BEFORE I DIE: YOU WILL CRY

Debut of Jenny Downham (I know, I’m suuuupppper late to read this one)

Stars
Genre: YA Contemporary
Series: Nope. It’s a stand alone.
Publisher: April, 29th, 2010 David Fickling Books
Author: Jenny Downham

Recommended Read?: It’s really powerful, really touching, and not for those who can’t take the death of a character.

FIRST IMPRESSION:
I could tell right away the story has a very strong voice and even though all my friends said they cried when they read it, I wasn’t going to. I knew what to expect. It was going to be okay.

THE PLOT:
We’ve all heard it before: dying person has a bucket list. But the way Downham goes about the list is so … painfully beautiful and real that you forget about all the other stories out there. Tessa’s tale is so engaging, so enduring, that it’s ridiculously hard to put the book down and even harder to stop thinking about once you’re done.

I’ve heard a lot of negativity about how obsessed Tessa is with sex at the start (one reviewer said something like “she’s just sixteen, come on!”). That’s ridiculous. She’s a teen — plenty of teens think about sex. Particularly sixteen-year-olds and her age really means nothing. She’s going to die, she’ll never get older, so how can you blame her for thinking about sex? If I were a dying and sixteen, I’d totally want to have sex before I was gone.

THE CHARACTERS:
TESSA the main character is so unique, so conflicted, so amazing that I fell in love with her myself. She faces such a difficult fate and goes through so many emotional situations, but she still keeps moving forward. I loved how she obsessed over numbers — counting days, things she saw, numbering her list, it was all so interesting.

ZOEY is the best friend, and I love her, too. My feelings for her were like a roller coster, one minute they were high in an ‘I-totally-love-this-girl’ way and then the next they were shooting down in an ‘I-hate-her-so-much’ fashion.

ADAM is the love interest, and a very special one at that. He has his own hard time dealing with his life, but he still can’t keep away from Tessa, even though he knows it can’t end well.

CAL is the little brother. Conflicted, adorable, and a magic lover — what’s not to like? Plus, I have a soft spot of little brothers (even though they’re all over the place in YA).

The characters were what really made the story a tragedy. Even though I knew it couldn’t end well, I couldn’t help but love each of them. Which really just made it harder in the end.

THE ROMANCE:
I loved this part of the story. How unexpected it was for them. I’ve mentioned before that I’m a sucker for star crossed lovers, and you really can’t get any more star crossed then a dying girl and a healthy boy. There was real tension in this subplot, real emotions, and really beautiful moments.

THE WRITING
The writing is amazing. Downham really paints a vivid picture of life for Tessa and doesn’t shy away from the gritty and horrible parts of her sickness and about life (like, #1 on Tessa’s list: sex). She focuses on everything around Tessa, bugs, birds, weird extra, little, things you’d never really think about and it just makes it all so real. The end of the book is where her talent really shines. The way she captures Tessa’s declining health is perfect. I wasn’t able to stop reading.

Usually, near the end of the book, I’ll glance at the page number a lot to know how many pages are left. That way I can sort of gage what will happen next (this subplot will be wrapping up, this question should be answered soon, etc) but with this book I wasn’t. I just focused on the words, turning the page, and hoping it wouldn’t end. I didn’t want Tesa to leave.

CONCLUSION:
I cried. By around page 280, there were tears in my eyes. They stayed until the end. I feel a tingle in my eyes when I think about the book. I can honestly only think of one other book that made me cry (LOVELY BONES) and it was just a few tears. This book … there were a lot more than just a few.

Under the Never Sky

This is by far my favorite cover for this book. Isn’t it gorgeous?

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Genre: YA Sci-Fi
Series: Book #1 in the Under The Never Sky series.
Publisher: HarperCollins 1/3/2012
AuthorVeronica Rossi

Recommended Read?: Yes, it’s a very powerful love story.

Goodreads summary:

WORLDS KEPT THEM APART.

DESTINY BROUGHT THEM TOGETHER.

Aria has lived her whole life in the protected dome of Reverie. Her entire world confined to its spaces, she’s never thought to dream of what lies beyond its doors. So when her mother goes missing, Aria knows her chances of surviving in the outer wasteland long enough to find her are slim.

Then Aria meets an outsider named Perry. He’s searching for someone too. He’s also wild – a savage – but might be her best hope at staying alive.

