When Dimple Met Rishi by Sandhya Menon

My Best Books for Youth in 2017

I am a Books for Youth reviewer for Booklist, a publication of the American Library Association, which means I have the privilege of reading 60 to 70 books a year for early, middle grade, young adult, and new adult readers before they’re published. Whatever the magazine sends me, I read and review. I have the privilege of reading debut novels, works from authors just a few books old, and books from established authors. The fact that I am able to read so many of them before they’re published continues to tickle my literary bones because there’s such excitement in this world of books.

There’s always another book to read, and I’m happy to say that there have been very few that I’ve rejected (yes, I can do that because the magazine recommends books to “librarians, book groups and book lovers” rather than flood them with “don’t-waste-your-time” reviews).

In 2017, I went on hiatus from Booklist for a bit, which cut down the number of books I reviewed. Still, my involvement with Booklist yielded only two rejected books and approximately forty published reviews. I read many good books and gave starred reviews to eight of them. I also reviewed a young adult/new adult novel for my long-time home, India Currents Magazine, that was tearing up the charts.

However, this is not about me; it’s about the books, and I want to share those “Best of 2017” starred reviews with you. I’m not including books I read for pleasure and didn’t review, but believe me, I also read many kidlit books that received deserving stars from other reviewers.

Please note that the order in which I list them is by publication date of the review. Enjoy and happy reading!

Between Two Skies.
O’Sullivan, Joanne (author).
Apr. 2017. 272p. Candlewick, hardcover, $16.99 (9780763690342).
Grades 7-12.
REVIEW. First published February 15, 2017 (Booklist).

Sixteen-year-old Evangeline Riley has a rich and contented life. Tiny Bayou Perdu, a shrimping and fishing town in Louisiana, offers all she needs: best friends, family, salt air, gumbo, and pure peace when she’s on the water. During a local festival, she meets Tru, a Vietnamese boy she can’t get out of her mind; but shortly thereafter, Hurricane Katrina forces evacuation. Chaos and destruction push them away, as the Rileys seek refuge with an aunt in Atlanta. There Evangeline feels lost and restless, craving home and the familiar, while her family struggles to rebuild their lives. When she and Tru discover they attend the same high school with other Katrina “refugees,” they forge an unbreakable bond. However, life remains unstable for them both, and when Evangeline’s family is given a FEMA trailer back home, not everyone in the Riley family wants to return. O’Sullivan’s debut novel excels in its expressive language and the use of place: a colorful home, a city that contrasts with the one Evangeline lost, and the aftermath of the storm that destroyed almost everything she holds dear. Told in a strong, purposeful voice filled with controlled emotion and hope, the impact of Katrina on families is as compelling as Evangeline’s drive to regain her sense of self and belonging. — Jeanne Fredriksen

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Bubble by Stewart FosterBubble.
Foster, Stewart (author).
May 2017. 352p. Simon & Schuster, hardcover, $16.99 (9781481487429). Grades 4-7.
REVIEW. First published March 15, 2017 (Booklist).

Eleven-year-old Joe Grant has no recollection of being outside of his specially monitored hospital room. A rare genetic disorder, severe combined immunodeficiency, keeps him within the same four walls because the smallest thing can kill him. Joe’s world revolves around monitor beeps and daily bruise checks in the shower, and the only people he sees are doctors, nurses, his Skype pal Henry, and Beth, his sister and only living family member. Though he’s a rabid fan of Arsenal Football Club and Spider-Man, Joe only has limited exposure to the outside world, via one window and technology—his TV, laptop, and phone. His imagination creates involved scenarios of what his life could be outside of the hospital, and when a new nurse, Amir, shows up, Joe’s life changes dramatically in ways he’d only dreamed of. Joe’s hopeful and unaffected voice gently reminds readers not to take even mundane things for granted and that he understands his lot in life even if he doesn’t fully accept it. Alternating between lighthearted and heart-wrenching scenes and emotions, Bubble’s star power lies in Joe himself. His uplifting relationships with Amir and Beth, who never lets the demands of medical school come between her and her brother, meaningfully unfold as Joe experiences the world from the inside looking out. A perfect pick for readers who loved R. J. Palacio’s Wonder (2012). — Jeanne Fredriksen

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Speed of Life by Carol WestonSpeed of Life.
Weston, Carol (author).
Apr. 2017. 320p. Sourcebooks/Jabberwocky, hardcover, $16.99 (9781492654490).
Grades 6-9.
REVIEW. First published April 15, 2017 (Booklist).

