May 25, 2017

Shelf Help: Are You Organized?

I found this delightful post via Scholastic talking about where and how their bloggers organize their bookshelves: alphabetically, by color (!!!), in a bookcase, in the nightstand, etc. That inspired me to take a picture of one of my bookcases and think about how I generally "organize" (ha ha) my book collection.

When I'm NOT otherwise too swamped to organize (and to be honest, most of the time I'm too swamped to organize--not pictured are the ancillary book piles on the floor), I seem to have come up with a system where I first group the books by overarching category, then within that category I alphabetize them. I have category groups for literary stuff, poetry, plays, old textbooks, children's/MG/YA (all one group), grown-up fiction, nonfiction, writing books, language books, and graphic novels. Within each of those, I usually try to keep them alphabetized by author's last name.

Oh, and I have one special stash of books right by my desk which are Frequently Used Titles such as the AP Stylebook and a Welsh dictionary.

Unfortunately (well, not for me, but unfortunately for anyone else), the groups themselves aren't in any particular order--but I did try to group together categories that make sense together. The children's/MG/YA books are in the same bookcase as the grown-up fiction books. Literary, poetry, and plays are in the same bookcase. And graphic novels and nonfiction are in the same case. Buuuut...old textbooks are crammed in with all the fiction, and writing books actually live in a couple of different spots. And then there's the pile of Books What People Done Lent Me That I Haven't Read Yet and the pile of Review Copies I Was Supposed to Read An Embarrassingly Long Time Ago and the box of Stuff to Donate.

And that's just the stuff in my office. Elsewhere in the house are other groupings for art books and travel books and random crap like old high school yearbooks, and stacks of books my husband bought for the purposes of prepping classes or going to seminars. We're definitely book people!

May 22, 2017

Monday Review: DREAMLAND BURNING by Jennifer Latham

Synopsis: I haven't read Jennifer Latham's first book Scarlett Undercover, about a teen Muslim girl detective, but after reading and enjoying Dreamland Burning, I plan to look for it. Dreamland Burning is really two parallel intertwining stories, one in the past and one in the present (a device which, I'll admit, I tend to really gravitate towards).

The historical narrative in this book concerns the Tulsa Race Riots of 1921, a tragic and horrifying incident which I freely admit I hadn't really known about before in which the prosperous, bustling black side of Tulsa—Greenwood—was burned, its residents rounded up by a white mob, many of them killed. Caught up in the violence is a young man named Will Tillman, trying to figure out right and wrong in a Jim Crow world that largely teaches him black people are to be feared and resented.

In the present, the story is told by teenage mixed-race girl Rowan Chase, who lives in present-day Tulsa. When a building crew doing renovations on their guest house discovers a skeleton under the floor, Rowan launches herself into solving the mystery of the body and how it got there. In the process, she realizes the extent to which the troubled racial history of Tulsa is still an ongoing legacy—one that intertwines with her own family's history.

Observations: With alternating chapters between past and present, both in first person, this is a fast-moving page turner. The often stomach-turning realities of being a black person in the 1920s South are juxtaposed with the still-problematic experience of being mixed race in the present day, with plenty of food for thought as a result. While I thought that part of the story could have been pushed a bit more, the focus on the mystery plot kept things moving forward and probably also kept the book from being obviously didactic. In fact, there were plenty of seeds planted here for readers to think about in terms of social and racial justice, from Rowan's best friend James's tutoring English to immigrants at the library, to the uneasy facts of Rowan's own racial identity and history.

Because so much conversation has been going on about Own Voices, I feel compelled to point out that this is not (to my knowledge) an Own Voices book, but from my personal perspective, it was sensitively written and focused on characters of color and the history of people of color in this country. It's a book that received a lot of positive reviews and starred reviews, and one can only hope that doesn't occur at the cost of any equally well written and researched Own Voices narratives. If you follow our blog, you already know we try to read and review as widely as possible within our areas of interest, so in our little corner of the blogosphere I don't think we're ignoring or slighting Own Voices—in fact, it's always been a focus of ours even before there was a hashtag. So. There you go. Disclaimer-y thing over.

Conclusion: If you enjoyed Ashley Hope Perez's Out of Darkness and other gripping novels that bring to life some of our most troubling historical moments—and leave you with hope as well as the desire to change our world for the better—check this one out.


I received my copy of this book courtesy of my library's ebook collection. You can find DREAMLAND BURNING by Jennifer Latham at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

May 15, 2017

Monday Review: STRANGE THE DREAMER by Laini Taylor

I LOVE this cover. It's gorgeous.
Synopsis: Lazlo Strange is a librarian, a former monk, and an orphan—his last name, "Strange," is simply the one given to any child of unknown origin, and not necessarily a descriptor. His colleagues at the library think he's a bit odd, though, mainly because of his obsession with the lost, possibly mythical city known only as Weep. He hoards information about Weep; dreams about it and theorizes on its existence and its fate; learns its forgotten language; imagines himself as one of its fabled warriors. He is, indeed, a dreamer.

But Weep lies across an impassable desert, if it exists at all. Most people believe that it's simply a legend—until the day a hero called the Godslayer appears, and Lazlo embarks on the adventure of a lifetime, one that he alone is uniquely poised to inhabit…

Observations: There isn't much more I can share in terms of the plot of this story, lest I ruin the sense of awe and wonder with which it unfolds. Laini Taylor has an affinity for this type of dreamlike story of gods and humans, replete with mystery and imagination and a fully developed mythology of its own. Lush sensory descriptions make Lazlo's world feel real, and the fact of his ordinariness (aside from his unusual scholarly interests) makes him an easy character to relate to and root for. This is the type of story that clutches at your heart, moves in, and subtly changes you—it's Neil Gaiman-esque in that respect, though the storytelling is very much Taylor's own.

Conclusion: Strange the Dreamer is epic and ambitious, and if you're a fan of fantasy and/or magical realism, you should read it now. Also, it appears there will be a sequel, which I'm already excited about. This one's my favorite Laini Taylor book yet!


I received my copy of this book courtesy of my library's ebook collection. You can find STRANGE THE DREAMER by Laini Taylor at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

May 09, 2017

Turning Pages Reads: MAUD by MELANIE FISHBANE

Welcome to another session of Turning Pages!

Synopsis: Maud has been left behind by her father, who has gone away to make a success of himself after the death of Maud's mother so long ago. Maud has been with her strict grandparents ever since, sweating away the muggy summers, longing to strip off her stockings and run down to the shore. Trouble at school found her sent away from her grandparents to act as live-in nanny and help raise her cousins for a while. Now she's back with her grandparents and meant to prove to them that she can be a good girl.

Unfortunately, trouble seems to find Maud wherever she goes. A friendship with the Baptist minister's son is seen as a signal that her morals are in question; regular girlish hijinks are reported on as being "just like her Mother." Maud has no idea what her mother was like -- she died when Maud was only a toddler, and no one will speak of her. Her grandparents clearly disapprove of Maud's father -- and now rumors are wafting about which confuse her even more. fortunately, Maud's father at long last sends for her. It's a treat to leave behind Price Edward Island and see the rest of the country, but when Maud arrives at her father's household, it's not quite as she expected. Her stepmother doesn't seem to like her very much, and it seems she'll be closest to the maid, instead of her new step-siblings. It seems that at every turn, Maud faces disappointments -- not truly feeling wanted within her own family, feeling tremendous pressure to have a beau, be the perfectly poised and ladylike person expected, to do her "duty" for her family at home and not go to school, to take care of others, and bite her tongue. It's a triumph when Maud finally does get a break, but it's a bittersweet story that a girl whose tales transported others lived such a sad story herself.

