  • Identity 
  • Microaggressions 

Essential Questions:

  • How can people of color embrace their culture and how can white people support them? 
  • What are the social consequences of the erasure of latine history?

Teaching Strategies and Activities to Use:

  • A close reading of a complimentary text about microaggressions and how people of color internalize them. 
  • A jigsaw activity where each student researches a figure in Latine history and then shares with the people in their group the history and why the figure worked against white supremacism.

Formative and Summative Assessments:

Formative: Students participate in a discussion board each week to expand their understanding and share their experiences while reading the book. Each student must engage with one other peer. The goal would be to gauge the pace in which the student is reading and encourage them to position themselves next to their peers’ and the author’s experiences. 

Summative: Have students write a personal narrative where they take the content and examples from the formative assessment and have students position themselves next to Arce while explaining the themes and ideas of the book.

Reviewed by: Madison Jett, sophomore at Colorado State University, Secondary English Education major, Denver, Colorado.