Fourteen-year-old Sofia Wolfe moves through life smiling with friends and hiding the sorrow of having lost her Spanish mother almost a year earlier. The only people she has to talk to are her abuelo in Spain, and—regarding girl things—“Dear Kate,” a teen-advice columnist with whom she can anonymously discuss personal matters. When Sofia’s father reveals he’s dating Kate, Sofia initially feels betrayed that he’s moving on with his life when she can’t. But just as things start to gel between Kate and Sofia, Kate’s daughter Alexa and her ex-boyfriend complicate Sofia’s life further. This novel is jam-packed with important, dramatic, and inevitable aspects of adolescence, from pimples to periods to popularity. On top of these concerns are potential developments that could “destroy” Sofia’s life: having to move and attend a new school, becoming part of a blended family, navigating new friendship dynamics, and learning that people you look up to aren’t always who you think they are. The narrative effectively contrasts the diversity of a city environment with that of suburban life, and any opportunity for over-the-top melodrama is tempered by the book’s strong and likable narrator. Weston draws heavily on her years as “Dear Carol” at Girls’ Life magazine, creating a solid, affecting tale of maturing and coming to grips with one’s reality.  — Jeanne Fredriksen

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Grace and the Fever by Zan RomanoffGrace and the Fever.
Romanoff, Zan (author).
May 2017. 352p. Knopf, hardcover, $17.99 (9781524720841); Knopf, library edition, $20.99 (9781524720858); Knopf, e-book, $17.99 (9781524720865).  Grades 7-12.
REVIEW. First published April 15, 2017 (Booklist).

The minute obsessive fandom bleeds into real life, there’s bound to be trouble. Grace Thomas is a self-proclaimed ordinary person, but as music blogger Gigi, she’s an integral part of boy band Fever Dream’s fandom. One night during the summer after graduation, Grace finds herself face-to-face with the band’s heartthrob, Jes. When a paparazzo takes their picture and it goes viral, Grace/Gigi finds herself straddling the worlds of the band, fandom, and real life, forcing her to face complicated truths about herself. This is a realistically told tale of a fan and star falling into a relationship that is messier and thornier than anticipated. It explores how the comfort of an online community can absorb one’s life to the point of blurring boundaries, and how falsehoods and fabrications become easier the more they’re employed. Genuine dialogue, texts, e-mails, online posts—albeit filled with an excess of the word like in, like, every other sentence—bring to life this edgy and layered look at the glitz and secrets of stardom from ordinary eyes. Romanoff’s (A Song to Take the World Apart, 2016) novel will resonate with teens who have favorite bands, but it will hit home with those who think about those bands a little too much. — Jeanne Fredriksen 

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Sisters of Glass (Shard Book 1) by Naomi CyprusSisters of Glass.
Cyprus, Naomi (author).
Nov. 2017. 384p. Harper, hardcover, $16.99 (9780062458476).
Grades 3-6.
REVIEW. First published September 1, 2017 (Booklist).

The Prince and the Pauper is given Arabian Nights flair in this clever retelling that unites magic and adventure. Nalah is a peasant girl in New Hadar who must hide her magical abilities or be arrested. Halan is a powerless princess in the Magi Kingdom, where magic rules. Neither 12-year-old knows the other exists, but a magical mirror Nalah creates at the request of a family friend becomes a portal between their worlds. When Nalah’s father is abducted into the other world, Nalah has no choice but to follow. Disappearing through the mirror, Nalah and her friend Marcus realize that this is the fairy tale kingdom they learned about as children. When Nalah and Marcus find themselves captured by a rebel leader, they discover that Princess Halan, Nalah’s tawam (mirror image), also is being held. Enchantment, plot twists, and the realization that what you see is not always what you get, make this debut novel inviting and fun. First in the Shard series, this romp will hook readers with its appealing tween characters, exotic settings that blend old and modern, and empowering fight between right and wrong. Give this to readers who love to cheer for the underdog! — Jeanne Fredriksen

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Starfish.
Bowman, Akemi Dawn (author).
Sept. 2017. 352p. Simon & Schuster/Simon Pulse, hardcover, $17.99 (9781481487726).
Grades 7-12.
REVIEW. First published September 1, 2017 (Booklist).

