Review: Down and Across

Title: Down and Across
Author: Arvin Ahmadi
Publisher: Viking Books for Young Readers
Genre: Contemporary
Availability: On shelves February 6, 2018
Review Copy: ARC via publisher

Scott Ferdowsi has a track record of quitting. Writing the Great American Novel? Three chapters. His summer internship? One week. His best friends know exactly what they want to do with the rest of their lives, but Scott can hardly commit to a breakfast cereal, let alone a passion.

With college applications looming, Scott’s parents pressure him to get serious and settle on a career path like engineering or medicine. Desperate for help, he sneaks off to Washington, DC, to seek guidance from a famous professor who specializes in grit, the psychology of success.

He never expects an adventure to unfold out of what was supposed to be a one-day visit. But that’s what Scott gets when he meets Fiora Buchanan, a ballsy college student whose life ambition is to write crossword puzzles. When the bicycle she lends him gets Scott into a high-speed chase, he knows he’s in for the ride of his life. Soon, Scott finds himself sneaking into bars, attempting to pick up girls at the National Zoo, and even giving the crossword thing a try—all while opening his eyes to fundamental truths about who he is and who he wants to be.

Review: Sometimes you just need a bit of humor. Down and Across will definitely take care of that. This book made me laugh so many times. Scott has a great sense of humor which shows even in moments of extreme frustration – and there are plenty of those in the story.

Scott, or Saaket as his parents originally named him, needs every bit of humor he can find as he tries to figure out what he wants to do with his life. His father has been pushing Scott to choose his path, but Scott doesn’t feel ready. He explains how the big bang created a scattered and acceptable universe that was indefinitely incomplete. He wonders though, “Why aren’t I allowed to be indefinitely incomplete too?” He is simply not ready to commit to the career choices his father is suggesting and he is lacking in confidence.

In the midst of his soul-searching, Scott takes off for Washington, DC and meets Fiora. She brings even more humor to the story. She’s unpredictable and loves taking risks or getting someone else to do so while she snickers and watches the fallout. She supports Scott as he is trying to become grittier, but she also encourages him to do things that defy logic. “That’s how humans evolve: setting goals and chasing them, making families and protecting them…But people like us? It’s not our job. Not yet. We’re still figuring things out. So we take smaller steps and enjoy them irrationally.” I think there could be a market for t-shirts saying, “Take small steps & enjoy them irrationally.” In her mind I may be too old for this philosophy, but it sure appeals to me.

Fiora introduces Scott to crossword puzzles, but also pushes him into situations that make him reach beyond what he thinks he can do. This helps him in many ways though it also causes more than a few troublesome and sometimes dangerous situations. When Scott talks to the professor specializing in grit, she tells him he needs to develop a growth mindset. Fiora is helping him with that and may need some help with it herself.

Through one of Fiora’s risky ideas, Scott ends up crossing paths with Trent. They have an interesting exchange when Trent asks about Scott’s background. This is just one instance among many where people are learning about each other and are sometimes bumbling their way through. Identity is a major theme throughout. There are multiple cases of mistaken assumptions about who people really are. This is especially evident with one specific character who readers will likely despise by the end of the book. Seriously.

Recommendation: Get this one as soon as you can – especially if you enjoy contemporary novels with a healthy portion of humor. Down and Across is incredibly relatable and the characters will steal your heart.

The books I’m starting 2018 with

My TBR pile is always growing, but right now, here are the three books I’m starting 2018 with. In a surprising twist for my SFF-loving heart, all three of them are contemporaries, one from 2015, and the other two from this year. Have you read these already? What’s on your TBR pile right now?

tinyTiny Pretty Things by Sona Charaipotra and Dhonielle Clayton

TINY PRETTY THINGS digs beneath the practiced poise of a cutthroat Manhattan ballet academy, where three young protagonists all fight for prima position while navigating secrets, lies, and the pressure that comes with being prodigies.

