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

Ace is A-Okay!

A-Okay, by Jarad Greene, (Nov. 2021, HarperAlley), $12.99, ISBN: 9780063032842

Ages 9-13

Eighth grader Jay gets a prescription for Accutane to deal with his acne, but that medication comes with serious side effects. A-Okay, a semi-autobiographical graphic novel from Jarad Greene, covers some of the scary moments most middle schoolers feel at some point: body issues, identity, and finding your people. Jay suffers bullying because of his acne, and he’s disappointed because none of his friends are in his classes or share his lunch period, and his best friend seems to be avoiding him. Meanwhile, Mark and Amy, two of his classmates, are each showing more than friendly feelings for him, and he doesn’t feel the same. Written with sensitive humor and insight, A-Okay is about the middle school experience as a whole, and about asexuality: a diminished or lack of sexual attraction.

The middle school years are fraught with a hormonal mix of emotion and reaction that would frighten anyone: our bodies seemingly go haywire, leaving us feeling confused and betrayed; friendships are fraught with drama and complexity; fears about the future threaten to crush us. Greene understands his audience and quietly gives middle schoolers a voice with his A-Okay characters, who let middle schoolers know that every one of these feelings and emotions are okay. Colorful and upbeat illustrations put readers at ease, and he writes with a gift for both dialogue and introspection. A story whose time has come, Bleeding Cool’s Rich Johnson nailed it when he wrote that A-Okay will be “to kids with acne what Smile was to kids with braces”. And then some.

For Ace resources, read the BBC’s article, “The Rise of the Invisible Orientation”; Stonewall.org’s “Six Ways to Be an Ally to Asexual People”; and visit the Asexual Visibility and Education Network’s website and follow them on Twitter. A-Okay is featured in HarperAlley’s Classroom Conversations brochure, offering booktalks and discussion questions.

Posted in Animal Fiction, Fiction, Horror, Middle Grade, Tween Reads

This Halloween, Zombert returns!

Return of Zombert, by Kara LaReau/Illustrated by Ryan Andrews, (July 2021, Candlewick Press), $16.99, ISBN: 9781536201079

Ages 8-12

Last summer, I read Kara LaReau and Ryan Andrews’s Rise of Zombert, and audibly squawked at the cliffhanger ending; needless to say, seeing Return of Zombert in my review box of goodies from Candlewick Press gave me a large amount of seasonal joy.

To catch you up: Lambert is a corporate town, with the YummCo corporation at the town’s heart. Everyone is employed by or affected by YummCo in some way, but it’s okay! Because YummCo is great! They have a catchy jingle, and the head of the company loves to give people the thumbs up! And they swear they don’t test on animals! Except they do. YummCo’s got their corporate fingers in a lot of pies, and some projects are shadowy and secret, and involve some awful animal testing. Zombert – known at the lab as Y-91 – is a cat that escaped from the lab with promises of revenge when he returns to liberate the other animals, but he’s found by a girl named Mellie, who cares for him, nurses him back to health, names him Bert, and doesn’t mind (too much) that he prefers to eat the heads of his live prey.

Zombert – as Mellie’s best friend Danny calls the “zombie cat” – has started easing into life with Mellie while haunted by nightmares of his mother, who never returned from a food run; his brother and sister, captured with him and brought to the lab, and the memories of Cold Hands, the cruel human at the lab who experimented on him. And YummCo hasn’t forgotten about Zombert, either: there are new plans afoot to get him back, and they have another inside man infiltrating Mellie’s and Danny’s lives to facilitate that. Mellie needs to earn some money to get Bert to the vet, and YummCo just happens to be holding a Best Pet contest. Is the contest legit? What do you think? This latest entry into the Zombert chronicles is even more compulsively readable than Rise of Zombert. It’s dark humor at its best, with poignant moments as we experience Zombert’s trauma through his memories. The ending will leave you yelling at the book yet again, and waiting not-so-patiently for the third part of the series, due in the Summer of 2022. Ryan Andrew’s black and white illustrations add the perfect touch of chiller to this story. Definitely grab this one.

Read a sample chapter of Return of Zombert here.

