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 Non-Fiction, picture books

Simone Biles’ lyrical picture book biography: Flying High

Flying High: The Story of Gymnastics Champion Simone Biles, by Michelle Meadows/Illustrated by Ebony Glenn, (Dec. 2020, Henry Holt & Co), $18.99, ISBN: 9781250205667

Ages 4-7

A lot of ink has been spilled and a lot of newstime has been spent on Simone Biles, whose withdrawal from several Olympic events this summer has reopened important conversations about mental health. Simone Biles has started a worldwide conversation on performance pressure and anxiety, and, more importantly, the ability to speak up and own that anxiety.

Michelle Meadows and Ebony Glenn’s late 2020 picture book biography, Flying High: The Story of Gymnastics Champion Simone Biles, touches on some of those moments within the greater story of the champion’s life so far. Told in rhyming verse, the story begins with Ms. Biles and her siblings being adopted by family members, and the moment a rainy day decided her future as a gymnast. It details the rise to her fame, but it also looks at moments like a disappointing defeat when she tried out for the national team: “Crushed by defeat, / she loses her spark. / What will it take / to rise from the dark?” The story doesn’t shy away from her sacrifices, like choosing homeschool over conventional, in-person learning, to make more time for gymnastics, and it returns, time and again, to her incredible drive to succeed. Written before Simone Biles’s Olympics withdrawal, Michelle Meadows had the understanding and the foresight to see and include moments like this in Biles’s story. Ebony Glenn’s digital artwork gives us expressive, photorealistic illustrations of Simone Biles, her family, and her teammates. She beautifully recreates the gymnast’s incredible skill, with Biles twisting, flipping, and landing with grace and style. Her facial expressions communicate volumes, whether it’s her focus, disappointment, worry, or sheer joy. Back matter elaborates on Simone Biles’s early childhood, includes fast facts about the gymnast, and sources for more reading.

Flying High: The Story of Gymnastics Champion Simone Biles has starred reviews from School Library Journal and Shelf Awareness. Visit Simone Biles’s webpage for more information about the champion, and links to her social media. Her page on the US Gymnastics website lists career highlights, and her page on the Team USA website offers more about her Olympics experience.

Posted in Non-Fiction, picture books, Preschool Reads, Toddler Reads

A Laura Gehl two-fer!

I love Laura Gehl’s books: from Peep and Egg to One Big Pair of Underwear and beyond, her stories have been hits at my storytimes and they’re just fun to read. Now, I’ve got some nonfiction by Laura Gehl to rave about that’s every bit as fun and unputdownable as her fiction is. Join me!

Odd Beasts: Meet Nature’s Weirdest Animals, by Laura Gehl/Illustrated by Gareth Lucas, (Nov. 2021, Abrams Appleseed), $8.99, ISBN: 9781419742224

Ages 2-4

A very happy book birthday to Odd Beasts! This rhyming board book introduces readers to some of nature’s wildest citizens: an armored pangolin, a frog with see-through skin, and a fish that weighs a ton are just a few of the animals waiting inside. This board book has back matter: two spreads include photos of each animal mentioned, with a brief factual paragraph. The artwork is incredible, offering colorful illustrations of each of the eight animals; they’re the perfect mixture of kid-friendly, expressive illustration and realism, making this a book readers will pick up and enjoy again and again. Sturdy pages hold up to multiple readings and definitely pass the “mom’s bag” test; I carried this one around with me for a couple of weeks. Great for an animal storytime.

Visit Laura Gehl’s author webpage for more info on her books, and great educator/caregiver resources, including coloring sheets for Odd Beasts!