Free-spirited new girl Giselle just wants to dance – but the very act might kill her. Upper East Side-bred Bette lives in the all-encompassing shadow of her ballet star sister, but the weight of family expectations brings out a dangerous edge in her. Perfectionist June forever stands in the wings as an understudy, but now she’s willing to do whatever it takes – even push someone out the way – to take the stage.

In a world where every other dancer is both friend and foe, the girls have formed the tenuous bond that comes with being the best of the best. But when New York City Ballet Conservatory newbie Giselle is cast as the lead in The Nutcracker – opposite Bette’s longtime love Alec – the competition turns deadly.

Love, Hate & Other Filters by Samira Ahmed
Soho Teen

A searing #OwnVoices coming-of-age debut in which an Indian-American Muslim teen confronts Islamophobia and a reality she can neither explain nor escape–perfect for fans of Angie Thomas, Jacqueline Woodson, and Adam Silvera.

Maya Aziz is torn between futures: the one her parents expect for their good Indian daughter (i.e.; staying nearby in Chicago and being matched with a “suitable” Muslim boy), and the one where she goes to film school in New York City–and maybe, just maybe, kisses a guy she’s only known from afar. There’s the also the fun stuff, like laughing with her best friend Violet, making on-the-spot documentaries, sneaking away for private swimming lessons at a secret pond in the woods. But her world is shattered when a suicide bomber strikes in the American heartland; by chance, he shares Maya’s last name. What happens to the one Muslim family in town when their community is suddenly consumed with hatred and fear?

Let’s Talk About Love by Claire Kann
Swoon Reads

Alice had her whole summer planned. Non-stop all-you-can-eat buffets while marathoning her favorite TV shows (best friends totally included) with the smallest dash of adulting–working at the library to pay her share of the rent. The only thing missing from her perfect plan? Her girlfriend (who ended things when Alice confessed she’s asexual). Alice is done with dating–no thank you, do not pass go, stick a fork in her, done.

But then Alice meets Takumi and she can’t stop thinking about him or the rom com-grade romance feels she did not ask for (uncertainty, butterflies, and swoons, oh my!).

When her blissful summer takes an unexpected turn, and Takumi becomes her knight with a shiny library employee badge (close enough), Alice has to decide if she’s willing to risk their friendship for a love that might not be reciprocated—or understood.

Author Interview with Gloria Chao

American PandaI’ve been beyond excited for Gloria Chao’s upcoming YA book American Panda. Set at MIT, American Panda follows Mei, a Taiwanese American college freshman who’s set to follow her parents’ plan for her to become a doctor, marry the right guy, and have kids — but life, love, and her own dreams get in the way. As a Taiwanese American, I’m of course psyched for more Taiwanese representation in YA, and can’t wait to read the book when it comes out February 6th. Today, here is Gloria Chao to talk about her new book!

Just this summer, Want by Cindy Pon, a sci-fi thriller set in Taipei, was released. Now half a year later, American Panda is weeks away from joining the few and proud ranks of YA books starring a Taiwanese protagonist. Who is your intended audience for American Panda? How did you go about writing your book and its portrayal of life as a Taiwanese American for that audience? 

I am so honored to join the proud ranks of YA books starring Taiwanese protagonists, and I’m so grateful to be a part of Jennifer Ung’s fabulous list, which includes Cindy Pon and Sandhya Menon. My intended audience for American Panda is anyone who is struggling with who they are and where they belong. I believe that the book’s themes of not fitting in and searching for your path is universal, but I also think it will particularly resonate with child of immigrants who grew up with parents similar to mine.

I wrote this book with the goal of capturing an honest portrayal of one Taiwanese American experience: mine. I wrote for me in the initial drafts so that I could get my story down, and then I let the industry and readers in during revisions.

Did you have a central theme or message in mind when you were writing American Panda? Can you tell us what it is?

I wrote the book I wish I had as a teen, and I wrote hoping to show teens they aren’t alone. I was too embarrassed to tell my friends in high school about my struggles with the cultural gap, and I hope this book will show those readers that their struggle is real and that it can get better.

