ALAN Picks (November 2023)

ALAN Picks: ALAN Picks Celebrates Its First Teen Reviewer

This month’s ALAN Picks features our first student written book review! Check out what Las Vegas high school student Ayla Williams thought of A Sitting in Saint James by Rita Williams-Garcia. If you know students who are interested in writing book reviews of recently published young adult and middle grade books, let them know they can write for ALAN Picks too! 

We are also featuring a review of Beneath the Wide Silk Sky by Emily Inouye Huey, and if you are interested in learning more about how to teach this historical fiction novel, check out the reviewer’s ALAN sponsored session at the NCTE convention this month. (See the review for details.) In honor of Native American Heritage Month, we are featuring reviews of books by Indigenous authors that include A Snake Falls to Earth by Darcie Little Badger and Firekeeper’s Daughter by Angeline Boulley. If you are looking for a middle grade novel, check out the review of the novel-in-verse set during WWII, Enemies in the Orchard by Dana VanderLugt.

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.

Student Book Review

A Sitting In Saint James by Rita Williams-Garcia

Book Details
Publisher: Quill Tree Books
Publish Date: May 25, 2021
Page Count: 480
ISBN: 978-0062367297
Genre: Historical Fiction
Find on Bookshop

A Sitting In Saint James, from Coretta Scott King award-winner, Rita Williams-Garcia, reads like a moving picture, as it vibrantly portrays pre-antebellum Louisiana and the lives of the residents of the plantation, Le Petit Cottage. A delectable mixing pot of French and American culture, its disputes and regional biases, are vividly described, while the separate accounts and narratives intertwine to form a complex depiction of the times.

The use of “Sitting” in the title introduces the main conflict: stagnancy, where the protagonist, Madame Sylvie, holds onto the old ways: sitting for a painting when there are photographs, rejecting her Black granddaughter and refusing to integrate her into the plantation. This stubbornness is manifested throughout the story, despite how detrimental it can be. It begins to ruin her relationships with other characters, like her son and her once beloved cook. Madame Sylvie’s personal slave, Thisbe is told to be quiet, and reprimanded if she is not, but remains observant of everything around her. Madame’s dependency and relationship with Thisbe become more complex as the years pass and traditional roles begin to shift, while Madame’s ideals do not.  

Throughout the story the author advises Thisbe and the reader to have patience. This “patience” is  where the hope from both the reader and Thisbe originates from, because although Thisbe doesn’t know how or when her life will get better, she is told to press on; that it will. All in all, A Sitting in Saint James provides a meaningful account of how intra-connected our stories are, despite vast differences and backgrounds. It encourages young adults to have hope in something bigger than them, whether it is divinity or destiny- to help them discover solutions rather than problems. Educators in the future can use this book with the intention to give hope that things, no matter how abominable, will not be the same forever.

Review written by Ayla Williams, student at a Las Vegas high school.

Capturing Hope in the Shadows of Discrimination

Beneath the Wide Silk Sky by Emily Inouye Huey

Book Details
Publisher: Scholastic Press
Publish Date: October 18, 2022
Page Count: 336
ISBN: 1338789945
Genre: Young Adult Historical Fiction
Find on Bookshop

Synopsis: This compelling coming-of-age novel centers around Japanese-American protagonist, Sam Sakamoto, as she grapples with the complex interplay of familial obligations, grief, and a clandestine passion for photography. Against the backdrop of the devastating December 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, Sam’s world is upended, unveiling the stark reality of discrimination, racism, and violence endured by Japanese-Americans. Through her lens, the profound impact of societal prejudice is revealed, guiding Sam on a transformative path where she discovers the power of protest as a means to honor her identity, culture, and patriotism.


Beneath the Wide Silk Sky is a poignant novel that captures the shadows in America’s landscape in a way that adds depth and introduces readers to bearing witness as a means of civic action. Emily Inouye Huey tells the compelling historical narrative in a way that serves as an homage to her own family’s history and that of many Japanese-Americans in the wake of World War II. She intricately honors and recognizes the adolescent experience of self-discovery alongside the raw reality of racism using evocative and aesthetically captivating descriptions. It is obvious that this is a story told from generations of healing and heartbreak, an experience relatable to adolescents. Ultimately, this novel makes a great critique of the abuse experienced by Japanese Americans by relying on truth rather than sensationalism rooted in shock value and would serve students by unveiling the unfair treatment that often goes unrecognized in discussions regarding World War II.

Suggestions for Curriculum & Classroom Use

Thematic Connections:
Through Sam and her experiences, the novel explores themes such as:

  • Historical backdrop
  • Self-discovery
  • Adolescent development
  • Apathy and indifference
  • Bi-cultural identity
  • Familial relationships
  • Protest as a form of patriotism
  • Discrimination and prejudice

Essential Questions:

  • How do our families and cultural backgrounds impact how we see ourselves? 
  • What challenges exist when our identities are in conflict with one another?
  • How does the text serve as inspiration to engage in acts of witnessing and remembrance to foster social justice advocacy?
  • What are the consequences of indifference?
  • In what ways does protest serve as an expression of patriotism?