 

Who Is a Scientist?, by Laura Gehl, (Oct. 2021, Millbrook Press), $9.99, ISBN: 9781728441085

Ages 4-9

Scientists are people, too! Who Is a Scientist? humanizes the science providers by providing profiles on 14 different scientists; who they are, what they study and do, and what they like to do when they’re not science-ing. Isha is a meteorologist who studies the weather, and also enjoys dancing, playing volleyball, and eating chocolate. She’s photographed dancing in a flowing red skirt on one page and operating a weather balloon on another. Names appear in bright colors to personalize each scientist, and fun photos like Isha’s show readers that scientists like karate, surfing, cooking, and painting: just like they do. Each descriptive paragraph explains what the scientists study, introducing them to fields like astronomy, neuroscience, and mechanical engineering. The group is diverse, and really encourages kids to see themselves in this book, offering a QR code to learn more about the scientists, and a flow chart to help guide readers to a field of study that may be right for them, based on their own interests. What a great way to inspire the next generation of scientists, right? Who Is a Scientist? makes science playful and fun, like it should be. A guide to phonetic pronunciations at the end of the book help readers learn to pronounce Laura Gehl’s name, and the names of each scientist.

Visit Laura Gehl’s author page for a Who Is a Scientist? educator’s guide.

Posted in Graphic Novels, Realistic Fiction, Teen, Young Adult/New Adult

Himawari House: A glimpse of adjusting to life as an expat

Himawari House, by Harmony Becker, (Nov. 2021, First Second), $17.99, ISBN: 9781250235572

Ages 14+

A glimpse into the lives of three exchange students living in Japan, Himawari House is about the friendships, frustrations, and adjustments that come with living in a new country: in this case, Japan. Nao, Hyejung, and Tina all move into Himawari House and attend the same Japanese school, but have different reasons for being there. Nao wants to reconnect to her Japanese heritage and worries about fitting in with Japanese culture. “Too Japanese” for her American life and “Too American” to Japanese classmates, she struggles with cultural identity. Hyejung, is Korean and moved to Japan to escape her overbearing parents and their unrelenting focus on her academic success. Tina is from Singapore and struggles with connection, preferring to lose herself in fandom. Although Nao’s story is the main driver, Hyejung and Tina have fully realized, moving backstories, all explored here, along with their roommates, two Japanese brothers with widely differing personalities. The group all come together and live here at Himawari House, and the story is a slice of life look into a year in their lives, as they all live and work side-by-side, eat, fall in and out of love, go to school, and talk late into the night. The language barriers are expertly illustrated here – largely bilingual, Japanese characters appear in many word bubbles; the dialogue has a blend of English, Japanese, Korean, and Singlish (the English Creole spoken in Singapore), with a brilliant explanation of the use of accents in the story at the end. Black and white artwork is largely realistic, with Chibi renderings to communicate extreme emotion. It’s a well-done character study and will be popular with teens and young adults.

Himawari House has starred reviews from Kirkus, Publisher’s Weekly, and School Library Journal.

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

Break the monster codes with Sleuth & Solve: Spooky

Sleuth & Solve: Spooky: Decode Mind-Twisting Mysteries Inspired by Classic Creepy Characters, by Ana Gallo/Illustrated by Victor Escandell, (Aug. 2021, Chronicle Books), $18.99, ISBN: 9781797205908

Ages 8-12

I do love a good code-breaking book, and this one is right in step with the season. Part of Chronicle’s Sleuth & Solve series, Sleuth & Solve: Spooky puts readers up against the creepiest characters to solve mysteries. Unlock a mummy’s hieroglyphics; discover the Frankenstein monster’s hideout; help a deceased aunt keep her promise to her niece. There are nine mysteries to solve, with a cryptograph available to help readers break the codes. Readers can use their problem-solving skills to unravel the mysteries, and it makes for a great addition to escape room challenges or spy school programs. The stories are told in entertaining comic book style, with characters wandering around the page offering prompts and thinking points. Each spooky creature gets a little factual bio at the beginning of the section, giving readers some context to the game as it unfolds. Great for cooperative gaming, the mysteries work best when teams can work together to solve the puzzles.

Display and booktalk with escape room books like the Escape Room Adventure series from Schiffer Books. Check out Sleuth & Solve and Sleuth & Solve: History for more code-breakers in the series.

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 Fantasy, Fiction, Middle Grade, Tween Reads, Uncategorized

Anne Ursu’s The Troubled Girls of Dragomir Academy is brilliant!