Posted in Animal Fiction, Fiction, Horror, Middle Grade, Teen, Tween Reads

Spooooktastic middle grade: SCARY STORIES FOR YOUNG FOXES

I can’t believe Halloween is THIS WEEKEND. I’ve been booktalking all the spooky books I’ve been reading year-round, in anticipation of this moment!

Scary Stories for Young Foxes, by Christian McKay Heidicker/Illustated by Junyi Wu, (July 2019, Henry Holt & Co.), $16.99, ISBN: 9781250181428

Ages 9-14

A Newbery Honor-winning collection of interconnected stories, Scary Stories for Young Foxes stole the show when it hit shelves in 2019, and it’s still going strong today. Framed by the setting of a storyteller spinning tales for a group of young foxes, the heart of each story involves two kits, Mia and Uly, separated from their litters, and fighting scary creatures to get back. It’s a great concept, because the stories are told for young foxes, putting readers into the mindset of a fox, not a person, and thinking about things that would terrify a young animal, rather than a person, and realizing that we share similar fears. These are stories for older kids – there are some moments that may be tough to read about, including domestic abuse, a witch who wants to wear the kits’ skins, and a very hungry zombie – not fare for kids who are still loving Goosebumps. Think of your Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark fans, maybe a year or two older. Junyi Wi’s illustrations add additional chills. As Kirkus writes, “Dark and skillfully distressing, this is a tale for the bold”.

Scary Stories for Young Foxes has starred reviews from Booklist and the Bulletin for the Center of Children’s Books. You can visit author Christian McKay Heidicker’s author webpage and learn more about his books and school visits, and read his blog.

 

 

Scary Stories for Young Foxes: The City, by Christian McKay Heidicker/Illustated by Junyi Wu, (Aug. 2021, Henry Holt & Co.), $17.99, ISBN: 9781250181442

Ages 9-14

The stories continue in the companion to Scary Stories for Young Foxes! Scary Stories for Young Foxes: The City is back with eight new stories, more gloriously horrifying illustration, and two new foxes. Fox kit 0-730 loves the “old stories” about Mia and Uly, and is desperate for an exciting, adventurous life away from the Farm and what he thinks are the safe, wire dens the foxes inhabit. He escapes his cage to discover the truth behind what’s going on at the Farm, and runs for his life. Cozy is a fox who lives in the suburbs with her skulk, forced to escape her den when a terrifying creature that hunts foxes arrives. Both foxes arrive in The City, a scary new world with scary new dangers awaiting them.

The book can be read on its own as a stand-alone, or as a companion to the first book. Either way, the stories are scary: the kind of scary that creeps like dread as you read, and the heart-pounding panic you experience when you have information that the characters just don’t know (yet). Fans who love Katherine Arden, Mary Downing Hahn and Holly Black will love Scary Stories for Young Foxes and Scary Stories for Young Foxes: The City.

Visit illustrator Junyi Wu’s website to see more amazing artwork.

 

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

Stealing Home tells a story of the Japanese-Canadian Internment

Stealing Home, by J. Torres/Illustrated by David Namisato, (Oct. 2021, Kids Can Press), $17.99, ISBN: 9781525303340

Ages 9-13

It’s 1941, and Sandy Saito is a happy Japanese boy, living with his family in Canada, and a big baseball fan. He obsessively follows the Asahi team, a Japanese-Canadian baseball team, and the pride of his community. But the Japanese attack Pearl Harbor in December, and Sandy’s life as he knows it is forever changed: he and his family are moved to an internment camp, and separated from their doctor father, who’s placed “where he needs to be”. As Sandy and his brother try to adjust to their new life, they find some comfort in their favorite sport; Sandy tries adopting the mindset of taking whatever pitch comes your way.

An emotional graphic novel, Stealing Home may be an awakening for some readers who thought that only Japanese Americans were put into internment camps; this was not the case. Canadian families were also separated more often than American families; males were often relocated to labor and POW camps. In Stealing Home, Doctor Saito was initially relocated to a camp where he could look after men at these labor camps; after being reunited his family, he continues working as a physician to the camp community. Hope and baseball intertwine throughout the story as Sandy tries to cope with his family’s new life, his mother’s grief, and his father’s continued distance from his children. Baseball is a beacon of hope and, ultimately, the great uniter. Sandy reflects, looking back, that “Baseball did not discriminate against us. It did not impose any limits on us. It helped us forget everything that was wrong in the world, even if just for one moment in time”.