Teaching Strategies and Activities to Use:

  • Completing an identity wheel of both Sam and themselves
  • Literature circles with complementary texts to discuss the meaning of belonging,  patriotism, and indifference

Complementary Texts:

  • Poem: “Legacy” by Ruth Awad (2021)
  • Text Excerpt: “The Sunflower: On the Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness” by Simon Wiesenthal (expanded edition, 2020)
  • Speech: “The Perils of Indifference” by Elie Wiesel (1999)

Formative and Summative Assessment Suggestions:

Formative: Students complete a photography project to present their understanding of social advocacy by capturing a photo that acts as a voice. Students would be asked to research and analyze real-life examples of social injustice and/or indifference throughout history, especially focusing on instances of prejudice, human rights violations, and atrocities. They could also explore how indifference continues to impact society today, including issues related to diversity, inclusion, and human rights. This photography project aims to deepen their empathy, critical thinking, and cultural awareness by examining historical and contemporary instances of social advocacy from a broader global perspective.

Summative: After completing the reading, students would, in their chosen format (video, poem, collage or essay), explore the concept of protest as an act of patriotism and its potential to bring about meaningful change in society. They would be encouraged to use historical and contemporary examples to support their arguments and showcase their creative expression.

a) Video: Students create a short video (3 to 5 minutes) that combines visuals, narration, and/or dialogue to convey their perspective on protest, patriotism, and change. The video should include original artwork, animation, or footage to enhance their message.

b) Poem: Students write a powerful and thought-provoking poem that captures the essence of protest as an expression of patriotism. They should use poetic devices such as imagery, metaphor, and symbolism to convey their ideas effectively.

c) Collage: Students create a visually compelling collage that embodies the theme of protest as an act of patriotism and its potential for bringing about significant societal change. They will use a combination of images, texts, and symbols to express their perspective creatively.c) Essay: Students compose a well-structured essay (800 to 1000 words) that presents a comprehensive analysis of the relationship between protest, patriotism, and social change.

Reviewed by: Amber L. Moore, doctoral student in Literacy and English Language Arts Education at North Carolina State University, Raleigh, North Carolina.

Learn More at the NCTE Convention: Check out this reviewer’s session! It is a part of the ALAN-sponsored NCTE roundtable session on Friday, November 17, 2:00-3:15 pm: Connecting Around Young Adult Lit (YAL): Current Conversations About YAL in the Classroom

Description: The roundtable discussion is centered on Emily Inouye Huey’s compelling YA historical fiction novel, “Beneath the Wide Silk Sky.” During this roundtable, we’ll explore the potency of young adult literature in bearing witness to history. Our presentation will include questions like, “What does it mean to bear witness?” and “How do we contextualize historical fiction so that it serves as civic engagement?” We’ll also delve into the responsibilities of teachers and students when confronting historical trauma, such as Japanese-American wrongful incarceration. 

Educators will leave with access to a resource folder, equipping them with valuable materials including historical artifacts that teachers can use for gallery walks or presentations to aid in incorporating these concepts into their classrooms, enriching their students’ understanding of history, civic engagement, and the power of literature.

A Middle Grade Verse Novel That Explores Tragedy and Friendship

Enemies in the Orchard by Dana VanderLugt

Book Details
Publisher: ‎Zonderkidz
Publish Date: September 12, 2023
Page Count: 288
ISBN: 0310155770
Genre: Historical Fiction based on true events
Find on Bookshop

Synopsis: Based on true events and set in the apple orchard in Western Michigan where the author grew up, this novel explores tragedy, friendship, and how places shape us. Written in verse, the reader gains the perspective of Claire, a 14-year-old girl caught between her desire to become a nurse and helping her family at home while her older brother is overseas fighting in World War II. This perspective contrasts that of Karl, a German Prisoner of War brought to pick apples in the orchard, who must confront the difference between what he was told and what he now sees. Despite being enemies, Claire and Karl forge an unlikely bond and teach readers about the power of human connection in tumultuous times.


This beautifully written, fast-paced novel explores the tensions that exist within our world, especially in times of crisis. Can someone be both an enemy and a friend? Can a young girl value both her education and helping her family? Can the things we thought were true be different from what we see? This story unfolds smoothly and progresses quickly as the reader watches the friendship between Claire and Karl unfold. Written with middle-grade readers in mind, it is the perfect avenue for exploring deeper themes of loss, human connection, and hope. Despite the tragic themes and events within the novel, the author ultimately leaves the reader with the promise of hope. Life can bear fruit even in the hardest of times.

Suggestions for Curriculum & Classroom Use

Thematic Analysis:

  • Grief and Loss 
  • Devastation of war 
  • Who is an enemy
  • Growth  
  • Unlikely friendship

Possible Essential Questions:

  • How does hope bloom in tragic times? 
  • How do people form human connections? 
  • What makes someone an enemy and how should they be treated?

Teaching Engagement Strategies/Activities:

  • Disciplinary literacy- the line between fact and fiction, historical and factual 
  • Family lines and history 
  • Misinformation 
  • The Danger of a Single Story 
  • Write a book review

Formative and Summative Assessments:

  • Formative: 
    • Write an “I am From” poem modeled after the ones written about Claire and Karl 
    • Write a story from multiple perspectives 
    • Journal entries in response to the themes and events within the novel 
    • Use primary sources from World War II to gain a holistic perspective of the time period. 
  • Summative: 
    • Have students interview family members and create a project relating to their family history
    • Write a book review or letter to the author using details from the text 

Complementary Texts

  • Use Holes by Louis Sachar to explore multi-generations of family and unlikely friendship.  
  • Pair this book with They Called Us Enemy by George Takei to explore multiple perspectives on World War II. 
  • Compare and contrast this novel with other World War II sources

Reviewed by: Brooke Carbaugh teaches sixth-grade English Language Arts at Kane Area School District in Kane, Pennsylvania. She recently graduated from Hope College in Western Michigan where the novel takes place.

