Posted in Fantasy, Graphic Novels, Science Fiction, Steampunk, Teen, Tween Reads

Know all the tropes! The Dire Days of Willowweep Manor

The Dire Days of Willowweep Manor, by Shaenon K. Garrity/Illustrated by Christopher Baldwin (July 2021. Margaret K. McElderry Books), $14.99, ISBN: 9781534460867

Ages 12-16
This hilarious sci-fi/gothic romance novel is perfect for a YA audience. Haley is a high school student who loves gothic romance novels, from the Brontës to Henry James. Her teacher is exasperated: no more castles! No more brooding heroes! Find a different genre to write about! As Haley heads home, she spies someone drowning, and jumps into the river to save him, awakening in a place that seems to hit on a lot of her gothic tropes: stately manor with hermitage. Three brothers, two of whom are broody, and one carefree dilettante. A surly housekeeper. A ghost. She’s in Willowweep, a pocket universe that’s fighting to keep an alien force called The Bile from taking over and entering our own universe! Haley has to call on her own skills – hey, she’s a gothic heroine, right? – to help the three brothers save their universe, and our own!
What starts as a funny story loaded with gothic romance tropes becomes an hilarious sci-fi, gothic romance mashup with steampunk elements and characters you’ll recognize and love. Haley is a heroine who is equal parts smart, funny, and one step ahead of everyone because she knows her gothic tropes. Artwork easily blends science fiction/steampunk devices and glowing ooze with rambling moors, brooding heroes, and… possessed woodland creatures. It’s worth it, I promise you. The Dire Days of Willowweep Manor is great fun for YA fans, and may get them reading that copy of Wuthering Heights a little differently now: hey, it worked for Pride, Prejudice, and Zombies!
Posted in Fantasy, Graphic Novels, Teen, Tween Reads

Breaking the cycles: Artie and the Wolf Moon

Artie and the Wolf Moon, by Olivia Stephens, (Sept. 2021, Graphic Universe), $16.99, ISBN: 9781728420202

Ages 12-15

Artie and the Wolf Moon is, on the surface, a YA graphic novel about werewolves and vampires, but there’s so much more waiting for you here. Artie Irvin lives with her mom, a park ranger. She’s a burgeoning photographer who sneaks out one night, against her mother’s wishes, to take some photographs and discovers a huge wolf that somehow morphs into her mother! Confronting her mother, Artie learns that she comes from a long line of werewolves, but may be a “late bloomer” because she hasn’t shifted yet. Artie’s mom agrees to tell her about everything, including her late father, but when racist bullies at school lead to Artie shifting, her mom realizes it’s time to introduce her daughter to her family – and learn about what it means to be shifter.

Olivia Stephens has created a truly original werewolf story with origins in Black history, infused with the power of the wolf to guard and survive. I could read stories about every character in Artie’s family and still want to read more; I love Olivia Stephens’s storytelling and artwork so much. She creates realistic characters and her origin story reminds me of indigenous artwork with earth tones and primitive figures. She creates harrowing moments in the struggle between wolf and vampire and gives readers an incredible story of Black culture, community, family, and history. Fantastic storytelling and I want more.

Posted in Fantasy, Fiction, Graphic Novels, Middle Grade, Tween Reads

Be Careful What You Wish For: Mel the Chosen One

Mel the Chosen One, by Rachele Aragno/Translated by Carla Roncalli Di Montorio, (Aug 2021, RH Graphic), $12.99, ISBN: 9780593301234

Ages 8 to 12

Mel is a kid who just wants to grow up already. Adults don’t listen to kids, after all, and Mel is fed up with not having a say in where she lives, what she wears, what she eats, or where she goes to school. Things change, though, when Mel discovers a magical world where she can make her own choices – and meets Otto, an old man who was just recently a young boy with the same wish. He cautions her that growing up quick isn’t all it’s cracked up to be: there are consequences, after all. Mel and Otto go on an adventure to make things right again, and Mel discovers that taking the time to enjoy childhood may be the better choice after all (because adults feel just as ignored by kids).

Random House Graphic has been bringing some great graphic novels in translation to American shores. I loved The Runaway Princess (2020) and Aster and the Accidental Magic (2020), both originally published in French; Mel the Chosen One was originally published in Italy in 2019 as Melvina. The story is engaging and addresses that need to grow up and be independent that so many kids have. Rachele Aragno acknowledges and respects Mel’s point of view, and gently introduces, through her storytelling, the reality behind the fantasy: rushing through life does no one any favors. Adults feel just as ignored as kids do. Maybe it’s time we all took a deep breath and started enjoying the moment, while actually hearing one another? It’s a magical story that brings home that age-old saying, “Be careful what you wish for… you just might get it.” Middle graders will understand, and hopefully share with the adults around them. Rachele Aragno’s artwork is expressive, and creates fanciful settings like magical animals, including a monocle-sporting fox and an owl sporting a top hat; a headless princess; a cheery graveyard filled with children yet to be born, and enchanted forests. Fun for your fairy tale fans and fantasy readers.

Posted in Fiction, Graphic Novels, Middle Grade, Middle School, Realistic Fiction, Tween Reads

Horse Trouble is a guide to tween life!

