- Margaret Danenhauer, APA
Winter Book Recommendations
When snow storms begin and our bustling class schedule becomes a day off from school, there is no activity more perfect than brewing a mug of cocoa and snuggling up with a favorite book. Though the busy life of a UCVTS student may not permit them to find a new holiday favorite before the advent of the season, they're in luck: Peruse my winter book recommendations to crush the NJ Reading Challenge, buy a late Thanksgiving present for the book lover in their life, or satisfy the craving for a read that's just as wonderful as this time of the year! All five recommendations take place partially or completely during the winter season, and each one has a unique setting, tone, and genre, as well as being appropriate for all teen readers – new to reading or otherwise.
If you love to hop on all the hottest new literary trends, you simply have to sink your teeth into Babel, Or the Necessity of Violence: An Arcane History of the Oxford Translators’ Revolution by R.F. Kuang. This book is the most recent release of this list, having been first published on August 23, 2022. For some, Babel appears intimidating. Not only does it clock in at a girthy 545 pages, but it is also (unlike the other entries here) an Adult book. Truly, this book is not one to be read in a sitting, not just for its length, but also for the weighty and complex issues it unpacks: colonization, the history of language and racism in academia to name a few. However, I can say from personal experience that few books that I’ve read this year were as compelling and riveting as this page-turner. Set in 1828, the reader follows Robin, a young Chinese man who was adopted by a mysterious English language scholar after the death of his mother. Now that Robin has come of age, he is admitted to the same school his adopted father teaches at: Oxford University's Royal Institute of Translation, nicknamed Babel, whose students learn not just language but how to convert language into magic. Babel is featured on this list not just because it’s an amazing book that largely takes place during Robin’s winters on campus, but because it falls into a subgenre of literature that many crave during this season: dark academia. On top of that, much of the book dives into the reactions of young Chinese, Indian, and Haitian people to the active colonization of their era. Babel is perfect for those who want the perfect combination of entertainment and information, for the non-fiction reader who wants to dip their toes into fiction, or for anyone who wants a gripping dark academia with some real punch.
Like many, I’ve very rarely in my life encountered the classic German fairy tale “The Goose Girl.” So, what better way to be introduced to the story than a YA fantasy romance retelling? In Margaret Owen’s Little Thieves, our hero is Vanja, a young thief who has stolen the life of Princess Gisele via an enchanted necklace that grants Gisele’s appearance to Vanja. But when a god curses her for her greed, Vanja needs to team up with a junior detective hot on her criminal trail to stop herself from turning into a statue made of precious gems. Not only does Little Thieves have the best heists, fantastical wintery atmosphere and adorable slow-burn romance since Six of Crows, it’s also a meditation on wealth inequality, misogyny, and the responsibility parents have to their children. Despite the many complex themes, Little Thieves remains a thoroughly relaxing and enthralling read that offers an escape from the world. The book’s queernormative society is partially responsible for this. Not only is the cast of characters diverse, but the Owen spends a large portion of the book detailing how lesbian and demisexual experiences interact with the religious and economic systems of the world. When you lack strongly voiced queer representation, need a supplement between Leigh Bardugo’s releases, or need to read about an investigative duo who learn to examine their own feelings, Little Thieves will be waiting to steal your heart.
My reading pet peeve has been and will continue to be until the end of time, the myth that graphic novels, comic books, or any other variation of sequential art aren’t ‘real’ reading. Untrue as this might be, I myself have even fallen victim to contemplating this idea upon completing a particularly mediocre comic. Clearly, we all need that perfect book to remind us not just of the majesty and power of the graphic novel, but the reason we bother to read in the first place. Enter Himawari House by Harmony Becker, a contemporary YA about three girls living in a Japanese ‘sharehouse’ who attend a Japanese language school together. Though the protagonist, Nao, is Japanese-American and speaks primarily English, her friends are native Singlish and Korean speakers respectively, and a theme throughout the novel is their struggle to literally understand each other in their new country. This novel’s intricately detailed world building, incomparable character progression, and stunning artwork alone make it easily one of the best books I’ve read in the past year, but there’s also a more personal reason I regard this book so highly. In this very article, I have slung praise at dark academia novels, but in private, I have long harbored a preference for its more underrated counterpart –light academia. Specifically, stories that feature academic journeys highlighted by love, tenderness, and self improvement. If that intrigues you, Himawari House should as well, but I simply can’t narrow down a list of who I’d recommend this to. In my opinion, few books can emotionally translate on such a universal level like this one, and you would do yourself a disservice by not giving it a try.