If they can survive, they are each other’s best hope for finding answers:

FIRST IMPRESSION:
I’ve heard a lot of good things about this book — mostly about the “unforgettable romance” — so I knew I had to read it. It took me a while to finally get to it. When I first began to read it, I immediately liked that it was written in third person. I didn’t know how I felt about Aria yet and I was actually hoping it would pick up the pace a bit.

THE PLOT:
There is a larger plot to the story that keeps things moving forward, but it’s sort of like there are two. There’s Aria’s story — her need to get to Bliss, her mom, and back inside the Pods — and then there’s Perry’s — his need to find Talon, to become Blood Lord, to help his tribe. Personally, I thought Perry’s plot was far more compelling. There were so many interesting elements to the world Rossi built around the tribes and the Outsiders, I just loved learning about it. Plus, Perry’s stakes were significantly higher than Aria’s (not that that’s Aria’s fault or anything). He had his nephew’s well being in his hand, his tribe’s, and just so many lives to consider. Whereas Aria just had her and her mother’s life to worry about. That’s not her fault or anything, I just thought the parts with Perry were more interesting and the tension was higher.

Even though Aria’s plot line wasn’t as interesting as Perry’s, I really think that Rossi did a great job of world building for both worlds. By the end, I had a deeper understanding of their world, the Pods, the tribes, and all of it. I don’t think there were any significant plot twists. All the ones that were probably meant as surprises, I could see coming.

THE CHARACTERS:
I enjoyed all the characters. Aria was a true heroine. She was put in a very tough position, and despite that, she learned to rise above it. She was completely outside of her element, constantly getting hurt, but she toughed through it. She held her head high and she just kept going — because she knew she had no other choice. That’s a character I can really respect.

Perry was so deep and brilliant. I loved him. There were so many elements to him, and they just kept unraveling throughout the story. He was so broken, not just on the outside, but he just kept going. Even though he wanted to be Blood Lord, it didn’t seem like a selfish impulse. It was clear that his tribe needed him. Even though he seemed so confident on the outside, he still had a sweet and shy side that I adored.

Roar, Perry’s best friend, was a fabulous extra character. I just adored him. Talon, another side character, was precious as well. And Cinder … I liked him, too. He was a bit convenient, as were his powers, so I’m hoping in the second book there’s a bigger reason for having him.

THE ROMANCE:
This is why I read the book. I heard the romance was to die for. It was slow to unravel (like a lot of things in this book) but I liked that. I generally can’t stand insta-love, so the fact that it took a lot of time and experiences for Aria and him to grow close was perfect for me. In the end, I was eager for them to be together.

And Rossi gave us glimpses of that, which was nice, but the part that made the book great was all the times she gave us glimpses into the future — the future were they couldn’t be together. They seemed like true star crossed lovers, uncontrollably in love, but not meant to be. I love that in a romance.

The Writing:

I loved the way Rossi described things. She really has a gift for that. How she used Perry’s Senses to heighten situations. I can’t imagine how hard it would be to constantly have to describe emotions into scents. I loved the POV switches, it was really fitting for this story. There were a few things that gave Perry and Aria different voices, but overall you couldn’t tell from purely the writing sentence which character’s head we were in. Perry would use some words Aria wouldn’t (like skitty) but otherwise they were the same sentence structure and all that.

The world building was impressive. I never felt like she was dropping the information just for the reader to have it. It all worked into the plot.

The only problem I had in the story was pacing. There were a lot of lulls and parts that I felt were probably meant for some reason (illustrating Aria and Perry’s relationship, for example) that just slowed the story down. There was a lot of waiting for things to happen. Waiting to leave Delphi. Waiting to get here or there. Even though the pacing was off, the moments she used to fill those lulls were interesting enough that i didn’t really mind.

CONCLUSION:

I already have the second book. That pretty much says it all, right?

Emily’s Dress & Other Missing Things: Edgar Nominee & Generally Amazing

The beautiful cover of Emily’s Dress & Other Missing Things by Kathryn Burka

Stars
Genre: YA Mystery
Series: No, it’s a beautiful standalone.
Publisher: Roaring Brook Press October 2, 2012
Author: Kathryn Burak

Recommended Read?: Yes, yes, yes. It’s an Edgar Nominee, isn’t that enough reason to want to pick it up?