Horse Trouble, by Kristin Varner, (Oct. 2021, First Second), $12.99, ISBN: 9781250225887

Ages 8-12

Part horseback riding primer, part guide to tween life, Horse Trouble is the story of Kate, a 12-year-old who loves horses and is frustrated by her body. Her best friend is thin and gets the attention of Kate’s crush; the mean girls at the riding school and her middle school target her appearance and flaunt their expensive clothes and accessories while looking down on her. Kate is focused on riding – she works at the school to help pay for her lessons – and competing, but when she’s home, she’s at war with her reflection. Her brother calls her nicknames like “chubbs”, and her mother offers to join a weight-loss program with her, but Kate needs to find her confidence before she can see results. She finds that confidence at the riding school and through competition, but even there, she gets angry at the number of times she’s thrown from the horses. A strong story of finding one’s passion and inner strength, Horse Trouble hits all the right points: self-esteem and body image; coping with bullies; comparing oneself to others both in terms of body size and possessions; coping with crushes; finding mentors, and that connection to friends that we always come back to. Teal-and-white illustrations are appealing, the characters are all likable, and I love the fun character introductions, illustrated with fun facts about each. Each chapter introduction comes with a fun fact about the riding course, and there are great facts about horseback riding and competing throughout the story.

Inspired by Kristin Varner’s own tween experiences, Horse Trouble is just great reading. See more of her illustration at her website.

Posted in Fantasy, Fiction, Graphic Novels, Middle Grade, Science Fiction, Tween Reads

Long Distance: A summer camp like you’ve never experienced!

Long Distance, by Whitney Gardner, (June 2021, Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers), $14.99, ISBN: 9781534455658

Ages 10-14

Vega is a girl who’s not thrilled with summer vacation this year. Her parents have moved her from Portland, Oregon, to a new life in Seattle, and she’s miserable. She’s left behind her best friend, Halley, and to add insult to injury, her dads are sending her off to Camp Very Best Friend, hoping she’ll make some new friends. When the Camp VBF bus pulls up, Vega’s got a strange feeling about this camp… and it only gets weirder once she and the other campers arrive! Cell phones don’t work, and the counselors are just… different. Together with fellow campers Qwerty (like the keyboard), and twins Gemma and Isaac, Vega decides to get to the bottom of this odd camp in a hilarious story about making friends! Early in the story, Vega Googles how to make friends; each piece of advice she receives heads a different chapter, giving readers a humorous idea of what to expect. The characters are likable, and dialogue and story move at a good pace, and readers are going to love this summer camp story. Artwork is colorful with cartoon-realistic characters, similar to Raina Telgemeier and Shannon Hale’s characters. A good book to hand to introverts – Camp VBF is filled with kids who don’t find it that easy to make friends, until they’re put into the unusual situation that sets the stage for this story. Vega is interested in astronomy, Qwerty relates to computers “better than people”, and Gemma and Isaac are all about rocks and minerals, so there’s a nice little STEM/STEAM thread quietly running through the story. A fun summer story that satisfies wanderlust.

Visit Whitney Gardner’s webpage for coloring pages and more info about her books, including one of my favorites from last year, the 2020 Cybils-nominated Becoming RBG.

Posted in Fantasy, Fiction, Graphic Novels, Middle Grade, Middle School, Tween Reads, Uncategorized

The Unlikeliest Friends: The Ghoul Next Door

The Ghoul Next Door, by Cullen Bunn/Illustrated by Cat Farris, (July 2021, Harper Alley), $12.99, ISBN: 9780062896094

Ages 8 to 12

An 11-year-old boy named Grey takes a shortcut through a cemetery on his way to school, drops his school project down an empty grave, and discovers the unlikeliest new friend: a young ghoul named Lavinia. Lavinia leaves little gifts for Grey that are a little unsettling to the living – finger bones, teeth necklaces, that sort of thing – and Grey seeks Lavinia out, leading to the two forging a friendship that’s as sweet as it is dangerous. Ghouls are forbidden from associating with the living, and Grey’s friend, Marshall, is determined to tell all because he just knows Grey’s making a bad decision. Eventually, Grey is caught up in a struggle between ghouls and ghosts, with his friend Marshall’s – and Grey’s own – life in the balance!

A funny, creepy story for readers who love all things Neil Gaiman, Doug TenNapel’s Ghostopolis, and – naturally! – Goosebumps. It’s a story of friendship with a touch of intrigue and just enough creepiness to make paranormal fans shudder with glee. Cullen Bunn writes a lot of big-people comics that I love (including Harrow County, which makes a fun little cameo in The Ghoul Next Door), and Cat Farris’s artwork is spooktastic, with color, great shadow work, and a ghoul that is as heartwarming as she is startling.

Posted in Adventure, Middle Grade, Middle School, Non-Fiction, Non-fiction, Tween Reads

Reading Takes You Everywhere: Into the Clouds!