Through Traditional Lipian Storytelling, an Exploration of Love and Respect for our Planet

A Snake Falls to Earth by Darcie Little Badger

Book Details
Publisher: Levine Querido
Publish Date: Nov. 9, 2021
Page Count: 352
ISBN: 9781432896768
Genre: Fantasy
Find on Bookshop

Synopsis: In a brilliant union of contemporary young adult literature and traditional Lipan storytelling, Darcie Little Badger weaves a narrative of magic hidden all around us, appreciation and respect for Earth, and friendships worth fighting for. With a diverse cast of characters, Little Badger explores the strength of love for the planet we call home and those residing on it. When Nina, a human from out world, crosses paths with Oli, a cottonmouth snake person brought to Earth on a quest to save his friend, she must decide if she is willing to open her eyes to new possibilities – and how much she is willing to risk to protect those she cares about.


A Snake Falls to Earth is told in a voice reminiscent of Aesop’s fables or other folklore, so fantasy lovers will feel right at home reading Darcie Little Badger’s story. Perfect for middle grade or young high schoolers, this narrative serves as an excellent vehicle for an introduction to Indigenous storytelling. Readers can expect an engaging and exciting story full of heart, but unafraid to confront difficult issues such as humanity’s responsibility in regards to the environment. Little Badger handles mature issues in such a way that they are comprehensible to younger audiences, all while keeping up an adventurous narrative sure to keep readers’ interests.

Suggestions for Curriculum & Classroom Use

Teaching Strategies: An overview of Lipan tradition, culture, and storytelling could help readers enter into A Snake Falls to Earth with some pre-established literacy.

Class Discussion: The teacher could list and define certain themes present in the text, and ask students to share places in the text the themes are explored. Some examples of themes present in A Snake Falls to Earth are:

  • Family
  • The environment
  • Sacrifice
  • Ties to land
  • Friendship

Formative Assessment: Students will keep a “quote journal,” where they will choose one quote from each chapter to copy down. In a few sentences, they will explain the context of their quote, as well as why they chose it.

Summative Assessment: Students will be separated into several groups, with each group focusing on a specific theme present in the text. Each group will prepare a presentation, art piece, podcast, or other creative project to share what they learned about the topic by reading A Snake Falls to Earth.

Reviewed by: Hannah Hampton, English Literature student at Purdue University

A YA Thriller About A Native Teen Trying to Rid Her Community of Corruption

Firekeeper’s Daughter by Angeline Bouley

Book Details
Publisher: Henry Holt and Co.
Publish Date: March 16, 2021
Page Count: 496
ISBN: 978-1250766564
Genre: YA fiction, Thriller, Mystery
Find on Bookshop

Synopsis: After two sudden deaths in her community, Daunis Firekeeper, a determined 18-year-old, becomes the confidential informant for two FBI agents. As Daunis seeks to uncover the truth about the events in her community, she comes up against betrayals and roadblocks. At the same time, Daunis seeks to uncover the truth about herself. She struggles to reconcile the two cultures that make up her identity (her mother is French, while her father was Anishinaabe). The book contains a lot of dark and graphic content. The book contains murder, suicide, sexual assault, drug abuse, racism, the death of a loved one, and kidnapping.


Firekeeper’s Daughter is an entertaining and suspenseful read. The writing is beautiful and poetic. Bouley stunningly describes Anishinaabe culture and traditions. Daunis is a brave, intelligent, and strong female protagonist. The first 100 pages of the book are slow paced, but once you get past this, it is hard to put down. You’ll want to figure out the mystery. The characters are dynamic and have multifaceted personalities. If you’re looking for a book with great friendships (and romance), this is the book for you!

Suggestions for Curriculum & Classroom Use


  • Culture and family
  • Identity
  • Trust
  • Grief and Acceptance 

Essential Questions:

  • What is the true meaning of family?
  • How do you fit into society when viewed as “an outsider”?
  • How are the plot and characters affected by culture and family traditions?
  • How do you balance your needs and wants with those you care about?

Teaching Strategies:

  1. Body Biography Activity: In groups of 3-4, students will create body biographies for important characters from Firekeeper’s Daughter. They will be given a worksheet with the outline of a person. Students will fill in the outline with information about the character.
  2. Discussion about identity and culture: As a class, students will discuss the conflicts Daunis experiences while existing between two cultures (Anishinaabe and French/white).

Formative and Summative Assessments:

Formative: Students will write a 1-2 page journal entry from the perspective of a character other than Daunis in Firekepper’s Daughter. Students can choose to write about a character’s feelings, thoughts, and/or future plans. The purpose of this assessment is to have students be creative and practice making inferences about characters.

Summative: Students will write a 5-paragraph essay responding to the following prompt: How are the plot and characters affected by culture and family traditions? The essay should be formatted in MLA format.

Reviewed by: Gillian Archer, English Education Student, Purdue University, and Madison Mariga, English Literature Student, Purdue University.

ALAN Picks (October 2023)

ALAN Picks: Self-Exploration, Intersectionality & Dealing With Change

This month’s ALAN Picks features a review of several young adult books by Latinx/Latine authors in honor of Hispanic Heritage Month, as well as a young adult horror novel for those who are looking for a spooky season recommendation for students. The books include the exploration of sibling relationships with a social media influencer backdrop, How Moon Fuentez Fell in Love with the Universe by Raquel Vasquez Gilliand; an exploration of intersectionality with LGBQT+ teens in This is Why They Hate Us by Aaron H. Aceves; the story of one boy’s immigration journey from Cuba in The Bluest Sky by Christina Diaz Gonzalez and a horror novel about zombie girls created by a global warming catastrophe in This Delicious Death by Kayla Cottingham.

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.

