ALAN Picks: Adventure, Romance & Mystery To Start the Year
This month’s ALAN Picks features reviews of middle grade and young adult books that feature romance, adventure and mythology. The books include Finding Jupiter by Kelis Rowe, a young adult romance set in Memphis; The Enchanted Life of Valentina Mejia by Alexandra Alessandri, a middle grade adventure story that explores Colombian folklore; Promise Boys by Nick Brooks, a young adult murder mystery set in a D.C. boys charter school and The Sunbearer Trials by Aiden Thoma, a Mexican mythology-inspired fantasy.
Also be sure to check out our exclusive author interview between Finding Jupiter author Kelis Rowe and ALAN Picks reviewer Abby Gross.
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 email@example.com with the book title you are interested in reviewing. Rolling deadline.
A Summer Romance That Explores Grief, Healing and Self-Discovery
Finding Jupiter by Kelis Rowe
Publisher: Penguin Random House
Publish Date: May 31, 2022
Page Count: 320
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Synopsis: It’s summertime in Memphis when Ray and Orion meet at the skating rink. Neither can deny the sparks that fly between them, but Ray’s not ready to fall in love. Strong, independent, and guarded, she’s content to entertain a summer fling before heading back to boarding school in the fall. But sweet and sensitive Orion can feel himself falling fast for Ray, even when he should be focused on swimming and his scholarship to Howard University. Their time together is limited, but the two soon fall into orbit, bonding over their grief and the imprint it has left on their families. Ray’s dad was killed in a car crash the night she was born, and another tragic accident left Orion without his little sister years ago. Just when Orion and Ray have let their guards down and jumped into the safety net of their love, a long-buried secret surfaces. It stands to shake the entire foundation of their lives–and their blossoming young love.
A starry debut from author Kelis Rowe, Finding Jupiter is a captivating coming-of-age romance with a hint of mystery and an unexpected twist. The story transcends its genre, exploring grief, family, tragedy, healing, and self-discovery. Written from the alternating perspectives of Ray and Orion, Finding Jupiter challenges gender roles and stereotypes while offering much-needed representation in the world of YA romance: Orion has sensory processing disorder, a condition that makes it feel like his brain has no filter to sort through overwhelming stimuli. Rowe authentically weaves Orion’s SPD into the story in a way that shows what he faces and how he copes with it.
Finding Jupiter features a romance that is refreshingly healthy and genuine, despite the grief and complications Ray and Orion face. Their perspectives are equally engaging and developed, making the reader root for their love story from the start. The teens are mature, vulnerable, and resilient as they wade their way through tangled family histories, falling in love with each other while finding themselves along the way.
There’s so much to relish in this debut: It’s a love letter to Memphis, a tender exploration of grief, and an unapologetic celebration of Black love. Like Ray, young readers will find themselves in the words of this charming, character-driven romance. Teens just might be inspired to write their own story, too, thanks to the creative found poetry taken straight from the pages of The Great Gatsby, Their Eyes Were Watching God, and Black Boy. While the book is spectacular as a standalone novel, these poetic allusions invite connections, comparison, and creation, making Finding Jupiter a perfect paired text for these classics.
Suggestions for Curriculum & Classroom Use
- Social Class
- Gender Roles
- Time & Fate
- How does our past impact our future?
- How do our relationships with our family impact our identity?
- How does creative expression help us find our voice?
- How does grief shape who we are?
Possible Teaching Strategies:
- Book Trailer Tuesday: Highlight Finding Jupiter for “Book Trailer Tuesday” by pressing play on the official book trailer from GetUnderlined on YouTube. Like First Chapter Friday, Book Trailer Tuesday is another way to expose students to new titles and help readers add to their to-read lists. Teachers can show the trailer anytime, but it would work especially well during a novel study of The Great Gatsby or Their Eyes Were Watching God.
- Modeling & Mentor Texts: Teachers can read aloud part of the opening chapter and/or other excerpts to model the creative process of drafting found poetry. Teachers can also use excerpts of the lyrical, poignant prose as mentor sentences, encouraging students to find their own examples in choice reading, literature circle, or whole-class texts.
