The Great Greene Heist

I picked up The Great Greene Heist by Varian Johnson in March at my school’s spring book fair. I finally decided to read it this week. (I was in the mood for something a little lighter than the other books I was reading.) I finished it earlier today, and I now want to settle in for an Ocean’s 11 movie night. That’s a good thing.

If you’re looking for a contemporary middle grade novel featuring a diverse cast of characters, The Great Green Heist is what you’re looking for. If you want to read a book about kids scheming, using their wits, and getting one over on bullies–both kids and adults–this is the book for you. And, if you’re in the mood to read a light-hearted novel that has some marked similarities to the Presidential election, you’ve once again got a winner in The Great Greene Heist. (Note: This book was published in 2014. I doubt the author meant the book to so closely resemble the 2016 election, but it does nonetheless.)

Jackson Greene was one of the greatest con artists Maplewood Middle School had ever seen. Due to fallout from his last con, however, Jackson has put his conning days behind him…or has he?

When word gets out that Keith Sinclair, a nemesis of Jackson’s, is running for Student Council President, Jackson knows he has to step in. You see, Keith is running against Gaby de la Cruz, Jackson’s former best friend. Jackson knows Gaby will be a great president and run an honest campaign. Keith, on the other hand, is sure to use every dirty trick in the book–including blackmailing the principal–to make sure he wins.

As Jackson gets more proof that Keith is up to no good, he assembles a crew to pull off the greatest election showdown in middle school history. Their mission is to make sure Gaby wins the election and expose Keith Sinclair for the rat he is. If Jackson happens to get back in Gaby’s good graces in the process…well, that’s a bonus.

Will Jackson and crew be able to pull of such a complicated con? Will everyone stick to the plan? Who will win the school election, Gaby or Keith? Find out when you read The Great Greene Heist by Varian Johnson.


I cannot say enough good things about this book. It was entertaining from start to finish, and there was a fair amount of geeky humor that I absolutely adored. (I’ve always wanted to learn Klingon, and this book may have given me a push toward making that happen.) All of the characters are smart in their own ways, and, in my opinion, use their intelligence for the greater good. Definitely Starfleet Academy worthy.

The book also invites discussion on the election process–be it school, local, or national–and what characteristics qualify someone to be a public servant. I definitely saw similarities between Gaby, Keith, and our two current Presidential nominees. I have a feeling other readers will as well. (Is there a real-life version of Jackson Greene behind the scenes of our national election? I guess that remains to be seen.)

I would highly recommend The Great Greene Heist to readers in 4th or 5th grade on up. Some of the humor–particularly the nerdier stuff–may not resonate with younger readers, but they’ll still find much to enjoy in the antics of Jackson and his crew.

For those who think this book is their cup of tea, there’s more to love. The second book in the series, To Catch a Cheat, is already out. Perhaps I’ll buy this one at my next book fair (which is coming up in November).

If you’d like more information on The Great Greene Heist, visit author Varian Johnson’s website. You can also connect with him on Twitter.

Always, Abigail

Today, I bring you one more of the nominees for the 2016-17 South Carolina Children’s Book Award. (I’ve still got six left to read. Sigh.) This post is devoted to Always, Abigail by Nancy J. Cavanaugh.

Ms. Cavanaugh is not new to the SCCBA list. Her previous book, This Journal Belongs to Ratchet, was on the list a couple of years ago. I liked that book, so I figured I would enjoy Always, Abigail. As usual, I was right.

Told in lists and letters, Always, Abigail is the tale of–you guessed it–Abigail. This young girl is entering sixth grade, and she and her two best friends are obsessed with making the school’s pom-pom squad. Her life will be over if she doesn’t make it. (Anybody recognize the middle school melodrama?) It’s bad enough that she and her BFFs aren’t in the same homeroom and she’s been saddled with the school loser for a year-long project. Surely the universe wouldn’t take poms from her too?!

As you may have guessed, Abigail doesn’t make the pom-pom squad. She is devastated and doesn’t really know what to do anymore. Her friends are always busy and now have inside jokes that she’s not privy to. Abigail is feeling left out, bored, and depressed, and she’s not sure how to change things. Her partner for her class’ “Friendly Letter Assignment” doesn’t help matters.