Observations: Not every classic stands the test of time. If I go back and read ANNE OF GREEN GABLES, the book is still a lovely memory of childhood, of kindred spirits and bosom friends, but Anne herself isn't as clear a favorite (EMILY OF NEW MOON, published fifteen years after Anne, shows Montgomery's skills to a much better advantage, but for some reason, the rabid fave is still Anne). Her constant imagination-induced scrapes and good-hearted sweetness can be a little much if one is unprepared, and reading now I see some of the narrowness and racism of Edwardian era British life reflected in Anne's eyes. Still, L.M. Montgomery's gifts somehow never lose their appeal, even over a hundred years later.

The voice in this book has a reserved and less immediate feel to it, reminiscent of Montgomery's books, but somehow not quite. I felt that the author had pulled a screen between me and the emotions of Maud as a character, whereas with any of L.M. Montgomery's work, its trademark is that the reader practically weeps and laughs with the character; somehow Montgomery's characterizations are that sharply felt. The story itself is a bit depressing; I knew a bit about Montgomery's life, and knew it had been an unhappy one, but found it difficult to connect this Maud in the historical fiction to the facts about her life. Many readers might find that this novel opens slowly, but it moves more quickly after Anne leaves Cavendish behind and heads to her father's house. Subsequent developments in her life feel a bit more energetic, as the author leaves the focus on Maud alone, instead of writing with more detail on the immense cast of secondary characters. It was fun finding out that Maud had a nickname with also had a particular spelling upon which she insisted ("With An E!") and to discover how much Anne and Maud were a lot alike, in some charming and vexing ways.

Conclusion: While this book is published in the YA/children's lit category, I feel like this book's best audience is adults. Tweens who read L.M. Montgomery books now can find them a little tough to get into the adventures of an Edwardian era orphan, and so a fictionalized biography of the author might not appeal, but for those of us who cut our teeth on Anne's adventures and her big-hearted emoting, this will have crossover appeal, and echo faintly of Anne.



I received my copy of this book courtesy of the publisher. After May 16th, can find MAUD by Melanie Fishbane at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

May 08, 2017

Monday Review: REAL FRIENDS by Shannon Hale and LeUyen Pham

Synopsis: Shannon Hale is amazing. Just look at the range of YA and MG fantasy she's written, how awesome they all are, how beloved she is. And LeUyen Pham has long been one of our favorite illustrators here at Finding Wonderland. Now they've teamed up (SQUEE) on a heartfelt, hopeful middle-grade graphic novel that also happens to be a memoir of the author's tribulations with sisters and friends throughout elementary school.

Observations: Though some names and identifying details have been changed, at its heart this is still a story about Shannon herself as a girl. Imaginative, anxious, and eager to please, she finds that friendship is a bit more difficult to navigate than it had first appeared: friends move; friends change and grow apart; and sometimes friends become frenemies.

Unfortunately, sometimes bullies aren't only limited to school. This graphic novel tackles the difficult but important topic of bullying by older siblings. Shannon, as the middle sister of five siblings, struggles with finding her place at home as well as school. In the end, though it's not an easy or quick process, she discovers that it is possible to find true friends—and even repair broken relationships that once seemed hopeless. Change, after all, can be for the better.



This story handles tough situations like childhood anxiety and bullying with the gentle touch of someone who is no stranger to these challenges that many children face on a daily basis—but with a minimum of anger and blame. Not that Shannon-the-girl didn't get mad, or sad, or lay blame; but, from a later, wiser perspective, the story shows that patience and self-acceptance and kindness do bear fruit. And, as always, the artwork from LeUyen Pham strikes a perfect tone of charm, humor, and relatability, working seamlessly with the text to tell the story.

Conclusion: This book came out on May 2; this review is based on an advance reader's edition received from the publisher. Any kid who is struggling with friendship and finding their place in the world—and isn't that most kids?—will find a lot to recognize in this story, and hopefully will also find a lot of reasons to take heart, too.


I received my copy of this book courtesy of the publisher, First Second. You can find REAL FRIENDS by Shannon Hale and LeUyen Pham at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

May 04, 2017

Thursday Review: SPILL ZONE by Scott Westerfeld and Alex Puvilland



Synopsis: If you've ever read Scott Westerfeld's early trilogy The Midnighters, you'll know he does scary really, really well. And actually, he does various kinds of scary really well. Spill Zone seems to collect all those different kinds of scary in one graphic novel (which is only Vol. 1, by the way) designed, apparently, to give me nightmares: Creepy talking doll. Creepy NOT-talking kid. Radioactive-mutant-nano-infected monsters. Floating human meat puppets (which sent me off into a temporary YouTube black hole). Oh, and mysteriously plotting North Koreans.

The Spill Zone is what is left of Poughkeepsie, New York after a bizarre accident has left the town a no-go zone of horrors. But the Spill Zone is also how Addison makes her living, selling anonymous photos of the zone's peculiarities to discerning art collectors so she can support herself and her little sister Lexa. The most important rule she follows is: never step off her motorbike. The day she does leave the safety of her bike…is the day things get REALLY weird.

Observations: This is a suspenseful, edgy post-apocalyptic adventure from an accomplished storyteller in the genre—and I was pleased to see that Westerfeld's ability to convey a truly creepy atmosphere also applies to the graphic novel format. The partnership with artist Alex Puvilland (who is married to the incomparable LeUyen Pham, BTW) is a good one: the art has this scratchy, crackly quality that fits well with the tone of the story, and the important details are highlighted with clarity and simplicity.

   


Conclusion: The plot of this one is gripping, and I can hardly wait for the next installment (talk about a cliffhanger ending).


SPILL ZONE just came out this week! I received my copy of this book courtesy of the publisher, First Second. You can find SPILL ZONE by Scott Westerfeld and Alex Puvilland at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

April 25, 2017

Turning Pages Reads: ROAD SIGNS THAT SAY WEST by SYLVIA GUNNERY

Welcome to another session of Turning Pages!

Synopsis: A content warning for suicide and troubling attention from adult men.When their parents depart on their long-planned for trip to Europe, 19-year-old Hanna springs the plan on her sisters, Megan and Claire - to take Mom's car the following day and go on a cross-country drive, from the Atlantic to the Pacific, Nova Scotia to Vancouver. Adventure, in the form of the Trans-Canada Highway is just a breath away - if they'll agree to it. 17-year-old Megan's not interested. She has a job and a life plan, to get fit for swim team tryouts come the fall, and she wants to stick to it. She likes adventure in measured, planned doses, nothing spur-of-the-second, like Hanna seems to always be. Claire, at fifteen, idolizes her older sisters, and only wants peace. If Hanna offers adventure, Claire wants to make sure she gets in on it - and that Megan goes along. And she does -- grudgingly -- briefly helping Claire create the united front of sisterhood. It lasts -- briefly -- until cracks begin to show.

There are other road-trippers along the way, hitchhikers, families, street buskers. Like a friendly butterfly, Hanna seems to alight on each one and engage with them, much to Megan's bitter observation. Aren't the sisters enough? Why does Hanna always have to go? Why can't she be average, like everyone else? She quits everything she starts - first University, then her nannying job in Italy, and now their big sisterhood trip. She talks them into attending the weddings of strangers, of bowling and partying, and she's not paying enough attention to Claire. She's such a sucky big sister.

There's something Hanna and Megan aren't telling Claire - something that happened with Hanna in Italy. Sometimes, Claire hates being the youngest, gets tired of keeping the peace between Megan's acid tongue and Hanna's blithe merriness. Can't Megan see there's something wrong with Hanna? No... of course not. Megan's suddenly got a crush on one of the people they meet along the road - and it's flaring up faster than Claire's ever seen. Hanna keeps disappearing, and Megan doesn't even notice. And, neither of her sisters can quite see that not all is well with Claire, either.

