Tag Archives: Alaya Dawn Johnson

New Releases – October 2014

Some Assembly Required: The Not-So-Secret Life of a Transgender Teen by Arin Andrews (Simon & Schuster)

“In a plainspoken and sometimes-humorous memoir, transgender teenager Andrews discusses his life so far. Andrews received national recognition when he was profiled on television’s Inside Edition as one half of a transgender teen couple (the other half, Katie Rain Hill, has written her own memoir, Rethinking Normal). In a conversational tone, the author describes events from his childhood and teen years. … Friendly and informative.” — Kirkus

The Doubt Factory by Paolo Bacigalupi (Little, Brown Books for Young Readers)

“In this provocative thriller, Bacigalupi (The Drowned Cities) traces the awakening of a smart, compassionate, and privileged girl named Alix Banks to ugly realities of contemporary life, while seeking to open readers’ eyes, as well. Alix’s life is thrown into disarray when an activist group targets her family, its eyes on her father’s powerful public relations business. Moses is a charismatic black teen living off the money from a settlement with a pharmaceutical company after one of its medications killed his parents. Along with four other brilliant teens who have lost family to this sort of legal/medical maleficence, Moses hopes to enlist Alix’s help to release incriminating data from her father’s files, à la Edward Snowden.” — Publishers Weekly, starred review

Boy Trouble by ReShonda Tate Billingsley (K-Teen)

Book Description: Maya’s best friend Kennedi has flipped head over heels for her new boo, Kendrick. But when Maya learns Kennedi and Kendrick’s relationship is full of violence—and Kennedi is the aggressor—will she get her best friend to see love shouldn’t hurt? Meanwhile, Sheridan has found love too, but her Prince Charming isn’t all that he seems, and Sheridan won’t listen to anything her friends try to tell her. Maya is trying to navigate all of that while dealing with her own family drama as her parents go through a nasty divorce. How is a diva supposed to stay sane when everything around her is falling apart?

Double Exposure by Bridget Birdsall (Sky Pony Press)

“Alyx, an intersex teen, leaves California for Milwaukee to live as a girl for the first time. … Tall and a lover of basketball, Alyx becomes quick friends with her school’s varsity team, including pushy and dangerously hot-tempered Patti ”Pepper“ Pitmani. Background information about intersex conditions and Alyx’s own experience of her body are woven easily into the text, informative without being either dry or sensationalistic.” — Kirkus

Night Sky by Suzanne Brockmann and Melanie Brockmann (Sourcebooks Fire)

“Best known for her romantic thrillers, Suzanne Brockmann teams up with her daughter Melanie for a YA adventure set in her Fighting Destiny world. Sixteen-year-old Skylar Reid is shocked to discover that she’s a Greater-Than, born with superhuman powers. … Skylar joins her wheelchair-bound friend Calvin, motorcycle-riding bad girl Dana, and mysterious hottie Milo to rescue a missing child and bring down those who would exploit people like her.” — Publishers Weekly

Laughing at My Nightmare by Shane Burcaw (Roaring Brook Press)

“In this no-holds-barred autobiography, 21-year-old Burcaw sheds light on what it has been like to grow up with spinal muscular atrophy (SMA), a deadly disease that has left him confined to a wheelchair and dependent on others. … His honesty, tempered by mordant humor and a defiant acceptance, is refreshing, even as he thumbs his nose at the disease that is slowly stripping him of the basics.” — Publishers Weekly, starred review

The Sorcerer Heir (The Heir Chronicles, Book 5) by Cinda Williams Chima (Disney-Hyperion)

Book Description: The delicate peace between Wizards and the underguilds (Warriors, Seers, Enchanters, and Sorcerers) still holds by the thinnest of threads, but powerful forces inside and outside the guilds threaten to sever it completely.

Emma and Jonah are at the center of it all. Brought together by their shared history, mutual attraction, and a belief in the magic of music, they now stand to be torn apart by new wounds and old betrayals. As they struggle to rebuild their trust in each other, Emma and Jonah must also find a way to clear their names as the prime suspects in a series of vicious murders. It seems more and more likely that the answers they need lie buried in the tragedies of the past. The question is whether they can survive long enough to unearth them.

Old friends and foes return as new threats arise in this stunning and revelatory conclusion to the beloved and bestselling Heir Chronicles series.