Back matter by author and former internee Susan Aihoshi looks at the history of the camps, the racism Japanese Canadians endured, the Asahi, and further resources. An excellent graphic story and companion to novels like George Takei’s They Called Us Enemy.

The University of Washington has excellent resources available on the Japanese Canadian internment, as does the Canadian Encyclopedia. Curio.ca offers a lesson plan on the Asahi baseball team, and you can visit the Asahi Baseball Association’s website to learn more about the team.

Stealing Home is a first-round CYBILS middle grade graphic novel nominee.

Posted in Fantasy, Fiction, Fiction, Middle Grade, Middle School, Tween Reads

Hideaway is an excellent follow-up to Pam Smy’s Thornhill

The Hideaway, by Pam Smy, (Oct. 2021, Pavilion), $19.95, ISBN: 9781843654797

Ages 9-13

Pam Smy follows up her wonderfully chilling novel Thornhill (2017) with The Hideaway, which looks at themes of abuse, toxic masculinity, families, and forgiveness. Billy is a 13-year-old who cannot live in his home any longer. He feels guilty about leaving his mother to her abusive boyfriend, Jeff, but he is unable to bear hearing him hurt her and unable to live with this man any longer. He sneaks out one night and takes refuge in a small hideaway at a local cemetery, where he meets an old man who’s cleaning up the cemetery for an upcoming special event. The old man promises to keep Billy’s presence a secret for a couple of days while Billy works things out, in exchange for some help in cleaning up. Meanwhile, at Billy’s home, as his mother searches for Billy, she also finds the courage to reach out and ask for help – something she’d had drummed out of her until now.

Pam Smy breathes incredible life into her characters. Grace, Billy’s mother, is a strong, smart woman who learns to take back her power, discovering that asking for help is the first step in recovering that power. Billy is conflicted, a victim of trauma who escapes for his own sake, but struggles with the guilt of leaving his mother behind. Supporting characters steer the two toward good decisions, never forcing either into actions they aren’t ready to take. Billy addresses toxic masculinity by throwing off Jeff’s verbal barbs about “manning up”, and takes action when he sees a potential assault in the cemetery one night. Grace remembers that she had the strength to go it alone with Billy once before, and is fully prepared to do it again. Pam Smy creates moody, ethereal landscapes with her black and grey illustrations. The event that Billy and the old man prepared for unfolds over several pages of pure illustration, which will grab reader’s hearts and hold on, staying with them long after they’ve closed the book for good.

The Hideaway is just a wonderful story; a visceral family story with a touch of the magical. See more of Pam Smy’s illustration work at her website. Don’t miss her Instagram, either.

Posted in Fiction, Realistic Fiction, Young Adult/New Adult

Blog Tour and Excerpt: Cynthia Starts a Band by Olivia Swindler

While this is a blog for kidlit and YA, every now and then there’s space for a book for the bigger folx; whether it’s a new adult book that can cross over to a YA audience, or a book that parents and caregivers will enjoy, it can’t hurt to grow every now and then, right? So please enjoy this excerpt from Olivia Swindler’s Cynthia Starts a Band, a debut novel about a lead singer of a successful band who disappears, seemingly out of nowhere. Meet Eleanor Quinn, a recovering celebrity who decides to start all over again.

Cynthia Starts a Band, by Olivia Swindler,
(Oct. 2019, Morgan James Fiction),
$17.95, ISBN: 978-1631954900

 

Cynthia

I had no idea what day of the week it was, but that was normal for me. Days of the week meant nothing to me when we were touring. My internal calendar instead went like this: today, the bus will take us there, and then tomorrow, we will get back on the bus and be there. It didn’t matter if it was Tuesday or Friday; all days had the same value.

On the other hand, this was the first time in a long time I hadn’t needed to incessantly check the clock on my phone. I wasn’t afraid of being late to a soundcheck. I didn’t feel that familiar pit in my stomach telling me that I had overslept and would be late for hair and makeup.