Gabby Marco is the outcast of the sixth grade, and she’s Abigail’s letter partner. At first, Abigail wants absolutely nothing to do with Gabby, but, as Abigail’s friends drift away, she and Gabby form an unlikely friendship. The two girls learn more about each other and realize they have more in common than they thought.

But Gabby is still an outcast, and Abigail’s so-called “friends” delight in tormenting this girl, not knowing anything about what she’s going through at home. But Abigail knows…and she stays silent. She knows she should stand up for Gabby, but she doesn’t want to risk becoming an outcast herself. Abigail is sick about the entire situation, and she feels like she’s about to explode.

When Abigail’s luck looks like it’s starting to change, she’ll be forced to make some truly difficult decisions. Will she continue to go along with the crowd, or will she stand up for a friend who’s been nothing but kind to her…even if it means losing all she’s ever wanted? Find out when you read Always, Abigail by Nancy J. Cavanaugh.


Always, Abigail is a super-fast read that will appeal to fans of Dork Diaries, Dear Dumb Diary, and Diary of a Wimpy Kid. Readers who like lists–myself included–will also find something to enjoy.

I think many readers may grow a little weary of Abigail and her obsession with being part of the “in crowd,” but I also think they’ll see themselves in this thoroughly relatable character. This book could lead to some discussions about what they would do to be popular. Would they be willing to bully another student? Stay silent when others are mistreated? How far would they go to be included?

If you’d like to learn more about Always, Abigail and other books by Nancy J. Cavanaugh, be sure to visit the author’s website. You can also connect with her on Facebook and Twitter.

Finally, check my YouTube channel later to see what I come up with for an Always, Abigail book trailer.

Happy reading!

Never Always Sometimes

Yesterday, I finished reading Never Always Sometimes by Adi Alsaid. (You may recognize the name from his previous book, Let’s Get Lost.) Anyway, this latest book, which comes out next Tuesday, is sort of a coming of age story that John Green fans will probably eat up. In fact, at various points, this book reminded me a bit of Paper Towns. If you’re a Nerdfighter, that’s probably all the recommendation you need.

In Never Always Sometimes, readers are introduced to Dave and Julia, best friends who have done their best to avoid becoming high school clichés. Before they even darkened the doors of high school, Dave and Julia made a Nevers List, a list of things they vowed never to do during their time in high school. Some of the items were:

  • #2 – Never run for prom king/queen, student body president, or any other position that would have its own page in the yearbook.
  • #5 – Never dye your hair a color found in the rainbow.
  • #8 – Never pine silently after someone for the entirety of high school.
  • #10 – Never date your best friend.

Now, almost four years later, just months before graduation, Dave and Julia have done a fairly good job of sticking to their Nevers List. Or so it seems.

Dave, for his part, has been in love with Julia for what seems like forever–breaking Never #8–but he keeps his feelings a secret so that he won’t ruin his relationship with his best friend.

One day, thinking she and Dave are missing out on the authentic high school experience, Julia suggests that they use the time before graduation to cross off every Never on their list. As is usually the case, Dave goes along with Julia’s crazy idea, and pretty soon, the two are dying their hair (and Dave is shaving his shortly thereafter), stalking a teacher, running a campaign for prom king, going to wild parties, and doing all the other things they’ve been disdainful of all this time.

Through all of this, Dave starts to realize that maybe he really has been missing out. This typical teenage stuff isn’t so bad, and it’s even pushing him to be social with people–girls–other than Julia. One girl in particular, Gretchen, catches his eye, and Dave begins to think that, as much as he still loves Julia, maybe he should let that hopeless crush go and move on.

What Dave doesn’t know (yet) is that Julia is coming to her own realizations. Maybe she too wants something more from her best friend, the guy who knows her better than anyone else. Maybe they should finally cross of Never #10 and see what happens. What could possibly go wrong?

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How do I feel about Never Always Sometimes now that I’ve finished it and reflected a bit? Well, I’m still not sure. I think it’s a good book, maybe a tad unrealistic, but I kind of wanted to punch the main characters in the face several times when I was reading. Especially Julia. (I guess it’s good that I got so emotionally invested.) She seemed so self-centered to me throughout most of the book, and she tended to drag Dave down with her. Granted, he went–if somewhat unwillingly–most of the time, but I wanted both of them to wake up and see just how codependent they were.