Alice + Freda Forever: A Murder in Memphis by Alexis Coe (Pulp/Zest)

“The year was 1892, and 19-year-old Alice Mitchell was in love with Freda Ward, 17. She determined that if she couldn’t marry Freda, nobody else would, either. … This is a captivating account, and readers will quickly become absorbed in the suspense surrounding Freda’s murder. Additionally, the book provides a foundation for discussion of sociocultural themes, such as how LGBT relationships have historically been viewed by society, gender and femininity, and even journalism.” — School Library Journal, starred review

Earth and Sky by Megan Crewe (Skyscape)

Book Description: Seventeen-year-old Skylar has been haunted for as long as she can remember by fleeting yet powerful sensations that something is horribly wrong. But despite the visions of disaster that torment her, nothing ever happens, and Sky’s beginning to think she’s crazy. Then she meets a mysterious, otherworldly boy named Win and discovers the shocking truth her premonitions have tapped into: that our world no longer belongs to us. For thousands of years, life on Earth has been at the mercy of alien scientists who care nothing for humans and are using us as the unwitting subjects of their time-manipulating experiments. Win belongs to a rebel faction seeking to put a stop to it, and he needs Skylar’s help to save the world and keep the very fabric of reality together. Megan Crewe’s latest tale takes readers on a mind-bending journey through time with a cast of unforgettable characters.

Exquisite Captive by Heather Demetrios (Balzer + Bray)

“Nalia lives in a mansion in the Hollywood Hills, a glittering world of parties and fast cars. She can have anything she wants—except her freedom. Nalia is ”just another jinni on the dark caravan“ of the slave trade, forced to spend her days granting wishes on behalf of her human master, Malek, in order to advance his wealth and power. … The story unfolds at a swift, even pace, and the worldbuilding is superb; the jinn inhabit an intoxicating, richly realized realm of magic, politics, spirituality and history. Readers will wish they had a jinni to grant them the next book in the series.” — Kirkus, starred review

Taking Flight: From War Orphan to Star Ballerina by Michaela DePrince with Elaine DePrince (Knopf)

“A compelling narrative of the journey of an African orphan whose hard work, emotional strength, and supportive adoptive American parents helped her build a life as a professional dancer, 19-year-old Michaela DePrince’s memoir, coauthored by her mother, holds many stories. … There is plenty of ballet detail for dance lovers to revel in, and the authors achieve a believable, distinctive teenage voice with a nice touch of lyrical description.” — Publishers Weekly, starred review

In Real Life by Cory Doctorow and Jen Wang (First Second)

“Online gaming and real life collide when a teen discovers the hidden economies and injustices that hide among seemingly innocent pixels … Through Wong’s captivating illustrations and Doctorow’s heady prose, readers are left with a story that’s both wholly satisfying as a work of fiction and series food for thought about the real-life ramifications of playing in an intangible world. Thought-provoking, as always from Doctorow.” — Kirkus

Tell Me Again How a Crush Should Feel by Sara Farizan (Algonquin)

“With self-deprecating wit and a keen eye for interpersonal dynamics, Iranian-American narrator Leila Azadi details the dramas taking place in the intersecting circles of her elite New England private school and high-achieving Persian community. When a family friend comes out, his parents’ obnoxious bragging turns to silence, causing Leila to fear being disowned for her “lady-loving inclinations.” … Farizan exceeds the high expectations she set with her debut, If You Could Be Mine, in this fresh, humorous, and poignant exploration of friendship and love, a welcome addition to the coming-out/coming-of-age genre.” — Publishers Weekly, starred review

Rethinking Normal: A Memoir in Transition by Katie Rain Hill (Simon & Schuster)

“Katie knew she was a girl on the inside, even when she was a suicidal kid named Luke growing up in a disjointed family in Oklahoma. Bullied relentlessly at school and unsupported by administrators, other students’ parents, and even her own father, Katie finds an ally in her mother, who stands by her child as she starts dressing like a girl, legally changes her name, and travels to get genital reconstruction surgery the day after turning 18. … Being so open—and openly imperfect—makes Katie relatable on a human level, not just as a spokesperson.” — Publishers Weekly

Love Is the Drug by Alaya Dawn Johnson (Arthur A. Levine Books)

“Lost memories, a deadly pandemic flu and the children of D.C.’s elite come together in this sophisticated bio-thriller. … Johnson, who astounded with her cyberpunk teen debut, The Summer Prince (2013), immerses readers in the complexities of Bird’s world, especially her fraught relationship with her parents and the intersections of race and class at her elite prep school. The often lyrical third-person, present-tense narration, the compelling romance and the richly developed cast of characters elevate this novel far above more formulaic suspense fare. Utterly absorbing.” — Kirkus, starred review

Martyr by A.R. Kahler (Spencer Hill Press)

Book Description: Three years have passed since magic destroyed the world.

Those who remain struggle to survive the monsters roaming the streets, fighting back with steel and magic–the very weapons that birthed the Howls in the first place.

