ALAN Picks (June & July 2023)

ALAN Picks: A Variety of Contemporary & Fantasy YA Lit

This month’s ALAN Picks features reviews of young adult books both fantasy and contemporary that expose topics of LGBTQ+, religion, power, family and identity. The books include The Chandler Legacies by Abdi Nazemian set at an elite boarding school; dystopian horror novel, Hell Followed With Us by Andrew Joseph White; Lesbiana’s Guide to Catholic School by Sonora Reyes about a girl looking to control her own narrative; a fantasy romance with dragons Together We Burn by Isabel Ibañez; a daughter battling perfectionism and family expectations Twice as Perfect by Louisa Onomé; and another teaching perspective on the novel Bitter by Akwaeke Emezi. (Educators looking for more resources on Bitter can check out the March 2023 edition of ALAN Picks.)

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.

Teens Find Family Through Writing Group

The Chandler Legacies by Abdi Nazemian

Book Details
Publisher: Balzer + Bray 
Publish Date: February 15, 2022
Page Count: 330
ISBN: 9780063039322 
Genre: Young Adult Fiction
Find on Bookshop

Synopsis: Set in 1999 at an elite east coast boarding school full of secrets and privilege, the story is told from the perspectives of five very different teenagers from diverse backgrounds who come together after being accepted into “the circle,” an exclusive writing group at the school. Despite their differences they become an unlikely group of friends and a found family as they learn to support one another through difficult situations including bullying, coming out, past trauma, and assault. 


The Chandler Legacies does an amazing job of telling a story of a found family. It presents a variety of diverse narratives that are interesting and informative to read about. While I do have my personal critiques of the novel, I do believe the overarching theme of the book is well presented. It navigates several heavy topics in a thoughtful manner and does a great job telling the story from the perspectives of the five main characters. There is character growth and lessons learned throughout the story that I think readers can take a lot away from when reading this book.

Suggestions for Curriculum & Classroom Use

Thematic Analysis

  • Found family 
  • Friendship
  • Oppression
  • Privilege
  • Race/racism 
  • Sexuality 
  • Coming of age

Teaching Engagement Strategies:

  • Informative readings and discussion of anti-LGBTQ+ laws and cultures in Iran, USA, and other countries
  • Read about the #OwnVoices movement and discuss how the author’s experience as a gay Iranian-American impacts the writing of a character from the same background.
Formative/Summative Assessments
  • Do one of the assignments with the class that “the circle” does in the book
  • Personal responses on how one of the challenges the character faces made them think about something they hadn’t before and/or changed their perspective 
  • Have small group discussions about what they think happened in the gap between where the story ends and the epilogue and share with the class

Reviewed by: Anna Klasell, Purdue University Student, West Lafayette, IN

A Trans Teen Tries To Survive The Apocalypse

Hell Followed With Us by Andrew Joseph White

Book Details
Publisher: Peachtree Teen
Publish Date: June 7, 2022
Page Count: 416
ISBN: 1682633241
Genre: YA/ LGBT/ Dystopian/ Apocalyptic/ Horror
Find on Bookshop

Synopsis: Benji is a sixteen year old trans boy who was raised amongst the fundamentalist religious cult that started the apocalypse by unleashing the flood virus that eradicated most of humanity, turning them into mutated victims. Benji attempts to flee the fundamentalists, after they turn him into a secret bio weapon to destroy the remaining survivors. He joins the ragtag group of teens from the local Acheson LGBTQ+ Center as they attempt to fight the fundamentalists, stay safe from the virus, and endure with their dwindling resources. They accept him with open arms as long as Benji can manage to hide the growing monster inside of him and keep the group safe at all costs.