As for the ending of the book, it took some doing, but it was sort of satisfying. I wouldn’t exactly call it happy, but given the events that preceded it, it really couldn’t be a totally happy ending for everyone. If anything, I would say that it was fitting and leave it at that.

For those wondering if Never Always Sometimes is suitable for middle grade readers, I would advise against it. It’s great for a YA audience, but the “sexy times” and rather unrepentant alcohol use and rule-breaking make the book much more suited to older teens. Whatever the reader’s age, I’d hope that all of them would have sense enough to know that some of the items on the Nevers List–like “never hook up with a teacher”–should remain Nevers.

As I said previously, Never Always Sometimes will be released to the masses on August 4th. (Many thanks to NetGalley for letting me read it a bit early.) If you’re interested in learning more about this book and author Adi Alsaid, you can connect with the author on Goodreads and Twitter. You may also want to take a look at the book trailer below. It’s a pretty good intro to Never Always Sometimes, but it doesn’t give too much away.

Happy reading!

Lying Out Loud

Several weeks ago, I read The DUFF, a highly entertaining read by Kody Keplinger. This past Tuesday, I finished its companion novel, Lying Out Loud. (Normally, it doesn’t take me so long to write up a post after finishing a book. I blame end-of-school-year craziness.)

Anyway, Lying Out Loud, which takes place a few years after the conclusion of The DUFF, revolves around Amy Rush (Wesley’s sister) and her best friend, Sonny Ardmore. The best way I can describe their story is Easy A meets Cyrano de Bergerac. But since that doesn’t really go into how cool this book is, let’s take a closer look…

Sonny Ardmore is a world-class liar. She’s discovered that sometimes lies–especially those concerning her parents–are much less painful than the truth. Not even her best friend Amy knows exactly why Sonny needs to sleep over every single night…and Sonny’s in no real hurry to tell her. Sonny knows Amy would by sympathetic, but telling the truth would mean admitting what’s really going on to herself, and Sonny’s not ready for that.

So…the lying continues, and it’s about to land Sonny–and Amy–into quite a mess.

Ryder Cross is the new kid at Hamilton High. He’s pretentious, standoffish, and totally drool-worthy. And he has a crush on Amy. One night, Sonny and Amy (mostly Sonny) respond to a message from Ryder and basically play him for a fool. When Ryder calls them out on how mean they’ve been, Sonny responds and apologizes. The two end up chatting all night long, revealing pieces of themselves they’ve never shared with anyone else. There’s just one big problem, though. Ryder thinks he’s talking to Amy.

When Sonny realizes that there’s been a mix-up, she initially tries to tell Ryder the truth, but he loathes her and won’t give her a chance to fess up. So, liar that she is, Sonny decides to enlist Amy’s help in turning things around. She convinces her best friend to do everything she can to make Ryder let go of his ridiculous crush and turn his attentions to Sonny.

All the while, Sonny continues to text Ryder all the time–and he still thinks he’s talking to Amy. Sonny knows it’s wrong, but she can’t give up this tenuous connection to Ryder. She tells him things she’s told no one else, and he’s doing the same. Sonny just wishes he’d realize that the girl Ryder’s talking to is right in front of him, waiting to be noticed.

Ryder is very confused about the whole situation, and he’s not the only one. Amy is growing tired of Sonny’s schemes, and even Sonny is having trouble keeping up with all of her lies in her quest to prevent the messy truth of her life from being revealed. But that’s the thing about truth. It has a way of making itself known no matter what a person does…and Sonny’s day of reckoning is fast approaching.

Sonny does everything she can think of–short of being totally honest–to unravel the mess she’s made, but her lies are catching up to her. She’s totally panicked, and she’s terrified that she’s about to lose Ryder, Amy, and any possible hope for her own future.

What will happen when Sonny is forced to face the truth? Have her lies hopelessly damaged her relationships with both Amy and Ryder? And how will Sonny and those closest to her deal with the circumstances that led Sonny to make her life one big lie in the first place?

Uncover the truth for yourself when you read Lying Out Loud by Kody Keplinger!

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Lying Out Loud is a quick, fun, sometimes serious, and always charming read that fans of The DUFF will adore. Readers will especially enjoy the glimpses of Wesley and Bianca in this story. (He’s still charming, she’s still sarcastic, and they’re still really cute together.)

