Posted in Non-Fiction, Teen, Young Adult/New Adult

Political Memoir: Radical: My Year with a Socialist Senator

Radical: My Year with a Socialist Senator, by Sofia Warren, (June 2022, Top Shelf Productions), $24.99, ISBN: 9781603095129

Ages 14+

New York State senator Julia Salazar first found herself on Brooklyn cartoonist Sofia Warren’s radar in 2018 when the then 27-year-old was a Democratic Socialist running for state senate. Her grassroots campaign inspired and motivated followers, including Sofia Warren. When Salazar won the election, Sofia Warren asked the newly minted state senator if she could chronicle the first year of her tenure; Salazar accepted, and Radical was born. Radical chronicles what happens after the balloons and confetti have been cleaned up and it’s time to get to work. Salazar, whose main focus was affordable housing, had a team of community organizers going up against wealthy landlords and entrenched ways of doing things: the twenty-something Socialist and her followers had their work cut out for them. Sofia Warren spent a year traveling with and speaking to Salazar and her team in order to create an honest portrait of a state senator’s first year in office: traveling to and from Albany; meetings, meetings, meetings; angry public meetings, staff disagreements, gaining and losing ground, all on the way to create legislation. The beginning of the story reads similar to an Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez memoir; something the author is aware of, and Radical will appeal to AOC followers and anyone interested in the inner workings of grassroots politics. Excellent for high school and college courses.

Posted in Middle Grade, Non-fiction, Tween Reads

Art Meets STEM in The Stardust That Made Us

The Stardust That Made Us : A Visual Exploration of Chemistry, Atoms, Elements, and the Universe, by Colin Stuart/Illustrated by Ximo Abadía, (March 2022, Big Picture Press), $24.99, ISBN: 9781536223835

Ages 8-12

This oversized book is a “visual exploration of chemistry, atoms, elements, and the universe”, made accessible to middle grade and middle school students. Organized into five areas, The Stardust That Made Us looks at the history of chemistry in the natural world, the people who have dedicated their lives and careers to studying it, how we use chemistry in our everyday lives, and where the future of chemistry lies. Astronomy author and speaker Colin Stuart uses straightforward language to explain concepts in a way that respects and understands his readers. He uses enticing phrases like, “Nature has an unseen book full of recipes for making everything you’ve ever encountered” to draw readers in and pique their interest. He shares interesting bits of information within the scientific text, too, noting that the green dye that fascinated consumers in Victorian Britain was also slowly poisoning them: the green dye was produced by arsenic; mobile phones vibrate thanks to the chemical element dysprosium, that makes the motor responsible for the vibration, and ancient cave paintings in France were made using paint containing the element manganese. Ximo Abadía’s high contrast illustrations are stunning and colorful. A good addition to STEM collections.

Visit Colin Stuart’s webpage for more information about his books, to sign up for his newsletter (and get a free ebook!), and get information about appearances.

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

Graphic Novel Bonanza: Swim Team

Swim Team, by Johnnie Christmas, (May 2022, HarperAlley), $12.99, ISBN: 9780063056763

Ages 8-12

Bree is starting her new middle school and can’t wait to select her electives. She’s got her eye on Math Club, but it’s closed out. In fact, everything is closed out of her time slot, except for Swim 101. Bree, afraid to swim, reluctantly takes the class, but tries to dodge it until she realizes that it will affect her grade point average. A mishap at her apartment complex leads her to Etta, an older woman who lives in the building, who also happens to be a former swim team captain from Bree’s school. As Etta trains Bree, she becomes a confident swimmer who gives the school team a chance at victory over rival Holyoke Prep. A strong subplot about Etta’s time in middle school delves into the history of segregation and public pools, and busts the “Black people don’t swim” myth wide open. Solidly constructed storytelling keeps readers invested and engaged; they’ll be white-knuckling the book and cheering Bree’s team, the Manatees, at every meet. A strong theme of social justice and change provides historical background and back matter includes resources for more reading. Talk this up with realistic fiction graphic novels like Jerry Craft’s New Kid and Class Act; Alyssa Bermudez’s Big Apple Diaries, and Gillian Goerz’s Shirley and Jamila Save Their Summer. Put this book on your shelves!

Swim Team has starred reviews from Publishers Weekly, School Library Journal, Kirkus, and BookPage; it’s also been selected for the Kids’ Indie Next List.

