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

Statement from ALAN Executive Committee

Statement from ALAN Executive Committee

ALAN supports intellectual freedom ( and stands with our LGBTQIAP+ and BIPOC authors, educators, librarians, and readers in this time of book banning and challenges that are disproportionately affecting their work and literature that represents them.

We reaffirm our commitment to continue our advocacy work by: 

  • Providing an inclusive workshop that features diverse authors
  • Promoting the implementation of anti-racist work in schools, libraries, and/or universities through the anti-racist breakout session award
  • Supporting advocates who stand up for marginalized youth through the Bill Konigsberg Award
  • Publishing TAR manuscripts that amplify the voices of Black, Indigenous, and People of Color
  • Highlighting ALAN Picks reviews and teaching strategies for diverse literature 

Our parent organization, NCTE, additionally has position statements and anti-censorship resources at, and we recommend these resources if you are facing a challenge or wanting to expand your intellectual freedom advocacy.

ALAN will also be making a donation to the National Council Against Censorship ( to support their work against censorship.

ALAN members, we value you and the tireless work you are doing in classrooms and libraries. Please reach out to the ALAN Executive Committee to suggest ways we can assist you.

ALAN Executive Committee: Mark Letcher, ALAN Executive Director; Jewel Davis, ALAN President; Danielle King-Watkins, ALAN Past-President; Kellee Moye, ALAN President-Elect; Daria Plumb, ALAN Treasurer

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
Find on Bookshop

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
Find on Bookshop

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
Find on Bookshop

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 
Find on Bookshop

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.

MacMillan Virtual Author Visit with Skye Melki-Wegner

MacMillan Virtual Author Visit with Skye Melki-Wegner!

Macmillan Publishing is offering an extra bonus happy hour for Macmillan middle grade author Skye Melki-Wegner to discuss her upcoming series launch THE DEADLANDS: HUNTED on Wednesday, March 15th, at 6 pm ET!

The first twenty people to sign up will get to attend this exclusive event, so please sign up ASAP!

While Skye has been writing stories ever since she could hold a pen, THE DEADLANDS series was inspired by her time working in a museum, where some of her favorite colleagues were dinosaurs. As she looked onto the exhibits, she couldn’t help but wonder – what would it be like if they could speak, reason, and dream? And thus, she brought extinct creatures back to life.

In Cretacea, a dangerous and exhilarating world where predators rule and kingdoms are locked in a war, it’s up to our band of misfit dinosaurs to save their kingdoms from a lurking predator and a secret plot that might destroy them all. Action-packed, exhilarating, and full of heart, this series is best described as Wings of Fire meets Jurassic Park with a splash of Game of Thrones’ scheming.

Those who attend will receive an advanced copy of the book.


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
Find on Bookshop

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
Find on Bookshop

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

ALAN Picks (January 2023)

ALAN Picks: Feminism, Friendship & Beauty

This month’s ALAN Picks features reviews of three books that encounter the themes of feminism, friendship and conflict with society’s standards and rules for girls and women. These books include a contemporary coming of age story Does My Body Offend You? by Mayra Cuevas and Marie Marquard, a magical fantasy How to Succeed in Witchcraft by Aislinn Brophy, and a memoir A Face for Picasso by Ariel Henley. The books explore ideas of how girls and young women are affected by societal standards, how they stand up to those standards and how they support each other in the process. Check out these reviews for ideas on how to use these books with students 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.

Friendship, Feminism, and Fighting the Power

Does My Body Offend You? by Mayra Cuevas and Marie Marquardt

Book Details
Publisher: Knopf Books for Young Readers
Publish Date: April 5th, 2022
Page Count: 432 pages
ISBN: 9780593425855
Genre:  YA fiction, Coming of Age
Find on Bookshop

Synopsis: After hurricane María destroys her home in Puerto Rico, Malena Rosaurio must start a new life at a new school in Florida. When she starts off on the wrong foot with administration for coming to school without a bra, they refuse to understand she has a bad sunburn and shame her for her body. As she fumbles with the panty liners that the Assistant Principal and Nurse insist she use to cover her nipples, Ruby McCallister, the school’s biggest feminist, swoops in to make her aware of her rights. Ruby and Malena learn more about themselves and each other as they work together to fight the dress code and navigate their complicated relationship with the world around them as young women.


Told in chapters by alternating by character perspective, readers can easily relate to and internalize the tensions between Malena and Ruby throughout the intensity and authenticity of the friendship. The way each character perceives the novel’s interactions and situations offers an important insight on the value of perspective and how aspects of identity contribute to the way one experiences the world. The story reexamines common young adult experiences of relationships (platonic and romantic), parties, and activism through the lenses of gender, race, and class. By giving equal time and space for each character’s thoughts and feelings, the novel beautifully demonstrates to readers the value of knowing when to speak out and when to step back.