Half Japanese Kiko Himura is a recent high-school graduate whose art-school rejection leaves her with no means of escaping her toxic homelife. Her parents are divorced, and while her father happily lives with his new family, Kiko and her brothers live with their mother, a golden-haired, self-absorbed woman who belittles Kiko relentlessly. Because of this, Kiko is unable to speak what’s on her mind; rather, she expresses herself through art she never shares. Socially awkward, Kiko is more than surprised when her closest childhood friend, Jamie, spots her at a party she didn’t want to attend. They renew their relationship, and Jamie invites her to stay with his family in California to investigate art schools. There Kiko meets famous artist Hiroshi Matsumoto, who befriends and encourages her. Things begin to look up until tragedy strikes at home, and Kiko finally finds the courage and the voice to make important decisions that will guide her out of her shell and toward a fulfilling life. Bowman evokes Kiko’s quiet hurt, pain, and frustration with breathtaking clarity, all the while reinforcing the narrative with love and hope. The story will resonate deeply with readers who have experienced abuse of any kind, or who have been held back by social anxiety. This is a stunningly beautiful, highly nuanced debut. — Jeanne Fredriksen

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More Than We Can Tell by Brigid KemmererMore Than We Can Tell.
Kemmerer, Brigid (author).
Mar. 2018. 416p. Bloomsbury, hardcover, $17.99 (9781681190143).
Grades 9-12.
REVIEW. First published September 15, 2017 (Booklist).

Rev Fletcher, adopted by his foster parents at a young age, never takes their love and respect for granted. Ten years after becoming part of their family, he receives a letter from his abusive fire-and-brimstone father, causing memories of the severe physical traumas Rev endured during his childhood to burn deeper than ever. Meanwhile, Emma Blue is on top of the world, having created an online game, OtherLANDS, that has already developed a community. But her parents’ fights and mother’s constant criticism, already wearing her down, take a backseat to one player’s constant harassment and vile threats. By the time Rev and Emma meet, their wounded souls and hard-kept secrets are eating them alive, begging to be shared. Their immediate connection sears them together with promises to help one another stand up to the people they fear most. Hard, sharp edges and guarded personal lives punctuate Rev’s and Emma’s stories. Kemmerer carefully peels away the characters’ inhibitions, illustrating the fragility of their ability to trust. Mature topics, including foster parenting and divorce, creativity and autonomy, religion gone awry, the politics of trust, and facing one’s most intimate fears, make this an absorbing, emotional roller coaster of a read. Readers looking for a different sort of coming-of-age story or teen protagonists grappling with complex situations will fall in love with this romance-tinged novel. — Jeanne Fredriksen

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When Dimple Met Rishi by Sandhya MenonYoung Adult Rom-Com For the Win!
by Jeanne E. Fredriksen | Nov 29, 2017

WHEN DIMPLE MET RISHI by Sandhya Menon. Simon Pulse (Simon & Shuster): New York. 384 pages. $17.99 hardcover. Also available as a digital book and Audible. (Appeared in the November 2017 issue of India Currents Magazine)

Girl has goal (break the glass ceiling in the world of coding without “IIH” distractions). Boy has goal (woo the girl his parents have arranged for him to marry before they both go off to college). Boy meets girl but stages disastrous introduction (“Hello, future wife. I can’t wait to get started on the rest of our lives!”). Girl tosses Starbucks iced coffee at this “loony bin escapee.”

Sparks fly, feet dance to Dance Pe Chance, hearts ache, and even Sunny Deol would approve of the figurative dishoom-dishoom that ensues. If Sandhya Menon’s debut young adult/new adult novel When Dimple Met Rishi (WDMR) were ice cream, let’s just say it would be called “Rocky Road” with a cherry on top!

Dimple Shah wants nothing more than to attend InsomniaCon, an intensive summer program for web coders/designers before she heads off to Stanford as a freshman. She has no time to think about anything else, and certainly not about her mother’s obsession to find her the IIH (Ideal Indian Husband). Rishi Patel is the stuff that Hindi film heroes are made of: romance, respect for tradition, and charm. He wants nothing more than to meet, woo and secure the woman his parents have arranged for him to marry. This should be a piece of cake because he’ll be attending InsomniaCon, too, before heading off to school at MIT.

The problem is that Dimple has no idea what her parents, Rishi, and his parents have planned. When Dimple and Rishi are paired for the 6-week program to work on an app that will win the grand prize, the give-and-take relationship becomes a comical romp that has had readers buzzing about the book and its characters since the advance reader copies were distributed in February.

If Sandhya Menon’s debut young adult/new adult novel, When Dimple Met Rishi were ice cream, let’s just say it would be called “Rocky Road” with a cherry on top!

Told in short segments alternating between Dimple’s and Rishi’s points of view accomplishes two things. The reader is kept in real time with both characters as the relationship progresses-digresses. This plays out effectively because the characters can be involved in entirely different but concurrent conversations or situations and not be constricted by face-to-face encounters. And it’s cinematic, the result offering readers the opportunity to sit back and enjoy the show. Menon unabashedly expresses her love for Bollywood films and is obsessed with happily-ever-afters, so there’s no doubt as to where this book is headed before the first page is read.

