Two tales of awkward teen years, one in Houston, one in another world

  • Sharyn Vane
  • Special to the American-Statesman
12:00 a.m. Friday, Nov. 10, 2017 Lifestyle
Liara Tamani wrote “Calling My Name.” She’ll be at BookPeople on Nov. 18. Contributed by Catherine Lea Photography

Taja isn’t sure what to think.

Her parents expect her to fulfill her promises to God. But Taja has her own thoughts about God, and her own wishes that don’t always mesh with the prescriptions of their church. Her growth from middle-schooler to prospective college student is underpinned by journeys both spiritual and secular in Liara Tamani’s Houston-set debut novel, “Calling My Name” (Greenwillow/HarperCollins, $17.99).

Tamani sketches Taja’s experience in short, interwoven episodes that chart the moments that make up a life, from suffering the mean comments of classmates to the indignities of making out with a boy who never calls again to decisions about college that mean leaving the familiar behind. It’s a rich portrait of African-American life in Houston that’s also infused with coming-of-age struggles that should resonate with all teen readers.

“There’s something wrong with my walk when I’m alone and have to walk past a group of boys,” Taja tells us when she spies just such a group right near the entrance to the mall. “(B)oys hanging by the pay phone outside the corner store when I want candy, stretched out across lockers like a chain of paper dolls when I’m late to class, perched on the roofs of cars in the parking lot after track meets. … Judging me. Making everywhere I walk feel like a runway. But I’m no model.”

Taja bickers with her sister Naima, but secretly cheers Naima on when she bets a know-it-all classmate that she can win a race. She questions her brother Damon about why the rules are different for him. She realizes money is tight but can’t help but remind her father that he promised her a bracelet from the mall for her birthday.

And she notices the differences between the moments she feels truly connected to God and the times she’s trapped by fear of reprisals: “As soon as I hear the first words of Pastor Hayes’ sermon, I know exactly which one it is – the unless-you’re-saved-you’re-going-to-hell sermon. He preaches it at least ten times a year. Shuffling the words like cards in a deck. Doesn’t matter how he cuts them. I know them. Can’t shake them. His words ride the waves of questions and doubts that visit me in bed at night.”

Tamani balances the quotidian details of life and bigger-picture questions with aplomb, rendering “Calling” a full tapestry of a girl’s growth into a young woman. Her elegant prose accents the acute insights she offers into the passages of adolescence. It’s an exquisitely literary road map of girlhood. (Ages 14 and older)

Inhabiting a decidedly more imaginary world is Nova, the protagonist of Marissa Meyer’s futuristic tale “Renegades” (Feiwel and Friends/Macmillan, $19.99), the first in a new series from the Lunar Chronicles creator.

Nova’s world is ruled by the eponymous group of prodigies that restored order to Gatlon. Yet they couldn’t save the people who mattered most to Nova – her parents and baby sister. That’s why she’s part of the Anarchists, who battle the Renegades.

Shades of traditional superhero tales are upended when Nova goes undercover in the Renegades and encounters Adrian, a Renegade who’s also hunting for the truth about which side is truly allied with justice. Meyer’s steady hand with suspense builds to a twist of an ending.

New picture book starring photographer’s real family

Photographer Dave Engledow snagged the title of “World’s Best Father” when he posted a photo of himself cradling his baby daughter while squirting milk from her bottle into his coffee mug. Since then he’s created fanciful, elaborate photo shoots that have won him a substantial following on Facebook and Instagram. In his first picture book, “The Little Girl Who Didn’t Want to Go to Bed” (HarperCollins, $17.99), Engledow reinvents the familiar trope and depicts a girl’s sleepless night — juggling jellyfish and performing peppy polkas — and its inevitable aftereffects.

Find out how Engledow stages his shoots (which feature his real-life family) at 2 p.m. Nov. 19, when he’ll be at BookPeople to read from and sign “Bed.” (Ages 4-8, though parents of any age will enjoy the shots of post-bedtime adult revelry as imagined by a child.)