Not many YA books are set in college. Why did you choose college, and specifically MIT, for Mei’s story?

Mei’s story needed to be set in college because she had to be out of her parents’ house to start asking herself what she thinks and what she wants. My own personal self-discovery happened in college, and I felt that setting was the right place for Mei to find herself as well.

MIT is my alma mater and I wanted to capture its unique, supportive, and zany community, where being a nerd is lauded and weekends are spent chair surfing, climbing on the dome, and yelling at the movie projector in lecture halls. Since MIT is a place where students can be themselves, it was the perfect place for Mei to learn who that was.

Aw, you got me right in the college nostalgia feels. So, the cover of American Panda is adorable, and features dumplings which is at least 40% of its charm. What’s your favorite type of dumpling?

I haven’t met a dumpling I didn’t like, but if I had to choose a favorite, I would go with the soup dumplings from Din Tai Fung. They have some fancy ones with shrimp and crab, but their plain soup dumplings are the standard-bearer.

Truth. Do you have another book or project brewing?

Yes! I’m thrilled to be working with Jen and Pulse again. My second book, Misaligned, will release fall 2019 and follows a Taiwanese teen outcast in a small, white Midwestern town. When a second Asian family (including an attractive boy her age) moves to her town, she is swept up in a forbidden romance and down a rabbit hole of dark family secrets. The book explores race, identity, and the difficulty of communicating, especially within family.

Eep! Can’t wait to learn more about Misaligned! And finally, we always ask this question at Rich in Color. What upcoming YA books by/about people of color are you excited for? Share your list with us!

I am delighted to say there are many upcoming YA books by/about people of color that I am excited for! My list includes but is not limited to (in no particular order): The Astonishing Color of After by Emily X.R. Pan, Tyler Johnson Was Here by Jay Coles, The Belles by Dhonielle Clayton, Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi, From Twinkle, With Love by Sandhya Menon, Summer Blue Bird by Akemi Dawn Bowman, Picture Us In The Light by Kelly Loy Gilbert, Dread Nation by Justina Ireland, A Girl Like That by Tanaz Bhathena, The Way You Make Me Feel by Maurene Goo, and A Thousand Beginnings and Endings by Ellen Oh and Elsie Chapman.

That’s quite the list. *Takes notes.* Thank you so much for stopping by! For those of you reading along, be sure to grab American Panda when it comes out on February 6th!

Gloria Chao is an MIT grad turned dentist turned writer. She currently lives in Chicago with her ever-supportive husband, for whom she became a nine-hole golfer (sometimes seven). She is always up for cooperative board games, Dance Dance Revolution, or soup dumplings. She was also once a black belt in kung-fu and a competitive dancer, but that side of her was drilled and suctioned out. American Panda is her debut novel, and Misaligned is forthcoming fall 2019. Visit her tea and-book-filled world at and find her on Twitter and Instagram @gloriacchao.

New Releases

Only one new book this week and it sounds like it’s one of those books that wrenches your heart and stays with you for a long time.

The Disturbed Girl’s Dictionary by NoNieqa Ramos
Carolrhoda Books

Macy’s school officially classifies her as “disturbed,” but Macy isn’t interested in how others define her. She’s got more pressing problems: her mom can’t move off the couch, her dad’s in prison, her brother’s been kidnapped by Child Protective Services, and now her best friend isn’t speaking to her. Writing in a dictionary format, Macy explains the world in her own terms—complete with gritty characters and outrageous endeavors. With an honesty that’s both hilarious and fearsome, slowly Macy reveals why she acts out, why she can’t tell her incarcerated father that her mom’s cheating on him, and why her best friend needs protection . . . the kind of protection that involves Macy’s machete.

Review: Shadow Girl

Shadow Girl by Liana LiuTitle: Shadow Girl
Author: Liana Liu
Genres: Mystery, Paranormal
Pages: 336 pages
Publisher: HarperTeen
Availability: Available now!