Discovering self-acceptance and embracing who you are

How Moon Fuentez Fell in Love with the Universe by Raquel Vasquez Gilliand

Book Details
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Publish Date: August 10, 2021
Page Count: 448
ISBN: 9781534448674
Genre:  Realistic Fiction, Romance, Magical Realism
Find on Bookshop

Synopsis:  In first-person narration, How Moon Fuentez Fell in Love with the Universe is the story of Moon Fuentez’s journey to self-love and uncovering truths while being on the road as a “merch girl” with influencers across the country; including her sister. Always considering herself the ugly sister destined to be in the background of her sister’s stardom, she questions her fate as the unnoticeable and unloved Moon she had always deemed herself to be. Through an enemies-to-lovers romance that is sparked by close proximity, Moon finds herself on a path toward self-acceptance and most importantly, learning to love oneself for all that you are worth.


Gilliand uses Moon’s strong voice to showcase relatability in the struggles of fatphobia, religion, family trauma, sexuality, and learning to love yourself. Through the magical realism of nature and descriptions of Moon’s life, it creates a poetic coming-of-age tale that allows the reader to fully immerse into her first-person narrative on her journey to self-acceptance. While this is a very character-driven novel, through the plot we are able to see how Moon learns to love herself in how relatable a narrative this is, in which young adults struggle with body image and accepting their insecurities as that is what makes them who they are – human. In this emotional and relatable novel, Moon Fuentez finds the little miracles in life as she accepts herself for who she is, loving herself unconditionally.

Suggestions for Curriculum & Classroom Use

Thematic Connections: 
Many of the topics discussed in this novel are crucial to understand and be aware of as students live in an age of social media. Teachers could teach these thematic topics in groups and or together as a class to analyze how these issues affect the characters in the novel. 

  • Body shaming/Fatphobia 
  • Online bullying 
  • Religion 
  • Sexuality 
  • Trauma/Parental Abuse 
  • Love 
  • Self-Acceptance 
  • Race/Ethnicity 
  • Sibling relationships 

Essential Questions

  • How important is trust in sibling relationships? 
  • What are ways to overcome the stereotypes associated with different body types? 
  • In what ways can body shaming affect someone? 
  • What are ways to promote self-love/acceptance with friends and peers?
Formative/Summative Assessments

Formative: Once students finish the book, as a class, they should compile a list of ways in which Moon learns to love and accept herself for who she is through the various characters she interacts with. After finalizing the list as a class, students should get into groups of four and create infographics of possible ways that self-love, acceptance, and body positivity can be promoted around their school and online. 

Summative: Once students finalize their infographics that promote these components, they should have a gallery walk to vote for the best infographic that goes with what the book advocates for. They can refer back to the themes from the book that highlight how well this will positively affect young adults’ mental health and emotional stability while being active on social media.

Other Creative Components

Other possible directions for discussion could be that students create visual one-pagers, with a set rubric from the teacher, in which they find ways they can relate and or identify with any and all characters in the book through the themes discussed.

Reviewed by: Natalie Rodriguez, English Creative Writing major at Colorado State University, Fort Collins, Colorado.

Exploring Intersectionality in Fiction

This is Why They Hate Us by Aaron H. Aceves

Book Details
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers
Publish Date: August 23. 2022
Page Count: 400
ISBN: 9781534485655
Genre: LGBT Romance, Contemporary, Fiction
Find on Bookshop

Synopsis: Enrique Luna wants to get over his crush Saleem, so he pursues other prospects. In doing so, Enrique tries to find clarity in his sexuality while being closeted from his parents, navigating his relationship with his best friend Fabiola, and dealing with the news that Saleem is leaving Los Angeles for the summer because his parents want him to meet a woman. In his pursuit to get over this, he meets a cast of prospects including a stoner named Tyler, a class president, Ziggy, and the enticingly scary Manny. Do these prospects bring Enrique to a conclusion about Saleem? And will living his truth lead to consequences?


Enrique’s answer to his hardcore crush on his friend Saleem is to get with as many prospects as possible. In doing so, we get to learn about the experience of this Mexican, Bisexual young man who comes to terms with the fact that he is worth more than his body image and self-esteem issues would have him believe. Aceves breaks down stereotypes of bisexuality by analyzing the reasons why someone like Enrique would sleep with other men due to his absolute abundance of love for one person who he wants to live with forever, and he learns this throughout the book. This book is an excellent example of queer identity and will help students understand intersectionality. This book does contain mature content and many sexual themes, but these scenes serve as an exploration of body and self, therefore, this book would be suited best for eighth grade and above.

Suggestions for Curriculum & Classroom Use

Thematic Analysis:
This book is a fantastic example of LGBTQ+ representation. It would be beneficial in a classroom for both students who identify with the community, and those who do not. The plot points are relatable to people of any identity while still driving home themes of sexual repression, discrimination, and confusion about one’s identity. 

  • Exploring sex as an LGBTQIA+ individual
  • Coping with lost love
  • Inability to come out to parents
  • Social anxiety
  • Judgment of Risks 
  • Breaking stereotypes of bisexual people
  • Coming of age
  • Race
Teaching Strategies and Assessments

Formative Assessments

  • Students are tasked to write about their own social and personal intersections up to their level of comfortability. I encourage teachers to go further beyond race and sexuality, as there are many other facets of identity that this book covers like social status and wealth using an identity wheel and linking it to the characters and the book as a whole. 
  • Students can create a self-directed response to a portion of the book, like writing to a main character or describing a scene that may have been in the book if they wrote it. 