Tenn is one such Hunter, a boy with the ability to harness the elements through ancient runes. For years, the Hunters have used this magic to keep the monsters at bay, but it’s never been enough to truly win the war. Humans are losing.

When Tenn falls prey to an incubus named Tomás and his terrifying Kin, Tenn learns there’s more to this than a fight for survival. He’s a pawn in a bigger game, one with devastating consequences. If he doesn’t play his part, it could cost him his life, his lover and his world.

The Family by Marissa Kennerson (Full Fathom Five)

Book Description: Just like any average seventeen year old, Twig loves her family. She has a caring mother and a controlling father. Her brothers and sisters are committed to her family’s prosperity…

All one hundred and eighty three of them.

Twig lives in the Family, a collective society located in the rainforest of Costa Rica. The Family members coexist with the values of complete openness and honesty, and a shared fear of contagious infection in the outside world.

So when Adam, their Father, prophet, and savior, announces that Twig will be his new bride, she is overjoyed and honored. But when an injury forces her to leave the grounds, Twig finds that the world outside is not necessarily as toxic as she was made to believe. When she meets Leo, an American boy with a killer smile, she begins to question everything about her life within the Family, and the cult to which she belongs.

But when it comes to your Family, you don’t always get a choice.

The Young Elites by Marie Lu (Putnam)

“A new series—fantasy, this time—from the author of the best-selling Legend dystopia. … In a gorgeously constructed world that somewhat resembles Renaissance Italy but with its own pantheon, geography and fauna, the multiethnic and multisexual Young Elites offer a cinematically perfect ensemble of gorgeous-but-unusual illusionists, animal speakers, fire summoners and wind callers. A must for fans of Kristin Cashore’s Fire (2009) and other totally immersive fantasies.” — Kirkus, starred review

How It Went Down by Kekla Magoon (Henry Holt and Co.)

“A racially charged shooting reveals the complicated relationships that surround a popular teen and the neighborhood that nurtured and challenged him. Instead of a gangster after retribution, 16-year-old African-American Tariq Johnson’s killer is a white man claiming to have acted in self-defense. Despite their failure to find a weapon on the black teen, the police release the shooter, rocking the community. … Magoon skillfully tells the story in multiple, sometimes conflicting, voices. This sobering yet satisfying novel leaves readers to ponder the complex questions it raises.” — Kirkus, starred review

Pig Park by Claudia Guadalupe Martinez (Cinco Puntos)

“Residents of a declining neighborhood band together to turn their economy around by building a tourist attraction. Masi spent her life working in her family’s bakery in Pig Park, so named for the lard company that, until outsourcing, provided most of the area’s jobs. The multiethnic Chicago neighborhood agrees to the outlandish scheme of building a ‘Gran Pirámide’ in their park, as a famous community developer suggests. … The story of a community working together is uplifting.” — Kirkus

Kiss Kill Vanish by Jessica Martinez (Katherine Tegen Books)

“After discovering that her father and boyfriend are killers, 17-year-old Valentina Cruz runs away to Montreal. Penniless, she lives in a rented closet, works as an artist’s model, and practices her stolen mandolin by night in an empty cafe. She thinks the music will sustain her good memories of her boyfriend, Emilio, who taught her to play. … Valentina’s decision making is sometimes opaque, but her strong voice, full of sensory imagery, and her exquisitely drawn relationships with Emilio, Marcel, and her father make this a memorable thriller.” — Publishers Weekly, starred review

Beau, Lee, the Bomb & Me by Mary McKinley (K-Teen)

“When 16-year-old Rusty sees new boy Beau appear at her school, she’s relieved—he’ll be ”fresh meat“ for the bullies who torment Rusty for being fat. She’s right; they paint ”Die Fag“ on Beau’s locker and beat him up. Desperate, he decides to run away in search of his gay uncle in San Francisco. Rusty goes with him, as does Lee, a girl who’s sex-shamed at school and happens to be sleeping with a teacher. … Pair this love letter to the West Coast and to the victims and survivors of the gay American AIDS crisis with David Levithan’s Two Boys Kissing (2013).” — Kirkus

Bottled Up Secret by Brian McNamara (Bold Strokes Books)

Book Description: Brendan Madden is in the midst of his senior year of high school and couldn’t be happier. He has a great group of friends, his pick of colleges, and he has recently come to terms with his sexuality. One night, he meets Mark Galovic, a gorgeous, younger classmate of his. In a matter of minutes, Brendan is hooked. As the friendship between them grows, Brendan reaches his breaking point when he spontaneously confesses his feelings to him. Brendan is shocked and elated to find out that Mark feels the same way about him. The two begin to date, but because Mark is not out, it must remain a secret. As their friends and family become suspicious, openly gay Brendan becomes increasingly frustrated with their discreet relationship, while Mark becomes more and more paranoid that they’re going to be found out.