Hell Followed with Us is the debut novel of Andrew Joseph White and though a work with this much craft and talent is a truly marvelous feat, the signs of it being his first book are present within the text. Certain scenes seem to cut against each other rather than flowing into one another and although tropes are a staple in every writer’s work they seem more pronounced in the text at times. However, despite it being a debut, this work is immensely ambitious with both plot and characters and it pulls through. Apocalyptic religious cults that are trying to destroy the world through the usage of a trans teenager is one of the most creative plots to ever come out of young adult literature. The writing is also well stylized and there are amazing descriptions of action, gore, and this creative world. The world building in this book is so phenomenal as the reader is given sprinkled bits of knowledge and history throughout the plot which makes it feel much more real and immersive. In addition to the immense gore and imagery as well as the intense homophobia and transphobia that Benji and other characters face throughout the novel, these aspects could have been too much for the novel; however it is clear that these characters are treated with love and respect through the writing and that the carnage comes from a place of deep anger about society’s treatment of people like the characters. Ultimately, this novel makes a great critique of abuse of power and unfair treatment in this fictional world as much as the real world and clearly comes from a place of great passion and heart from the author.

Suggestions for Curriculum & Classroom Use

Themes Connections:

  • Sexuality 
  • Gender
  • Religion
  • Power and corruption
  • Survival 
  • Faith
  • Body dysmorphia 
  • Loyalty

Essential Questions:

  • How does organized society perpetuate abuses of power? 
  • When should an individual put themself before a community or vice versa? 
  • How does one form an identity that remains true and authentic for themselves in the world?

Formative and Summative Assessments:


  • Have students create what they think the mutations look like and/or what they think they’d look like as a mutation. 
  • Personal response journals in relation to the themes of the novel.


  • Have each student research and do a report on a specific cult and their effect on its members and society.
    • Some possible examples: the Church of Scientology and its effects on the entertainment industry & QAnon and its effects on United States politics.

Reviewed by: Audrey Pink, student at Purdue University

Queerness, Faith, and reckoning the two for love

Lesbiana’s Guide to Catholic School by Sonora Reyes

Book Details
Publisher: Balzer + Bray, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers
Publish Date: May 17th, 2022
Page Count: 385
ISBN: 978-0-06306023-4
Genre: Fiction
Find on IndieBound

Synopsis: The novel follows Yamilet, a sixteen year old first generation Mexican girl as she and her brother, Cesar, transfer from a low income school to a fancy, expensive Catholic school across town from them after Cesar is granted an academic scholarship. While Yamilet does not receive a scholarship and must pay the tuition herself, she does it to protect Cesar and herself after she is outed as a lesbian by her former friend at their previous school. At Slayton Catholic, Yamilet is determined to keep to herself and stay closeted as a fresh slate, but everything is challenged when she meets an out and proud girl named Bo. Her relationships with family, friends, and God are all at question while Yamilet determines how to best protect and love herself while doing the same for the people around her.


Lesbiana’s Guide is a novel that pairs difficult topics with relatable experiences and loving relationships that make the challenging parts of coming out more manageable. Sonora Reyes does an excellent job at telling a story of family, faith, and queer love in a way that ties them together in joy rather than sadness. The representation and discussion of deportation of a parent, adoption, queerness, microaggressions, and fraught family ties are extremely important and very well done in this novel.

Suggestions for Curriculum & Classroom Use

Thematic Connections:

Through Yamilet and the people around her, the novel explores themes such as:

  • LGBTQ+
  • Self acceptance
  • Religion
  • Immigration
  • Suicide
  • Queer Relationships
  • Adoption
  • Familial Identity

Essential Questions

  • How does our faith change how we see ourselves and others?
  • Is self-acceptance easy?

Teaching Strategies and Activities to Use:

  • Completing an identity wheel of both Yamilet and themselves
  • Discussing LGBTQ+ representation in the classroom

Formative and Summative Assessments:

Formative: Students would write journal entries from the perspective of a different character besides Yamilet for the chapter they had finished reading as they progressed through the semester. These journals would help them understand perspective and how Yamilet may be viewed by the people closest to her or those who may be struggling with their own identities. 

Summative: After completing the reading, students would create before and afters of Yamilet’s facebook page. The before would be representative of how she was before coming out on her own and how she wanted herself to be viewed versus after she came out. Ten posts would be required for each page and would need to have textual evidence for each post. This project would help students understand how self-acceptance can change how you present yourself to the outside world as well as show an understanding of the novel and how Yamilet and other characters change.

