ALAN Picks (April 2023)

ALAN Picks: Mysteries Around Every Corner

This month’s ALAN Picks highlights the mystery genre with five books representing both middle grade and young adult. They include: a middle grade historical mystery, Ripped Away by Shirley Reva Vernick; three contemporary young adults mysteries The Black Girls Left Standing by Juliana Goodman, Horror Hotel by Victoria Fulton and Faith McClaren, and We Weren’t Looking to Be Found by Stephanie Kuehn; and one fantasy young adult mystery Gallant by V.E. Schwab. These books address topics such as police brutality, mental health, disability, grief, and friendship. Check out these reviews for ideas on how to engage students with these books and topics in the classroom. You might even find an opportunity to pair two or more titles from this list for a comparison study!

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.

Navigating Grief and Violence

The Black Girls Left Standing by Juliana Goodman

Book Details
Publisher: Feiwel & Friends
Publish Date: June 28, 2022
Page Count: 336 pages
ISBN: 9781250792815
Genre: Young Adult/Mystery/Contemporary
Find on Bookshop

Synopsis: Beau Willet, sixteen-year-old art student in the Chicago Projects, is looking for her older sister’s missing boyfriend Jordan. After Katia, Beau’s sister, gets shot and killed by a police officer with the wrong idea, Jordan is the only person who knows what really happened the night Katia died. As Beau tries to navigate her grief and heartbreak over losing her beloved sister, she starts to discover how to grow up without that role model she once had by starting a relationship with a boy named Champion. With new discoveries of Jordan’s life, Beau wonders if Katia knew about all the terrible things Jordan was involved in and starts to doubt if she even knew her sister anymore. The more danger Beau gets in, the more her relationship with Champion, her family, and her friends struggle.


This book really understands the grief and overwhelming anger that someone in Beau’s position can face. In light of the Black Lives Matter Movement, this book is an inspiration to recognizing the fears and traumas that Black lives face coming from not only just police officers, but society as well. Readers will enjoy the author’s use of flashbacks to provide the reader some context into the relationship that Beau had with Katia and how her absence is affecting her. This book will be a page-turner with the mysteries, relationships, and drama that occurs throughout the story. 

Suggestions for Curriculum & Classroom Use

The themes in this novel are suitable for both young readers as well as adult readers. This book also deals with heavy topics, so instructors should make their students aware of trigger warnings before reading.

  • Dealing with grief
  • Friendship
  • Coming of age
  • Identity
  • Altered relationships
  • Empowerment
  • Revenge
  • Police brutality

Essential Questions

  • How do we deal with grief?
  • How do we discover our own identities?
  • How might we deal with strained parental/friend relationships?

Suggested Teaching Strategies/Activities to Use:

  • An overview and/or class discussion of police brutality and its effects, specifically on people of color.
  • Write a letter to any character in the book. Students must be understanding of the character’s situation and are free to express emotions, frustrations, compliments, and advice to the characters through these letters.
  • Make a playlist of at least 10 songs that match scenes in the book. Students will also provide an explanation for each song of why it matches the story.
Formative/Summative Assessments

Formative: Students will have a journal dedicated to their reading throughout the book. They will provide a comprehensive understanding for each chapter with a summary of what occurred, the themes, and how they may feel about the story so far. Students are free to write about whatever they may choose in these writings, as long as it’s limited to their most previously read chapter and demonstrates understanding of the plot.

Summative: Students can design a creative poster that conveys things they’ve learned about the book or through the book (examples to include are: racial literacy connections, drawings, reviews, and quotes). The goal for this poster is to prove understanding of the story while allowing them to have time to express their creativity. The guidelines are limited in order for the student to freely express their ideas through creation of this poster.

Reviewed by: Chloe Honn, Junior at Purdue University, West Lafayette, Indiana.