Goodreads summary:

When Claire’s best friend Richy went missing, he disappeared without a trace. But when Emily Dickinson’s dress goes missing from the Amherst museum, she knows exactly where it is: in her closet.

As Claire and her student teacher, Tate, attempt to figure out what do to about the dress, they begin to uncover the truth behind Richy’s disappearing act. Following a trail of clues across state lines, Claire and Tate attempt to find the person that Claire knows in her gut is responsible for his disappearance.

FIRST IMPRESSION:

I first heard about Emily’s Dress & Other Missing Things when I was reviewing the Edgar 2013 Nominees. The cover drew me in, so I checked out the synopsis on goodreads, when that turned out to be equally as interesting I went out and got it. From the first page I knew I was in the hands of an expert writer. The prose was just so beautiful, from start to finish.

THE PLOT:

If you hadn’t read a summary before you started reading this book, you probably wouldn’t be sure what the plot of the story is for a while (like not until after the first 3 chapters). This book is more character driven than plot, and it works out just fine. The writing is beautiful and Claire is a character almost everyone can relate with or at least sympathize with.

Once it is revealed that Claire has a missing friend — and that famous dress of Emily Dickenson’s goes missing — everything gets way more interesting. The best part about the plot, I think, is that Claire isn’t attempting to solve the crime. She doesn’t think she can do a better job than the cops, she doesn’t want to be a faux-Nancy Drew, all she wants is to find a way to move on: a way to put it behind her, so she isn’t stuck on it forever.

THE CHARACTERS:

I loved every character in this book — which is a true rarity for me. I adored Claire. She was clever, tragic yet strong, and relatable. Her life hadn’t been an easy one and yet she never stops in the book to moan over the hand fate gave her. I’m happy to be in her head the entire time. Plus, she’s fiery and aren’t all great female leads fiery?

Her best friend in the book doesn’t have much of a part, but I adored her. She was a burst of sunshine and the game her and Claire play (is he a dancer or is he human? based off of The Killer’s song Human) is so amusing. She brings needed humour to the book.

I really liked her father, too. He was very professor like (since that was his profession) but it’s clear he’s doing everything he can to hold it all together for his family. He’s a loving father, amusing, and I enjoyed every scene he was in. Even if he was a little dense to the needs of his daughter.

Then there’s Tate, the love interest. No shocker here but … I really adored him. He was a very well developed character and even though I didn’t always know why he did what he did, I yearned for him to be in the story all the time. I was cautious of him at first, since he was a student teacher. It’s true that most girls have a fantasy of hooking up with a teacher’s aid or professor at one point or another, I couldn’t help but think it’s a little early to do that in high school … even if would have jumped at the chance with my AP Government teacher in high school (he was such a handsom man). Still, I liked him a great deal.

Ricky — the missing BFF — was even a developed character. All Claire’s flashbacks to him  really brought him to life. He was cute, precious, and I really hoped Claire could magically find him.

THE ROMANCE:

It’s been a very long time since I was on the  edge of my seat over the romance in a book and yet that was exactly what happened with this book. It’s subtly weaved throughout the story, but I so badly wanted Claire and Tate together. I didn’t know how it could work out — or even if it would — but I wanted it to happen. It kept me turning the pages.

Their relationship was so strange and unique. It was real. There was clear chemistry between them that burst out of the pages. Best of all, it wasn’t insta-love and Claire kept her head. She tried her best to be sensible about the situation, to try to deny any feelings, to keep him away … I won’t tell you if it worked out or not. You need to read this book. Trust me.

CONCLUSION:

It’s so clear the moment I read this book why it’s an Edgar Nominee. I really hope it wins. The prose is beautiful, the plot interesting, the romance intense, and all the poems Burak throws into the story are thought provoking.

What’s Left of Me: Strangely Unique POV

I love this cover, it’s beautiful. WHAT’S LEFT OF ME by Kat Zhang

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Genre: YA SCI-FI / Dystopian (sort of)
Series: HYBRID CHRONICLE #1 (Only one currently available)
Publisher: HaperTeen September 18, 2012
Author: Kat Zhang (Contributor to Publishing Crawl)

Recommended? Yes! The POV to this story was at first a draw back to me — a MC that can’t really do anything…? — but then it turned out to be so good, so different. It’s premise hasn’t really been done before (that I’m aware of) and even if you’re sick of dystopians, it’s not really focused on that aspect.

