Doubleday Books for Young Readers: Bad Dog by Mike Boldt

Starworld

High school senior Sam Jones hides behind canvasses in the art classroom, games only with her best friend Will and never invites anyone home, where her mother's obsessive-compulsive disorder complicates everything. Left at a safe haven as a newborn, popular student and theater star Zoe Miller believes she's "a mistake"; as her adoptive family faces her mom's battle with cancer and her disabled brother's placement in a residential facility, she struggles to be the "perfect daughter." When Zoe convinces Sam to let her use one of Sam's paintings for a school play backdrop, the two exchange numbers. Slowly, their texted conversation becomes an alternate universe: Starworld. With the "social skills of a potted plant" who would rather "communicate entirely in integrals, surrealist paintings, and spaceship blueprints," Sam can't believe Zoe indulges her game. But the escape gives both the unexpected companionship they need.

Sam and Zoe freely display their eccentricities in Starworld, participating in fanciful antics and divulging deep secrets. Both characters hold admirable desires: Sam wants to enter an aerospace engineering program but fears abandoning her mother; Zoe wants to learn about her roots without upsetting the family she loves. Audrey Coulthurst (Of Fire and Stars) and Paula Garner (Phantom Limbs) tactfully navigate the girls' relationship and Sam's attraction to Zoe as her "Be a robot. Feel nothing" mantra inevitably fails. Told in alternating chapters from each girl's perspective, Starworld extols the value of friendship and shows how self-acceptance can come from being oneself with others. --Samantha Zaboski, freelance editor and reviewer