What started out as a lark turns into something deeper and broader, as the last summer three sisters are together ebbs and flows. They share a closeness and silently affirm their love, even as their good time eventually fades, like all things do, into memory.

Observations: This is a quiet book, a literary book, and a difficult story to cram between two plain paper covers. A sisterly Bildungsroman is both vast and deep; it covers the happenings over a summer, but also the tendencies of a lifetime thus far, in a way. The narrative is more a series of observations from inside the mind of each girl, and isn't always seamless. The "head-hopping" can be frustrating for a reader seeking a typical narrative with a rising narrative arc, and this book might be more appropriate to an older reader. I think it crosses over well into being an adult read.

Things happen in this novel, and yet, not much does. It's a road trip; there are long silences, periods of silent anger, spontaneous, giddy parties with strangers, and a lot of examining internal thoughts. Hanna thinks a lot about the terrible job in Italy, and the way it ended, with confusion and accusation of things which didn't happen - but things which, she is ashamed to admit, she dreamed of happening. Are we responsible for our dreams? Because we might want something, does that make us as bad as if we'd reached out and tried to take it? Does that mean we attract more of the same? Is it our fault?

Megan seems merciless; unforgiving, exacting, keeping count of how many times Hanna has disappointed her, to the detriment of her own enjoyment of life, and of her seeing Claire as anything but Hanna's yes-woman. When she finally thaws, her sisters are surprised -- but she freezes up again quickly. The novel unfortunately doesn't spend as much time with Megan, or on expository dialogue to help the reader see her inner mind, and the reader is left wondering what she really wants, except for her sister, Hanna, to stop leaving her behind. Her prickly resentfulness is shown at the end as a held-over childhood resentment, which makes her seem more pathetic than angry.

Claire's loss is recent enough that the shock hasn't finished with her. She's walking wounded, but doesn't know it, until she sits down long enough for the thoughts to filter through. It hits her, on this trip, that the friend she lost is never coming back, ever. She doubts herself, and second-guesses all of the conversations she had. Why hadn't she seen it coming? What does it say about her, that she missed so much pain? What if it happens again? Suddenly, Claire feels like a tiny speck in a massive world that has spun out of control... and her sadness is so great that it's crushing her. Maybe this is how her friend had felt, too...

The novel ends with trailing threads, and for some, the end will seem jarring. But, a road is a constant, just as the narrative of sisterhood and the process of growing, maturing, and separating is a common experience, in many ways. This constantly shifting narrative means that some things aren't resolved in this novel - bitterness remains bitter 'til the end, losses still pain, good times are ephemeral. The road goes on, but the one thing that remains is sisterhood. Despite everything, these girls will always be related.

Conclusion: Definitely not for the common crowd, this novel is made up of the pauses between growing pains, and will find its audience among those who have wished to draw closer to their families and see them as complex and enigmatic human beings, instead of the familiar souls they've always known. Perfect for people transitioning through stages of life, and wondering what more is out there.



I received my copy of this book courtesy of the publishers. After May 1, you can find ROAD SIGNS THAT SAY WEST by Sylvia Gunnery at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

April 24, 2017

Monday Review: THE HATE U GIVE by Angie Thomas

Synopsis: The Hate U Give has been reviewed, starred, and buzzed about for several weeks and I'm a little late to the party, but it deserves all the attention it has received, and more. The plot is ripped from the headlines: a young black man, Khalil, is shot and killed by the police during a traffic stop—but of course, that isn't the whole story. It never is. The police and media take the all-too-easy, well-trodden route of trying to paint Khalil as a thug, a drug dealer who may have been reaching for a weapon when the cop shot him out of "self-defense."

But there's another side to the story, and that's where our narrator comes in. Starr Carter lives in the same neighborhood as Khalil—a neighborhood she's known all her life, though she attends a suburban prep school; it's the neighborhood where her mother works as a clinic nurse and her father owns a grocery store. She was in the car when Khalil was shot, and is the only one who can give an observer's account of what happened.

Observations: This book does so much to humanize a situation that for many of us is only experienced as words and images coming from our television box. It puts us in the position of those whose communities suffer this type of institutionalized fear every day, and it isn't a comfortable position. Not for us readers, and certainly not for people in socioeconomically marginalized neighborhoods.

I have never felt such a complete understanding before of the complexity of social conditions that might lead to police shooting an unarmed youth—nor the tragedy that underlies these situations. I don't just mean the obvious tragedy of bereaved families or torn-apart communities, but the tragedy of impossible choices that poverty leads to, and the institutionalized prejudice against people of color and the poor that means a snap judgment call will almost inevitably go against them. Then there's our eager-to-jump-on-the-bandwagon media culture that virtually eliminates the idea of benefit of the doubt or opportunity for a fair defense. It's unconscionable and dehumanizing, which is why humanizing stories like this are so, so important.

But the book is not just about those who inhabit disadvantaged neighborhoods or are socioeconomically segregated (and I'm sorry to use that word, but I'm even sorrier that segregation is still a Thing That Happens); it's about ALL the liminal, uncomfortable spaces that people of color often find themselves inhabiting. Starr, the narrator, juggles two worlds: her suburban private school, where she excels but never quite feels like she fits in, and her home neighborhood, where she and her family do their best to stay away from drug deals and gang violence while also putting their all, their heart, into improving their community. There is a lot in this story about Starr finding her place in the world, and without giving too much away, I love how that aspect of the book was resolved, by Starr, her friends, and her family.

Conclusion: Do yourself and the world a favor and read this, please. Society cannot make progress without people understanding one another, but stories help us do that.


I received my copy of this book courtesy of my library's ebook collection. You can find THE HATE U GIVE by Angie Thomas at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

April 21, 2017

Turning Pages Reads: NOTEWORTHY by RILEY REDGATE

Welcome to another session of Turning Pages!

Synopsis: Junior Jordan Sun wants desperately to fit her square peg into the series of round holes that make up the Kensington-Blaine Academy for the Performing Arts -- but there seems to be no place for her, in theater, film, drama, or dance. In drama, she's not considered dramatic enough. In theater musicals, her voice is "difficult to reconcile with musical theater;" it's low for solo leads and too ...unique for chorus - second altos could quack like ducklings in a forest full of songbirds. Aside from her own insecurities as an artist was being a poor artist at a swanky school, where early admission to Julliard and spendy outfits were just an accepted norm. Jordon feels ashamed of her scrappy ambitiousness, feeling she should be home, being a helpful, useful part of her immediate family -- who really, really, really, really, really cannot afford her taking this chance. Not when her Dad's been injured. Not when her mother's having to apply for aid just to get food on the table. Not when... three years in at Kensington, and she's still not making it into any of the drama groups she's meant to join.

Jordan sees an opportunity to change her fate by auditioning to join the Sharpshooters, Kensington's premier octet. Of course, joining the Sharps means cutting some corners... and auditioning in drag. Soon, Jordon Sun, Tenor 1, is taking some chances; lying to a few people... and then a few more. It's all for a good cause, though, right...?

Observations: Diversity, creativity, ingenuity: YES. While the novel may start slowly for some -- especially those who are not vocal groupies - the novel hit its stride fairly quickly, and steadily gained tension, as so many lies piled up, and so many secrets and competitive little twists were revealed. This novel is my novel in a variety of ways: I went to a private boarding school my parents could NOT afford -- and I worried about it with a brick in my gut every single day of the two years I was there. I love that the author included and examined the difference in classes and the egregious assumptions at times made about those who are wealthy, and those who are on public assistance. Redgate hits hard at some home truths about the secrets we keep - from ourselves and from each other - and the drag that Jordan continues to wear is not the only mask the novel examines.