- Literature Circles: After a whole class study of The Great Gatsby or Their Eyes Were Watching God, students can read Finding Jupiter and other thematically relevant novels in small groups, examining the parallels between the stories.
Formative: Thanks to the found poetry that peppers the pages of Finding Jupiter, poetry makes for a natural assessment option. Introduce students to found poetry, blackout poetry, cut-up poetry, cento poetry, book spine poetry, and other creative formats. Provide plenty of mentor texts, including excerpts from Finding Jupiter and other creations from favorite books. Students can create poetry that focuses on an essential question, theme, symbol, etc.
Summative: As a summative assessment, students can create a portfolio of their poetry, explaining their poetic choices and connecting them to craft moves they have noticed in Finding Jupiter and other texts.
Reviewed by: Abby Gross, middle school ELA teacher & author of Keeping the Wonder: An Educator’s Guide to Magical, Engaging, and Joyful Learning, Dayton, Ohio
Author Interview with Kelis Rowe
1. I love the found poetry and illustrations scattered throughout Finding Jupiter. What compelled you to use this kind of poetry to tell this story?
I wanted to include poetry and art in my novel, because creating art and poetry are two things that sustained me during my teen years. I wanted to share and example of a teen person creating art as catharsis. I also wanted to give them a stand-out kind of experience while reading this sweet, romantic story. Before I knew what the story would be about, I wrote a poem from a teen girl’s point of view. The poem ended up being about a girl healing relationship trauma. I didn’t want to write that story, but I did love the poem, and used it as the performance piece that readers get to see in the scene of Ray and Orion’s first date. I continued to brainstorm about the type of experience I wanted to create and how I wanted readers to engage with the story, and found poetry just made so much sense. Instantly, The Great Gatsby came to mind as a book that my main character would find poetry in, and Their Eyes Were Watching God was the immediate second choice.
Both were books that had the most impact on my life as a teen reader and it was a real joy to engage with both books in a new way as I crafted the story. My school visits with Finding Jupiter are almost always Found Poetry workshops and are a big hit with teens and librarians.
2. What inspired the allusions to The Great Gatsby and Their Eyes Were Watching God? Can you share some of the strongest parallels so readers know what to expect?
I wish I could say that I was able to see the matrix and weave these three stories together. Alas, I was shocked by how much symbolism and how many these classic novels have in common with Finding Jupiter. When I wrote Finding Jupiter, I hadn’t considered any similarities in the stories other than that they were stories about love. I have a favorite example from each book that I always love to share with readers. Regarding Ray and Janie— it was only after the book was finished that I realized how much the poetry Ray found spoke to what she was going through and what Janie in Our Eyes Were Watching God was going through on the page Ray happened to be using to find the poetry. Ray’s found poem precedes Chapter 13 and is from the page of Their Eyes Were Watching God where Janie hasn’t seen Tea Cake in a while and is attempting to talk herself out of needing him and missing him as much as she does, which is exactly what Ray is doing in Chapter 13 since she hasn’t heard from Orion in two days. This was a total coincidence and is part of the magic that I felt while writing this novel. My favorite unintentional similarity between Gatsby and Orion is that they’re both well-off and throw pivotal parties to impress a girl who, as far as they know, may or may not return their feelings of affection. The more I considered how many ways each of the classic novels intersect with Finding Jupiter, I began writing them down and actually made a graphic for educators available on my website.
3. Orion has sensory processing disorder, or SPD. Why was it important to you to include this representation in the book?
As a young adult author, it’s important to me that my novels are entertaining windows into the lives of Black American teens. As a Black American, I know how important it is that my book also be a crystal-clear mirror for the young people who would see themselves in my characters. As a mom and former homeschooler to a boy with SPD, I felt compelled to give my son, kids like him, and everyone who knows a person like Orion, a depiction of a young person living with SPD, the school-aged struggles he and his parents experienced because of it, and the ways that he navigates it while having a full, typical teen life. My dream was for this representation to allow me to gain a platform to have a larger conversation about sensory disorders and the challenges they present when they are present in children, but especially Black boys who do not have Autism. I know that Black boys are underdiagnosed and misdiagnosed when it comes to sensory disorders, and as a result they move through school systems receiving the wrong interventions, or none at all, for poor behavioral issues present in classroom situations. I’m thrilled to be on a panel discussing this topic at NCTE 2023 following my appearance in the ALAN Workshop at NCTE 2022! Writing Finding Jupiter has been a huge gift to my life.