For the first time in years, my time was mine.

I opened my eyes and peered out the window. We were cruising along a major highway. I was sure that I had been on this road at some point in my life before. Before, this road had meant nothing, but now the same open road meant freedom.

I had told the ticket salesman that I wanted a ticket to get to Seattle—although I had no real idea of how to get there. I wasn’t even sure if I knew precisely where Seattle was. I had visited Seattle plenty of times, but it had been clouded by the tour haze. I knew it was a big city, which meant I would be able to slip into my new life there without standing out.

I hadn’t realized how far away Seattle was from Denver. They were both on the West Coast; somehow, I had figured it would only take a few hours to get from one to the other. They had always been so close together on our schedule.

In Portland, I changed buses. The stop made me surer than ever of my decision.

I had done it. I had gotten out.

It still didn’t feel real. I had dreamed about this moment for so long, without ever actually believing it would happen.

I hadn’t told anyone that I was leaving, but I was sure they knew by now.

After the incident, I had walked out of the arena and gone straight to the bus station. I hadn’t even bothered getting my things from my bus or the dressing room. It hadn’t occurred to me that I should have withdrawn some cash. I would get some money soon. If they wanted to find me, they would check my credit card statements. I had seen enough action movies to know this was usually the first thing checked when looking for a missing person: a credit card trail.

I guessed I also needed to change my name. Or at least go by a different one? I really hadn’t thought this part of the plan through very well.

When we were first starting out, someone had asked me if I planned on using a stage name. “Everyone does it,” I was told. But I was sixteen at the time and thought there was something cool about seeing my name up in lights. That was me! My real name. At no point had I imagined that I would need a pseudonym.

If I had gone by a stage name, this might have been easier. I could have just reverted to who I had been before the world cared about who I had become.

I needed the opposite of a stage name.

I reached for my phone—at least I had had the presence of mind to grab that—and had another realization: I would probably have to get a new phone. After checking the runaway’s credit card activity, people always tracked their phones. There was something techy that could be done by pinging off cell towers. I wasn’t sure what that meant, but I had seen it in enough movies to be wary of calling anyone.

I looked down at my lit-up phone screen.

Of course, he had called. It would have been stupid to expect otherwise.

I didn’t have to call him back. A weight lifted from my shoulders, and I took a deep, shuddering breath. I was free! I never had to call him back ever again.

James had called me twenty-three times, to be exact. While I had expected that, I still felt a slight pang of remorse. I had known James since high school. I was just a long-legged teenager when he became our manager. We had walked through everything together. He had turned me from a gangly teenage girl to a polished pop star. And here I was, on a bus, running away.

I needed to let James know I was safe. I felt like I owed him at least that.

I turned off all the location services on my phone. I didn’t know if that would actually do anything, but at least I felt a little more secure.

“I am safe. Promise. Will call if I can.” I texted. But I knew that I was never going to call.

I needed a plan.

While I had been fantasizing about this escape for months, it had always felt like something belonging to the distant future, like a dream that would never come to fruition. Now, it was actually happening, and I needed to figure out my next move.

One of my cousins, Kristy, lived in Seattle. I needed to let her know I was coming. She and I had always been close. If I could stay with her, I wouldn’t have to put something else on my credit card. Maybe she could front me the money for a hotel. I had never had to do any of this by myself before. I wasn’t sure if I even knew how to get a hotel room. Or how to figure out which hotel was decent and safe. These things had always been taken care of for me. In fact, now that I thought about it, this was the first time that I was able to choose for myself. No one was telling me what I needed to wear. No one was telling me what time I needed to go to bed or wake up. No one had made a dinner reservation for me in Seattle. I didn’t have any obligation to make an appearance. For the first time in as long as I could remember, I had the freedom to make my own decisions.

The entire bus ride had been filled with peace and quiet. It was almost too much to take in all at once.

The only decision I had made for myself in the recent past was my decision to leave. I could not have imagined how many subsequent decisions would result.

I could feel myself getting overwhelmed. Was this really what I desired? The events of the previous hours flashed through my mind. I wanted to hide. I had abandoned my life without a second thought or a clear plan of what to do next.

