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Books in Brief: Jennifer Chan Is Not Alone, I Kissed Shara Wheeler | Books

Jennifer Chan Is Not Alone by Tae Keller; Random House, 267 pages ($17.99) Ages 8 to 12.

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This beautifully written, moving coming-of-age novel by Newbery Medalist Tae Keller is dedicated to “the girl I was at twelve” and was inspired by her own life-altering experience of being savagely bullied in middle school.

The Jennifer Chan of the title is a Chinese-American girl, who has just moved from Chicago to a small Florida town after her father’s death from cancer. Her father encouraged her intense interest in extraterrestrials, and she keeps journals of her research.

Keller elects to tell the story through the perspective of one of the bullies, 12-year-old Mallory Moss, whose mother is half-Korean. Mallory, “a scared little girl who fainted on Ferris wheels and turned bright red when the teacher called on her,” has recently become one of the popular girls at school thanks to her new best friend Reagan. From Reagan she has learned, “You can control who you are by controlling the way people see you,” by wearing the right clothes, saying the right things, knowing your place in the popularity pecking order.

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When Jennifer and her mother move in across the street, Mallory is intrigued with Jennifer’s enthusiastic research into whether life exists elsewhere in the universe, but is painfully aware that Jennifer will never fit into her clique at school.

In the opening chapter, the town is abuzz with the news that Jennifer has run away. Mallory uses clues in Jennifer’s notebooks to try to find her and enlists her two smartest classmates in the cause. Keller skillfully weaves the girls’ search for Jennifer with eloquent entries from Jennifer’s notebooks pondering the mysteries of the universe and with Mallory’s painful recollections of the bullying campaign she participated in.

Keller, who won the Newbery Medal for “When You Trap a Tiger,” in an author’s note said she reached out to her former bullies from her middle school days years later and found healing by asking not “What makes a bully?” but instead “Who were you? Who did you want to be? Who have you become?”

I Kissed Shara Wheeler by Casey McQuiston; Wednesday Books, 368 pages ($19.99) Ages 13 to 18.

When the brilliant, beautiful, perfect daughter of the school principal disappears just days before graduation, Chloe Green – known at their private Christian high school in Alabama as “the weird queer girl from LA with two lesbian moms” – enlists Shara’s boyfriend and Shara’s neighbor to help track her down in Casey McQuiston’s fiercely funny, smart, romantic YA debut.

Shara Wheeler is her only competition for class valedictorian, so acid-tongued Chloe – who narrates the novel – is determined to best her at whatever game Shara is playing in leaving a trail of pink envelopes with clues to where she might be. Most of all, Chloe wants to know why Shara kissed her in the faculty elevator at school just before she disappeared, a kiss that made Chloe “forget a whole semester of French.”

Chloe arrived in Alabama at 14 when her moms moved back (“driving out of the California sunset and into the buttcrack of Alabama”) to care for her dying grandmother. She made the unlikely choice of enrolling in Willowgrove Christian Academy for its strong AP offerings and well-funded theater program. The only out person at her school, Chloe endures the homophobia of classmates and staff and the school’s brand of Christianity – although she is not without scars – and flouts the rules just enough to annoy the powers-that-be but not enough to endanger her GPA. Her friends are the theater kids; Her quest to find Shara throws her into the company of classmates she would never have sought out, quarterback Smith Parker, who is Shara’s boyfriend, and Rory Heron, a stoner who lives next door to Shara. But just what game is Shara playing? And will Chloe torpedo her own chances at valedictorian in her zeal to find out?

McQuiston skillfully weaves several plot threads into this electrifying novel, a perfect summer read. Chloe’s acerbic narration, as she looks back on her long academic rivalry with Shara, is hilarious. But this is also a coming-of-age tale: only gradually does it dawn on Chloe that her self-protective hard outer shell has blinded her to the possibility of making connections with unlikely allies, of the ways in which people may surprise you.

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