Bite-Sized Reviews of Cybils Nominees: Red, White, and Whole; Muted; Dear Ugly Sisters; and Rez Dogs

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As my regular readers know, I’m a round-one judge for the Cybils Awards in the Poetry category. Because of that, I’ve been reading tons of verse lately! I’m not allowed to share any details about our process for choosing the finalists, but I am allowed (and encouraged) to review the books as I read, so I figured I’d share four of them with you today. I hope these bite-sized reviews will be enough to feed your fiction addiction!

Red, White, and Whole by Rajani LaRocca
Published by Quill Tree Books on February 2, 2021
Genres: Historical Fiction, Middle Grade, Verse
Pages: 224
Source: Library
Cover Artist: Vrinda Zaveri
My content rating: MG (Terminal illness of a parent; Racism)
My rating:

An #ownvoices novel in verse about an Indian American girl whose life is turned upside down when her mother is diagnosed with leukemia.

Reha feels torn between two worlds: school, where she’s the only Indian American student, and home, with her family’s traditions and holidays. But Reha’s parents don’t understand why she’s conflicted—they only notice when Reha doesn’t meet their strict expectations. Reha feels disconnected from her mother, or Amma, although their names are linked—Reha means “star” and Punam means “moon”—but they are a universe apart.

Then Reha finds out that her Amma is sick. Really sick.

Reha, who dreams of becoming a doctor even though she can’t stomach the sight of blood, is determined to make her Amma well again. She’ll be the perfect daughter, if it means saving her Amma’s life.


Red, White, and Whole tells the story of Reha, a girl growing up in the 80’s, stuck between two worlds. Reha’s existence is divided between her school life with her American friends and her home life with her Indian friends and family. Sometimes these two realities feel so far apart that Reha can’t imagine them ever colliding. Then, Reha’s mother is diagnosed with leukemia, and every last bit of structure in her life falls apart. The story is heartbreaking in so many ways, and it’s impossible not to relate to Reha as she struggles to figure out who she is and how to navigate the world when her mom is sick. The book highlights family relationships, strong friendships, budding romance and Indian culture. This book will appeal to fans of heartfelt verse novels but also to anyone who knows what it feels like to feel like an outsider.

Muted by Tami Charles
Published by Scholastic Press on February 2, 2021
Genres: Contemporary, Verse, Young Adult
Pages: 400
Source: Library
Cover Artist: Adekunle Adeleke
My content rating: YA (Sexual assault; Sexual abuse; Drug and alcohol use; Violence)
My rating:

A ripped-from-the-headlines novel of ambition, music, and innocence lost, perfect for fans of Elizabeth Acevedo and Jason Reynolds!Be bold. Get seen. Be Heard.

For seventeen-year-old Denver, music is everything. Writing, performing, and her ultimate goal: escaping her very small, very white hometown.

So Denver is more than ready on the day she and her best friends Dali and Shak sing their way into the orbit of the biggest R&B star in the world, Sean “Mercury” Ellis. Merc gives them everything: parties, perks, wild nights — plus hours and hours in the recording studio. Even the painful sacrifices and the lies the girls have to tell are all worth it.
Until they’re not.

Denver begins to realize that she’s trapped in Merc’s world, struggling to hold on to her own voice. As the dream turns into a nightmare, she must make a choice: lose her big break, or get broken.

Inspired by true events, Muted is a fearless exploration of the dark side of the music industry, the business of exploitation, how a girl’s dreams can be used against her — and what it takes to fight back.


Muted explores the darker side of the music industry. Denver has always dreamed of a music career, and she’s willing to do almost anything to get it. So when she and her best friends catch the eye of a big-time R&B singer, she’s overjoyed. So overjoyed that she ignores the red flags that almost immediately start to appear. This story is disturbing, and it gets more so as the book goes on. By the time I got to the end, I had to go back and reread the part of the blurb that mentions this was inspired by true events because it’s honestly horrifying that anything like this could ever happen in real life. The book ends up being something between a standard contemporary and a thriller, but I guess the music industry has its own brand of horrors. It’s obvious that the author knows a thing or two about this, and especially what it’s like to be a teenage girl in that world!

Dear Ugly Sisters: And Other Poems by Laura Mucha
Illustrator: Tanya Rex
Published by Otter-Barry Books on April 1, 2021
Genres: Middle Grade, Verse
Pages: 96
Source: The Publisher
My content rating: MG
My rating:

Original, dazzling, and unconventional, this brilliant first solo collection has a surprise on every page. Go on a night flight, have a monster’s lunch, immerse yourself in birdsong. Shout out an Apatosaurus rap before checking out Alexander Fleming’s petri dish. Find fairy tales with a twist, poems to make you laugh—and reflective poems to think about. Full of variety, wit, and warmth, this is a spectacular debut from a poet to watch!


And now for a little lighter reading. Dear Ugly Sisters is a delightful collection of children’s poems that brings Shel Silverstein to mind. The poetry styles are varied and look whimsical on the page. Most of the poems are amusing, but then there are a few mixed in with a deeper message, which I loved. This is the type of book that I would have read over and over when I was a kid. So much fun!!

***Disclosure: I received this book from the publisher for Cybil’s judging purposes. No other compensation was given and all opinions are my own.***

Rez Dogs by Joseph Bruchac
Published by Dial Books on June 8, 2021
Genres: Contemporary, Middle Grade, Verse
Pages: 192
Source: The Publisher
Cover Artist: Stephanie Singleton
My rating:

From the U.S.’s foremost indigenous children’s author comes a middle grade verse novel set during the COVID-19 pandemic, about a Wabanaki girl’s quarantine on her grandparents’ reservation and the local dog that becomes her best friend

Malian was visiting her grandparents on the reservation when the COVID-19 pandemic started. Now she’s staying there, away from her parents and her school in Boston. Everyone is worried about the pandemic, but on the reservation, everyone protects each other, from Malian caring for her grandparents to the local dog, Malsum, guarding their house. They always survive together.

Malian hears stories from her grandparents about how it has always been this way in their community: Stories about their ancestors, who survived epidemics of European diseases; about her grandfather, who survived a terrible government boarding school; and about Malian’s own mother, who survived and returned to her Native community after social services took her away to live in foster care as a child. With their community and caring for one another, Malian and her family will survive this pandemic, too.


Rez Dogs is the first book I’ve read set during the pandemic, and I’m guessing kids will appreciate seeing their recent reality on the page. Malian was visiting her grandparents on the reservation when the quarantine was ordered, but she loves her grandparents and the stories of their Native history, so she doesn’t mind staying with them. Besides the shoddy internet and missing her parents, she’s content. And she realizes the importance of quarantining to keep everyone safe. When a mysterious dog shows up, Malian forms an instant friendship with him, but she realizes he’s not meant to be a pet. Instead, he acts as a protector of sorts. Told in relatively simple free verse, the author weaves the grandparents’ multigenerational stories into the plot and puts a spotlight on the mistreatment of Native people. Readers are sure to learn something new, but they will also find themselves relating to Malian’s circumstances during the pandemic.

***Disclosure: I received this book from the publisher for Cybil’s judging purposes. No other compensation was given and all opinions are my own.***

That’s it for now! Have you read any of these? What did you think? Do you have any books you’re rooting for when it comes to the Cybils Awards? I wanna know!

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