What had I done? I had left the life that most people only dreamed of living, and for what? Nothing? I had no plan. No boyfriend. I had given no warning to my friends or family. There was no promise of another job (though it wasn’t like I would need the money). But I was starting to realize that this was probably not my most responsible decision.

James had once told me that I was his favorite client because I always did what I was told. He never had to worry about me get- ting caught in the wrong bar or getting cited with a DUI. I was a dream client. I did what I was told, and people loved me.

Maybe they just loved the person James had made me into. I wasn’t sure that person had ever been me.

James had texted me back right away, “Ellie, you need to call me right now. Your bus had to leave without you. The plane is already waiting for you in Denver. Go to the airport now, and you will be able to meet us in Dallas by soundcheck.”

I was not going to get on that plane. I was not going to make it in time for soundcheck. A piece of my soul had been slowly suffocating. I knew my choice was not just affecting me; this was James’s life as well. The lives of the rest of the band. But after last night, I knew I wouldn’t be able to continue as Eleanor Quinn.

They could do the set without me. Our publicist would release some statement about how I had come down with bronchitis or lupus. It would be something nasty (but not life-threatening), and I would rejoin the tour as soon as I was cleared.

The publicist would be lying.

I would not be rejoining the tour. After what happened, I couldn’t be Eleanor Quinn, singer extraordinaire from Kittanning. I was going to become someone new.

Outside the window, the road markers flashed past, dimmed by the rain. The bus passed a billboard advertising a weight loss company that had helped a woman named Cynthia lose seventy-five pounds. I was going to be Cynthia. Cynthia, who had just lost more than seventy-five figurative pounds of a band that had been controlling her every waking moment.

I ignored James’s text. I didn’t know how to tell him that I would not be on the plane. It felt unfair to him. I had never intended for him to end up in the crosshairs of my consequences. Our lives had become intertwined; that was just the harsh reality. But I couldn’t let that change my mind. I would figure out how to break the news to him once I had settled. The tour was going to take a week off after Dallas, so that would give them time to regroup.

I tried to focus on that.

Giving up on my vain attempt to shove my guilt aside, I started searching for Kristy’s number. It was almost 8:00 a.m. This, I thought to myself, was when most people got up. I checked my phone and saw that it was a Tuesday. She worked for Amazon, and the last time I’d seen her, she had mentioned how long and crazy the hours were, so it was a safe assumption that she would be either getting ready or on her way to work. Or maybe already there.

Her phone started ringing.

“Hey, El, what’s up! Why are you calling so early? Didn’t you have a show last night?”

Okay, so she hadn’t heard about the incident.

“It’s a long story, and I can’t tell you over the phone.” I was still worried about those nasty cell tower pings, “Basically, I’m on a Grayhen heading to Seattle. Can I stay with you?”

“Wait, what? You mean a . . . Greyhound? Uh . . . yes, of course, what time does your bus get in? I’ll pick you up.”

“Oh, yeah, a Greyhound, and I can’t tell you more over the phone. I think we should be there in, like, two hours. Is that okay?”

“Yes, I’ll be there.”

“Hey, also, could you bring me a change of clothes?”

Kristy was waiting for me on the bus platform, clearly dressed for work, brown hair twisted into an easy, elegant bun. I was impressed. I realized that if I had gotten a call like that, I wouldn’t have even known where the bus stop was, let alone on which platform to wait.

As soon as I stepped off the bus, she burst out laughing. “What on earth are you wearing?”

“This is why I asked for a change of clothes,” I motioned down to my cobalt-blue bejeweled onesie. “Isn’t this what the kids are wearing in Seattle? This is all the rage in New York right now.” I tried to joke.

She looked over the top of her designer glasses at me: “You know, they probably are. I’ve never really been able to keep up with what kids are wearing these days.”

Kristy was eight months older than me. When we were kids, that eight-month gap had felt like years. It meant that she was a grade above me in school. She got her license before me. She experienced everything just a bit before me.

If only we had known as kids that our lives would turn out so differently.

She walked me over to her car. On the passenger seat sat a bottle of wine, a change of clothes, and a bar of chocolate. I knew what this meant.