Hey, Heartstopper fans: did you know that Alice Oseman has written about characters who don’t have the last name Spring? Shocking, but true. Of these, my favorite by far is Oseman’s Radio Silence, a backlist YA about mental health and the intricacies of non-romantic love. Our two leads are Frances, who both dedicates all of her time to trying to get into her dream school and harbors a secret talent for fanart, and Aled, a quiet boy who die-hard fans will recognize as a minor character in the Heartstopper comics. When the two are given the opportunity to work on a narrative sci-fi podcast together, they forge a bond that transcends any barriers between them. That is, until a doxxing scandal and an abusive parent threaten to take it all away. Though very few of us are teenage British podcasters with mysterious twin sisters, I’m sure the central discussion of academic pressure on young people, both internal and external, is very relatable to many students at UCVTS. What also sets this apart from much of Oseman’s more popular work is the focus on Frances’ complicated emotions about her being of Ethiopian and English descent while being raised by a white mother, as well as the depiction of the complex and unique issues people on the asexual spectrum face in romantic relationships. As I and many other super fans know, there is much to love in any ‘Osemanverse’ book, but Radio Silence stands out for how it centralizes platonic relationships between queer people and the distress and anguish many young people face when applying for college.
You might like stories set in the future, or you might like stories about witches. You might like unsparing dissections of generational trauma, or you might like loving portrayals of a vast array of queer identities and how these identities intersect with issues of race, class, and nationality. You might think it’s impossible for a book to do all of these things well at once, but ever since Liselle Sambury’s Blood Like Magic was published in 2021, you would be wrong. Voya Thomas is a normal black 16-year-old who also happens to be a witch living in the year 2049. When the ghost of one of her ancestors demands she must kill her first love or risk the entire Thomas bloodline losing their magic, she finds herself racing against the clock to save the family she loves – even at the expense of the boy she’s starting to fall for. As I alluded to, this book has a lot going on, but I think that its pitch-perfect execution of this ambitious premise is exactly what makes it one of my all-time favorites. Blood Like Magic soars where many urban fantasies might falter, as it not only dedicates careful time to developing the magic system and futuristic technology of the world, but also envisions how every inch of the black community in Toronto would be different a) 30 years in the future and b) with a non-zero amount of witches among them. Similarly, Sambury strikes a near-perfect balance between talking honestly about the struggles of the book’s diverse cast – for instance, Voya reckons with how the legacy of American enslavement continues to affect her community – with also presenting a hopeful, joyous vision of a future where work has been done by governing bodies to tear down institutional bigotry. The allure of Blood Like Magic is in its ability to be a portrait of a world so different to ours that it helps us escape while simultaneously being able to offer up characters so infinitely relatable that it’s cathartic to see them overcome adversity and build happier lives for themselves in the face of it. If Blood Like Magic interests you as much as it does me, be sure to checkout its sequel Blood Like Fate, which was released this past August.
Aquan, R. L., & Delort, N. (n.d.). Babel, Or the Necessity of Violence American Cover. HARPER Voyager . Retrieved November 10, 2022, from https://www.harpervoyagerbooks.com/book/9780063021440/babel/.
Aquan, R. L. (n.d.). Little Thieves. MS Corley. Retrieved November 10, 2022, from https://mscorley.com/Little-Thieves.
Kuang, R. F. (2022). Babel. HarperVoyager.
Owen, M. (2022). Little Thieves. Macmillian.
Danenhauer, M. (2021, December 25). Himawari House [web log]. Retrieved November 10, 2022, from Himawari House by Harmony Becker My rating: 5 of 5 stars We talk so much about dark academia- what about light academia? Stories that feature academic journeys highlighted by love, tenderness, and self improvement. This book has singlehandedly pioneered a new ideal vibe, and that's without even mentioning it's strong- beautiful- themes and intricately detailed world building and character progression. View all my reviews.
Becker, H. (2021). Himawari House. First Second, an imprint of Roaring Brook Press.
Hemmann , K. (2022, September 12). Review of Review: Himawari House Finds a Home in Cross-Cultural Friendship. Women Write About Comics.
Oseman, A. (2019). Radio Silence. Harperteen.
Becker, H., & Lee, S. (n.d.). Himawari House Cover . Macmillian Publishers . Retrieved November 10, 2022, from https://us.macmillan.com/books/9781250235565/himawarihouse.
Seimer, V., & Fitzsimmons, E. (n.d.). Radio Silence Cover. Harper Collins Publishers . Retrieved November 10, 2022, from https://www.harpercollins.com/products/radio-silence-alice-oseman?variant=32206613151778.
Sambury, L. (2022). Blood Like Magic. Margaret K. McElderry Books.
Harvey, T. (2022). Blood Like Magic. Artstation. Retrieved November 10, 2022, from https://www.artstation.com/artwork/ArELGV.