The voice and characterizations in this novel reeled me in. The description of singing, of what perfection in harmony feels like emotionally, were so. spot. on. Sometimes, when you're singing, it's like you're flying, and the sound buoys you up, and you never want it to stop... The boarding school vibe, a microcosmic universe where suddenly EVERYTHING is super important, and the outside world almost doesn't exist? Also spot on. Music nerds and people who like school stories will really love this. People looking for stories from new voices in the field will really enjoy a fresh take on school and life from a cross-dressing, bi-maybe, Chinese-American perspective.

Conclusion: This was a hotly anticipated novel to come out this year and is basically a love letter to music, choral groups, and high school organizations. I am a BIG OLD CHORAL NERD (and as I write this, we're two days from an a cappella performance this weekend) so this novel truly resonated for me. I am gratified that the hype didn't disappoint.



I received my copy of this book courtesy of the publisher. After MAY 2, 2017 - not long, now! - you can find NOTEWORTHY by Riley Redgate at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

WRITERS' RITES: Creation In Color


Things have changed, in children's literature. Historically, our posts have been alerting people to what's going on in smaller corners of a small world, and most of our time has been spent in talking about book deals, books, classroom visits, and young readers. Most of our time has been spent in earnestly seeking to understand and communicate both the trends and the ebb and flow of the market, sometimes in personal reference to us, but most often in reference to the whole world of children's lit. More personally, AF and I were both in on the big "multiculturalism" wave of the 90's. [AF: Compared to the limited range of stories available in the 80s, when we were growing up, it was a hopeful trend.] We attended conferences and listened to the talk about expanding stories and being inclusive. We hoped it meant something, that narratives about mixed kids would become more prominent, and that identity and ethnicity wouldn't stand out as hot-button "trend" books, but part of a normalized, homogenized whole. We've both listened in as the conversation has shifted to "diversity" and then away from that to the idea of "writing from the margins" and the use of "own voices" as part of the narrative.

We've mostly been pretty quiet. By nature and personality, neither Sarah nor I are scrappers and thus have been mostly observers in the growing pains of this brave new world of children's lit. But, recently I participated more directly in a Twitter conversation about being both a woman writer and a woman of color writing. A simple comment with a hashtag bloomed into a six+ hour outpouring of snark and pain and rage -- and it shocked a lot of people, galvanized others into trying to make it a "movement," offended a few, and infuriated others.


No one needs to explain to anyone (because if you have to explain it, that person to whom you're speaking likely is predisposed to disagree, and then explanations will not assist) that this country has a problem with institutionalized, ingrained, implicit bias, or more directly with racism. If you're new to this idea, welcome. The rest of us have known for some time. What might have previously been harder to see is that something ingrained infects everything, everything. EVERY. THING. Even children's lit, a place where we previously insisted all was happiness, rainbow unicorns, and fluffy bunnies. "But, it's a happy, close-knit community!" people insisted. Which it is, unless you challenge the status quo and bring in new thinking - and then you'd be surprised by the fury. I know I have been. "All this talk just stirs up bitterness," some have said in response to the conversation. Yes. Not everyone is happy, even though they are in the field, because the field of children's lit is not yet what it could be, what it needs to be. And, that unhappiness is also okay. It's all part of the process.

Stepping aside from the daily misunderstandings, slights, overlooking and misdirecting, there are those in children's lit taking on the work of changing it, and I once again have to give them respect. Reading While White is the first blog I've ever seen written by people who are doing something specific about implicit bias in the children's lit field. And it's not easy for them; there is push-back against their every blog post, even as their stated purpose is to learn for themselves how to listen and hold themselves accountable for how their privileged whiteness impacts the way they see the world. It's as if every thing they write is a personalized rebuke to someone else, and there is a lot of bitterness.

We're mostly observers here, as I've said. I have a raging anxiety which causes me hives at the thought of the constant emotional labor and combat it takes to make inroads in the conversation around visibility and authenticity. This is not work I can do. [AF: And, as a mixed person, visibility and authenticity are huge issues--sometimes, those of us of mixed descent are racially or ethnically ambiguous, and if you aren't recognized as a "something," it's easy to feel like you're a nothing. Invisible. Not enough of one, not enough of the other, and authentic enough for neither.] 

And yet, even as we don't all work directly for this change, we are a part of it. As we usher greater visibility, accommodation, accuracy and accountability into young adult and children's literature, these changes will become a part of the world for those who come after us. AF is more thoughtful and articulate, and neither of us are quick with a comeback - we both prefer to think slowly and write and the conversations have at times been boiling along furiously. We've both stepped back from those -- but yesterday, it was really nice to be heard. It was cathartic to express the stupid things which have been said. It was nice not to feel crazy, exceptional, isolated. It is validating to feel that you are not alone. [AF: It is eye-opening to see certain types of comments in a new light, too--as well as to bear witness to some of the comments that I've been fortunate enough not to experience firsthand. It enhanced MY understanding of what fellow women writers and writers of color experience.] And that's why yesterday's conversation was most important.

It is hard being a woman writing in this day and age. It is hard in different ways being a woman of color writing. In many cases, people hear these sentences and assume the voices which say them are merely angry - that these microaggressions came with rejections, and that these people saying "this is hard, this is what I hear," are just victims lashing out. Not true. Sometimes the slights are said by well-meaning people who work with the women of color in question to produce their work. This is borne out by the fact that some very successful authors popped by to bring things up in these discussions. But, again, I sense a strange, slim thread of comfort in the furor, in the stories held private, and then shared -- we are moving, slowly, a troubled industry, one step at a time, toward what it should be.
Small comfort. But as long as life remains, we are the hope.

April 14, 2017

Turning Pages Reads: VIGILANTE by KADY CROSS

Welcome to another session of Turning Pages!

NB: Content advisory for rape, suicide, and violence.

Synopsis: Junior year, Hadley's best friend, Magda, is assaulted at a party. Hadley doesn't understand why Magda doesn't speak up about it, retaliate against the boys who are catcalling her, and stiffen her spine. Hadley urges Magda to act, but Magda chooses not to, and Hadley is grief-stricken and enraged at the loss of her friend, and most of her rage centers on seeing the perpetrators in class every day. As her senior year goes forward, Hadley looks not to the future, but to the past, which remains to her out of balance. She sets herself as the avenger for Magda's death, encouraging girls to join a self-defense course and learn martial arts while plotting to provide the justice against the four boys that no one else has given them. Along the way, she grows closer to Magda's brother, and begins a wave of pink ski-mask vigilantism to save other women from bad situations. This is the basic narrative, without providing too much detail or spoilers.

Observations: Content advisory again: this novel is pretty violent, and some of the scenes of violence are pretty sustained, and I skipped them. Normally, I wouldn't review a novel I skipped part of, but I picked up this novel because the jacket copy said it was a "brutally honest" look at retribution - and since I'd just read a novel on someone faking being who they were, I thought "honest" was a good thing. I assumed that a female main character taking matters into her own hands would be somewhat empowering - and I know other people may come to this work with that in mind.

The biggest problem that I had with Vigilante - one of many problematic things - is how Hadley implies, in a variety of ways, that Magda is at fault for her rape. I know that's framed in their disagreement in the beginning of the novel as 'a bad thing to say' and the kickoff for the narrative arc and Hadley's vigilantism, but the same is implied elsewhere, later, and the novel doesn't really take it back. For example, as Hadley implies that is doing what Magda should have done, as she learns martial arts and physically empowers herself. Unfortunately, physical power does not guarantee that you can repel a physical attack, and the novel doesn't seem to really take much time to point this out. Hadley is very, very secure in her physical prowess, as if women who are not are somehow taking a chance with their ...safety, and thus somehow doing something wrong. Someone asks Hadley and the detective leading her self-defense course "shouldn't we be teaching men not to rape?" and Hadley says, "Yeah, good luck with that," which... yeah. I'm aware that the character is written in part to be an unreliable narrator, but unfortunately the narrative itself doesn't work through some of her unreliableness.