Maxine Wore Black by Nora Olsen (Bold Strokes Books)

Maxine is the girl of Jayla’s dreams: she’s charming, magnetic, and loves Jayla for her transgender self. There’s only one problem with Maxine—she already has a girlfriend, perfect Becky. Jayla quickly falls under Maxine’s spell, and she’s willing to do anything to win her. But when Becky turns up dead, Jayla is pulled into a tangle of deceit, lies, and murder. Now Jayla is forced to choose between love and the truth. Jayla will need all the strength she has to escape the darkness that threatens to take her very life.

Crazy by Linda Vigen Phillips (Eerdmans Books for Young Readers)

“Told in first-person free verse, Crazy is a beautifully written and emotionally impactful novel about growing up around bipolar disorder in a time period when even doctors didn’t truly understand the ramifications of such a disease. Laura’s shame about her family and her guilt for hating her mother for something she cannot control are heartrending. Phillips’s poetry coupled with her personal experiences truly make this a poignant read. It should be in the hands of anyone—teen and adult—who has ever felt powerless at the hands of mental illness.” — School Library Journal

The Gospel Truth by Caroline Pignat (Red Deer Press)

Book Description: Award-winning author Caroline Pignat’s new historical novel recreates the world of a Virginia tobacco plantation in 1858. Through the different points of view of slaves, their masters and a visiting bird-watcher the world of the plantation comes to live in this verse novel. Phoebe belongs to Master Duncan and works in the plantation kitchen. She sees how the other slaves are treated — the beatings and whippings, the disappearances. She hasn’t seen her mother since Master Duncan sold her ten years ago. But Pheobe is trying to learn words and how to read and when she is asked to show the master’s Canadian visitor, Doctor Bergman, where he can find warblers and chickadees she starts to see things differently. And Doctor Bergman has more in mind that just drawing the local birds. Pheobe’s friend Shad works on the plantation as well — but mostly he worries about his brother Will. His brother is the last member of his family and he is determined to escape from the master and the tobacco plantation. He has already been caught and beaten more than once. And the stories about life in Canada can’t be true, can they? How does a man survive without the master there taking care of everything?

Gabi, a Girl in Pieces by Isabel Quintero (Cinco Puntos)

“Struggles with body image, teen pregnancy, drug addiction, rape, coming out, first love and death are all experiences that touch Gabi’s life in some way during her senior year, and she processes her raw and honest feelings in her journal as these events unfold. … Readers won’t soon forget Gabi, a young woman coming into her own in the face of intense pressure from her family, culture and society to fit someone else’s idea of what it means to be a ”good“ girl. A fresh, authentic and honest exploration of contemporary Latina identity.” — Kirkus, starred review

The Only Thing to Fear by Caroline Tung Richmond (Scholastic)

“That 20th-century speculative-fiction staple, the what-if-Hitler-won-the-war alternate history, meets 21st-century special-girl dystopia. It’s been almost a century since the Axis powers divided a conquered North America among them: Japan in the west, Germany in the east, and Italy in the Dakotas. In the Nazi-controlled Shenandoah Valley, 16-year-old half-Japanese Zara is an Untermensch, a half-breed fit only for scut work. Though she works all hours as both a janitor and a farm girl, Zara desperately wants Uncle Red to allow her to join the Revolutionary Alliance, the anti-Nazi underground. … Overall, a satisfying and appropriately hectic action adventure.” — Kirkus

Schizo: A novel by Nic Sheff (Philomel)

“Sheff’s novel reveals the painful and confusing world of teenage schizophrenia through the experience of Miles, a junior at a small San Francisco private school. … Readers fascinated by the dark side of the human mind in realistic fiction will enjoy this deft portrayal of a brain and a life spiraling out of control. Miles is an endearing character whose difficult journey will generate compassion and hope.” — School Library Journal

UnDivided by Neal Shusterman (Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers)

“In the final book of the ”Unwind Dystology,“ everything comes full circle. Shusterman expertly reminds readers about the characters and their current situations without distracting from the current plot. Teens gain information on all of the key players, and each well-crafted narrative moves at a refreshing pace. … Characters old and new are integrated into the story line, providing insight and closure. Shusterman generates a lot of thought-provoking topics for discussion. The story is intriguing: a wonderful end to a unique and noteworthy series.” — School Library Journal

Forgive Me If I’ve Told You This Before by Karelia Stetz-Waters (Ooligan Press)

Book Description: Shy, intellectual, and living in rural Oregon, Triinu Hoffman just doesn’t fit in. She does her best to hide behind her dyed hair and black wardrobe, but it’s hard to ignore the bullying of Pip Weston and Principal Pinn. It’s even harder to ignore the allure of other girls. As Triinu tumbles headlong into first love and teenage independence, she realizes that the differences that make her a target are also the differences that can set her free. With everyone in town taking sides in the battle for equal rights in Oregon, Triinu must stand up for herself, learn what it is to love and have her heart broken, and become her own woman.