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

Graphic Novel Bonanza: All My Friends

All My Friends, by Hope Larson, (Jan. 2022, First Second), $12.99, ISBN: 9780374388669

Ages 10-14

Hope Larson’s third installment in Eagle Rock series keeps the momentum going. When we first met Hope’s main character, Bina, in 2018’s All Summer Long, she was a 13-year-old finding her way through music, and figuring out her evolving friendship with her bestie, Austin. Now, in All My Friends, Bina and her friends are in Fancy Pink, a band getting a lot of notice; she’s in a back-and-forth with her parents as she tries to take her band to the next level, and her parents worry about things moving too quickly, and she’s still figuring out relationships, whether it’s her strained relationship with Austin or how she feels about Cooper, the cute guy in a local band. The Eagle Rock books have captured big moments in a tween/teens’ life: relationships, dating, parents, and growing up. The characters have grown with each book, as Hope Larson’s audience is growing, keeping them invested in the stories of the Eagle Rock friends. Artwork in shades of pink, black, and white keep the focus on the story while using fonts to give the feeling of music moving through crowds. Whether she is weaving magical tales driven by a human story, or a character-driven story with a spark of magic (in this case, through music), Hope Larson always nails it.  A great third act for a popular series.

Posted in Fantasy, Graphic Novels, Realistic Fiction, Teen, Tween Reads

Graphic Novel Bonanza: Adora and the Distance

Adora and the Distance, by Marc Bernardin/Illustrated by Ariela Kristantina, (March 2022, Dark Horse), $14.99, ISBN: 9781506724508

Ages 12+

Like I said, I read a HUGE backlog of graphic novels while I had my little break, so be prepared for some “If you didn’t read it, it’s new to you!” posts. This time, I’ve got Adora and the Distance, by television writer-producer and comic book author Marc Bernardin. Set in a high fantasy world, Adora is a young woman of color living in a world full of adventure: there are pirates, ghosts, a royal family, and a malevolent entity known as The Distance. The Distance devours and destroys, and Adora, connected to The Distance, must leave her home on a mission to stop it.

The artwork is stunning. The colors, the shading, the depth, bring this book to life in a reader’s hands. The story builds to an incredible conclusion that made the world come to a halt around me as I took it all in. Adora and the Distance is a father’s love letter to his daughter in the best way he could reach her; the best way to let her know he sees her. Adora and the Distance is a story of autism, you see; Marc Bernardin’s author’s note at the end of the book  explains his impetus for creating this epic tale. Adora is smart, brave, and full of love.  There’s humor, adventure, family, and forgiveness all here, bound into this story that connects a father to his daughter.

Put Adora and the Distance in your distributor cart, and get it on shelves for your readers. Give it to parents, educators, and caregivers.

Posted in gaming, Middle Grade, Teen, Tween Reads

Tabletop Tuesdays with Carcassone

Next up, we have Carcassone. My library system’s gaming committee sent our first bin of games over, so I have 10 copies each of Carcassone and 10 of 7 Wonders. I’m still trying to work out 7 Wonders, so we played Carcassone.

I initially brought the game home to playtest with my kids, so I’d be able to figure out modifications, if necessary, for my younger kids, but this was pretty straightforward out of the box, so let’s go.

Carcassone, Z-Man Games (2000)
Ages 7+ (the box says 7+; for my library kids, I’d go 8-10+)
Play time: 45-60 minutes
Number of players: 2-5

Carcassone has been around for over 20 years; it’s won awards; it’s been translated into 22 languages; it’s got expansions. It’s considered, according to Wil Wheaton, to be “one of the four pillars of classic European-style board gaming”; Settlers of Catan, Alhambra, and Ticket to Ride forming the other 3 pillars. It’s a tile-laying game that’s surprisingly straightforward to play and teach.

The Plot: You and your fellow players are creating the French medieval city of Carcassone. To do this, you’ll turn over tiles to reveal different parts of the landscape, and you must create and claim your lands.

Medieval gerrymandering? No, it’s Carcassone! (my photo)

There are rules all players must adhere to: roads (those squiggly beige lines) must connect to other roads. Cities (the walled brown areas) must connect to other parts of the cities. Meeples (the cute little blue guys you see in the above photo) claim different areas as you build them. There are five groups of Meeples: green, red, blue, black, and yellow. Choose your color, and start building. As you play each tile, use your Meeples to claim area. Meeples placed on roads are highwaymen, for those folx who love a bad guy; claim the cities and be a knight; lay your Meeple down on the green areas to be a farmer; claim a monastery (the pointy buildings in the center of the photo) and be a monk. Each of these areas get scored differently:

  1. Putting your meeple on a road claims that road, but you do not score points until the road is complete. It has to lead from somewhere to somewhere. Each tile your road touches is worth one point; my road above leads from one monastery to another, and touches 5 tiles, so that’s 5 points.
  2. Putting your meeple on a city means you’re a knight protecting that city. You do not score points until the city has been completed. See my Meeple above, next to the monastery? That city touches 3 tiles; those tiles are worth 2 points each, so my Knight has 6 points. See that larger city toward the left hand side of the picture? That is a much bigger city, AND has several shields. Those shields are worth an additional 2 points per shield, so that city, which was still under construction when I took this picture, is worth 22 points: 16 points because it spreads across 8 tiles, plus 6 points for the 3 shields within.
  3. Monasteries get 1 point for every tile enclosing them in the area – basically, monasteries get 9 points; they’re surrounded by 8 tiles, and the monastery makes 9.\
  4. Farms are big points, because farmers are scored by the number of completed cities that touch their fields. Start Your Meeples has an excellent way to describe scoring farm points, and I highly recommend this article. Farmers get 3 points for each city.