4. Stars, planets, and constellations recur throughout the novel. What led you to choose these motifs and symbols for Finding Jupiter?
Growing up in a family with an emotionally unavailable father and resulting tension inside the household, stargazing was a staple of my childhood. I’d watch the sky as long as I could and I would wonder and dream, imagine and wish and believe. I don’t stargaze as much as an adult, but my mind is almost always turned to some aspect of the stars. So much so that I don’t know who I would be without them. Like Ray, I don’t think any of us would exist without them. There’s something so mysterious and magical about the sky, especially the night sky, that we all respond to across literary genres. As a romance writer, I’d be remiss to not write a kiss under a moonlit sky. Every book that I write for teenagers with have celestial names and imagery– maybe not as much as there is in Finding Jupiter, the book that I believe came from my soul, but they will be there.
5. Finding Jupiter is such a creative, unique story, with its lyrical prose, allusions, and poetry. What is your writing process like? Do you “find” your words like Ray? Stumble, overthink, and revise like Orion? A mix of both?
I’m definitely a dreamy writer like Ray. When I started writing Finding Jupiter, I created found poetry first. When I start writing a scene, I visualize it, sometimes for days, as if it were a movie scene. I write all the dialogue first, then build the scene around it. The heart of Finding Jupiter is the poetry. The heart of any story is what is shared between the characters. Getting to the good parts first, helps me to really fall in love with the story, which makes the craft of writing more enjoyable for me.
6. In addition to the ones you allude to in Finding Jupiter, what are some of your favorite books and/or authors?
I have so many favorites for so many different reasons, and it would be so hard to talk about any of them without giving full reviews. For me, the perfect book doesn’t exist. If it did, it would be written with the gravity of Octavia Butler, the heart of Liara Tamani, the lyrical prose and poetry of Jeff Zentner, the creative flair of Nicola Yoon and the third-person genius and subtle magic of Neil Gaiman.
7. I see your background is in marketing. Did you always dream of writing a book one day? What was your journey to becoming an author like?
I wanted to be a flight attendant until my senior year of high school when I learned that at 6’1”, I exceeded the height requirement. I was devastated. So I went to college and continued being a great student, and learned that I was great at writing, but never thought about writing a book. Writing helped me in my office jobs in market research and also made my stint as a blogger fun. The novelist dream came alive when I read a YA coming of age novel, Calling My Name by Liara Tamani. It was literary and poetic and smart and deep and my soul came alive with the possibility of writing such a novel for young people. I’d read other YA novels, but didn’t realize books for teens could be literary and artsy. At the time I started writing Finding Jupiter, I didn’t see YA romances featuring two Black lovers—all the breakout, mainstream stories didn’t reflect that. I wanted to write what I knew, which was young Black love, so I decided I would self-publish my book on Amazon. But two things happened: George Floyd was murdered, which made the entertainment and publishing industry take a look at how they contribute to what informs consumers about Black American humanity and a Twitter Pitch contest opened up and I had great success in it. I found my literary agent after pitching my story on Twitter and a seven-way Big 5 auction followed and Crown won. It’s been a dream of a first book and debut experience.
8. I hear you’re working on another book! Can you give us any teasers or inside info?
My second young adult novel is another Black Memphis summer romance involving viral humiliation at junior prom, a summer of self-reinvention, hearts for young homeless populations and trying to not fall in love with a fake summer fling and I cannot wait to share it with the world in Spring 2025.