Into the Clouds, by Tod Olson, (April 2020, Scholastic Focus), $18.99, ISBN: 9781338207361

Ages 8-12

For my latest Reading Takes You Everywhere Summer Reading post, I’m taking you to the Himalayas, where we can – from a safe, much warmer distance – scale the heights of K2, a mountain “more treacherous” than Mount Everest. Fewer than 400 people have been able to successfully climb K2: “four every four mountaineers who have stood on its summit, one has died trying to get there”. Although Everest stands higher, K2 has unpredictable weather and gale-force winds that have swept climbers off its face entirely. Into the Clouds is the story of two parties that attempted K2: the first American Karakoram Expedition in 1938, and the 1953 Third American Expedition, which makes up a greater part of the book. Into the Clouds follows Charlie Houston’s team as they attempt to summit the mountain in the midst of vicious storms, risks of avalanche, frostbite, illness, and rivalry, turning the expedition into a rescue mission.

Tod Olson can write narrative non-fiction like the most exciting adventure/survival novel: if you haven’t read his Lost series, you need to check in with your I Survived readers, who likely have. Here, he puts together an exhaustively researched work filled with photos to set the reader at base camp along with Houston’s team. The biting winds, the constant fear of freezing and the aggravation each team member felt clearly comes through here. Adventure and survival readers who have moved on from I Survived and are ready to read middle grade and middle school narrative non-fiction like Trapped by Marc Aronson and Jennifer Armstrong’s Shipwreck at the Bottom of the World.

Read the book, and tell your readers to visit Tod Olson’s webpage where they can find an Into the Clouds scavenger hunt. Into the Clouds has a starred review from School Library Journal.

Posted in picture books, Preschool Reads

See what’s growing at Amara’s Farm!

Amara’s Farm, by JaNay Brown-Wood/Illustrated by Samara Hardy, (Sept. 2021, Peachtree Publishing), $16.99, ISBN: 9781682631652

Ages 3-6

The first in a new series from Peachtree, Amara’s Farm introduces readers to a little girl and invites them to help her find pumpkins for her get-together. Amara is hosting a potluck for her friends, and needs pumpkins. First, we take a moment to consider what we know about pumpkins. Using that knowledge, we set off on a series of spreads, guiding readers through different crops that share some properties with pumpkins, but not all. Will Amara find her pumpkins in time? Using a question-and-answer format and descriptive explanations, this is an excellent introduction to properties, concepts, and farm food for kids that may recognize different foods they’ve seen on their own tables, at a farmer’s market, or in a grocery store, while introducing others to new foods like persimmons, figs, and eggplant, and showing kids how they grow: on trees, on vines, even underground. Cheery illustrations are colorful and have beautiful texture, giving readers a real feel for their food’s origins and appearance. Amara is an adorable young girl of color, with a friendly, expressive face and beautifully textured hair and clothing. Back matter includes a molasses pumpkin bread recipe to make with a grownup helper.

I really like this first entry into the new Where in the Garden? series! Being in an urban library system, this is a great way to communicate to my kids about food and how it grows, what they look like, where they can be found. You can explain concepts like shape, color, and textures as you go, and – since I’m fortunate enough to have several fruit markets and a weekend farmer’s market in my library’s community – invite the kids to visit these places with their grownups and describe what they see there. I can’t wait to see more from this series!

Posted in picture books

“If only humans were as easy to understand!”: Leo and the Octopus

Leo and the Octopus, by Isabelle Marinov/Illustrated by Chris Nixon, (Sept. 2021, Kane Miller), $12.99, ISBN: 9781684642779

Ages 4-8

“The world was too bright for Leo. And too loud.” Leo is a boy who feels like he’s on the wrong planet. Other kids don’t understand him; he doesn’t understand them. Stressed and lonely, everything changes the day he meets Maya, an octopus who looks like an alien! And Leo feels like an alien, so this should be great! Once he reads up on octopuses, he discovers how interesting they are, and decides that maybe Maya could be his first friend. The octopus and the boy form a friendly bond, which helps him understand a day when Maya is overwhelmed by all the attention she’s getting at her aquarium tank.

Author Isabelle Marinov was inspired to write Leo and the Octopus by her own son and turns in a sensitive and accurate portrayal of a child on the autism spectrum. The storytelling is gentle, respectful to both Leo and Maya and their growing friendship. The two characters develop a very sweet relationship that helps Leo grow: he recognizes when Maya is distressed and takes action to relieve her stress, and he learns to reach out and discover another friend in the course of the story. Soothing colors make this an easy read that all kids will love. Endpapers spotlight Maya and Leo interacting across the spread. A must-read, must-have to teach empathy and understanding to others as well as to provide kids on the spectrum with a child they recognize on the page.

Leo and the Octopus has a starred review from Kirkus.

Posted in Early Reader, Preschool Reads

What’s YOUR favorite color?

What’s your favorite color? Chances are, Macmillan has an activity book for you!

Loaded with activities about your favorite color, these activity books are great for summer days when kids “have nothing to doooooo” (says my Kiddo, as the dog tries to play with him and I’m stepping on his LEGOs, scattered around the room). I’ll be posting activities to my Instagram (@roesolo) starting this week, so tune in and see what my favorite color is! I’ll also be posting activity sheets Macmillan and Odd Dot have provided for free, for you to print and play with – check ’em out here, too!