AUTHOR: Akemi Dawn Bowman
CATEGORY/AUDIENCE: Young Adult
RELEASE: March 10, 2020
PUBLISHER: Simon Pulse
LINKS: Goodreads | Amazon | Book Depository
Every reader has that one author that seems to be writing books just for them. For me, Akemi Dawn Bowman is that author. Starfish and Summer Bird Blue felt so personal to me as a biracial Asian reader who spent so long looking for characters like me in YA–not to mention how authentically her books have handled mental health and identity. Harley in the Sky is no different. Just like Bowman’s previous novels, this YA contemporary tells a genuine and moving story of self, family, passion, and learning how to piece yourself back together.
Harley has grown up in her parents’ Las Vegas circus and has always dreamed of training as a trapeze artist. When her parents insist she attend college rather than begin training, Harley betrays her parents and runs away to join their rival circus, Maison du Mystère. Among this magical traveling circus, Harley must prove herself to the other performers and learn what it really takes to make it in the brutal circus world. As the circus travels around the country, Harley must also reconcile her dreams with the mistakes she’s made.
Bowman is incredibly skilled at weaving together multiple complex themes. As in her previous two novels, mental health is one of the central themes of Harley’s story. Throughout the novel, Harley struggles to maintain her mental health while also facing painful memories from her past. Harley in the Sky also touches on the stigma of mental illness and treatment, and how teens struggling with mental health often face difficulties getting their family members to support their treatment. I loved that all mental health experiences were treated as valid, regardless of labels or diagnoses. Harley’s experiences, fear, and pain are incredibly authentic and this novel has easily earned a spot as one of my top YA recommendations on mental health.
Identity and family are also interwoven throughout the story in a seamless, natural way. Harley is biracial and she faces fears of not being Asian enough and not being white enough at the same time. She works to understand what it means to be biracial and to stake a claim to her identities and her family history. Her feelings surrounding her multiracial identity mingled with the complicated parental relationships in a way that felt so complex, rich, and real. Harley in the Sky is about coming to terms with who you are, realizing that you are valid, that you belong, and that you have a right to take up space. While I do not share the specific ethnicities that Harley belongs to, I am a biracial Asian reader and Harley’s feelings surrounding her identity rang so true for me.
Harley in the Sky comes to life with an incredible, lifelike cast of characters. Harley was driven, passionate, and flawed–she’s certainly a character that any reader will fall in love with. Even Harley’s parents, who are not physically with Harley for most of the book, felt multidimensional and fully fleshed out. I particularly loved Harley’s grandmother and their tender relationship. There’s also Vas, the brooding violinist, and Dexi & Vivien, Harley’s newfound circus friends. Each character in this book made the story come to life, almost as if the novel itself were a circus.
Harley in the Sky is full of beautiful and lush writing. Bowman’s writing style is realistic yet somehow full of magic and wonder. She artfully captures the charm and sparkle of the circus, while balancing the heavy, emotional themes. The pacing of this novel also works quite well, slowly revealing bits of the past through memories and emails from Harley’s mom. As Harley journeys through the country, she journeys through her emotions, her trauma, and her past.
Akemi Dawn Bowman has once again crafted a heartbreaking yet beautiful story of identity, passion, and mental health that is sure to be on my list of favorites come the end of the year. As a teen services librarian, I’ll definitely be recommending this title to teens and YA readers at my library. Harley in the Sky will be loved by fans of Bowman’s previous novels, as well as readers who enjoyed The Astonishing Color of After by Emily X.R. Pan, Our Wayward Fate by Gloria Chao, I Love You So Mochi by Sarah Kuhn, and Loveboat, Taipei by Abigail Hing Wen. This touching and heartfelt YA contemporary is a 2020 must-read that will make you desperately want to go see the circus.
Thank you to Akemi Dawn Bowman & Simon Pulse for the free review copy that I won in a giveaway.