Summary: The house on Arrow Island is full of mystery. Yet when Mei arrives, she can’t help feeling relieved. She’s happy to spend the summer in an actual mansion tutoring a rich man’s daughter if it means a break from her normal life—her needy mother, her delinquent brother, their tiny apartment in the city. And Ella Morison seems like an easy charge, sweet and well behaved.

What Mei doesn’t know is that something is very wrong in the Morison household. Though she tries to focus on her duties, Mei becomes increasingly distracted by the family’s problems and her own complicated feelings for Ella’s brother, Henry. But most disturbing of all are the unexplained noises she hears at night—the howling and thumping and cries.

Mei is a sensible girl. She isn’t superstitious; she doesn’t believe in ghosts. Yet she can’t shake her fear that there is danger lurking in the shadows of this beautiful house, a darkness that could destroy the family inside and out… and Mei along with them. [Image and summary via Goodreads]

Review: It’s only January right now, and I’ve found one of my favorite books of the year. For reference, my favorite last year was a belated reading of Lucy and Linh by Alice Pung. Like Lucy and Linh, Liana Liu’s Shadow Girl is another incredible read with a heroine from a low-income Asian immigrant background and strong narrative thread focusing on family. I read Shadow Girl in one sitting, staying up past 2 in the morning — which was not the greatest idea, considering it’s quite the spooky story.

What struck me right away was how real Mei felt as a character. Her inner life and voice, and the mix of guilt and protectiveness she felt for her mother were all too familiar to me. To top it all off, part of my Chinese name is Mei and like the heroine, I used to do tutoring as a high schooler to help pay the bills. The familiarity of Mei’s life made the paranormal aspects of Shadow Girl all the more scary.

Admittedly, I have a pretty low bar for scary. I skirt any piece of media that feels even the teensiest bit stressful, and I’m not a fan of ghost stories. But the cover and the Asian protagonist were a strong draw for me, so I gave this book a try, and I’m so glad I did. While people made of sterner stuff may not find the paranormal element as scary as they’d like, the suspense that builds from the shadows within the majestic mansion that Mei goes to tutor in and the Morison family tensions were enough to keep me up through the night.

Mei’s relationship with her mother and brother, and her struggle to understand herself and discover the freedom to pursue her dreams, are what make this book. This may be a fraction of the plot — most of it is devoted to Mei’s time spent at the Morison’s mansion and the slowly building mystery of its shadowy past — but it’s what makes this so worth a read. I loved the little details — Mei listening through the walls to her mother vacuuming around their small apartment, how Mei navigates a world of racist comments and wealthy, petty parents who want to hire her as a tutor, and the list goes on.

Finally, this is a small detail, but shoutout to how spoken Chinese is handled in this book. Mei’s mother speaks wholly in Chinese, and it’s done in a way that isn’t exoticized or whitewashed over. No clumsy attempts at incorporating translations through awkward clues, or tacky imitations of Chenglish, or randomly shoehorned-in lone Chinese words. Mei’s mother speaks Chinese, and it’s translated in a straightforward way, no decoration or smoothing over. It’s just there. And I loved it.

If you’re looking for a suspenseful, spooky story, or you just want to see some high quality Asian representation in YA lit (of course you do!), buy this now. I’m so happy I read this book, even if it kind of wrecked my sleep schedule. Totally worth it.

Recommendation: Buy it now!

Coming Soon – Group Discussion of Love, Hate & Other Filters

We’re excited to announce a group discussion for next month. We’ll be reading Love, Hate & Other Filters by Samira Ahmed.

Summary: Seventeen-year-old Maya Aziz can’t wait to graduate from her small town high school. She dreams of studying film in New York City and kissing a boy (or, maybe two). Her parents forbid both. While she wrestles with parental expectations and her own desires, Maya’s world is rocked by a horrifying act of domestic terrorism that ignites an outbreak of Islamophobia that threatens to alter the course of her life forever.

If you want to hear more about the book straight from the author, here is an interview with Bookstr from the day after the book was released.

We’ll post our discussion on February 21st. Pick up a copy and read along. We’d love to hear your thoughts.