Shadowboxer by Tricia Sullivan (Ravenstone)

“In this adrenaline-fueled supernatural adventure, a young woman channels her anger into fighting, only to risk losing everything due to her lack of control. Jade Barrera, 17, is a rising star in the mixed martial arts (MMA) circuit, but after she snaps and hurts the wrong person, she’s sent to regain her focus by training in Thailand, where she’s exposed to new ways of thinking and living. … SF author Sullivan (Lightborn) spins a kinetic, violent, and magical tale that makes excellent use of Jade’s hard-edged voice. Sullivan brings to life the beauty of Thailand and the sweat and blood of the gym, infusing them with magic and danger.” — Publishers Weekly

Stray by Elissa Sussman (Greenwillow)

“Fairy-tale tropes are turned on their heads in this exploration of class and ideology. Aislynn is a princess who has always intended to follow the Path. However, her wicked heart is often at odds with her desperation to obey the rules that state she must resist the curse of her innate magic. … The creative use of the role of fairy godmother is fascinating, as is the fantasy world.” — Kirkus

Lies We Tell Ourselves by Robin Talley (Harlequin Teen)

“Sarah Dunbar, a black high school senior in the graduating class of 1959, is nervous about entering the formerly all-white Jefferson High School with nine of her black classmates. … The big issues of school desegregation in the 1950s, interracial dating, and same-sex couples have the potential to be too much for one novel, but the author handles all with aplomb. What makes it even better is that both Linda’s and Sarah’s points of view are revealed as the novel unfolds, giving meaning to their indoctrinated views. Educators looking for materials to support the civil rights movement will find a gem in this novel, and librarians seeking titles for their LGBT displays should have this novel on hand.” — VOYA

Beauty of the Broken by Tawni Waters (Simon Pulse)

“Mara Stonebrook knows she does not belong; she is ”different.“ Her small town is conservative and strictly religious. … Mara has managed to escape her father’s abuse for 15 years, but she knows that if anyone finds out her deepest secret, that she is a lesbian, she will be punished as an abomination in the eyes of their conservative church. If her father finds out, she will be lucky to live. Keeping her secret is easy until Xylia comes to town. … Emotionally wrenching, this novel will resonate with students struggling with their own sexual orientation.” — School Library Journal

Belzhar by Meg Wolitzer (Dutton)

“When 10th grader Jam Gallahue meets British exchange student Reeve Maxfield, she fees like she finally understands love, and when she loses him, she can’t get over it. Her grief eventually lands her at the Wooden Barn, a therapeutic boarding school for “emotionally fragile, highly intelligent” teenagers. … Making her YA debut, acclaimed author Wolitzer writes crisply and sometimes humorously about sadness, guilt, and anger.” — Publishers Weekly, starred review

Five Reasons Why I Wrote “Love Is the Drug”

By Alaya Dawn Johnson


Love Is the Drug is entirely a work of fiction. None of the characters are me or my family or my friends, and I’ve thankfully never had to survive a global flu pandemic. But the experience of growing up in Washington, DC did, in broad strokes, inform the way I wrote the book. What follows are five snippets from my novel followed by five moments of my life that helped inspire them.

Nothing is like DC in the summer. The rich smell of humidity and baking asphalt, the sharp-sweet of cut grass and the sulfurous fumes of spent fireworks, all swept away in the ferocity of an evening storm that pounds the city, rich and poor, white and black, Northwest and Northeast, with its harsh equality.