Suggestions for Curriculum & Classroom Use

Thematic Connections:

  • Feminism
  • Gender and sexuality
  • Race and racism
  • Family structures

Essential Questions

  • How can one make others feel heard?
  • What components make up one’s identity?
  • What does it mean to recognize your own privilege?
Teaching Strategies and Activities to Use:
  • Research into the histories of liberation and empowerment through fashion/clothing
  • Examination of different school’s dress codes, using a critical lens to analyze what kinds of power dynamics they enforce
  • Close listening, reading, and comparison of the text to poems about intersectionality like “Suggestions from a White Feminist Poets” by Tova Charles and “Dress Code” by Liza Banzaca
  • Discussion about author’s intention and how reading is a gendered act based on insights from Chapter 5, The Social Construction of Gender: A Lens of One’s Own, of Deborah Appleman’s Critical Encounters in Secondary English: Teaching Literary Theory to Adolescents.
Formative/Summative Assessments:
  • Choose a section of dress code from a school of your choice and revise it the way Malena and Ruby would. Use textual evidence to justify your modifications.
  • Complete short or extended research into other aspects of fashion as a component of identity/experience (topics of exploration may include but are not limited to school dress codes, religious dress, defying gender/beauty standards in the fashion industry, victim blaming, etc.).
  • Create a protest poster with a slogan and an image that one might see at the protests depicted in the novel. Students can hang the posters up around the room and do a gallery walk where they provide feedback with sticky notes of compliments and/or constructive criticisms.
  • Keep chapter journal responses with personal reactions to Malena and Ruby’s respective interpretations of their experiences. Use journals to later create a chart/graphic organizer that shows how different elements of their identities contribute to their experiences of the plot.
  • Open class discussion about what kinds of gender stereotypes the novel enforces and/or challenges.

Reviewed by: Arden Woodall, Undergraduate English Education student studying at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana.

A Magical World With Contemporary Issues for BIPOC & Queer Young Women

How to Succeed in Witchcraft by Aislinn Brophy

Book Details
Publisher: G.P. Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers
Publish Date: September 27, 2022
Page Count: 416 pages
ISBN: 978-0593354520
Genre: Young Adult Fantasy
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Synopsis: Shay Johnson is a junior at T.K. Anderson Magical Magnet School who has been fighting for the scholarship given to one senior that would secure her a spot in her dream university. When she and her greatest rival, Ana Alvarez, both get star leads in the school theater production, led by the head of the scholarship committee, Mr. B, Shay has to balance a hectic junior year: dedicating herself to her academics and the intensely-inclusive play. But as she finds herself trapped between a rivalry romance with Ana through the play, she discovers a much deeper, darker secret—Mr. B isn’t what he seems, and Shay must uncover the truth of how previous scholarship recipients were selected, putting her own dream in jeopardy.


How to Succeed in Witchcraft is a witchy contemporary fantasy based on the concept of if our modern-day society was established through magic. For a story with a light-hearted voice, deeper themes underlie the text’s story revolving around racism, microaggressions, grooming, and homophobia. With an all-BIPOC cast, Brophy addresses racial issues for young women, especially young queer women, through a beautifully-crafted magical history. This book features girls standing up for other girls to protect future women, and tackles real-world issues that young BIPOC and queer women face in an American public high school setting.

Suggestions for Curriculum & Classroom Use

Thematic Analysis:

  • This story features numerous themes revolving around the concepts of social justice and female empowerment. Some of the themes explored include:
  • Microaggressions
  • Grooming and predatory behavior in male figures with power
  • Racism
  • White performatism “inclusivity”
  • #MeToo movement
  • Girls standing up for girls
  • Female empowerment
  • Homophobia, specifically lesbophobia

Essential Questions

  • How does white performatism affect young women of color?
  • How can women work together to take the power away from white men?
  • How does identity affect academic opportunity?

Teaching Strategies and Activities to Use:

  • Discussion and research of the #MeToo movement, especially how the movement affected women of color
  • Discussion on microaggressions  and microaggressions observed in the novel
  • Examination of intersectionality between a queer identity and being a woman of color
  • A close reading with themes from The Firekeeper’s Daughter by Angeline Boulley to develop a greater understanding of the problems women of color face in their adolescence

Formative/Summative Assessments

Formative: Students are each assigned to a single character, and are to keep a journal throughout each chapter of how that character’s identity affects the character, within the greater themes of racism, homophobia, and power. Journal entries begin with a quote featuring the character’s identity, and analysis contains the student’s perspective of how the identity may relate to the student’s own social setting. By quoting and analyzing identity, the teacher can examine the student’s reading comprehension and understanding of the novel.