“Is there a video? Oh gosh. How bad is it?”

“Well, it’s not all bad. You guys went viral, which is something most people only dream of!”

“Kristy, my whole life has been viral for like the past year.” “Okay, fair point.”

We drove in silence for a few blocks. The weight of the unspoken was almost unbearable.

“So,” Kristy broke the silence first, “Do you want to talk about

it?”

I thought about this for a second. The request was expected.

After all, I had just barged into my cousin’s life without any warning. The familiar fear of letting someone down wormed its way into my heart.

I barely managed: “I don’t think I know how to yet.” It was the only honest answer I could give. The incident flashed through my mind. Again.

Kristy smiled warmly from the driver’s seat, “That’s okay.” And, just like that, the weight on my chest lifted just a little more.

Website and Social Media:

https://www.oliviaswindler.com/

FB: @olivia.swindler

IG: @oliviaswindler

Twitter: @oliviaswindler

To Buy:

Amazon

B&N

Posted in Fiction, Fiction, Horror, Middle Grade, Tween Reads

Spooky Reads for Halloween: Ghost Girl b Ally Malinenko

Ghost Girl, by Ally Malinenko, (Aug. 2021, Katherine Tegen Books), $16.99, ISBN: 9780063044609

Ages 8-12

Horror for tweens is on the rise, and I couldn’t be happier. My library kids are hungry for it, having gone past Goosebumps and cleared my Holly Black and Mary Downing Hahn books off the shelves. They’re ready for spookier, and I love reading and booktalking these to them. Ghost Girl is definitely on my must-talk list: a girl who discovers that she has a gift for seeing and communicating with ghosts, a new school principal that’s way too creepy, a missing Kindergarten teacher, and three friends that have to stand against an entire town that’s fallen under a spell? Tell me more!

Zee Puckett is a middle schooler who loves ghost stories. She’s living with her 21-year-old sister, Abby, who’s dropped out of college and taken a job at a diner to keep their family going while her widowed father is out of state looking for work. Bullied at school, Zee’s only friend is Elijah, an African-American boy who’s got a bully of his own: his father, who is constantly at his brainy son who’d rather do science projects than hit the gym with his dad. After an altercation with Nellie, the middle school gets a new principal, Mr. Scratch, who comes off like a self-help guru on steroids. While everyone in town seems to be falling under Mr. Scratch’s spell, Zee starts seeing frightening things, including what feels like… looks like… a ghost. Zee knows that somehow, Mr. Scratch is at the center of everything; now, she has to get Elijah and Nellie – yes, her bully – to help her save the ghost, themselves, and their town. Filled with fantastically creepy moments, there are great themes of feminism and family in Ghost Girl. Zee embraces her Ghost Girl moniker, put on her by Nellie, to get to the bottom of all the mysteries plaguing her town, but the talent also connects her to her mother, who died giving birth to her. Guilt, grief, and anger power the subplots in Ghost Girl, and Ally Malinenko writes in a way that will thrill and chill readers as powerfully as it will let readers know that she sees them. There are some genuinely creepy, unsettling moments that will satisfy any spooky fiction fan, making this a story to booktalk to your burgeoning horror fans.

 

Posted in Horror, Teen, Young Adult/New Adult

Spooky Reads for Halloween: The Lost Girls by Sonia Hartl

The Lost Girls: A Vampire Revenge Story, by Sonia Hartl, (Sept. 2021, Page Street Kids), $17.99, ISBN: 9781645673149

Ages 13+

Holly has been a teen since 1987, when her then-boyfriend, Elton, turned her into a vampire, and it’s not nearly as awesome as the movies would have you think. She’s stuck getting crappy part-time jobs at places like Taco Bell, she’s compelled to follow Elton wherever he goes – that whole sire business – and let’s not even talk about her crimped 1987 hair. She’s pretty much resigned to smelling like taco grease and draining lecherous guys in dark alleys when she meets Rose and Ida: two of Elton’s other ex-girlfriends. He turned Ida in 1921, and Rose in 1954, and they’ve got a plan to kill Elton and free themselves, but they need Holly’s help. The three bond over their shared plan and shared trauma and form a plan to get to Elton before he turns another girl, Parker. The only thing is, Holly discovers that she’s falling for Parker and doesn’t want to involve her in Elton’s mess. Then again, what better revenge is there than to steal your ex’s girl before you put an end to him?