Summative Assessments

  • Students can be tested for their ability to dissect themes from this book including but not limited to risk judgment, LGBTQIA+ struggles, and learning from past mistakes. 
  • Students might create a portfolio of their understanding of this book during the reading.

Teaching Strategies
This is Why They Hate Us intertwines sexuality with multiple other intersections of a student’s life, giving this book an excellent opportunity to shine in a curriculum centered around topics of race and sexuality.

Reviewed by: Joshua Ricci, English Education student at Colorado State University.

A Must Read Cuban-American Story

The Bluest Sky by Christina Diaz Gonzalez

Book Details
Publisher: Knopf
Publish Date: September 6th, 2022
Page Count: 320
ISBN: 9780593372791 
Genre: Young Adult Historical Fiction 
Find on Bookshop

Synopsis: A journey told through Hector, a boy who is only in 6th grade who is experiencing the emotional ride of growing up in Cuba in the 1980’s and learning about the tough decisions he has to make at such a young age. As he pursues this adventure he risks everything when fleeing Cuba during the Mariel boatlift. 


A heart wrenching story that sucks you in from the beginning and breaks down perspectives that you never would have thought of. Personally I feel the term a book you can’t stop reading is overused although this is a book that was so hard to put down. Learning about Hector’s journey, connection to family and friends, and his dreams made me feel disrespectful whenever I tried to put the book down. Putting the book down felt like ending a phone call with a friend mid-story because you get such a strong connection to Hector and all the other people in his life. We see the conflicts in the story build up and no spoilers, but it really makes you grateful for your life and even if you can relate to some of the conflicts in the book you still just wonder how much pain Hector has to go through when navigating through his life. 

Suggestions for Curriculum & Classroom Use

Thematic Connections:
The book includes themes that lead to a deeper understanding of immigrants through a person’s narrative and the challenges of the process. Another theme would be the importance of family and community and how important the people are in your life can be when it comes to seeking the best for you. 

  • Diversity 
  • Different time periods
  • Foreign policies
  • Friendship
  • Family
  • Immigration
  • Reality and dreams
  • Optimism 

Essential Questions:

  • How do you think moving affects who you are?
  • How close do you feel to your community?
  • How has your knowledge of the immigration process changed since reading the book?

Formative and Summative Assessments:

Formative: Teaching students on a way to interact with the book could be writing something they are grateful for and relating it to Hector’s journey. This book could also be great for a beginner level Spanish class as some of the dialogue is in Spanish giving students the context of the book for them to find out what is said in Spanish. 

Summative: Students could make a boat out of paper and decorate it as they please to use as a book marker.

Reviewed by: Seth Banquer, student of Colorado State, Fort Collins, CO.

Girls, Zombies and Global Warming

This Delicious Death by Kayla Cottingham

Book Details
Publisher: Sourcebooks
Publish Date: April 25, 2023
Page Count: 287
ISBN: 978-1-7282-3644-5
Genre: Science Fiction/Dystopia/Horror/YA Lit
Find on Bookshop

Synopsis: Global warming causes a worldwide exposure resulting in a pandemic, known as the Hollowing. A small percentage of the human race become ghouls and start to crave human flesh. Synthetic flesh is soon created to help the Hollows remain in society, and this somewhat eases the mind of the masses. This Delicious Death follows a group of four hollowed girls—Zoey, Celeste, Valeria, and Jasmine—who embark on a trip to a music festival right before high school graduation. Their trip begins to shatter when one of them strays too far from governmental expectations, and they soon realize they are being targeted. Can they avoid going feral at the festival, or will anyone survive?


This Delicious Death is an extraordinary introduction to xenophobia and corruption of government with a dash of horror. It offers a new perspective on how one deals with a life-altering event that makes the whole world see you differently, including your parents. More than a vaccine is required when global warming causes the permafrost to melt, unleashing a global pandemic. It requires resilience to the extreme. News reports and social media reinforce many perceptions of you. It doesn’t help that even the government forces a person to log in what they are doing and who they see at all times. Kayla Cottingham does a masterful job of navigating these subjects with the struggles of trying to live an old life that can never be lived again.

Suggestions for Curriculum & Classroom Use

Thematic Analysis:
The themes in this novel are relatable for teen and adult readers, making this text enjoyable,and  thought-provoking. Some thematic topics explored in this novel include:

  • Corruption of government
  • Survival of mass outbreaks
  • World disaster/pandemic
  • Cannibalism
  • Drug-Alcohol Use
  • Global warming
  • Discrimination
  • LGBT 

Essential Questions:

  • How do authorities react to a global pandemic?
  • What are the consequences of governmental reactions to a global pandemic on a population?
  • What is your view of the “fairness” of consequences to governmental decisions?
  • How do the traits/conditions we have no control over shape our lives?
  • Stereotyping is judging someone based on preconceived perceptions. How do those perceptions affect our lives? Futures?

Student Engagement Activities:

Choose one of the recent pandemics (Influenza epidemic of 1918 or Covid-19). Before reading the book, students should research the following topics and complete the first column below. As the class is reading the book, compare/contrast the book to real life.

Topic Pandemic Chosen: This Delicious Death ???
Genesis of Disease
Initial government response
Result of government response
Spread of disease
Governmental communication
with the public regarding the infection
Government final response to control the
Ultimate end of the pandemic
Day-to-day living-post pandemic
Post-pandemic cultural changes
Anything you’d like to add as a
result of your research

Formative and Summative Assessments:

Formative: The table above acts as a primary formative assessment. In the fourth column of the above table, students should create their own pandemic and develop all the elements researched and discussed in the book. 