Goodread’s Summary:

I should not exist. But I do.

Eva and Addie started out the same way as everyone else—two souls woven together in one body, taking turns controlling their movements as they learned how to walk, how to sing, how to dance. But as they grew, so did the worried whispers. Why aren’t they settling? Why isn’t one of them fading? The doctors ran tests, the neighbors shied away, and their parents begged for more time. Finally Addie was pronounced healthy and Eva was declared gone. Except, she wasn’t . . .

FIRST IMPRESSION:

At first I though the permise was hard to swallow. An MC that doesn’t have control of her body and is just going to… what? Sit around and not do anything? Just tell us what Addie is doing and urge Addie with her thoughts to do something? Erm… I don’t see much appeal in that. At the same time, I hadn’t heard of a story like this one so I felt compelled to read it anyway.

THE PLOT:

It did take me a while to get into the story, but it was well worth it. The first hundred pages really just build up to what the story is about. It sets the world for us, gives us background on the strange soul sisters–Eva and Addie–and introduces the important other characters in the story. Granted, Eva doesn’t do much in these first hundred pages but… something about the way the story was told by someone who was in it yet not was strangely different from all the other stories out there. Plus, Zhang hints to the readers early on that Eva won’t just be sitting around doing nothing the entire time. It’s an important promise made to the reader that is kept. It was interesting to note when Zhang would use ‘I/my’ instead of ‘we/us/our’. To get into Eva’s head and see when she thought of herself as a separate being from her sister, Addie, or when she was thinking of them as the same.

When the action starts, I cared enough about all the characters that were involved that I just had to keep reading. The reason behind each decision made sense. The stakes were high for Eva, Addie, and their family. The tension that fills the rest of the book is so thick and real that it pained me every time something bad happened to Eva or Ryan/Devon or Lissa/Hally. There were twists and turns in the plot I didn’t see coming and by the end I was very satisfied. Sometimes starts to series leave the end of the book with some sort of cliffhanger (think ASHES by Bick) and they drive me crazy, but the end to this — while leaving some questions unanswered — also left me with hope. It also could stand alone novel. If this wasn’t a start to a series, I’d still be satisfied with the ending, which is important in my opinion.

THE CHARACTERS:

The characters in the story were developed well, which must have been difficult to do for Zhang since there were two characters in most of the bodies. There line between Lissa/Hally wasn’t exactly clear to me always, but I never could mistake Ryan for Devon or visa-versa, they were so uniquely different that it was simple to tell them apart.

I did, however, dislike Addie from the start. Perhaps it was because we were in Eva’s head and she unfairly couldn’t do anything and Addie got control of the body but… I just didn’t like her. I understood where she was coming from when she didn’t want to do this or that because of risks and such but… but I still didn’t like her much by the end of the book, either. I just wanted Eva to get control of the body so badly and banish Addie to the side line to watch for years like she had to. I know that’s a bit cruel and all, but that’s what I wanted. I really adored Eva, so I wanted Addie to just get out of the way. Plus, she got in the way of Eva/Ryan, and that bothered me.

THE ROMANCE:

There’s some romance in the book, but it’s not heavy by any means. Sometimes that how I like it, there but not there — sort of like in CREWEL. The relationship between Eva and Ryan developed naturally and it wasn’t one of those dumb instant-love relationships either. At least not on Eva’s part, I’m not a hundred percent sure why Ryan clung onto Eva so quickly (since, for most of their relationship, she couldn’t say or do anything around him) but I did understand Eva’s side of it. Ryan was the first one to want to help her. He was sweet, caring, and was there for her when she was trying to get her body back. By the end, I really wanted these two together. I still do.

I think there is potential for an Addie/Devon romance to brew in the future books, which might be interested. I think I’d be on board for that, too, since they are so similar.

I guess the thing about the romance in this book that’s so different than the others out there is the concept behind it. Two characters that long for each other, but really can’t ever be alone together or be together by the other half of them — the sister/brother souls that share their body — don’t want it to be. I mean, how often do you see that? It’s such an interesting twist.

CONCLUSION:

The writing was wonderful, everything flowed, everything made sense in the end and I really fell in love with the book. I can’t wait for the next one. 