One thing that really stood out to me about this book was that it was just as much about Sonny’s relationship with Amy as it was about her burgeoning romance with Ryder. In fact, I daresay the Sonny/Amy relationship was the most important in the book. If it had come down to choosing between Amy and Ryder, I honestly think Sonny would have chosen to keep Amy in her life. (I’m glad it didn’t come to that, though.) Sonny was kind of horrible to Amy for much of the book, but Amy stood by her side–until even she couldn’t take the lying anymore. When Sonny realized that she was about to lose the greatest person in her life, that’s when she really turned things around. I don’t think Ryder alone would have been able to be that catalyst for change (though he definitely had a part in it).

I think Lying Out Loud is a great read for young adults looking for a book that really delves into relationships–friendships, family (with all of their complications), adversaries, and even one girl’s relationship with herself. Sonny examines her own part in the relationships around her, especially her tendency to lie in an effort to make things easier for her, and I think she eventually realizes just how much she matters to those who really care for her and how much damage she’s truly done. The lies are not necessary. Those who really love her will do so no matter how bad or ugly the truth may happen to be.

If I’ve piqued your interest with this post and you’d like to learn more about Lying Out Loud and other books by Kody Keplinger, check out the author on her website, Twitter, TumblrFacebook, Instagram, Goodreads, and YouTube. Have fun!

I Was Here

It’s difficult to describe my feelings on Gayle Forman‘s latest book, I Was Here, but I’ll do my best. Don’t be surprised, though, if this post is a bit different from most others.

I Was Here deals with something that is hard to discuss. Suicide and those left to pick up the pieces. I won’t go into how suicide has touched my own life, but I will say that this book brought back all of the feelings of pain, grief, and guilt. No matter what anyone says, suicide doesn’t just impact the one contemplating or going through with it. It leaves total wreckage behind, and that’s what Cody, this book’s protagonist, is facing.

Cody and Meg were once as close as sisters, so how is it possible that Cody had no idea that her best friend was suicidal? Is there anything Cody could have done to stop Meg from carrying out the elaborate plan that would end her life? How can Cody go on without her other half, the friend who meant the world to her? And how can she figure out just what drove Meg to do the unthinkable?

All of these questions are plaguing Cody, and she is determined to find the answers that she needs. Her search leads her to Meg’s college apartment and a life that Cody was never a part of. She talks to Meg’s roommates and her friends in Seattle, including the enigmatic Ben McCallister, a young man with his own guilt about what happened to Meg. No one seems to know why Meg would have committed suicide, and Cody is growing frustrated with what seems to be a fruitless quest for the truth…until she discovers an encrypted file on Meg’s computer.

With a little help, Cody discovers exactly what Meg was hiding, and her investigation becomes even more intense. Cody becomes obsessed with Meg’s journey to suicide, and she’s getting drawn into something that is taking over her own life. She needs to find a reason for Meg’s decision, someone to blame for this horrible act that threw everything she thought she knew into a tailspin.

But will Cody really be prepared for what she uncovers? What will she do with the information? Will it change anything? And who will be there to help Cody pick up the pieces of her shattered life now that her best friend is gone?

Read I Was Here by Gayle Forman to learn how one young woman tries to live while attempting to find out why her best friend wanted to die.

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I Was Here was not an easy book for me to read. I had to put it down several times because I was, quite simply, getting too emotional. I’m still not exactly sure how I feel about some parts of the book. I guess some things may have hit a little too close to home. I will say, however, that I think this is an important book. It deals with subjects–suicide and depression–that many young people are facing…but not talking about. Nothing is glossed over or treated with the least bit of glamour (something the media tends to do with suicide). I Was Here is an honest look at what’s left behind when loved ones end their own lives. The feelings of guilt, loss, and hopelessness. It’s something that never really goes away.

I hope that this book, like Jay Asher’s Thirteen Reasons Why, opens up a dialog about depression and suicidal thoughts. Young people need to realize that they are not alone, and, as trite as it sometimes sounds, things really do get better. The darkness will eventually pass. The road may not be easy, but it’s worth it, and no one has to walk it alone.

If you or someone you know is dealing with depression or suicide, please talk to a trusted friend or adult. Seek help. Call the National Foundation for Suicide Prevention lifeline at 800-273-TALK. Go to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention’s website to learn more about warning signs and how to find local support groups for survivors.