Summative: Students create their own short story set in the post-pandemic they created in the table above.

Reviewed by: Matthew Callaghan, English Creative Writing Major at Colorado State University, Fort Collins Colorado. 

ALAN Picks (September 2023)

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 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

Book Details
Publisher: Penguin Random House
Publish Date: May 31, 2022
Page Count: 320
ISBN: 9780593429259
Genre: Romance
Find on Bookshop

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


  • Family/relationships
  • Grief
  • Social Class
  • Tragedy
  • Gender Roles
  • Time & Fate
  • Coming-of-age

Essential Question

  • 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/Summative Assessments

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

Book Details
Publisher: Atheneum Books for Young Readers
Publish Date: Feb. 21, 2023
Page Count: 213
ISBN: 978-1-6659-1705-6
Genre: Fantasy
Find on Bookshop

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

Thematic Analysis:

  • Guerrilla Warfare
  • Paramilitaries
  • Drug Lords
  • Government
  • Terrorism
  • Deforestation and Climate Change’s Effects on Wildlife
  • Plastic Pollution’s Effect on Ocean Wildlife

Essential Questions:

  • 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

Book Details
Publisher: Henry Holt and Company
Publish Date: Jan. 31, 2023
Page Count: 304
ISBN: 9781250866974
Genre:  Mystery
Find on Bookshop

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

Thematic Connections:

  • 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.

Essential Questions:

  • 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

Book Details
Publisher: Feiwel and Friends
Publish Date: Sep. 6, 20224
Page Count: 401
ISBN: 9781250822130
Genre: Young Adult Fantasy
Find on Bookshop

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

Essential Questions:

  • 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. 

ALAN Picks (June & July 2023)

ALAN Picks: A Variety of Contemporary & Fantasy YA Lit

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

ALAN Picks Update: ALAN Picks is now accepting reviews of books published as far back as spring 2020. This gives ALAN members who are interested in reviewing books more great titles to choose from, as well as accommodate some great books released during the beginning of the pandemic that deserve highlighting. If you have some books in mind that you would like to review, please reach out to me!

If you read an ALAN Picks review and end up using the book with your students, let us know! We want to hear all of your great stories and engaging ways you are using young adult and middle grades literature in your classrooms. Remember, ALAN Picks are book reviews by educators for educators! Click on the archives to see previous editions.

–  Richetta Tooley, ALAN Picks Editor

Submit a Review: Would you like to submit a review? Check out ALAN Picks for submission guidelines and email ALAN Picks Editor, Richetta Tooley at with the book title you are interested in reviewing. Rolling deadline.

Teens Find Family Through Writing Group

The Chandler Legacies by Abdi Nazemian

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

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


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

Suggestions for Curriculum & Classroom Use

Thematic Analysis

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

Teaching Engagement Strategies:

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

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

A Trans Teen Tries To Survive The Apocalypse

Hell Followed With Us by Andrew Joseph White

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

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


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

Suggestions for Curriculum & Classroom Use

Themes Connections:

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

Essential Questions:

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

Formative and Summative Assessments:


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


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

Reviewed by: Audrey Pink, student at Purdue University

Queerness, Faith, and reckoning the two for love

Lesbiana’s Guide to Catholic School by Sonora Reyes

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

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


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

Suggestions for Curriculum & Classroom Use

Thematic Connections:

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

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

Essential Questions

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

Teaching Strategies and Activities to Use:

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

Formative and Summative Assessments:

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

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

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

Fantasy, Dragons and Romance

Together We Burn by Isabel Ibañez

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

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


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

Suggestions for Curriculum & Classroom Use

Thematic Connections:

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

Possible Essential Questions:

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

Teaching Strategies/Activities:

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

Formative/Summative Assessments:

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

Reviewed by: Hadleigh Pierce, West Lafayette, Indiana

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

Twice as Perfect by Louisa Onomé

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

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


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

Suggestions for Curriculum & Classroom Use

This book has several themes and topics within it:

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

Essential Questions:

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

Teaching Activities and Activities to Use:

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

Formative and Summative Assessments:

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

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

Reviewed by: Lily Ortega

Reflecting on Emotional Responses to Trauma

Bitter by Akwaeke Emezi

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

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


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

Suggestions for Curriculum & Classroom Use

Thematic Connections:

Thematic Topics Explored in the Novel:

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

Essential Questions:

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

Teaching Activities and Activities:

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

Formative and Summative Assessments:


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

CharacterEventInner ThoughtEmotional ResponseOutward Action


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

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

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

Summer Reading Recommendations and Curriculum Ideas

Summer Reading Recommendations and Curriculum Ideas

Check out ALAN Picks for Summer Reading Recommendations and Curriculum Ideas!

Looking to infuse your curriculum with some fresh new diverse YA Lit energy? Need some good book recommendations to review for your courses next year? Check out the ALAN Picks column for ideas on how to use Young Adult and Middle Grade literature with students. In the first half of 2023, ALAN Picks has featured books that touch on topics such as: 

Also, stay tuned for the June ALAN Picks column coming in mid-June!