Early in the novel, Hadley evinces her interest in Magda's brother. Their relationship leaps into reality after Magda's death, and that didn't work as realistic entirely for me - although I do understand how loss can lead people into a physical expression of "we're still alive," but attraction and arousal was a strange third party to a novel about grief, and it seemed to float around just as awkwardly in scenes which would have otherwise been Magda centered. This seemed like the pitfall of All YA Novels Must Have Romance, and... no.

I assumed that the narrative would point out the problems inherent in that ideology. They didn't really. Instead, the novel seemed to glorify actions taken in a white-hot rage, almost identifying Hadley as a superhero, with copycats and a special name, even going so far as to contemplate sexual assault against someone (which she says there's no such thing as sexual assault against a man - oh, yes there is, and the novel doesn't correct her assumption on that, either), in the name of making right her friend's assault - an assault she's allegedly decrying by her actions. She spends inordinate amounts of time in the novel worrying about getting caught, yet her repeated behaviors almost seem as if she's hoping she does -- she wants to talk about This Elephant In The Room -- Magda, whom she feels no one cares about but her, thinks about but her, or talks about as they should - but her. This exaggeratedly centering herself in someone else's story persists throughout the novel. In the end, she's the "heroine" of the piece, which didn't work for me.

Conclusion: This book has a lot of action, a lot of roaring, feel-good kind of anger, and a righteous cause, but I feel like it has more problems than I'm comfortable recommending along with it. Readers who like a riproaring, girls-kick-butt kind of narrative, and don't worry about subtext may enjoy it.



I received my copy of this book courtesy of Harlequin Teen. You can find VIGILANTE by Kady Cross at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

April 10, 2017

Cybils Finalist Review: TRASHED by Derf Backderf

Synopsis: This is my last Cybils 2016 graphic novel finalist review! Last but not least is Trashed by Derf "Not His Real First Name" Backderf, an edutaining chronicle of the life cycle of garbage, and the trials and tribulations of a garbageman (apparently loosely based on a job the author actually held for a while).

Observations: I enjoyed the blending in of factual sequences describing the job details of a garbage collector and the journey garbage takes from curb to landfill and into the environment. It's bound to make readers think more about the trash they produce and about garbage as a global issue. As an older reader and homeowner, it was eye-opening to see things from the garbageman's perspective, and how we might not think twice about dumping random crap in the trash but it is truly somebody's job to deal with it, and it may have ramifications beyond just the mess in your garbage can.

The comic-strip style of this one was also enjoyable--plenty of humor in both the writing and the images, distinctive character art, and easy-to-understand diagrams in the educational portions. Having said that, because it IS distinctive, it won't be to everyone's taste; I wasn't sure if I'd like it at first because the characters have a weird blockiness to them that was a little off-putting, but it grew on me. (Which, in retrospect, seems like a terrible word choice for a book about garbage...)

Conclusion: There was plenty of hilarity here, in an old-school comic strip kind of style, and it offers an intriguing, humanizing window into the life of a garbageman as well as the life of garbage itself. The combination of educational elements with slice-of-life stories about the protagonist J.B. and his buddies was well done. The characters, of course, of necessity are adult characters, so that part doesn't feel very YA, I suppose, but older young adults might enjoy this one.


I received my copy of this book courtesy of the publisher. You can find TRASHED by Derf Backderf at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

April 06, 2017

Cybils Finalist Review: MARCH: BOOK THREE

Synopsis: I had been looking forward to reading this one for quite some time, and I was not disappointed. In my opinion, the graphic novel format really lends itself to conveying history in a lively and interesting way, and there are few socio-cultural topics more relevant to the current American psyche than the ongoing discussion of race and civil rights. March: Book Three brings Congressman John Lewis's three-volume memoir of the civil rights movement to a close, but it has opened a much broader discussion--one that will, I hope, increase our understanding of pervasive injustice and our obligation to keep working on ourselves until we get it right.

Observations: The wealth of historical detail in this book--and the entire series--is presented in a way that the reader can readily engage with on a personal level, putting our recent history into context as a country struggling with race and racial identity. It is brilliantly told, both as a memoir of Congressman John Lewis's life and career, and as a story of the broader moment in time beyond his individual experiences. Actually, the unsung heroes, in a way, have just as much of a starring role here, and we can see and marvel at the level of sacrifice and determination put into helping this country adhere to its stated ideals.

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The semi-loose drawing style and monochrome color scheme help add drama and an active feel, making this much more than a static depiction of historical events. History comes alive here, and is interwoven with occasional scenes from the Obama presidency, showing both ends of the timeline and how they relate. The choice of which scenes to depict and how was very effective.

Conclusion: Such a densely informative historical chronicle is going to appeal to some readers and not others, but it is presented in a very engaging way, with its focus on action, emotion, and the earnest dedication of the central figure, John Lewis. This book makes it easy to connect with history on a personal level and SEE why it is so important to know about the events leading up to the Voting Rights Act.


I received my copy of this book courtesy of my library. You can find MARCH: BOOK THREE by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

April 03, 2017

Middle Grade Monday: A Cybils 2016 Graphic Novel Roundup

As you may know, I've been reviewing Cybils graphic novel finalists that I had to remain hush-hush about during the actual judging process in January and February. I thought, since it's Monday, and since I've finished reviewing all the Elementary and Middle Grade finalists, I'd put all the links here in a roundup for your convenience, or in case you missed them!

The Nameless City by Faith Erin Hicks

Lowriders to the Center of the Earth by Cathy Camper and Raul the Third

Princess Princess Ever After by Katie O'Neill

Compass South by Hope Larson and Rebecca Mock

Mighty Jack by Ben Hatke

Bera the One-Headed Troll by Eric Orchard

I also read The Wolves of Currumpaw, which was also a finalist, but I felt it was much more of a picture book/illustrated book than a graphic novel, so I didn't formally review it. However, you can read about it here on Kirkus.

March 30, 2017

Cybils Finalist Review: LUCKY PENNY

Synopsis: I love getting to catch up on graphic novels during the Cybils season! This one was a finalist in the YA Graphic Novels category--a funny, surprising, heartwarming story about a young woman with the worst luck who figures out that, in the end, sometimes what seems like bad luck works out for the best after all. The cover copy:
If Penny Brighton didn't have bad luck, she'd have no luck at all. She lost her job. And her apartment. In the same day. But it's okay, her friend has a cozy storage unit she can crash in. And there's bound to be career opportunities at the neighborhood laundromat―just look how fast that 12-year-old who runs the place made it to management! Plus, there's this sweet guy at the community center, and maybe Penny can even have a conversation with him without being a total dork. Surely Penny is a capable of becoming an actual responsible adult, and if she can do that her luck’s bound to change! Right?

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Observations: I should quickly note that this one will be more interesting for the older YA set—the protagonist is 18 and working and living on her own. But Penny's general hilarious unluckiness and the obstacles she faces on the cusp of adulthood definitely are appealing—her attempts to deal with middle-school-aged bullies are weird and comical, and her awkward navigation of a new relationship is relatable. She is quirky, but so is her love interest, and their quirks complement one another.

Lucky Penny's got very well done and very funny art—it reminds me of Raina Telgemeier's work, in that the emphasis is more on action and humor in the storytelling, and things are kept generally simple, depending on what the specific scene or panel demands. The characters are the focus, of course, and they are depicted in an endearingly silly way.

Conclusion: Ultimately, this is a great story about a character who feels like an outsider—her bad luck is a good ongoing gag, but really, it's Penny's personality and heart that shine through and give the story weight. She forges ahead and doesn't give up when faced with obstacles—instead, she finds creative (if sometimes misguided) solutions. And she wins out in the end.