 

Hero

It’s no secret that “dog books” circulate heavily in my school library. Most of the time, all I need to do is display a book with a dog on the cover, and it doesn’t stay on the shelf very long. Well, thanks to Sarah Lean, I now have one more “dog book” to share with my students. That book is Hero, and it was released to the masses this past Tuesday.

I was lucky enough to receive an advance copy of Hero through Goodreads First Reads, but I didn’t make time to finish it until last night…and I did read the bulk of the book in a single evening. It was a quick, engaging read suitable for anyone–young or old–who has ever imagined themselves to be extraordinary, struggled with fitting in or standing up for what’s right, or had a special bond with a beloved animal. (I’m pretty sure that covers everybody.)

Hero highlights heroic actions–from both humans and canines–in everyday situations…and in circumstances that defy even the most vivid imaginations.

Leo Biggs often imagines himself as a gladiator, fighting in the Roman amphitheater and trying to win the favor of Jupiter. In real life, though, Leo is a bit of an outcast. He only has one real friend–at least, just one human friend–but Leo longs to be seen as brave, popular, and extraordinary. And one day, he thinks he has his chance…

After a rather interesting episode at school, Leo gains the notice of Warren Miller, probably the coolest guy at school. Warren invites Leo to hang out after school…but Leo has to prove himself worthy of being in Warren’s crowd. Even though Leo is hesitant about what is asked of him, he’s willing to do just about anything to be popular. Leo couldn’t know, though, that his actions would lead to more trouble than even his powerful imagination could conjure.

One day, Warren and his crew try to convince Leo to have a little “fun” with Jack Pepper, his neighbor’s dog. Leo knows what’s going on is wrong, and he doesn’t really want to participate. What happens next changes everything Leo feels about himself and what the people in town think of him. Leo takes credit for saving Jack Pepper’s life (even though it was really the other way around), and now everyone thinks he’s some kind of hero. Only Leo, Warren and friends, and little Jack Pepper know the truth…but none of them are talking.

Leo is enjoying his new status as a town hero, but part of him knows that he’s living a lie. One day, however, something happens that puts Leo’s vision of himself as a hero to the test. A catastrophic event hits the town, and Jack Pepper is put in real danger. Leo knows it’s up to him to save this little dog, but what can one boy do in a truly perilous situation?

Will Leo finally step up and be the hero that Jack Pepper needs? Will Leo–or anyone else–ever reveal what actually happened when he “saved” Jack Pepper to begin with? And will Leo ever discover what it really means to be a hero? Answer these questions and many more when you read Hero by Sarah Lean.

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Hero is a good book for illustrating the importance of being true to oneself and standing up for what’s right…even when it’s not easy. This book also emphasizes the value of all types of friendships–those with kids, adults, and even animals. As the story progresses, Leo begins to realize that real friends are loyal, even when he doesn’t deserve it, and he needs to do whatever is necessary to prove his loyalty as well. Sometimes, that simply means being upfront and honest about his mistakes and doing whatever he can to make things right.

I think Hero is a good fit for most elementary and middle grade readers. It deals with issues like bullying, honesty, popularity, imagination, bravery, friendship, and, of course, caring for animals. I’m sure this book will be a big hit in my own school library.

For more information about Hero and other books by Sarah Lean, check out her website. You can also follow her on Twitter @SarahLean1.

 

 

The Year of the Beasts

I really didn’t know what to expect when I first started reading The Year of the Beasts. I received a free copy of this book through Goodreads First Reads, and the only things I knew going in were that I’d previously enjoyed books by the author, Cecil Castellucci, and the story was told in both prose and comics (drawn by the very talented Nate Powell). I was unprepared, then, for just how hard this book hit me.

At first, I thought I’d be reading a fairly typical tale of two sisters who grow apart because of a guy and then eventually find their way back to each other. Yeah…not so much. To say that this book defied and exceeded all of my expectations would be a gross understatement. The Year of the Beasts threw me for a loop, and I’m still thinking about how the story relates to my own life and my understanding of things like jealousy, love, and grief.

It all started when the carnival trucks rolled into town. That was the unofficial start of summer, a summer that would forever change everything for Tessa and her younger sister, Lulu.