Disability, Magic & Fantastical Worlds

Gallant by V.E. Schwab

Book Details
Publisher: Titan Books
Publish Date: March 8, 2022
Page Count: 352
ISBN: 1785658697, 9781785658693
Genre: Fantasy/ Young Adult
Find on Bookshop

Synopsis: Fourteen-year-old Olivia Prior has grown up mute in an orphanage reading the remnants of her late mother’s inky, ambiguous journal while purposefully not acknowledging the ghouls in the shadows. One day, she receives a letter from her uncle calling her to live with the Prior family in Gallant, an estate her mother’s journal unambiguously warns to stay away from. When Olivia arrives at Gallant, she discovers the place mostly empty and her uncle, who supposedly sent the letter, long dead. She remains at the estate under the conditions that she not go out at night and that she not go on the other side of the garden wall, from which a dark and magical world beckons. 


Gallant is a creepily magical story with a wonderfully frustrated yet powerful protagonist. Readers can find themselves relating to or sympathizing with Olivia’s struggle to communicate in a society that refuses to learn her language or has the aggravating tendency to take away her opportunity to convey her thoughts. Schwab’s writing in Gallant is gripping and ominous and does well to convey a unique system of magic and parallel universes. The plot progression is interesting yet not overly complicated in favor of middle grade or young adult audiences.

Suggestions for Curriculum & Classroom Use

Themes Connections:

  • Disability in fantasy 
  • Familial duty
  • Family and found-family relationships
  • Belonging

Possible Essential Questions:

  • How does the feeling of belonging affect identity? 
  • What does it mean to communicate? What are the obstacles to communication Olivia faces, and what effect do these hindrances have on a person and on society? 

Possible Teaching Strategies and Activities:

Regarding the technical abilities of the novel, Schwab does well to create a gothic and ominous magic system. Students can learn about tone and figurative language by being tasked to pick out specific sentences that describe the gothic objects like ghouls or the world on the other side of the wall and analyze which diction or rhetorical devices lend to the overall tone of the novel and why. For example, students can pick this passage: “I slept in your ashes last night. It was like you laid your shadow down before you left. It smelled like hearth smoke and winter air.” Then, students can write about how grim imagery like sleeping in ashes interacts with the whimsical smells of “hearth smoke and winter.” 

To cultivate the cultural awareness of disability in fantasy, students can be involved in critical disability discussion relating to Olivia’s mutism. Students can engage in a socratic-like discussion of how Olivia interacts with the abled society around her and compare the text to the society of the real world to form any possible critiques of the novel and of real society. 

Formative and Summative Assessment Suggestions:

Formative: While reading, students can be tasked with creating comprehensive and thoughtful annotations of the text. In the annotations, the students are asked to take note of characterization, rhetorical devices like evocative diction or figurative language, thematic devices, and thematic questions. The students will create a short summary and response directly on the text at the end of each chapter. 

Summative: Students can be tasked with writing a short essay, 500-750 words, about a chosen theme in the novel and how the text’s rhetorical devices convey or support this theme. This essay should be thesis-based, and students should be able to workshop their thesis statement in class with peers and with the teacher.

Reviewed by: Ayden Rails, Purdue University 

A Multi-Perspective Haunted Mystery

Horror Hotel by Victoria Fulton and Faith McClaren

Book Details
Publisher: Penguin Random House
Publish Date: February 01, 2022
Page Count: 256
ISBN: 9780593483480
Genre: Teen and Young Adult fiction/Teen and Young Adult mystery and Suspense
Find on Bookshop

Synopsis: Horror Hotel is a young adult mystery and suspense novel that follows a group of teens that makes paranormal/ghost hunting videos.  The Ghost Gang, made up by Chrissy, Chase, Emma, and Kiki, set out on an expedition into the unknown of the dead at Hearst Hotel, one of the most notorious haunted hotels and ghost sighting places in Los Angeles, with hopes that what they see, and record will be able to launch their YouTube channel past one million subscribers. Chrissy, a psychic with insight into the dead, is thrown into chaos as she and her friends explore the haunted hotel. The team comes together in a ghost murder mystery to get to the bottom of their troubling findings within the building, while coming together and finding out things about themselves. 