Reviewed by: Lily Scaggs, English Education Student at Colorado State University, Fort Collins, Colorado

Fantasy, Dragons and Romance

Together We Burn by Isabel Ibañez

Book Details
Publisher: Macmillan
Publish Date: May 31, 2022
Page Count: 368
ISBN: 9781250803351
Genre: Fantasy, Young Adult, Romance, Contemporary Fiction
Find on Bookshop

Synopsis: Eighteen-year-old dancer Zarela Zalvidar is the daughter of the most famous Dragonador in Hispalia and will one day inherit the same arena that her father fights in. However, when he is horribly injured in a disaster, Zarela is forced to take his place as the next Dragonador. She has to keep the Dragon Guild from stealing the arena, her ancestral home, from her and receives no help from the handsome dragon hunter, Arturo Díaz de Montserrat. Zarela will have to do everything in her power to protect her birthright, even when there’s something out to get her family.


Inspired by medieval Spain, this novel is thrilling, action-packed, and will keep readers young and old entertained throughout. Together We Burn is a wonderful and refreshing representation of Spanish culture in a new light and through a new lens. Thematic topics include love, loss, honor, and family duty. These topics make this novel relatable and exciting for high school students (recommended ages 13-18).

Suggestions for Curriculum & Classroom Use

Thematic Connections:

  • Family
  • Love
  • Loss
  • Tragedy
  • Romance
  • Dragons
  • Justice
  • Sacrifice
  • Chasing dreams
  • Family duty

Possible Essential Questions:

  • How far would one go to protect their family?
  • Should one give up their own dream to uplift someone else’s?
  • When is it necessary to challenge authority? Who decides?

Teaching Strategies/Activities:

  • One major way to incorporate this book into the classroom is to draw connections between real life in medieval Spain and the world within the novel. Students can compare and contrast the two worlds using primary sources or other sources and the novel itself. Compare/contrasting activities could also draw connections between dragon fighting in the book and bullfighting in past and present Spain.

Formative/Summative Assessments:

  • Summative:
    • Essay
      • Students can write an essay discussing sacrifice, dreams, and destiny. Students could discuss what it might take for them to give up their own dream for someone else’s or what sacrifices they are willing to make for their family, friends, etc.
    • Social Media Profile
      • Students can choose a character and make a social media profile for them, showcasing important moments from the novel, themes, and characterization.
  • Formative:
    • One-pager
      • Students can make a one pager that identifies themes, important concepts, quotes, and give a review of the book.
    • Compare/contrast activity
      • Students can compare and contrast different cultural elements from the book like dragon fighting vs. bullfighting, government structure, etc.

Reviewed by: Hadleigh Pierce, West Lafayette, Indiana

A Young Girl That Feels the Pressure to be the Perfect Daughter

Twice as Perfect by Louisa Onomé

Book Details
Publisher: Feiwel & Friends
Publish Date: July 26, 2022
Page Count: 416
ISBN: 9781250823502
Genre: Young Adult/Fiction
Find on Bookshop

Synopsis: Adanna Nkwachi is a seventeen year old girl that has her life all planned out. She is good at school and her Nigerian parents have high expectations for her. She plans on going to law school after college. Her older brother had a fight a few years prior and he left. He was set to be an engineer, but now he is a poet. Adanna reconnects with her older brother and starts questioning if she really wants to be a lawyer or if she is just trying to make her parents happy.  While Adanna questions her life she helps plan her cousin’s wedding to a Nigerian rapper. Adanna never really understood why her brother left, but her answers will soon be answered.


This book is a cute story about identity and finding out who you are. It does an excellent job of telling a story about what life is like for kids with parents who immigrated to the US. Seeing Nigerian culture through Adanna’s cousin’s wedding was cool to see. It is nice to read a story and learn about other traditions. There is a little bit of a love interest, but it doesn’t take away from the plot.