For the first time, Tessa and Lulu are enjoying the carnival without the watchful eyes of their parents. They’re finally free to truly enjoy the food, the rides, the games…the boys. So when Tessa sees the opportunity to hang out with her crush, Charlie, and his friends, she seizes it.

Tessa, Lulu, and Tessa’s best friend Celina join up with Charlie and his buddies for a bit of fun at the carnival, but Tessa couldn’t know that this one outing would change her relationship with Lulu. Why? Well, as it happens, Charlie isn’t interested in Tessa. He wants Lulu…and Lulu wants him back.

Tessa is green with envy, but she tries her best to hide it. She doesn’t want to rain on her sister’s parade, but she can’t be wholly happy for her either. Charlie was supposed to be hers, not Lulu’s…and it feels like Lulu is taking every possible opportunity to throw her new boyfriend in her older sister’s face. It feels like Lulu, the younger of the two siblings, is growing up, moving on, and leaving Tessa in her wake.

Tessa’s only respite from the drama with Lulu, Charlie, and their assorted friends occurs in the arms of Jasper, the school outcast. Tessa finds a measure of peace when she’s alone with Jasper, but she doesn’t see how he can be part of her “real life” outside of the woods where they meet. Neither does he. No one even knows about them, and Tessa fears her friends’ reactions if they did. On top of that, even though Tessa is growing closer to Jasper, she still can’t let go of her jealousy over Lulu’s claim on Charlie. Why does Lulu, now Miss Popular, get to parade around with her boyfriend while Tessa has to keep her tenuous new relationship a secret? Nothing about this is fair in Tessa’s eyes, and she doesn’t know how to cope with all of the jealousy and rage bubbling within her.

Everything is about to come to a head for Tessa, Lulu, and company, and the summer that began with such promise will end in a tangle of envy, sadness, self-loathing, regret, grief, and–when all is said and done–a small measure of hope.

Will Tessa find some way to tame the monster raging within her and find the girl she used to be once again? Or will the events of this one tragic summer change her–and everyone around her–forever?

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I don’t know that the brief recap above in any way captures what happened in this book. It doesn’t even touch on the story presented in the comics. At first glance, the two stories don’t appear to be related, but, as the book progresses, the prose and the comics come together to create a story so intricately woven that I can scarcely believe that I ever thought they could be separate. While the prose tells of that one eventful summer that changed everything, the comics–presented in alternating chapters–show readers how grief and self-loathing can turn a person into something completely unrecognizable. How do the comics relate to Tessa’s story? Well, I’ll leave you with that one surprise, but I will tell you that I felt totally ripped to shreds by the book’s conclusion, and I’ll probably take a second look at the book’s art to see if I can pick up any clues that would have hinted at the emotional wreck that I was soon to become.

Now it’s time to get a little personal…

Truthfully, I think my strong feelings about this book come, at least in part, from my own experiences. Like Tessa, I have a younger sister. When we were teenagers, I sometimes felt like she had everything going for her. (To be perfectly honest, I still feel that way on occasion.) While I was the short, fat, near-sighted, bullied, tuba-playing nerd with braces, my sister was the tall, thin, athletic, blond girl who didn’t take crap from anyone. It was difficult to stand next to her and not wonder if everyone was thinking, “Well, I guess little sister is definitely the pretty one.” (Sometimes I didn’t have to wonder. People said those words out loud.) And things didn’t get any better for me when the guy I was madly in love with (or so I thought) had a thing for my sister. While she did not reciprocate his affections, the mere thought that he preferred her to me turned my overly dramatic teenage world upside-down. (If you’re reading this, you probably think I still haven’t recovered. You’d be right.) It was painfully easy to see my sister and me in the characters of Lulu and Tessa. I think that’s a big part of the reason why this book’s conclusion affected me the way it did. It made me examine what my teenage self would have done if she were faced with the same circumstances, and I have to admit I likely would have felt much like Tessa did.

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If your interest has been piqued by this post, I strongly urge you to give The Year of the Beasts a try. You won’t regret it. I think this is an excellent book for any reader in eighth grade and beyond.

To learn more about this amazing book, you can check out author Cecil Castellucci on her website, Goodreads, or Twitter, and graphic novelist Nate Powell on his website and Twitter.