ALAN Picks (May 2023)

ALAN Picks: Two Retellings and a Basketball

This month’s ALAN Picks features reviews of a mix of young adult and middle grade books that explore the topics of the power of voice, family & friendship and identity. The young adult books include: fantasy retelling Six Crimson Cranes by Elizabeth Lim and contemporary sports-centered novel Wrong Side of the Court by H.N. Khan. The middle grade book is: the modern retelling The Secret Garden on 81st Street by Ivy Noelle Weir. 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 Retelling of the Hans Christian Andersen story “The Wild Swans” Combined With East Asian Folklore

Six Crimson Cranes by Elizabeth Lim

Book Details
Publisher: Ember
Publish Date: July 26, 2022
Page Count: 480 pages
ISBN: 9780593300947
Genre: Science Fiction/Fantasy
Find on Bookshop

Synopsis: When Princess Shiori’anma is on her way to her betrothal ceremony, she meets a dragon who changes the course of her destiny forever. Shiori soon discovers not only her own magical powers— something that is strictly forbidden in her father’s land of Kiata— but also discovers the dark magic that runs through her stepmother’s veins. Upon her discovery, her stepmother curses Shiori and her brothers. Her brothers are fated to change into cranes by day, but retain their human form at night. Shiori, on the other hand, is forced to conceal her appearance and never speak a word, for a single word could cost her the life of one of her brothers. Alone in a foreign land with magic she has yet to understand, Shiori teams up with her betrothed to take down her stepmother. Along the way, she discovers a far deeper plot that involves not just her own fate, but the fate of Kiata as a whole.


Six Crimson Cranes by Elizabeth Lim starts out slow, with much of the first quarter of the novel establishing the lore of Kiata and allowing Shiori to discover the power she harnesses. After her discovery of her stepmother’s secret, the novel really starts to pick up. Lim takes the audience with Shiori throughout Kiata, and the visual descriptions the author provides makes the audience feel as if they are with Shiori the entire time. While the characters of Shiori’s brothers were not as well developed, the development of Shiori and her betrothed, Takkan were quite interesting, as the two are quite different but somehow seem perfectly matched. While the examination into Asian culture is richly blended with fantasy elements that create such an interesting world that keeps the audience entranced, the specificity of which culture in Asia is never explicitly described. The complexity of the main villain of the story is thought-provoking and is an interesting look at the dynamic ways that women are treated within this society. A possible criticism could be the cliffhanger/lack of ending within the last chapter. While the novel leaves the audience with a cliffhanger, this book could have easily been a stand-alone novel.

Suggestions for Curriculum & Classroom Use

Thematic Analysis
Themes of the importance of family and sacrifice are highlighted throughout the novel, but some other themes Lim explores are:

  • Women’s Roles in Society
  • The Power of a Voice
  • Self Discovery and Acceptance
  • The Act of Growing Up
  • Dealing with Trauma and Loss
  • The Influence of Family
  • Celebration of All Creatures

Essential Questions

  • How can the act of growing up affect a person mentally and emotionally?
  • How can family provide support? How can they be an impediment?
  • How can one find their voice when society takes it away from them?
  • How can modern science fiction/fantasy portray more diversity?

Teaching Strategies and Activities to Use:

  • Background of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Wild Swans and the connection between the themes of that text and Six Crimson Cranes.
  • Discuss the genre of fantasy and the formula the Six Crimson Cranes does/does not follow. 
  • Discuss the importance of representation in fantasy and how some groups are underrepresented. 

This lesson from examines the ways in which cultural representation is explored in the text and how that representation can be reflected onto modern society.

Formative/Summative Assessments

Formative: Students can make connections between different locations Shiori visits that follow the development of her character. Students can provide an analysis of the growth Shiori experiences over the course of the novel. Further reflection and analysis can occur by incorporating the writing of journal reflections at the beginning of class that can then lead into a discussion, or mini-group projects that the students do together to find excerpts from the text that show examples of growth.

Summative: A summative assessment for students after reading this text could be a presentation on how this text compares or differs from another fantasy novel. Possible points of discussion that should be included are the roles of race, gender, family dynamics, character development (as was discussed during the reading of the text), and overall plot shape that are similar/different from Six Crimson Cranes. This project would require students to take excerpts from one other YA fantasy novel to compare to Lim’s Six Crimson Cranes.

Review by: Caitlin Leonard, senior at Colorado State University, English Creative Writing undergraduate, Fort Collins, Colorado.

A Modern Retelling of the Classic Story

The Secret Garden on 81st Street by Ivy Noelle Weir Illustrated by Amber Padilla

Book Details
Publisher: Hachette Book Group
Publish Date: September 2021
Page Count: 247
ISBN: 978-0-316-45970-9
Genre: Graphic Novel, Fiction, Retelling
Find on Bookshop


Young Mary Lennox had never had a close relationship with anything in her life, but that all changes when her parents die in a tragic accident and she is whisked away from her Silicon Valley home and all is technological luxuries to live with her mysterious uncle in his modern day low-tech New York City home. A very different setting than the original story, The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett , that takes place in 1900’s England. 

At first it seems that she is still without a close relationship to anyone in the world, but all that soon changes when she discovers a key that leads her to the secret rooftop garden of her uncle’s late husband. Now, with the help of her new friend Dickon and her reclusive cousin Collin, Mary takes on the incredible task of bringing the garden back to life, while also bringing her family and herself back to life in ways she could never imagine. 


A very fun retelling of the classic story The Secret Garden on 81st Street stays true to the original story while also adding more representation, such as anxiety, same sex and inter-racial couples, and featuring a young Black girl as the main character. This is a great story to teach to children who may be off-put by the age of the original story and for students who may need to see more of themselves represented in literature. The modern day city setting will also make it easier for modern children to connect to the story as they will be able to see things that they recognize within the pages. The beautiful artwork and well done story helps to keep the story fun and light while also informing kids of different real world issues.