The Lost Girls has been described as John Tucker Must Die but with queer, feminist vampires, and that works pretty darn well for me. The overall storyline is good and the characters are nicely fleshed out. It’s filled with dark humor and a strong supporting cast, including Stacey, Holly’s best friend who has her own afterlife issues to reckon with. There are moments of brilliance – Ida’s story in particular stands out, as does Holly’s backstory – but it doesn’t always come together to keep pages turning; there are moments of lag that I hard a hard time working through. I’m still handselling this one to my library teens, because of the positive female character development and the storyline that shows young women working together to build up and support one another.

I’m editing this because I feel like I need to talk more about the theme of toxic femininity in this book, too. The book provides an excellent look into the concept of toxic femininity – something not as often discussed as toxic masculinity – using Holly’s mother as a case study, but also looking at the relationships between Holly, Rose, and Ida to Elton. Toxic femininity makes women believe they need to accept abuse and dominance; that their value is in being prized as a sexual object. Holly’s mother is not only a victim of this toxicity, but passes it onto her daughter. Holly’s mother dates Holly’s schoolmates’ fathers, using her sexuality as a weapon to brandish in the faces of the women and families left behind by these men, who will ultimately leave her, too. Rose and Ida come from time periods – the 1950s and 1920s – when women were largely “seen and not heard”, but the afterlife has given them an agency they didn’t always posses in their time among the living. When you read The Lost Girls, focus on this and talk about it, because it’s just brilliantly done.

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

‘Tis the season for great graphic novel reading!

I know, that was awful, but trying to find new graphic novel headlines is tough! With that, let the games begin.

 

Barb the Last Berzerker, by Dan Abso & Jason Patterson, (Sept. 2021, Simon & Schuster), $13.99, ISBN: 9781534485716

Ages 8-12

A young Berzerker warrior is on a mission to save her fellow warriors after a villain named Witch Head takes them captive. With the help of a Yeti named Pork Chop, and wielding the Shadow Blade that she took from Witch Head, Barb goes on a journey that changes her thinking: where she once fought monsters, she’ll learn that monsters – including sausage-eating yetis – aren’t all bad, and not all humans are good. She meets snot goblins, vampire goats, and a giant who’s sensitive about his foot odor while calling on the power of the Shadow Blade to help her in battle. But the Shadow Blade’s power is not something to be used lightly, and Barb may find that relying on it too much could hurt more than it could help. The first in a new series, Barb is chaotic and hilarious, with gross-out jokes and positive messages about independence and unlearning endemic bias. Readers will cheer for Barb and Pork Chop, who are a buddy movie waiting to happen. Dan & Jason are the creators behind the younger readers’ series Blue, Barry, & Pancakes; visit their website to find out more about their graphic novels.

Barb the Last Berzerker has a starred review from Kirkus. It hasn’t been nominated for a CYBILS yet, hint hint!

 

Whistle: A New Gotham City Hero, by E. Lockhart/Illustrated by Manuel Preitano, (Sept. 2021, DC Comics), $16.99, ISBN: 9781401293222