Summative: Students each individually research an article surrounding a microaggression they observed within the novel, write a summary on how it influenced the plot, then meet in groups to discuss. The goal is for the students to understand both how a microaggression affects plot and theme, and how it relates to the world around them. Examples of reliable sources for research include the University of Minnesota’s table on microaggressions, BMC Psychology’s study on microaggressions, or Columbia University’s study on microaggressions.

Reviewed by: Sarah Prather, sophomore at Colorado State University majoring in restoration ecology and minoring in creative writing, Fort Collins, Colorado

A Memoir About Beauty, Bullying & Crouzon Syndrome

A Face for Picasso by Ariel Henley

Book Details
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publish Date: November 2, 2021
Page Count: 400
ISBN: 0374314071
Genre: Memoir
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Synopsis: A Face for Picasso is a memoir by Ariel Henley that tells her personal stories of growing up with Crouzon Syndrome, a deformity of the skull in which the bones prematurely fuse together leaving no room for the brain to grow within. Because of this syndrome, Ariel’s face is left looking not quite like the people around her. Ariel recounts the different traumatic surgeries and school experiences she went through with her identical twin sister, Zan, who also suffers the bullying of Crouzon Syndrome. The book begins with some of her earliest memories and comes to a conclusion about where she is now in her adult life. Ariel also does a beautiful job of tying in a narrative about Pablo Picasso and how people she and her sister feel as if they were just cubist paintings by the problematic artist. 


A Face for Picasso is an astounding look into the experience of growing up with Crouzon Syndrome in a world where traditional beauty – what mainstream media tells us is correct – is highly valued. Ariel’s story is compelling and necessary to read, giving the reader a way to consider how it feels to be an outcast in society. This topic is necessary for young adults to read because of the constant stigma around beauty standards, especially at a young adult age. The language of the book was easy to follow but did not feel too immature for an adult to read as well. This book most definitely promotes empathy. Ariel gives many instances where the reader would be able to walk in her shoes. Empathy is something young students need to be aware of and this novel could definitely help students to become more empathetic individuals. When I was between 12 and 18 I definitely would have benefited from reading a book of this nature.

Suggestions for Curriculum & Classroom Use

Essential Questions

An essential question for this memoir could be: “Does society ‘other’ people who do not fit within prescribed beauty standards?” Throughout the work, Ariel goes through and inserts situations where she was judged for her looks. She talks about a situation on the cheerleading team that specifically outlines how she was deprived of opportunities simply because her face does not look like others.

Teaching Strategies and Activities to Use

For a whole class study of this book, I would facilitate a discussion about the book regarding beauty standards. I would start by just asking the students about what kind of beauty standards they feel pressured to live up to. Some specific questions could be: “What beauty standards do you see in society?” and “Do you feel the need to live up to these standards?”. I would then have the students connect it back to the book and the different struggles Ariel’s experiences. Another way these questions could be posed would be in an online discussion board post. This way students could cite specific points in the book and show how the book deals with beauty standards and emotions because of them as they read. 

Summative Assessment

Students can write their own shortened memoirs and use Ariel’s memoir as a mentor text. In the book, Ariel talks about how she was inspired to write this memoir based on a memoir assignment that she did in one of her college classes. Another idea for younger grades would be to take the idea of a memoir and make a storyboard. The students would pick one memory they would like to write about and create a visual poster or project whether it be a comic strip, a PowerPoint, or pictures from their real life. This book is great to use when teaching memoirs to students. Memoirs can be so powerful for students to understand other’s stories, and this book is an example of that.

Reviewed by: Claire Shenker, Student, Purdue University, West Lafayette, IN

Sign-up for Macmillan Publishing Happy Hour Virtual Meetups!

Sign-up for Macmillan Publishing Happy Hour Virtual Meetups!

Attention ALAN Members!

We are lucky enough to partner with Macmillan Publishing to offer up unique Happy Hour Virtual Meetups with authors!  These meetups will allow you to meet with the best YA authors from the comfort of your living room and get a sneak peek of what is coming this year.

Macmillan is giving ALAN members the opportunity to participate in these amazing meetups, which they want to keep personable, so you can really interact with the authors.  

Thank you for filling out the Macmillan Meetup survey ASAP-ideally before midnight on January 9th, 2023, or we might not be able to include you, at least for the first meetup this upcoming Wednesday, January 11, 2023.