I received my copy of this book courtesy of my library. You can find LUCKY PENNY by Ananth Hirsh and Yuki Ota at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

March 28, 2017

Turning Pages Reads: THE OTHER F-WORD, by NATASHA FRIEND

Welcome to another session of Turning Pages!

I need to get every single one of the books this person has read, so I can bask in the sarcasm and snark of the dialogue. I really enjoyed all the 'feels' I had reading this book, and can practically guarantee that you will, too.

Synopsis: Milo lives with his two mothers, Frankie and Suzanne. Milo's had it kind of rough. He's skinny with wild, curly hair, and he's never quite fit into the world of junior high. In part, it's because Milo has catastrophic allergies -- peanuts, melons, tomatoes, coconut, gluten, wheat, dairy -- sooo many things. He's so tired of the EpiPen and the drama attached to every meal eaten away from home. He'd just like a piece of pizza, just once, hold the drama. He wishes desperately that he knew his sperm donor - not just as someone to figure out where the allergies are coming from, but sometimes... sometimes he'd just like someone else to talk to. About his life. And so, he contacts a girl he met when he was six -- who shared the same sperm donor, Hollis.

Hollis lives with her single mother - though once she had two. Pam died of cancer when she was in the second grade, and her remaining mother has been weird ever since. She cried for years, and drank wine. And now she's in the phase of talking to Pam's picture. She carries one with her. Hollis' mother seems not to notice that her wild-haired, Goth-influenced, tongue-pierced daughter isn't exactly thrilled about how her mother interacts with Pam's memory. Unfortunately, Hollis' mother doesn't seem to notice how conflicted Hollis is about everything. She's decided that... Pam would want Hollis to talk to Milo. That Pam would want Hollis to go and meet Milo in person. Hollis would like to call BS on the whole thing. This isn't about Pam! This is about Hollis, and she's ...snarky and angry and really, really, really wishes that she'd gotten to say goodbye to Pam when she died. But, a nurse's prejudice against a lesbian family and Hollis being only seven had worked against them. And there's more -- but Hollis isn't telling.

When Hollis and Milo meet - and soon find more children of this same sperm donor, through a website aimed at connecting donor progeny with their donors, it's amazing. FaceTiming and texting each other is great. Finding a group of people roughly the same age who have so much in common -- from looks to quirks to skills is like finding more ready-made family. There is an ease and joyousness to their interactions. And then, through Milo's research, and his weird friend JJ's persistent assistance, they find their sperm donor, #9677. Suddenly, Milo, Hollis, and their siblings are confronted with a real person -- and the other f-word... the father word. Are they ready for him? Is he ready for them?

Observations: This is an ensemble novel, which is narrated by turns, so it may take some readers time to find their feet. Hollis is an acquired taste - she holds grudges, is mean to her mother, and is basically you on a bad day, which may cause the more judgmental among us to hold back from her. Keep reading. This novel delves into the topic of in-vitro fertilization, bullying, friendship, and family. There is mild drinking and drug from some characters. The novel delves into sexual diversity in that two sets of parents are lesbian. Though JJ's adoptive parents are Jewish, there isn't much ethnic diversity in the novel, except for a stock character Latina maid.

This is a novel written by someone who knows the craft well. There is snark and sideways humor and geeky, cheesy parents and anxious, stressed, helicoptering parents. There is grieving and finding joy again, making out and deciding to stop. There is numbing of emotion, and letting oneself feel -- even feel fear and pain that goes with that feeling. There is an ending which is so perfect that I want to hug it and pet it a bit. It is spontaneous and joyful, and full of possibilities -- for both utter disappointment and terrifying happiness.

Conclusion: This is a great book - original, heartfelt, funny, sweet, and real. I wish I'd written it. Barring that wish coming true, I can at least press it firmly into the hands of every reader I know. ENJOY IT.



I received my copy of this book courtesy of the publishing company You can find THE OTHER F-WORD by Natasha Friend at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

March 27, 2017

Cybils Finalist Review: BERA THE ONE-HEADED TROLL

Synopsis: Bera is a troll girl...but, unlike other trolls in her world, she merely has one head, instead of two or more. (Horrors!) Also unlike other trolls we might know, Bera is more like a caretaker of the troll kingdom and not necessarily a human-chomping monster. In fact, she is good and kind, and accumulates a variety of friends from the animal and magical worlds as she goes on her quest to return a kidnapped baby to the human village.

Along the way, she deals with not-so-heroic heroes, a vengeful witch, hostile terrain, monstrous mermaids, goblins, wolves, and more. Lots of fun and new things are constantly appearing in this story, but it's paced well. Ultimately, the main character realizes her own abilities and there's a happy ending for all who deserve one. A classic sort of quest story.

Observations: While the story itself is a fairly simple quest tale, it uses fairy tale tropes in a fun way that blends the expected and the unexpected. As Bera adventures on, she collects friends through niceness and good deeds, a positive thematic element that I appreciated, especially since it's not rendered in an overly moralistic way.

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I loved the art on this one, too—like a blend of Maurice Sendak and Edward Gorey, with monsters that are scary-cute like in Where the Wild Things Are. On our judging panel, there were mixed feelings about the rather monochromatic color scheme, which is understandable--this one isn't colorfully inked like many GNs for young readers. But I liked the spare use of color; it worked for me and gave it a sort of moodiness that I think will appeal to a broader age range.

Conclusion: First Second has such amazing offerings for elementary and middle grade readers, and this is another strong addition to that collection. Funny and adventuresome and not too scary.


I received my copy of this book courtesy of the publisher. You can find BERA THE ONE-HEADED TROLL by Eric Orchard at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

March 23, 2017

Cybils Finalist Review: MONSTRESS, VOL.1: AWAKENING

Synopsis: Not only does this Cybils YA graphic novels finalist have a cover blurb from Neil Gaiman, it also has an amazingly beautiful and intriguing cover design and this provocative jacket copy, all of which seem specifically aimed at my teenage self:
Set in an alternate matriarchal 1900's Asia, in a richly imagined world of art deco-inflected steam punk, MONSTRESS tells the story of a teenage girl who is struggling to survive the trauma of war, and who shares a mysterious psychic link with a monster of tremendous power, a connection that will transform them both and make them the target of both human and otherworldly powers.
Count me in.

Observations: The whole "who's the REAL monster here" theme abounds throughout this book, in a world populated with gods, monsters, half-divine creatures, and powerful magical cats. The story is well constructed, and each side in this multi-faceted battle has its own strong motivations to succeed--but we are compelled here to root for the seemingly most powerless characters...who might, indeed, be the most powerful in the end. The depiction of oppression and power struggles is done well and subtly reminds the reader of the power struggles in our own world.

The art is, in a word, gorgeous. I love everything about it, from the lushly detailed monsters and mechanicals to the addenda that provide background information about the world and its mythology. I did have occasional issues identifying characters/telling some of them apart, and that caused some problems following the story from time to time, but it in no way inhibited my enjoyment overall.

Conclusion: This story is packed with action and fantasy, and draws in the reader with gorgeous artwork and a strong teen protagonist. Fantasy fans will be sure to love it, and its individual installments have a traditional comic-book feel and structure that fans of serials will like. It's definitely for older YA readers, though—"mature language and themes" might be a good disclaimer.


I received my copy of this book courtesy of my library. You can find MONSTRESS VOLUME 1 by Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

March 21, 2017

Turning Pages Reads: A CROWN OF WISHES by ROSHANI CHOKSHI

Welcome to another session of Turning Pages!

There's a lot of upheaval in moving house, and reading isn't something one often has time to do much of, but I'm choosing books which allow me to savor and enjoy them in snatches. This is one!