As you complete your areas, you take your Meeples back, ready to guard (and rob) the next area of the burgeoning city. Use the scoreboard to keep track of your scores.

Okay, a couple of observations during gameplay. You will inadvertently help your opponents sometimes, depending on the tile you draw. My son and I, on our first couple of plays, initially thought we could undercut one another by placing tiles that didn’t connect to anything, to block progress. Don’t do that! After reading more blogs and watching several gameplay videos, we figured out that Carcassone is kind of cooperative, kind of not in that way. Think of it like you’re building a map. It needs to make sense at the end of the day.

Play the short game and the long game for best use of your Meeples! Can you build a 2-tile city? YES. Don’t get hung up on only building gigantic cities, because I promise you, it will bite you on the backside. Ditto for starting roads that have no end. If, toward the end of the game, you have no Meeples to place, you get no points for tiles laid! Make that 3-tile road; build that 2-tile city; get your Meeples and keep going.

Wil Wheaton calls the River Expansion a great way to get beginners used to the process of laying tiles, and he’s right. There are 12 river tiles that must be played first, and you can’t put Meeples on the river, so it’s just a nice, easy way to start the game; scoring goes as usual, and we got into the swing of things without stressing where to place Meeples by doing this. I didn’t play the Abbots part of the expansion yet, though, so if you have played it and want to share your thoughts, PLEASE do.

After a few plays at home, my son and I got into a good rhythm of gameplay, and I was easily able to show our library’s after-school coordinator and one of our children’s librarians how to play. I’m looking forward to reporting back on how the kids took to it this coming Tuesday!

All in All: A fun, creative game that guarantees you’ll never play the same game twice. Easy to explain to younger kids; I think our middle graders and middle schoolers are going to be a strong group for this game, and I feel like the few teens I get (hopefully more, by this summer!) will be into this. As popular as Carcassone is, I’ve yet to meet more than a handful of folx who’ve actually played it (kind of like me, with Settlers of Catan).

If you’d like to watch gameplay videos, I highly recommend Wil Wheaton’s Tabletop episode and Watch It Played’s Carcassone episode, both of which I’m embedding here. Both YouTube accounts are great for learning gameplay for a wealth of different games and are worth subscribing to the feeds.

Posted in Animal Fiction, Fiction, Fiction, Graphic Novels, Humor, Intermediate, Middle Grade

What does the first cat in space eat? Pizza, of course!

The First Cat in Space Ate Pizza, by Mac Barnett/Illustrated by Shawn Harris, (May 2022, Katherine Tegen Books), $15.99, ISBN: 9780063084087

Ages 7-12

Two award-winning kidlit powerhouses come together for a laugh-out-loud tale about a cat, a toenail-clipping robot, and a group of hungry rats posed to devour the moon. Rats from another galaxy are eating the moon! What is the Earth to do? Dispatch a cybernetically enhanced cat – First Cat – to take care of business. Accompanied by a stowaway robot who believes he’s destined for greater things than clipping toenails, and a ship’s computer who’s furious at being upstaged from a larger part in the story, First Cat lands on the moon, and the adventure begins: frozen wastelands, living forests, churning waters (Sea of Tranqulity? HA!) and dangers at every turn. There are repeating gags that get funnier with every utterance, and readers will giggle themselves silly as First Cat tries, time and again, to have a mouth-watering slice of pizza. Artwork is boldly outlined and colorful, hilariously communicating the madcap storytelling.

Did you know First Cat is Instagram famous? Kids can watch First Cat’s live adventures on Instagram or the First Cat webpage, where they can also sign up for the newsletter! The graphic novel includes sheet music and links to songs from the series. The First Cat in Space Ate Pizza is perfect for summer reading your readers will love.

The First Cat in Space Ate Pizza has a starred review from Publishers Weekly and is on the May/June 2022 Indie Next Kids List.