The story is told in staggered perspectives which incorporates each of the Ghost Gang members, offering deep perspectives into how each one thinks and acts. With tensions rising within the group as paranormal activity increases, the plot grips the reader and forces them to turn to the next page and find out what happens. Themes surrounding friendship, discovering oneself, and fate emerge throughout the text, giving middle to high school readers a book that they can not only connect with, but can learn about diverse peoples, specifically people who are learning about their sexuality and bisexuality. The audience stays wrapped in the story, biting their nails with each page flip.

Suggestions for Curriculum & Classroom Use

Thematic Connections:

  • Friendship
  • Discovering oneself
  • Fate
  • Coming of age
  • Love
  • Online identity

Questions about how these themes are covered within the text and what this means for each character within the story. Taking apart the reader’s own lens for viewing and then attempting to understand what each character says and does helps to illuminate these themes.

Student Engagement:

  • Outlining an activity for students to learn about potentially haunted areas of the United States or around the area in which the students live. 
  • Discussions about gender and sexuality, and how that can be different for people who maybe haven’t fully come to terms that they are gay or bisexual.
  • Doing a close reading of similar texts (“1408” by Stephen King and “Mrs. Clendon’s Place” by Joseph Payne Brennan) and comparing and contrasting themes and ideas that present themselves in each.

Formative and Summative Assessments:

  • Create a podcast or YouTube video of the student’s choice of haunted location.
  • Write a personal response about a time where the student came face to face with a realization about themselves.
  • Short or long research about how the internet has changed social interactions, both positively and negatively, and then using critical thinking skills elaborate on what that potentially means for society.
  • Create a visual that the Ghost Gang would use in some fashion (whether to promote, post, or update viewers).

Reviewed by: Ross Brummet, student at Purdue University studying English Education

A Time Traveling Middle Grade Mystery

Ripped Away by Shirley Reva Vernick

Book Details
Publisher: Fitzroy Books
Publish Date: February 8, 2022
Page Count: 118 Pages
ISBN: 9781646032037
Genre: Contemporary Fiction, Historical Fiction, Magical Realism
Find on Bookshop

Synopsis: After being ignored by his crush, Mitzy Singer, Abe Pearlman passes a sign in a window: “Fortunes and Futures, $8—OPEN.” With nothing to lose but no belief in such practices, he follows. Abe receives his fortune, and his world goes black; he wakes up in 1888 London with a new identity: Asher. He meets his neighbor, Maya, and soon realizes that Maya is actually Mitzy. In their new lives, Asher and Maya are Jewish and get caught in riots and hatred, as Londoners believe the Ripper must be a Jew. Trapped in another time and place together, the two become close as they try to complete the challenges given to them by the fortune teller, meanwhile dodging the hate spewing toward them, the Ripper’s murders, and no idea if they will ever get back to their normal lives in Fort Pippin.


Shirley Reva Vernick’s ability to weave together a centuries old, unsolved murder case, clairvoyance, antisemitism, and a teenage friendship is something most readers have probably never seen. This book explores each of these topics in depth while still being easily digestible and understandable for young readers. It brings to light the issue of Jews being used as a scapegoat throughout history, with a focus on events that are generally not familiar. The novel is a quick read, easy to follow, and enjoyable all the way through. 

Suggestions for Curriculum & Classroom Use

Thematic Analysis: With its various components comes a variety of themes throughout the book. Some of the most prominent include:

  • Peer support
  • Historical literacy
  • Being careful what you wish for
  • Class struggle
  • Anti Semitism
  • The power of friendship

Essential Questions:

  • How does having peer support affect your ability to overcome obstacles?
  • How does prejudice play a role in society during major events?
  • How does an unpredicted event affect your perspective on life?