We walk around all summer long. My sister, my cousin and I. We walk to the video store, to the soft-serve ice cream shop, to the canal where we can rent bicycles or canoes and follow that tow path for two or three locks, trailed by clouds of gnats and the buzzing of cicadas. It’s unbearably hot, at least everyone says so, but we can’t wait to get out of the air conditioned world of our parents’ houses and our schools and smell the churned silt of the Potomac, the obscene greenery of the woods that arc over the canal and turn the sky an emerald set with lapis blue. When the air quality is at its worst, the buses are free. We take them all over the city: to the National Mall, to the Library of Congress, to Northeast, to visit my uncle, or to Southeast, to visit my grandmother. On the Fourth of July, the whole city shakes itself like an overheated dog after a jump in the pool and comes out to celebrate the summer. In Northeast, the kids jack the hydrants, ruining the whole block’s water pressure—but how they scream and laugh running through that fierce spray, sliding in the lake they’ve made of the street. I walk past and breathe deep of water evaporating fast on stove-hot asphalt. Nearby, fireworks go off: the big rockets that are illegal in neighboring Maryland and Virginia. They sounded like gunshots to me the first night I heard them, sleeping over in my uncle’s house. Sheltered as I was, I’d never heard a real gunshot before. I’d have known the difference, my aunt told me.

One Fourth of July the ozone falls and chokes those parched streets; the clouds roll in. We all pray the storm holds off long enough for the fireworks, and it does. They go up in a break in the clouds, and as soon as the last shower of white sparks fades away, the first drops land. We dance with the Hare Krishnas in a pit of mud, soaked to our skin, and as we walk back we sing “Lightning Is Striking Again” at the top of our lungs. Some people look at us kind of funny, and some people join in.


He switches into a higher gear and the engine drowns any conversation as they tear down the road, traffic lights blinking a stream of forlorn red behind them. The tires squeal when he makes the turn onto Military Road, and she wonders why her knuckles ache before she sees her hand gripping the handle above her head like she’s hanging from a cliff.

“Could you slow down?” she says, clipping each word hard against the back of her teeth, not quite a scream but close enough.

He knows what he’s doing. He sees her stitches. He visited her in the hospital, for God’s sake. He’s doing this to intimidate her, to show off, because he’s a rich white dude who can, and —

I’m in line near the Federal Triangle station. This black guy comes up to me, smiling. I smile back, cautiously. I know what’s coming, and I’ve gotten all right at deflecting it, but it’s harder to walk away in a line. But he’s funny about it. “Someone give me 25 cents, because I got to call my mother and tell her I’m in love!” I laugh and smile more genuinely. He’s an older guy, we both know perfectly damn well my seventeen-year-old self is not getting with him this afternoon or any other, but it’s a moment in a lifetime of this particular interaction that feels more playful than aggressive, that feels like a joke between the two of us in this sea of white people, and I like that. He keeps at it, and I’m laughing and saying no, not trying particularly hard to shut it down.

Suddenly, this white guy in front of me turns around, so abruptly that I’m startled and step back. He’s tall—bigger than both of us (because it’s suddenly an us, me and this black guy I’ve never seen in my life).

“She said no,” says the white guy, stepping forward, using his height to get in the black guy’s face. “Leave her alone already.”

Black guy steps back, clearly ego bruised and clearly not looking for trouble. “Hey man, I didn’t mean anything by it,” he says. He doesn’t meet the white guy’s eyes, but he glances at me before he leaves. White guy turns to me, in shining armor, “Are you all right?”

I say yes, I am. I feel dirty, complicit in the kind of DC racial interaction that always makes me angry, but it feels complicated too. I’ve been honked at and catcalled in the streets of this city since I was ten years old. I love to walk, and so I’ve learned how to deal with it. Have I learned to deal too much? Do I cut those guys who love to chat me up too much slack? He was bothering me a little. But not a lot. He was funny. He was one of my people, and no matter how I turned it around in my head I still hated that this white guy had barged in and used his physical strength and his race to intimidate someone so relatively powerless.


Felice reaches out and pats her head, very gently. “Is something wrong with your hair? It’s a little…puffy.”

Bird stares at her, shamed into silence. Felice seizes her victory in her delicate, manicured hands and walks into the senior room. Alone, Bird slumps against the wall, buries her hands deep into her puffy, unacceptable roots, and waits for the knife in her heart to hold still.

In tenth grade I convince my mom to let me take my hair out of braids. I’ve had the same style since fourth grade, since it’s easier for my mother to manage than a daily taming of my thicket of short hair. I liked the braids, but the pain of getting them put in (one to two full days in the hair salon) and then taking them out (a full weekend stuck at the house) has made me desperate to have my hair out again. Unfortunately, I don’t have the first clue of how to deal with my hair loose. It tangles, it threatens to dread, I spend most days with it in two thick braids or hidden behind my growing collection of head scarves. My sartorial choices are not popular at school. One day my mom suggests that I let her blow-dry it straight. I like the idea: I’ll be able to see how long it’s gotten and I won’t have to worry about it for a few days.