Something Strange & Deadly: The Dead + Steampunk

The beautiful cover of SOMETHING STRANGE & DEADLY by Susan Dennard

Stars
Genre: YA Steampunk
Series: SOMETHING STRANGE & DEADLY #1 (Only one currently available)
Publisher: HaperTeen July 24, 2012
Author: Susan Dennard (Contributor to Publishing Crawl)

Recommended? Yes, yes, yes! It’s so clever, unique, has zombies (AKA the Dead), great twists, and amazing characters.

Goodread‘s summary:

The year is 1876, and there’s something strange and deadly loose in Philadelphia…

Eleanor Fitt has a lot to worry about. Her brother has gone missing, her family has fallen on hard times, and her mother is determined to marry her off to any rich young man who walks by. But this is nothing compared to what she’s just read in the newspaper.

The Dead are rising in Philadelphia.

Out of all the books I’ve read lately, this has to be my favorite. I loved it. Eleanor was a stellar heroine, she was strong, witty, and willing to do what needs to get done. Even though the story was set in the past (where girls were, of course, not equal with men), Eleanor didn’t let that stop her. Through the story she grew and broke out of the mold that her mother and society were trying to force her in.

The plot was brilliant. Dennard’s zombies, the Dead, are different than all the others I’ve read about. I loved the steampunk qualities added to the story, with the Spirit-Hunters, and the world that Dennard created. The pacing of the story was very good, there were a lot of high-tension moments followed by a nice (but important, plot filled) lull that allowed you to rest and not burn out.

There were small hints throughout the book how it would end, which I realized only while I stopped to think about it later, but… I was extremely surprised by some of the turns in the book. I didn’t see the end coming, yet when they happened I couldn’t help but think ‘Why hadn’t I seen that coming?!’ which just makes it ten times better. Surprises that throw me off because they weren’t already set-up in the story are just stupid, after all, but that didn’t happen here.

There were two love interests in the story, Clarence and Daniel, but even so there really wasn’t a love triangle. They were rivals–or at least didn’t act like it–which I liked. There were just choices that Eleanor had to make. Both boys were their own characters, different and layered, but I really loved Daniel. It’s always important for me to actually want the characters to end up together, and that happened in this story. I’ve read a few books where I just felt ‘meh’ about the romantic relations, but this book had my dying for Daniel and Eleanor to get together.

Just a quick warning: as soon as I started to read this book, I couldn’t stop. It took up my entire Saturday afternoon. Make sure you don’t have a full schedule or else you’re going to have some issues…

The worst thing about this book is that it’s part of a trilogy… and they aren’t all out yet! I cannot wait to read the next in the series. I couldn’t stop thinking about this book after I was done — which is, really, a sign of a good story. There were so many layers, wonderful characters, and a brilliant leading-lady.

I really, really loved this book and you really, really, really need to read it. Trust me.

Horror (Of Not Writing)

My copy of On Writing Horror: A Handbook by the Horror Writers Association (edited by Mort Castle)

My copy of On Writing Horror: A Handbook by the Horror Writers Association (edited by Mort Castle)

Before NaNo2012, I decided to educate myself in how to write horror. The idea I had for my NaNo manuscript was dark and I thought it’d end up either being in the YA Horror genre or the YA Paranormal Thriller one. (I’ve been told it turned out to be Horror because of its overall sinister tone, which is good to know!)

Of course, one of the best ways to learn about a genre is by reading it. I think I mentioned my October Horror Book marathon before on this blog. Most of the books I read were YA (and zombie related, which has nothing to do with the plot of my NaNo story… I just love zombies) and dark, but not all could be considered horror. There’s just really not a huge pool of YA Horror books that you can dive into — though when I heard Laini Taylor talk about DAYS OF BLOOD & STARLIGHT, she said the genre is on the verge a huge growth spurt.

Gretchen McNeil is the first YA horror writer that comes to mind for me. I really enjoyed reading her book POSSESS, which was marketed as a Paranormal Thriller but could really go either way. TEN is her latest book and while I have it… I haven’t read it yet — bad me, I know. Another inspiration and most read, I think, is Courtney Summers’ THIS IS NOT A TEST (which I only now realize I didn’t write a review of… I promise to do soon!). It’s a zombie book, but not overtly/grotesquely so even if you aren’t a zombie fan I think you can still enjoy this book. Her voice and the overall tone of the book… it’s just amazing.