Posted in Fantasy, Fiction, Middle Grade, Tween Reads

The Monsters of Rookhaven is all about Family

The Monsters of Rookhaven, by Pádraig Kenny/Illustrated by Edward Bettison, (Sept. 2021, Henry Holt), $16.99, ISBN: 9781250623942

Ages 10-14

Mirabelle loves her very unique family: there’s Uncle Bertram, who can transform into a grizzy bear, and Aunt Eliza, entirely made up of spiders. There are the twins, Dotty and Daisy, who can be a little cruel, and Odd, who travels through portals. There’s Gideon, the newest addition to the family, and the mysterious Piglet; and there’s Uncle Enoch, who presides over the group. They have an agreement with the English village that separates them by way of a magical border: they don’t cross the border and eat the townsfolk, and the village keeps them fed and safe from the outside world. But Jem and Tom, two orphaned siblings, discover a tear in the magic and find their way into Rookhaven, with consequences for everyone on both sides of the border.

This book is gorgeous; beautifully macabre and perfect for kids who loved Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book. The narration moves swiftly along but is never rushed; it’s deliberate and takes its time creating the world of Rookhaven and the post-War English countryside; we meet a group of people devastated by war and the grief and loss it brings, making them susceptible to the worst type of manipulation. We meet another group of beings, specially gifted but assumed terrible, also suffering from grief and loss, with the added confusion of having two very human children stumble into their secure world and turn things upside down. Pádraig Kenny masterfully brings these elements together with dark humor and gentle moments, tension and terror mixed with wonder and pain. Edward Bettison’s blackwork illustrations add the perfect moodiness to the story. An excellent choice for book groups

The Monsters of Rookhaven is out in hardcover now and will be released in paperback this September, to coincide with the hardcover release of the next Rookhaven book, The Shadows of Rookhaven.

The Monsters of Rookhaven has a starred review from Booklist.

Posted in Fantasy, Fiction, Middle Grade, Tween Reads

Indie Spotlight: The Voting Tree by Gareth Griffith

The Voting Tree (The Pelagius Chronicles, Book 1), by Gareth Griffith, (Nov. 2018), $10.25, ISBN: 978-1729264485

Ages 10-13

The Voting Tree is an epic fantasy taking place across two worlds: Sydney, Australia in the year 2000, and a fantasy kingdom called the Land of Pelas. In the current world, Sam Archer is a middle schooler who’s just moved to Sydney, thanks to his dad’s new job. He starts school where he meets new friends Hamish, Sylvia, Athena, and Oscar… and the local bullies, who target Sam and his group of friends for being “freaks”. In the fantasy world of Pelas, there’s open war as Lord Boreas slays his brother, the king, and his wife; their child, Pelagius, is sent into hiding and will live in exile until he’s old enough to retake his father’s throne. Back in Sydney, Sam and his friends gather around a fig tree near their school, and discover that it’s a portal to Pelas, where they meet Pelagius and join his quest. Sam and his friends all have special abilities in this fantasy world to guide them and Pelagius on their way, and time works differently here: they can spend hours in Pelas, but almost no time has passed when they return home. At times, the differences between the two worlds made for a challenging transition, especially because there isn’t a lot of involvement with each of the worlds. Their time in Pelas does lead to character growth and confidence, making this a nice hero’s journey story to recommend. Characters deal with family stress, bullying at school, and inaction on the part of the teachers. Give this to your fantasy readers who love Garth Nix.

Posted in Fiction, Middle Grade, Science Fiction

Indie spotlight: Immigrant from the Stars by Gail Kamer

Immigrant from the Stars, by Gail Kamer/Illustrated by Daniel F. Bridy, (June 2019, Gettier Group LLC), $12.99, ISBN: 978-0999459553

Ages 9-12

I’ve been working to catch up with review requests, so I dug into my indie review pile while I was off and caught up with Gail Kamer’s 2019 middle grade tale, Immigrant from the Stars. Iko is a middle school kid who’s like other middle school kids: he loves hanging out with his friends; he loves his grandfather and his parents, he loves his dog. Oh, and he’s an alien from the planet Trinichia, ruled by a totalitarian government, with eyes and ears seemingly everywhere. Iko’s parents put their escape plan in motion and leave Trinichia, fleeing to Earth, where they start their new lives in Kentucky, disguised as the Newman family, a completely normal Earthling family from Texas. Iko tries to adjust to this new life – this new species! – while desperately hoping he doesn’t give himself and his family away, and worrying about his grandfather and dog, who are still on Trinichia.

I enjoyed Immigrant from the Stars so much! Narrated in the first person by Iko, the story has humor and pathos in equal amounts, with some tense moments that inject some excitement into the story. The story puts a sci-fi spin on the challenges facing immigrants who arrive as refugees and find themselves faced with a new way of life – and possibly an unfriendly reception. If your readers loved Geoff Rodkey’s We’re Not From Here (2019), consider recommending Immigrant from the Stars.