The first few compliments in school feel nice. “Alaya, your hair is fantastic!” “You look awesome!” But then they get weird: “You should do that to your hair every day!” “Wow, you look so much better with your hair straight!” I practically crawl to my friend’s house at the end of the day. I feel twisted up: I like the difference of the new style, I like it as a change of pace. But now even my own enjoyment of my long hair feels complicit, like a betrayal of the girl who went to school the day before with a tangled mess covered with a do-rag.


Nicky apologizes that he can’t drive her to school, but she understands. Between the checkpoints and the driving restrictions, he couldn’t get her there and make it to his doorman job on time. Bird’s mom calls Nicky a deadbeat, but it isn’t really a fair word for a guy who’s worked shit jobs most of his life. It’s just that he can’t manage to keep anything for very long, and what he does get is soul-killing.

A year later, I’m in the school cafeteria when I hear someone call my name. I turn around. It’s a man dressed in khaki coveralls with a red insignia stitched on one breast. I blink, wondering why the plumber would want to talk to me. Then I blink again, and realize that I know him: he’s the husband of my mom and aunt’s best childhood friend, a man I’ve known all of my life. In a few months, I’ll go with his son to the Junior prom. I call his name, hug him, ask him what he’s doing here. It turns out he’s here to fix the broken boiler; he’s with the plumbing company my school occasionally uses. He says he had heard I went to this fancy school, but he didn’t know if he would see me.

How could I not have recognized a man I painted Easter eggs with? Who has always been part of my extended family? Is it this school? We’re in the middle of Washington, DC and yet half of it passes through us like dark matter, only visible through certain rare interactions, and gravity.


She shakes her head. “I’m venezolana, Emily, and I’m working with very paranoid security officials. Either I’m perfect, or I’m a —”

Dr. Granger’s laugh is so bleak that Bird winces. “It’s not easy here, is it?” Bird says.

“No, not really. But we both have to stay. Especially you, Emily. This school will keep you safe. Whatever else it does.”

I’ve left the city, but my sister is still there. The morning of 9/11 I’m in Manhattan, watching the smoke  from the top of my dorm building. My sister is on the top of Mount Saint Alban, where a few students who happened to be facing that direction have a direct view of the plane flying into the Pentagon. The state of panic is immediate, and very Washingtonian. The kids get herded into the crypt of the Washington National Cathedral, which is now doubling as a bomb shelter. For weeks after the mood is tense. The care taken of these children of senators and ambassadors and other political heavyweights is very particular; no one will take any chances. As my sister describes it to me over the phone, I can’t help but wonder about the rest of DC, about the public schools in those neighborhoods that were so joyous that Fourth of July. If they really did need a bomb shelter, would they have one? In that segregated town, whose welfare counts in case of an emergency?


Alaya Dawn Johnson lives, writes, cooks and (perhaps most importantly) eats in Mexico City. Her literary loves are all forms of speculative fiction, historical fiction, and the occasional highbrow novel. She plays the guitar badly and eats very well, particularly during canning season. She has published five novels for adults and young adults, including The Summer Prince, which was longlisted for the National Book Award in 2013.

Love Is the Drug is now available.

10 African American Authors to Know

Lamar Giles

Alaya Dawn Johnson

Stephanie Kuehn

Kekla Magoon

Walter Dean Myers

  • The 2012–2013 National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, a five-time winner of the Coretta Scott King Award, and winner of the Margaret Edwards Award for lifetime achievement.
  • www.walterdeanmyers.net

Jason Reynolds

Ni-Ni Simone

Sherri L. Smith

Jacqueline Woodson

Bil Wright

  • A playwright, director, and author of the YA novels Putting Makeup on the Fat Boy and Sunday You Learn How to Box.
  • www.bilwright.com

New Releases – March 2013

Quicksilver by R.J. Anderson

Publisher: Carolrhoda Lab
Publication Date: March 1, 2013
Read author R.J. Anderson’s post on “An asexual YA heroine? Why not?”
Get Quicksilver at IndieBound, Barnes & Noble, or Amazon.

The Sin-Eater’s Confession by Ilsa J. Bick

Publisher: Carolrhoda Lab
Publication Date: March 1, 2013
Get The Sin-Eater’s Confession at IndieBound, Barnes & Noble, or Amazon.

Fat Angie by e.E. Charlton-Trujillo

Publisher: Candlewick
Publication Date: March 12, 2013
Get Fat Angie at IndieBound, B&N, or Amazon.

The Culling by Steven dos Santos

Publisher: Flux
Publication Date: March 8, 2013
Get The Culling at IndieBound, Barnes & Noble, or Amazon.