Addressing Violence and the Environment Through Fantasy
The Enchanted Life of Valentina Mejia by Alexandra Alessandri
Publisher: Atheneum Books for Young Readers
Publish Date: Feb. 21, 2023
Page Count: 213
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Synopsis: Twelve-year-old aspiring artist, Valentina Mejia, has grown up listening to her father’s stories of Colombian folklore: tales of magic and monsters that once roamed the Colombian lands many years ago. Her father believes that such creatures still exist and wishes to find them with Valentina and her kid brother Julian, much to Valentina’s dismay. One day during an expedition in the mountains, a terrible earthquake strikes, hurting Valentina’s father, and trapping both her and Julian in a dark cave. With no other options, the duo travels deeper underground and discovers that the mythical beings of Colombia are in fact real. With no other way to return home and aid their father, Valentina and Julian must travel across a forgotten land of magic to seek an audience with the only person who can help: Madremonte, Mother Mountain, protector of the Earth.
Alessandri uses Colombian mythos in this middle-grade fantasy novel to challenge and critique the causes of violence and environmental destruction in South America. By situating the magical causes and effects of these themes alongside the real-world issues, Alessandri opens the door for middle-grade readers to be able to compare and contrast the fantastical elements with their own reality, becoming aware of how they might fit into a world where violence and the environment are increasingly important parts of their lived-in experiences.
Suggestions for Curriculum & Classroom Use
- Guerrilla Warfare
- Drug Lords
- Deforestation and Climate Change’s Effects on Wildlife
- Plastic Pollution’s Effect on Ocean Wildlife
- Why should the United States be more accepting of immigrants at our Southern border?
- What effects can macro-level government policies have on micro-level people like Valentina’s father?
- Why should we care about what happens to the Amazon rainforest?
- Why should we care about plastic pollution?
Formative and Summative Assessment:
Formative: Students can create their own maps of Tierra de los Olvidados, Land of the Forgotten, in their writer’s notebooks. They can track Valentina’s and Julian’s progress as they read chapters each week, noting where the characters are at and what is happening in the novel when violence and the environment are mentioned.
Students can share their completed maps with each other, comparing what they each noted about violence and the environment as they read. As a class, they can compile everything they learned onto an anchor chart which can remain on the classroom wall as a reference to these themes in this unit and others.
Summative: Depending on the unit, students can make a new map of their own for a creative writing project, outlining their story and its themes before they write it. Alternatively, students can research some of the themes above and write a research paper.
Reviewed by: Alan J. Barrowcliff, English (Creative Writing), Colorado State University; Kellen Tomcak, English Education, Colorado State University
A Charter School Murder Mystery That Explores the Pitfalls of Discipline Culture
Promise Boys by Nick Brooks
Publisher: Henry Holt and Company
Publish Date: Jan. 31, 2023
Page Count: 304
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Synopsis: Founded by Principal Kenneth Moore, Urban Promise Prep School commits to turning boys into men that are ready to succeed in college and in life through the use of strict discipline and accountability. What starts as an ordinary day in the miserable school, Principal Moore is later found shot and murdered in his office. Attention turns to students J.B., Trey, and Ramón targeting them as the main suspects as each of them had a motive and some evidence against them. All three deal with racism and judgment from their community while maintaining their innocence and trying to find the true killer.
A book you will truly refuse to put down, Promise Boys, tells a story about justice and combating racism while achieving the aspects to be a perfect mystery novel. A story told from multiple character perspectives slowly reveals more and more information leaving you to wonder what will be next. Each perspective is so vital to this piece because you learn more about each character’s background and identity while seeing that they are just children who were in the wrong place at the wrong time. Readers will examine police brutality, stereotypes, and social class while the mystery unravels.
Nick Brooks’s writing shows how powerful racial bias can cloud one’s judgment and how the criminal justice system fails people of color. Assumptions made by their community as well as the lack of interest from police when hearing about their innocence led J.B., Trey, and Ramón to take the investigation into their own hands. Three separate character stories and perspectives come together to solve the mystery of who murdered Principal Moore. Built up anticipation leads to an ending you will not see coming.
Suggestions for Curriculum & Classroom Use
- Race and racism
- The student population is mostly students of color, and Principal Moore’s strict rules and discipline were originally made to help them learn how to succeed in a society that will discriminate against them. Also, when being interrogated by the police, they rely on racial stereotypes and are harsh with their behavior.