Of course I’ve read the classics, like Lovecraft and King, but what I mostly took away from them is how to build suspense and frighten the readers. You can’t really hope to write like either of them in this day and age and think you’ll get away with it. No one could write a book the length King’s usually are, unless they’re already an established writer, plus he gets wordy — nothing wrong with that when you’re a superstar like him, of course. Lovecraft, while a great horror writer, lacked in character development.

While I was looking into writing horror, I came across the Horror Writers Association (they even have a YA Horror section!). After reading through their website, I decided to buy a copy of ON WRITING HORROR to see what they had collected. In my opinion, reading books helps me with writing more than reading books about how to write, but I still find them fascinating.

There’s a wonderful collection of essays by writers on subjects I’ve never even considered (such as Freaks and Fiddles, Banjos and Beasts: Writing Redneck Horror by Weston Ochse) and the history of the horror genre. Over all, I think the book helped me get a better grasp on the genre and all that is expected of a writer that aspires to compile a horror manuscript. I’d recommend it to anyone curious about what it means to write horror.

If you are particularly interested in horror books, I’d also like to refer you to Hellnotes. It’s a blog and newsletter devoted to the genre. They have contests every once and a while, too.

Henry James summed up writers well when he said: “We work in the dark — we do what we can — we give what we have. Our doubt is our passion, and our passion is our task. The rest is the madness of the art.” He was talking about horror writers in particular, but I think it applies to all of us. Don’t you?

But lately… I haven’t been writing. I’ve written down a lot of ideas (I often suffer from the Shinny Idea Syndrome that Gennifer Albin mentioned) and did some research for a contemporary YA I’ve been thinking about writing. I’ve been reading a lot, too. I’m three books closer to my 100 book goal and since it’s just January 8th, I think that’s pretty good, but I just feel horrible about not revising my NaNo manuscript at all lately…

On the bright side, I have my SCBWI book talk/critique group this Thursday night so I’m forced to do something with my NaNo-script. Though I’m very open to being late to it and/or missing it for another opportunity that might come up Thursday night…

On an unrelated note, if you want to enter for a chance to win a copy of some amazing YA books check out Publishing Crawl. They have three amazing giveaways going on right now!

How to Write Irresistible Kidlit

kidlit_cover_small

Cover of Writing Irresistible Kidlit by literary agent Mary Kole (http://kidlit.com)

Stars:
Genre: Writing Tips
Author: Mary Kole (Literary Agency) (Personal Website) (Kidlit.com)
Recommended? Yes. If you want to write YA or MG, I really, really, really recommend it.

I’ve read a lot of How To Become An Awesome writer type of books. I’ve also attended conferences, webnairs, and followed a lot of writer blogs, and out of all of those great tools and resources, kidlit.com has always been a favorite of mine. It’s run by literary agent Mary Kole. At my regional SCBWI conference, I was lucky enough to attend a seminar hosted by her and meet her briefly. It wasn’t the first time I heard about her book (she’d mentioned it on her website) but it’s where I finally got to order one. I really loved it, even though I’ve read all the archives of kidlit.com, I felt I learned plenty of new things or insights. The book is broken down into the important things you need to know when writing for the YA or MG marketplace.

It starts with an overview of the Kidlit Market then moves to describing the MG and YA reader’s mindset. I’d like to think I’m well educated with both, but Kole gave insights I hadn’t thought about. She then talks about the importance of a Big Idea in stories, the foundation of storytelling, how to make a great YA or MG character, how to structure plots, and she talks about advanced skills (such how imagery, voice, theme, author authority and authenticity.

In case you haven’t considered the traditional publishing route, the last chapter breaks down everything you need to know about it. The role of literary agents, the query letter, submitting your work, and a few more bonus tips and tricks. Again, I’m well versed in those areas but Kole brought a new point of view and a very interesting one since she’s a literary agent herself.

Reading this book was fun. It forced me to think about my own writing and gives exercises to help you find problems with my plot or characters. Editors, YA and MG authors, and other literary agents give bonus tips and insights throughout the book as well. Kole reinforces everything she says by showing examples from popular YA and MG books. She gives plenty of time to both sections of the kidlits.