The Troubled Girls of Dragomir Academy, by Anne Ursu, (Oct. 2021, Walden Pond Press), $17.99, ISBN: 9780062275127

Ages 9-13

Anne Ursu is an undisputed champion of kidlit fantasy. I’ve devoured The Real Boy and Breadcrumbs and am in awe of how she creates these incredible worlds with characters that are so realistic, so well-written, that looking up and realizing I’m still in my living room, dog across my legs, with a book in my lap, can be a little jarring. Her latest story, The Troubled Girls of Dragomir Academy, is kidlist feminist fantasy at its best. Taking place in a fantasy world and time, Marya Lupu is a girl living in a kingdom under attack from an army called The Dread. Her parents are straight-up awful; they dote on her brother, Luka, because in this world, the young men are sent into service as sorcerers to fight the dread while, if they’re lucky, the girls and families get to live off the sorcerer’s reputation. This sets the siblings up against each other, which never ends well: sure enough, on the day Luka is to be evaluated by the sorcerers for his skill, chaos ensues and it leads right back to Marya. The next day, a letter from a school called the Dragmoir Academy shows up for Marya: it’s a school for wayward girls, and her parents can’t pack her off quickly enough.  What she discovers at the Academy, though, are a group of young women who are far more than just a bunch of “troubled” young women, and the Dragomir Academy has a darker history than they’re owning up to.

The Troubled Girls of Dragomir Academy is about women, power, and fear. It’s a school story, with different personalities and the conflict that comes with putting that many personalities together under stressful circumstances; it’s also a story of hidden women, hidden messages, and who really controls the dialogue, whether it comes to today’s news or a high-fantasy novel about a land under threat from a horrific enemy that devastates everything in its path. Brilliantly written, with characters that readers will love; Marya is a smart young woman who’s been beaten down for a long time; unlike many of the other girls in the novel, though, she refuses to second-guess or question herself when it’s time to take action, and she motivates her schoolmates to own their own power, too.

Anne Ursu is an award-winning, National Book Award-nominated fantasy author. Visit her website for more information about her books and teacher guides, and upcoming events.

The Troubled Girls of Dragomir Academy has a starred review from Kirkus and is an Indie Next pick.

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

Garlic and the Vampire: An unlikely friendship story

Garlic and the Vampire, by Bree Paulsen, (Sept. 2021, Quill Tree Books), $12.99, ISBN: 9780062995087

Ages 8-12

This very sweet graphic novel is one for the readers who never think they can do the thing… until they do. Garlic and her fellow vegetables live with friendly Witch Agnes, where they work on tending her garden. But rumors start spreading that a vampire lives in the neighboring castle! Oh, no! Celery, a surly member of the bunch, decides that Garlic should go confront the vampire. After all, garlic repels vampires, right? Scared but resolute, Garlic sets out to face the vampire… and learns that rumors and stereotypes are no match for meeting and talking to someone!

I love Garlic and the Vampire’s artwork, which is so warm and comforting, so cuddly and kind, that kids are going to love it. Garlic is a childlike, feminine character; a bulb of garlic with rosy cheeks, sporting a little red dress. Carrot, her best friend, offers sage advice and comfort, and sports a shirt, tie, and overalls. The vegetable characters are all anthropomorphic, with distinct personalities and expressive faces and gestures. Alice the Witch isn’t at all threatening, with a warm burgundy top, forest green skirt, and a white apron; she sports less of a witch’s black hat and more of a pilgrim’s hat, not pointed but squared off, with a brown band around the brim. The colors throughout the book are warm, natural colors; lots of greens, oranges, and reds. Even the so-called horrible vampire looks like a kindly gentleman who’d rather have a cup of tea than rampage through a town. The character interactions are as humorous as they are gentle. Have this ready as an alternative to kids who aren’t into the scary side of Halloween, but still want to feel a part of things.

Visit Bree Paulsen’s website to see more of her illustration work, and read her webcomic, Patrik the Vampire.

Garlic the Vampire has a starred review from the Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books.

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.