- Power and corruption
- Urban Promise Prep was a great school when it was first started, but leadership in the school system becomes corrupt and people act inconsistent with their original stated moral values.
- Family and relationships
- By telling the story from multiple perspectives, you get to know the characters well. This includes their family and friends. All of the boys receive support from their family during this time, and as they work together to solve the mystery, friendship begins to form as well.
- Criminal justice
- All three boys maintain their innocence and want to find the true killer while their community turns their back on them and assumes their guilt. By solving the mystery, justice is received to convict the actual killer and clear their names.
- How does gossip play a role in judgment?
- How does gaining power impact character?
- How does race play a role in the criminal justice system?
Teaching Strategies and Activities to Use:
- Research into the history and demographics of the criminal justice system, especially focus on the racial differences.
- Discussion of privilege for certain groups of people in investigations and convictions (differences between the three main suspects vs. others).
- Watch the documentary, 13th, on Netflix to develop an understanding of racism in the criminal justice system.
Formative and Summative Assessments:
- Formative: Students can keep a journal to log entries after each assigned reading section to keep track of their thoughts and understandings. Some examples could be who they think the murderer is and why, any racial issues (i.e. biases, stereotypes, etc.), and something they find buzzworthy as well as an explanation why.
- Summative: Students can create a “wanted” poster for a suspect in the book (can be one of the main three suspects or anyone). They can create a drawing based on Brooks’s descriptions, write what they are wanted for, and list the evidence against them provided throughout the book. This assesses accuracy of what was written while allowing room for creativity.
Reviewed by: Reagan Johnson, Student studying at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana.
Mexican Mythology inspired Fantasy Explores Identity, Self-Acceptance, and Society
The Sunbearer Trials by Aiden Thomas
Publisher: Feiwel and Friends
Publish Date: Sep. 6, 20224
Page Count: 401
Genre: Young Adult Fantasy
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Synopsis: At the dawn of each new decade, the power of the sun god Sol must be replenished so he can continue to keep the chaotic and destructive Obsidian gods sealed away. Ten semidioses, chosen by Sol, are selected to compete in the Sunbearer Trials. The winner becomes the sun god’s champion, the Sunbearer, and the loser is sacrificed to Sol to fuel the Sun Stones, protecting the land of Reino del Sol for the next ten years. When Jade semidiose and trans son of Quetzal Teo is unexpectedly chosen for the trials, he is thrust into an unfamiliar and dangerous world of fierce competition, glitz and glamor, and a one in ten chance of death.
The Sunbearer Trials is a brilliantly crafted mythology inspired fantasy that uses its well realized fantasy setting to explore themes of identity and societal divisions. As a Jade semidiose, Teo is constantly underestimated by his Gold competitors, who unlike him are revered as heroes and have trained their whole lives for the trials. But as the novel goes on, it becomes clear that the Golds may not be the perfect heroes they’re built up to be, and Teo starts to prove both to himself and to the other competitors that he can be a hero. Teo’s story of self-improvement of self-acceptance is one that any young adult would be able to learn valuable lessons from.
Suggestions for Curriculum & Classroom Use
- How is our identity shaped by the world around us?
- How do the expectations and perceptions of others impact who someone is?
- How can societal divisions cause harm?
- How can we work toward a more equitable society?
Teaching Strategies and Activities to Use:
- Discussion and analysis of the society and hierarchies of the novel and the relationship between Golds, Jades, and mortals
- Discussion on how identity and societal divisions impact how someone interacts with others and the world
Formative and Summative Assessments:
Formative: As students read the novel, they will discuss the societal structure of the novel and how it impacts the characters as well as how characters are stereotyped based on their identities and how those stereotypes are challenged and reinforced by the narrative.
Summative: After reading the novel, the class will revisit their discussions and write a final paper that analyzes how Teo has changed and challenged the expectations of a Jade and how the societal rules and divisions were challenged and questioned by the novel’s ending. Paper topics will be largely up to the students, with them being able to choose to write about different aspects of the novel’s world and how those aspects were challenged by its ending.
Reviewed by: Ben Schachterle, Journalism Student minoring in Creative Writing at Colorado State University, Fort Collins, Colorado.