Teaching Strategies and Activities to Use:

  • Have students research the Jack the Ripper case and Victorian London
  • Track time travel throughout the novel 
  • Discuss antisemitism throughout history with connection to present day

Formative and Summative Assessments:

Formative: Students participate in class, partner, or group discussions to answer a set of questions pertaining to each chapter or section. Questions can involve critical thinking and deep diving, historical events, events in the novel, or personal connections.

Summative: Students can create a poster or presentation in which they explore themes, historical events, the book’s elements of fantasy, a timeline of events and/or exploration of antisemitism throughout history.

Reviewed by: Porsha J. Wolfrum | Purdue University

Dealing with Mental Illness and Building Unlikely Friendships

We Weren’t Looking to Be Found by Stephanie Kuehn

Book Details
Publisher: Disney Book Group
Publish Date: June 21, 2022 
Page Count: 320
ISBN: 9781368066747, 1368066747
Genre: Young adult fiction, Realistic Fiction, Mystery 
Find on Bookshop

Synopsis: We Weren’t Looking to Be Found follows two teen girls, Dani and Camila, through their disparate recoveries of substance abuse, self harm, and attempted suicide. Dani comes from the wealthiest, most well-known Black family in Texas and seems to have everything a girl could want, but she keeps using and engaging in other self-destructive behaviors for the sake of an escape, but also for the attention of her parents. Camila’s Colombian-American family doesn’t come from much, but she knows exactly what she wants from life and works hard to get it, but she keeps failing and goes straight to self-harm every time she does. When Dani and Camila end up rooming at the Peach Tree Hills facility in Georgia, they are convinced they won’t ever get along — and they’ll never get better. But then they find a mysterious music box filled with letters from a former resident and together they set out to solve the mystery.


Bringing empathy to people whose trials in life may not mirror your own is the lot many creators take seriously. In her latest release, author Stephanie Kuehn delivers on this objective in more ways than one. There are many great qualities including differing perspectives and the insight to new friendships. Throughout the book, the chapters switch between Dani and Camila giving readers an insight into both stories and how those intertwine. This is great for younger readers when they are trying to follow longer stories because it gives a descriptive and chronologically ordered story. The story is a heartwarming experience that details the struggles and triumphs of recovery. Though I have never been in the shoes that either character embodies, I found a lot of similarities in my reasoning as a teenager with how Dani and Camila are overwhelmed by the stress in their lives. Seeing them work through their struggles by considering the other’s needs reminded me of how much becoming engrossed in someone else’s story also helps me to work through issues I’m facing. Once I learned that Kuehn is a trained psychological professional, the motions and message behind this novel struck me as a work with several levels of intentionality put into it for readers of several different age categories.

Suggestions for Curriculum & Classroom Use

The themes in this book can be used for not only young readers, but also for adults as well. This text is enjoyable and easy to use in a classroom. Some themes found in the novel:

  • Mental Illness 
  • Recovery
  • Unlikely friendships 
  • Beauty found in the unknown
  • Coming of age

Essential Questions:

  • How can friendships help people during a recovery period?
  • How do the people we surround ourselves with affect our mental health?
  • How can race affect the way people view mental illness?

Formative and Summative Assessments:

Formative: Once students are halfway through the book, ask them to pick out one theme from the book and explain its role throughout the story. Make sure to add textual evidence that best justifies the reasoning in order to defend the choice. Have them submit a document with their response. 

Summative: Create a one pager about We Weren’t Looking to be Found. Must include the following:

On the front… 

  1.  Title of novel and author’s name 
  2.  A list of characters from the novel 
  3.  When and where the novel took place  
  4. One important quotation (A sentence or two from the novel)
    1. Write the quotation in quotation marks – Include the page number – Next to the quotation, explain why this is significant (i.e. “This quotation expresses…”) 
  5.  At least 3 drawings, symbols, and/or images that represent aspects of the story – Use color, be creative, be neat, and fill the page 

On the back… 

  1. A one paragraph summary of the selection that includes details about the plot, setting, characters, main ideas and conflicts, and the ending 
  2. Your name and class period

Reviewed by: Avery Schieber, Student, Normal, Illinois