The Lightning Dreamer by Margarita Engle (Harcourt Children’s Books) — “An inspiring fictionalized verse biography of one of Cuba’s most influential writers… . Fiery and engaging, a powerful portrait of the liberating power of art.” — Kirkus

The Elephant of Surprise by Brent Hartinger

Publisher: Buddha Kitty Books
Publication Date: March 2013
Get The Elephant of Surprise at IndieBound, B&N, or Amazon.

When We Wake by Karen Healey

Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
Publication Date: March 5, 2013
Get When We Wake at IndieBound, Barnes & Noble, or Amazon.

The Summer Prince by Alaya Dawn Johnson

Publisher: Arthur A. Levine Books/Scholastic
Publication Date: March 1, 2013
Get The Summer Prince at IndieBound, Barnes & Noble, or Amazon.

Flowers in the Sky by Lynn Joseph (HarperTeen) — “Joseph’s quietly compelling novel captures both the colorful sun-filled atmosphere of 15-year-old Nina’s beloved seaside town, Samana, in the Dominican Republic, and the grit of New York City’s Washington Heights neighborhood.” — Publishers Weekly

Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass by Meg Medina!

Publisher: Candlewick
Publication Date: March 26, 2013
Get Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass at IndieBound, B&N, or Amazon.

Operation Oleander by Valerie O. Patterson (Clarion Books) — “Patterson poignantly depicts war’s effect on those at home as Jess and her friends absorb and react to the events. This solid novel joins the growing number of books illustrating the war’s effect on Afghan people.”— Booklist

Dr. Bird’s Advice for Sad Poets by Evan Roskos (Houghton Mifflin) — “This sensitive first novel portrays the struggle of 16-year-old James Whit-man to overcome anxiety and depression.” — Publishers Weekly

Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell

Publisher: St. Martin’s Griffin
Publication Date: Feb. 26, 2013
Get Eleanor and Park at IndieBound, B&N, or Amazon.

Orleans by Sherri L. Smith

Publisher: Putnam Juvenile
Publication Date: March 7, 2013

Permanent Record by Leslie Stella

Publisher: Amazon Children’s Publishing
Publication Date: March 5, 2013
Get Permanent Record at IndieBound, Barnes & Noble, or Amazon.

When We Wuz Famous by Greg Takoudes (Henry Holt and Co.) — “Puerto Rican senior basketballer Francisco Ortiz can’t escape the past… A fresh new voice in teen fiction.” — Kirkus

5 Things Alaya Dawn Johnson Learned While Writing THE SUMMER PRINCE

By Alaya Dawn Johnson

1. Writing on a train is awesome, but three days is a day too long to spend in coach.

”Coach” on a train gives you about the same amount of legroom as Business Class on an international flight, but after I’d spent forty eight hours negotiating the Amtrak bathroom and doing laps through the train cars while watching gorgeous landscapes pass by the windows, I was lucid dreaming of showers and high thread count sheets. I do not regret a minute of that journey across the country, but if I were to do it again, I’d save up to do it in style, in one of the private rooms.

2. Do not quit caffeine in the middle of your third act.

When my coffee habit started to get out of control somewhere around 50,000 words, I decided to quit all caffeine cold turkey. There was a stretch of days when my writing days consisted of fifty word bursts, punctuated by confused naps. This did not help the word count.

3. The samba is the most exhausting and most awesome dance in the world.

My sister, my cousin and I danced for hours one night in Rio in a packed club with a fantastic samba band. And oh boy did we try, but by the end of that night of doing our best sambas—which were, uh, not so great—we felt like someone was going to have to peel us from the cachaça-drenched floor.

This is *hard* (YouTube)

Meanwhile, all the Brazilians looked dewy and fresh and disappointed that the band couldn’t play for a couple more hours.

4. When it feels impossible is probably when it’s getting good.

There was a section of the book—okay, pretty much all of “Fall”—where I thought I might actually expire before I managed to type something that resembled an ending. Every sentence was a struggle. Every character interaction made me question what on earth I’d been thinking when I decided to write for a living. Now some of those scenes are some of my favorites of the novel. Writing can be fun; I’d never tell you otherwise, but sometimes it’s hard because it needs to be.

5. Don’t put those song lyrics at the heart of your big climax.

It turns out that music publishers think writers are fantastic revenue sources, because the licensing fees they requested to quote more than a line of any song lyrics in the novel made me cry over my keyboard. The writer has to cover any licensing fees, not the publisher. Which meant I had to re-write chunks of my manuscript when I discovered that my beloved song quotations would cost me half of the advance that I got to write the novel in the first place. It turned out okay, but I’ve learned my lesson: no lyrics!

And during one particular scene at the end of “Spring,” you might want to queue this one up (YouTube):