Suggestions for Curriculum & Classroom Use

This book has several themes and topics within it:

  • Family
  • Self identity
  • Authenticity
  • Parental pressure
  • Happiness

Essential Questions:

  • Should parents have such high expectations for their kids that the kids sacrifice their happiness?
  • Why do parents have such high expectations for their kids?
  • How much influence should parents have on their kids’ careers?

Teaching Activities and Activities to Use:

  • Discussion about expectations from parents and families
  • Discussion about dream jobs and a happy future
  • An overview of immigration and questions students may have

Formative and Summative Assessments:

Formative: After every chapter write a reflection in notebooks. Ask questions, write down important info you learned and quotes you liked. Then meet with a book group and discuss your questions and share your favorite scenes.

Summative: Take a character test, the test will have questions about characters and certain scenes. This test will show who actually read and who didn’t. This will also make sure that students are paying attention while they read. It will also encourage students to read because they know they will have a test.

Reviewed by: Lily Ortega

Reflecting on Emotional Responses to Trauma

Bitter by Akwaeke Emezi

Book Details
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf, an imprint or Random House Children’s Books, a division of Penguin Random House LLC
Publish Date: February 15, 2022
Page Count: 207
ISBN: 9780593309032
Genre: YA Literature
Find on Bookshop

Synopsis: From Akwaeke Emezi’s Pet comes the prologue story of the town of Lucille, set in a dystopian society. Bitter follows the tale of a young, artistic, and fiery teenage girl living in a community of disarray and protest. Fighting against the hatred and evil in the community, Bitter and her friends discover the key to stopping the bloodshed and violence, a creature known as an “angel”, created through Bitter’s gift of art with the sole purpose of creating harmony in Lucille. Together with the students in her boarding school and protesters known as Assata, Bitter fights against the monsters in her town as she slowly reconstructs her ideas of passion, hope, and community. It is in their determination and sacrifice that the young adults of Lucille find what it means to change their reality for a better future.      


Akwaeke Emezi’s multifaceted novel allows readers the opportunity to empathize with the main character, Bitter, in her internal battle grappling with identifying her role in the movement. A powerful novel that portrays the necessity of diverse responsibilities within revolutions, while also prompting readers to evaluate the incorporation of strong support networks and self-care into major endeavors. Both urgent and timely, Emezi infuses her novel with compelling themes pertaining to radical inclusion, proving to be pertinent in shaping our next generation of citizens.

Suggestions for Curriculum & Classroom Use

Thematic Connections:

Thematic Topics Explored in the Novel:

  • Right vs. Wrong 
  • Power of Friendship 
  • How Fear Incites Change 
  • Hope vs. Action
  • Corruption in Communities

Essential Questions:

  • How can we evaluate our morals as we develop as individuals?
  • When we feel helpless, what emotions do we turn to? How can we better explain the reasoning behind these emotions?
  • How can we solve the “monsters” in our own world? What types of people do we typically consider “monsters”? 
  • Would you categorize Bitter as a stagnant or dynamic character? Why?

Teaching Activities and Activities:

As students make their way through the novel, they should use a color to describe the mood of each chapter. Some may feel lonely, angry, or hopeful. Have students keep track of each corresponding color and at the end, they can create a picture using only the colors they chose from each chapter. This can be of Bitter herself, a Monster, or a scene in Lucille they have imagined. This sparks creativity while also recognizing emotional responses to the storyline.

Formative and Summative Assessments:


Teachers can create a chart depicting each character and their inner thoughts, emotional response, and outward action for the events of the novel. This would give students the opportunity to depict the difference in how we respond to trauma and obstacles as individuals as well as how we can properly pinpoint emotions evoked by these events.

CharacterEventInner ThoughtEmotional ResponseOutward Action


After students complete the chart, teachers can hand out questions to further engage:

  • How does this chart show the overall tone of the novel?
  • How can we use each characters’ feelings to describe the ways in which a particular environment or social climate can alter ways of thinking and feeling? 
  • Based on a current issue, discuss your particular role within that issue and your feelings regarding it. How do your inner thoughts translate to your emotions and outward actions?  

Reviewed by: Maggie Doran and Elise Lubs, Students, Purdue University, West Lafayette, IN