Love her or hate her, Dimple is a confident young woman who knows what she wants, and even when faced with alternatives, she manages to stay true to her vision but seeks some degree of compromise—providing the scales continue to tip in her favor. She’s an American girl who happens to be Indian, wears big, square glasses, isn’t interested in fashion or makeup (much to her mother’s dismay) has a quick temper, and is laser-beam focused on her future.

Rishi, who hides his true talent, is nevertheless the perfect Petruchio to Dimple’s Katherina. There were countless times I thought the two were reenacting Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew. Yet Rishi, also born in the United States, is more traditional than Dimple and strives to please his parents as their first-born son. He believes they know best and accepts going to MIT to study computer science and engineering while deep in his heart he wants to study art and continue his comic superhero that is fresh and Indo-centric.

Although it’s true that Dimple isn’t a totally-loveable character for some of the book, it’s also true that Rishi needs to take a lesson from younger brother Ashish who is 85% free-range American and 15% Indian and needs to respect himself and what he wants more. Menon, who immigrated to the United States at the age of 15, acculturated quickly enough to be the “child of immigrant parents.” Because she fully understands the clash of values and sensibilities between generations and cultures, she translates the differences honestly and humorously.

It’s clear this novel belongs in the #OwnVoices category, a movement that has shown authors writing about the marginalized and minority groups to which they belong; this is not only needed but also wanted by readers. The buzz on this book has been significant, and while the accolades might not be from sources everyone would recognize, they are gold for YA work.

The #WeNeedDiverseBooks’ tumblr page in June included WDMR as one of the “2017 Awesomely Asian YA Books.” In May, it showed up in an article on NBCNews.com titled “Books Featuring Asian Americans, Pacific Islanders for Kids and Teens,” and a School Library Journal Blog said it was one of “13 Must-Read Titles for Asian Pacific American Heritage Month.” Bustle.com’s exclusive first look by Kristian Wilson last October said it’s, “the arranged-marriage rom-com you have to read. It’s being described as ‘Eleanor and Park meets Bollywood with the humor and heart of My Big Fat Greek Wedding,’ so clearly it’s the book we’ve all been waiting for.” Readers on Goodreads have been duking it out with over 7,000 ratings, 92% of readers liking it, nearly 2,300 reviews, and almost 40,000 “adds” by readers (as of this writing).

Buzzfeed staff writer Farrah Penn compiled the thoughts of young adult writers about the importance of diversity in young adult literature. The result was “26 YA Authors on Diverse Representation in Publishing,” posted online on May 13. Menon was included, stating, “Diverse characters are just the norm of what we see in our everyday lives, especially teens and children. I think I read a statistic somewhere out there that said that about 50% of babies born out there were not white. We’re seeing more and more kids coming into the world who need to see stories that reflect their reality.”

Grab an iced coffee and get comfortable. A romantic, comedic look at young adults caught between their parents’ best intentions and their own developing views on adulthood while supporting the joy of diversity in publishing, WDMR promises laughs, giggles, and perhaps a literary Jodi #1.

Jeanne E. Fredriksen lives in North Carolina where she is a Books for Youth reviewer for Booklist magazine/American Library Association and a member of WCPE-FM The Classical Station’s Music Education Fund committee. She is working on an assortment of fiction projects.

Olivia Twist by Lorie LangdonOlivia Twist.
Langdon, Lorie (author).
Mar. 2018. 336p. Blink, hardcover, $18.99 (9780310763413).
Grades 9-12.
REVIEW. First published December 1, 2017 (Booklist).

Vivacious and lovely, 18-year-old Olivia Brownlow is a highly eligible young woman in London’s 1859 society. Before her long-lost uncle took her in, she grew up disguised as a boy named Oliver, who became a street rat in a gang run by the Artful Dodger. Olivia can’t forget her origins, and while snooping around during a formal dinner, she comes upon another sneak—the eye-catching gentleman named Jack MacCarron, who was also about to lift jewels from their owners. Olivia recognizes Jack as the Artful Dodger but keeps her identity from him. Though it’s love at first sight, the two wrestle with their unsuitable affection and unsavory pasts. Toss in Olivia’s impending engagement to a friend for whom she feels only platonic love, and a powder keg of a romantic triangle develops. The story’s breathlessly paced, quick-witted adventures offer more twists than a Shakespearean comedy of errors, as assumptions, secrets, etiquette, competition, and sexual tension create one ridiculous situation after another. Written in language tailored to the setting, the occasional modern turns of phrases feel as if one’s corset briefly has been relaxed. This clever retelling of Dickens’ Oliver Twist is perfect for readers who love romance, adventure, historical settings, and heroines who can kick butt in formal gowns. — Jeanne Fredriksen

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