Synopsis: There were only impossible decisions left, and then Gauri, the princess of Bharata, was given as a prisoner of war to her kingdom’s enemies. They were supposed to kill her - but instead, Gauri was offered a choice: to play in the Tournament of Wishes—a competition held in a mythical city where the Lord of Wealth promises a wish to the victor - for the chance to gamble on everything and win it all - her kingdom back, her respect, the lives of her family and loved ones. But, is it even possible, to change everything on a single wish?

Vikram is the son of a king, for all the good it will do him. A weak king, led by his counselors, a man whose petty cruelties have raised his son to a high estate that he can never possibly maintain. He has a title, but no power, and now he's being offered entrance to the Game... and a chance to have it all. Only, he has to have a partner. This prisoner of war - fierce and sharp-tongued - is hardly the best choice, but she's all he's got, in order to get a chance.

The Lord of Wealth is twisty, and just finding the city where the Tournament is held thrusts Vikram and Gauri into mortal peril. There's too much to battle - too much real, and too many things from their own minds. There's really no way to win, and even if they do make it through -- only one wish? What good will that do?

As long as there's a chance, though, neither combatant - contestant - will give up. Is it worth working together? Can they trust their hearts, to give them what they desire? As beautiful, poison-skinned women swan about, feasting on their fears, and clouds of storytelling birds flutter past, nothing is as it seems - and everything is worth more than they could have wanted...and wanting anything is deadly.

Observations: Though this is a second book in a series, it reads, to me, as a book which could easily stand alone, so can be honestly called simply a "companion novel." The first book in this series enthralled many; this second book will make believers out of many more. It's even better than the first, by my lights.

I dislike having to put books down, and prefer to be a stem-to-stern reader, swallowing stories whole, but that's not always an option. This book is delightfully lush and filled with beautifully descriptive allegory, which can be digested in small bites. I'm reminded of a South Asian Odyssey, with shades of Christina Rosseti's "Goblin Market," and shades of ALICE IN WONDERLAND. There's a lot of loveliness here to take in, and I imagine fans of Cornelia Funke's INKHEART will find common ground here.

Conclusion: I love an adventure story which takes readers through the looking glass and down the metaphorical rabbit hole. Thrown together, two vastly different type of people must first see the value in each other's ways, then together, determine how best to travel the labyrinthine mythical lands and interpret clues and hints to find the Lord of Wealth, and beg entrance to the Game of these magical beings, most of which consider humans great sport, and tasty around the spinal cord... The beautifully written story is evocative and thought-provoking, and there are so many lovely turns of phrase. Also, a lot of sarcasm, anger, and a girl who's the fastest draw in the West with her dagger and sword. Surprisingly fun.



I received my copy of this book courtesy of the publisher. After March 28th, you can find A CROWN OF WISHES by Roshani Chokshi at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

March 20, 2017

Cybils Finalist Review: MIGHTY JACK by Ben Hatke

Synopsis: I was a big fan of Ben Hatke's previous Cybils winner Zita the Spacegirl (reviewed here), and Mighty Jack--a Cybils finalist this year for Elementary/Middle Grade graphic novels--was a very fun reimagining of the Jack and the Beanstalk story. It's got lots of action and adventure, with imaginative killer plants and monsters and a dragon, and a strong female sidekick for the hero. It also definitely leaves things open-ended and ready for Book 2, so don't fret that you're left hanging at the end! There will be more to this story...

Observations: I like how this story depicts the idea of Jack and his family being poor in a modern setting rather than a fairytale one. His mother is working two jobs, and Jack is tasked with caring for a sister with challenges. He buys the magic seeds at a flea market. It's a very creative and intriguing reinvention of a familiar story. I like that there's a homeschooled friend, too—at heart these are all characters whose stories aren't shown as often, placed into the context of a story we all know. I sort of wish there wasn't such an abrupt ending to Book 1, though--as mentioned above, readers are kind of left hanging. That always vexes me a little when I don't have the sequel immediately at hand.

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Art-wise, I thought this one was wonderful! The pacing of the visuals vs. the dialogue was, in my opinion, perfect, and lends a lot to the storytelling style. The book was chock full of appealing characters and monsters, and I liked the scratchy-pen quality of the illustrations.

Conclusion: I honestly think you could hand this to any kid, especially fairy-tale fans--the balance of humor, fantasy, and adventure is perfect, and it isn't too scary for younger readers.


I received my copy of this book courtesy of the publisher. You can find MIGHTY JACK by Ben Hatke at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

March 16, 2017

Cybils Finalist Review: MS. MARVEL VOL. 5: SUPER FAMOUS

Synopsis: The level of fun in this teen-superhero series continues to be high (see my previous reviews of Vol. 1 and Vol. 2 for some backstory). Kamala Khan is relatable and diverse, a girl who has concerns about friend and school and family and culture and struggles to balance them with her superhero lifestyle. There's lots of humor here, too, as Kamala makes mistakes like a teenager and they somehow compound themselves into total chaos. Here's the Amazon synopsis:
She's your new favorite. She's everyone's new favorite. And now she's joining the big leagues. Look out world, Kamala Khan is officially an Avenger! But will being one of Earth's Mightiest Heroes be everything she imagined? Or is life as a celebrity harder than she thought? But while saving the world is important, Jersey City still needs its protector too. A development company that co-opted Ms. Marvel's face for its project might well have more in mind for gentrification than just real estate. Can Kamala take down the evil suits destroying her home without ruining her personal life? Speaking of which, who exactly is that with Bruno? Get back on board and cling on, Kamala Korps, the ride is about to get wilder than ever!
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Observations: Bonus points for diversity here and for depicting a Pakistani-American Muslim family in positive terms (despite a minor linguistic quibble or two on my part) and for showing the diversity of Muslims as well. In this volume, we see Kamala's brother engaged to an African-American Muslim woman, and we see variation WITHIN a culture as well as variation between cultures. Besides this, I was impressed by the variety of themes covered here in a superhero comic—themes relevant to teen life and growing up, like how to be there for, and be true to, both self and family. It was also a fun addition to see Kamala having joined the Avengers, and struggling with yet another new role to play in her already-hectic life.

Oddly enough, perhaps, I'm impressed with the colorist on this series—the use of color adds a lot of atmosphere and helps focus attention on the characters and the action. As always, it's fun and well-drawn, and just a bit cartoony, appropriate to a superhero with goofy stretching and shrinking powers and a tendency to get into outlandish predicaments.

Conclusion: If you enjoyed the previous installments, you'll want to continue reading this series. There are so many good reasons to spread understanding and acceptance of Islam and Muslim Americans, especially now, and providing young Muslim girls (and young girls in general) with an all-American superhero they can identify with is an admirable accomplishment.


I received my copy of this book courtesy of my library. You can find MS. MARVEL VOL. 5: SUPER FAMOUS by G. Willow Wilson, Leon Alphona, and Takeshi Miyazawa at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

March 13, 2017

Cybils Finalist Review: COMPASS SOUTH

Synopsis: Hope Larson! How much do I love her? This new work brings her talents together with illustrations by Rebecca Mock, with the usual enjoyable result. It's not surprising this one ended up as a 2016 Cybils finalist, what with all the starred reviews, NYT bestseller status, and whatnot. Here's the jacket copy:
It's 1860 in New York City. When 12-year-old twins Alexander and Cleopatra's father disappears, they join the Black Hook Gang and are caught by the police pulling off a heist. They agree to reveal the identity of the gang in exchange for tickets to New Orleans. 

But once there, Alex is kidnapped and made to work on a ship that is heading for San Francisco via Cape Horn. Cleo stows away on a steamer to New Granada where she hopes to catch a train to San Francisco to find her brother. 

Neither Alexander nor Cleo realizes the real danger they are in--they are being followed by pirates who think they hold the key to treasure. How they outwit the pirates and find each other makes for a fast-paced adventure.