Ages 13+

Yet another great DC YA graphic novel, this time from award-winning author and National Book Award Finalist, E. Lockhart. Willow Zimmerman is a 16-year-old Jewish teen activist, living in the Down River section of Gotham. It’s a run-down neighborhood and she’s tired of it being overlooked; she takes to the streets in protest when she’s not at school or at home, caring for her mother, who’s going through treatment for cancer. She works part-time in an animal shelter and feeds her friend, a stray Great Dane she’s named Leibowitz, on the side. When E. Nigma – her mom’s estranged friend – gets in touch with Willow, she learns that he’s cleaned himself up and is a successful real estate entrepreneur who runs an underground gambling promotion on the side, and he wants to give her a job. Faced with mounting bills and the fear of eviction, Willow accepts and starts earning more money than she could have ever imagined. When she and Leibowitz are attacked by Killer Croc, who has a grudge to settle with Nigma, the two realize that they can understand one another – where other people hear assorted growls and barks, Willow hears Leibowitz talking! The two decide to become a superteam and do their part to clean up Gotham: even if it means playing double agents to Nigma, aka The Riddler, and Pamela Isley, who’s helping Nigma out as her alter ego, Poison Ivy. I love the origin stories DC’s YA authors have been putting out, and their new heroes are go good, I can’t help but hope they’ll eventually show up in the big titles. Willow is a smart, likable heroine faced with big, real-world issues: lack of healthcare, a single, ailing parent, and the aggravation of living in a neighborhood that’s ignored by all but real estate developers who will gentrify for cheap and push the incumbent citizens out. She combats this first by taking it to the streets; when that isn’t working fast enough, she learns to play both sides of the game. Leibowitz is her steadfast sidekick with a funny, sly sense of humor (once we can hear him talk), and it’s great to see some Gotham familiar faces (including a surprise cameo) and a new spin on The Riddler. All around, a solid hit from DC yet again.

Whistle has not yet been nominated for a CYBILS yet – you know what to do.

 

 

Friends Forever, by Shannon Hale/Illustrated by LeUyenPham, (Aug. 2021, First Second), $12.99, ISBN: 9781250317568

Ages 9-13

The third installment in Shannon Hale’s autobiographical “Friends” series sees Shannon in eighth grade and dealing with anxiety over her looks, her grades, and her popularity. She sees her friends dating, but worries that no one wants to date her. She wants eighth grade to be her perfect year, but she just can’t seem to be happy. She becomes increasingly anxious, with OCD behaviors starting to creep into her daily life. A solidly relatable, realistic picture of the big emotions and worries facing kids as they become teens, Shannon’s adolescence in the 1980s is still every bit as relevant to tweens and teens today; with mental health issues gaining more mainstream attention today, Friends Forever can spark important conversations about the pressures tweens and teens face and coping mechanisms that can help. Friends Forever is about change and finding the courage to accept and love yourself. Beautifully illustrated, and with back matter that includes an author’s note from Shannon Hale that addresses mental health, actual school photos, a peek at LeUyen Pham’s sketchbook, and notes from Shannon Hale and LeUyen Pham to one another, just like real friends share. Download a free activity kit with discussion questions and a Readers Theater script, and find activities for all three Friends books at the Real Friends website.

Friends Forever is a first round Graphic Novels CYBILS nominee.

More to come!

Posted in Horror, Teen, Young Adult/New Adult

Excellent Adult-YA Crossover Horror: Reprieve by James Han Mattsson

Reprieve : A Novel, by James Han Mattson, (Oct. 2021, William Morrow), $27.99, ISBN: 9780063079915

Ages 16+

Set in 1997 in Nebraska and taking place largely in a full-contact escape room, Reprieve is a horror/thriller that you want to devour – and yet, you don’t, because there’s so much to think over as you read. Kendra is a teenager uprooted after her father is killed in a car accident; moving to Nebraska with her mother and living with her aunt, Rae, and her cousin, Bryan, Kendra finds a job at a local escape room called Quigley House, a full-contact escape room promising terror – and cash – to those who complete it. John Forrester, the owner of the house, is a little bit on the creepy side, and is absolutely a manipulative, casual racist and not-so-casual sexist, but could he be responsible for murder? That’s the question at the heart of Reprieve, a story told in court documents and alternating points of view from the rest of the characters in the room that fateful night: Kendra, a Black teenager; Leonard, a white male hotel manager with a history of obsessive behavior who stands accused of murder; Jaidee, a gay Thai college student in love with a former English teacher – and the deceased’s college roommate; Victor, the English teacher, and his fiancee, Jane, who wanted desperately to win this game and collect the prize money. As the story unfolds, we’re confronted with casual, everyday racism and stereotyping that culminates in a horrifying crime. Social criticism, horror, well-developed characters and a consuming narrative with taut pacing, this is a book to give teens as well as your thriller/horror/suspense readers. Imagine what Jordan Peele could do with this book.

Reprieve has a starred review from Booklist.