Suggestions for Curriculum & Classroom Use

Thematic Analysis:
Educators may wish to use this text as an alternative to teaching the classic as it stays true to the original story, but with a modern twist added. The story can offer students an age appropriate insight to grief, anxiety, and hardwork. Some of the thematic topics included within the text include: 

  • Coming of age
  • Life and death
  • Family
  • Change vs Tradition
  • Friendship 
  • The power of words
  • The power of actions

Essential Questions: 

  • How can we help our friends when they are having a hard time?
  • How can our actions affect the moods of others? 
  • Does everyone experience everything in the same way?

Teaching strategies and activities to use

  • An overview of the original story and a side-by-side comparison
  • Discussion on the power of emotions and how it relates to the novel
    • Ex. How we see characters like Mary, Colin, and Uncle Archie deal with their complicated emotions in the text and what it teaches us about our own emotions in the real world. 
  • Reflect on the hard work and the payoff
    • Ex. Look at the many phases of Mary, Dickon, and Colin rebuilding the secret garden. All the research that went into recreating the garden, all the times Mary was so discouraged she almost gave up, and the period of time when all they could do was be patient. Then look at the payoff that came from all the hard work, a beautiful rooftop garden, Colin feeling reconnected with his dad, Uncle Archie feeling reconnected to his late husband, and Mary finally making a connection with her Uncle Archie and making the first true friends of her life. 
Formative/Summative Assessments

Formative: Once the lesson/reading of the book for the day has wrapped up the teacher will pass out mini whiteboards and markers to the students and have them draw or write what they understand about the reading on the whiteboard. This is a low stakes non-graded activity that will allow kids some time to creatively show what they understand. While students are doing this the teacher should walk amongst the room and chat individually with students about what they do and do not understand about the story. 

Summative: Once the class has finished the novel the teacher will introduce a group project assignment. Students will gather in groups of 2-3 and create their own short graphic novel strip focusing on hard work, as seen in the novel, or focusing on helping someone with hard emotions, as also seen in the novel. 

Review by: Brooke Miller

A Young Pakistani overcoming trials and tribulations for his dreams of the NBA.

Wrong Side of the Court by H.N. Khan

Book Details
Publisher: Penguin Teen Canada
Publish Date: March 15, 2022
Page Count: 312
ISBN: 9780735270879
Genre: Young Adult fiction, Sports fiction
Find on Bookshop

Synopsis: The story revolves around Fawad Chaudhry, a fifteen-year-old Pakistani American. He lives in Regent Park, a low income community. He dreams to be the first Pakistani player in the NBA and luckily he has a great set of friends that root him on. However, he is under constant stress from his mother wanting an arranged marriage with his cousin, his neighborhood bully, Omar, and the vicious, violent cycle that resides in Regent Park. Fawad overcomes each obstacle with his chin up as her pursues his dream of professional basketball.


This story of Fawad and his struggles to become not only a better basketball player, but to be a better person for his family and friends, is nothing short of charming and inspiring. Themes of forgiveness, revenge, and loyalty resound throughout the book. Fawad is young and uncensored in his thoughts and he is always striving to protect his friends and family. Unlike other stories about immigrant families, Fawad doesn’t deal with racism at all in this novel. In fact, his community is compared to the United Nations with how much culture and language is spread throughout, whether that be Vietnamese, Chinese, or Bangladeshi. Regent Park is not only multinational, but holds the ties of Fawad’s friends through their beliefs, holding prayer and lessons together. The story is focused around Fawad’s heart, how much he persists despite being answered with violence. His understanding that revenge is how violence perpetuates, keeps him anchored to his passion and his family. Though, he will defend his friends to the bitter end if provoked. The story is sprinkled with romance as Fawad falls in love with a girl from the richer side of town. As a Korean American, who watched basketball growing up, I have an understanding of Fawad’s dream. In basketball and even just mainstream sports, Asian Americans can only really look up to Jeremy Lin. There’s just an abysmal amount of representation there, and it makes Fawad’s dream and surely millions of other kids’ dreams feel unachievable. It’s especially difficult for Fawad because of such an abrasive situation in his neighborhood. Nonetheless, Fawad ambition never fails him despite the tragedy that falls on his shoulders, whether it be his family or his friends. Despite not personally knowing a lot of the vernacular or young slang in the book, I believe readers of all ages can find Fawad’s resolution gratifying and encouraging.

Suggestions for Curriculum & Classroom Use

Thematic Connections

  • Identity
  • Family/relationships
  • Grief
  • Forgiveness
  • Poverty
  • Violence

Essential Questions

  • How do you overcome labels given to you by society and/or family? 
  • How do the themes of violence, vengeance and dreaming engage with each other?

Teaching Strategies and Activities to Use

  • An overview of different practices of Muslims such as prayer, fasting, and calligraphy
  • Pair with texts that address racism, Islamophobia, especially in wealthy communities
  • Discussion and research the impact of single parent families in low income communities/how that affects children growing up.
Formative/Summative Assessments

Formative: Students should keep a reading journal to document the events that take place in the story. Each chapter should have a paragraph, describing what took place and how that could affect our main character’s attitude and perception or even how the student feels if those events took place in their shoes. The journals should be discussed with the class after every few chapters to obtain a larger perspective.

Summative: Students should be split into groups and tackle one of Fawad’s relationships in the story, whether that be his mother, his sister, his girlfriend, his friends, or his coach. Each group will analyze their relationship and how it evolves from the beginning to end. The groups should also take note of how each character changed or didn’t change. Students should use textual evidence from the book and cite their journals from the formative assessment for certain events that took place in the story.

Review by: David Lee, junior at Colorado State University, majoring in Graphic Design and a minor in English, Fort Collins, Colorado.

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

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.

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
Find on Bookshop

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
Find on Bookshop

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