Observations: Who doesn't love a rollicking pirate adventure that hits all the right notes? A thug seeking revenge from their previous life back in New York, stowaways, a tragic star-crossed love, a tromp through the jungle, a treasure map, twins and disguises, and ultimately, the discovery of friends and family.
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The story and dialogue here were really well written and appropriate to a story that's full of action and emotion. The focus on bonds of family and friendship above all—and the idea that shared adventure and experience can strengthen those bonds—was a good theme. It also stands alone well, though a sequel seems to be on the way. There were diverse characters, too, who were allowed to have their own stories rather than being simply props.

I really enjoyed the art on this one, too--the authors did an admirable job of differentiating the two sets of twins (although I was still occasionally confused) and the style was loose and fluid and appropriate to a tale of adventure. Action scenes were well done and clearly rendered.

Conclusion: This one was a finalist for Elementary and Middle Grade Graphic Novels, and it fits that age group really well, but it would absolutely appeal to older readers, too; it's just really well done.


I received my copy of this book courtesy of my library. You can find COMPASS SOUTH by Hope Larson and Rebecca Mock at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

March 09, 2017

Cybils Finalist Review: FAITH, VOL. 1: HOLLYWOOD AND VINE

Synopsis: This was another one of our finalists for this year's Cybils Awards in YA Graphic Novels, and it features a body-image-positive, female, smart, butt-kicking superhero. I'm going to let the jacket copy speak for itself here, since I can't really improve on it!
Orphaned at a young age, Faith Herbert – a psionically gifted "psiot" discovered by the Harbinger Foundation - has always aspired to greatness. But now this once ordinary teenager is taking control of her destiny and becoming the hard-hitting hero she's always known she can be - complete with a mild-mannered secret identity, unsuspecting colleagues, and a day job as a reporter that routinely throws into her harms way! Well, at least she thought it would... When she's not typing up listicles about cat videos, Faith makes a secret transformation to patrol the night as the City of Angels' own leading superhero – the skysoaring Zephyr!

But flying solo is going to be tougher than she ever thought when Zephyr uncovers a deep-rooted alien conspiracy. Two-bit burglars and car thieves are one thing, but when the world needs a hero to stave off a full-blown extraterrestrial invasion, will Faith find herself in over her head...or ready for her biggest challenge yet?

Observations: One of my usual comments in this genre is that superhero comics aren't everyone's cup of tea, although this one brings forth a protagonist who is much more of an everywoman, and more broadly relatable as someone who doesn't have an impossible body type and is a recognizable fangirl. However, the character—though she is a younger adult—is not a teen character per se. Not that that has ever been a problem for YA readers who like superhero comics, but this one seemed a bit older YA/adult to me, so I'd add that on as a possible asterisk.


Kudos, though, to the authors of this comic for their everywoman, fangirl superhero and for having fun with tropes like the Clark Kent-journalist cover identity--Faith works for an entertainment news website by day, as a mild-mannered nerdy reporter. I also appreciated the fact that this superhero DOESN'T have an impossible, gravity-defying perfectly sculpted Learn-to-Draw-the-Marvel-Way body. At the same time, body image is also not an issue or even really a topic of conversation. (I don't know about the realism of that--our society is not known for being able to shut our mouths about other people's perceived imperfections--but far be it from me to criticize realism in a superhero comic.)

Visually speaking, this is pretty good stuff—very fitting to the traditions of superhero comics in terms of style and overall feel. Very solid, easy to tell what was happening for the most part, and while it wasn't really to my personal taste in terms of visuals, it was well done.

Conclusion: Definitely hand this one to young readers who like comics and/or the superhero genre. It's a fun read, and it's great to see more titles that are turning superheroes into something that any gender can enjoy.


I received my copy of this book courtesy of my library. You can find FAITH, VOL. 1: HOLLYWOOD AND VINE by Jody Houser, Francis Portela, and Marguerite Sauvage at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

March 08, 2017

Turning Pages Reads: GOD SMITES AND OTHER MUSLIM GIRL PROBLEMS by ISHARA DEEN

Welcome to another session of Turning Pages!

While I've been pretty quiet lately (apologies, all: packing to move is no joke), I am still reading! I heard about this book from Sarah at SmartB's, and her enthusiasm for the book was catching! After the words "Nancy Drew" and "Muslim" were uttered together, I bought it immediately. I am urging all of you to buy it so I can get the sequel!!!! Reader be advised: while there's not a cliffhanger, and this "episode" is finished, there are loose ends which are effectively left untied; you'll find yourself feening for the next book, too!

Synopsis: Asiya Haque is a Bengali Canadian daughter, a student, a volunteer, a girl with a crush... and a faithful Muslim, which means the crush and the daughter part are kind of at odds. Being alone with boys is not a part of Asiya's life, attending after school activities in mixed company is not a part of Asiya's life, and her mother worries so much that Asiya is improperly supervised that she is reluctant to allow Asiya to volunteer at a local nature conservancy. Asiya's hard-won freedoms comes only for the sake of the Prize: University. Mrs. Haque believes strongly in education for women, and so Asiya has an unexpected opportunity - which leads her to run into her crush, Michael. Asiya, though she often pushes back against her mother, believes in what the Prophet says - she knows that boys are at the very least risky. Yet, she's also not sure she's going to burst into some sort of sexual behavior, so while she tells Michael that this isn't something her parents allow, she allows him to stick around, though she keeps a good three feet between them as they walk. When their impromptu race has Asiya stumbling across a dead body, Michael makes sure she her part is never reported. Asiya goes back to work, with no one the wiser that she was both alone with a boy and a dead body.

That is, until the police show up at school the next day... asking about Michael, and Michael is nowhere to be found.

This is serious - the Prophet teaches that it's Asiya's duty to help those in trouble. Can Asiya, in all honesty, not tell what she knows? ...even if it looks like she's implicating her crush?

Observations: My parents pretty much gave me the same talk about Satan being the third party with me and any boy alone together, So. Many. Times. I got that talk in variously oblique or direct ways, so I laughed out loud when I realized this same talk was Asiya's mother's go-to lecture. Asiya's parents are mine from another mother.

Conservative parents, who are strict for reasons of faith aren't often written about in YA lit in the same ways - because rebellion has higher stakes, potentially, than just being grounded or something. Loss of place within a family, loss of respect within the ethnic community - and possibly loss of place within one's religious organization. I related a lot to trying to figure out how to honor my parents while also not living my life as an exact pattern of theirs. It takes a lot more respectful dissent than you'd expect -- and the novel spends a good deal of time balancing that push-pull. Despite that, rather than this light mystery just being one long argument, which is what my teen years (and let's not lie, into college) felt like, this book is VERY funny. I appreciated that more than I expected. People expect religious communities to be humorless, and Muslims, especially, are within Western cultures misunderstood and feared. All people laugh - and you'll laugh, too, visiting the mind of Asiya Haque.

Conclusion: This book was mentioned as "Nancy Drew, but not," and while I don't think the mystery part of the novel drives the narrative, I like that Asiya wanted to know something, so she made it her business to find out. Her investigative skills were never greenlighted by anyone, especially her parents, but she kept asking questions anyway until they were answered to her satisfaction -- because she had to answer to her own conscience and ideas of faith. This was a lightweight book in some ways, but it had a lot to ponder and was such a delightful way to write about a teen character with a faith tradition - not making fun of the faith, but shining a light on the people of faith, with humor and heart. Religious people - even those in the Muslim faith - are not a monolith, and I appreciate that Asiya and her parents had different expressions of the same faith. I look forward to this sequel.



I purchased my copy of this book. You can find GOD SMITES, AND OTHER MUSLIM GIRL PROBLEMS by Ishara Deen at an online e-tailer or independent bookstore near you.