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

Set sail for big graphic novel storytelling in The Island

Island Book, by Evan Dahm, (May 2019, First Second), $22.99, ISBN: 9781626729506

Ages 8-12

Sola lives as an outcast within her small community on an island. She is cursed – that’s what everyone says – because a Monster came to the Island when Sola was a child; everyone around her ran, but Sola alone stood before it, and it reached out to her. The destruction left in the monster’s wake, coupled with its interest in Sola sealed it: the rest of the Island branded her. As Sola reaches adolescence, she’s curious: what drew the Monster to her? Tired of living with everyone’s fear, and wanting answers, Sola leaves the island, taking to the open water. As she travels, she discovers that the Island isn’t alone: there are new lands and people to meet.

Island Book is Sola’s story. A quietly strong female protagonist, she faces adversity at home and has a curious streak that contributes to her own community’s distrust and fear of her. The plot meanders on a bit in spots, but is mostly a solid story about courage and curiosity; about friendship and working together, and about opening oneself up to new ideas and experiences. The characters are humanoid but not human; the artwork is bright and the nature is beautifully depicted.

The first in a new series, Island Book is a good choice for middle grade book discussion groups, too. Ask kids if they’ve ever felt like Sola, unable to change someone’s mind or looked down on because of their age. Does Sola do the right thing by going off on her own? Would Sola’s community encourage relationships with other beings?

There’s a soundtrack for Island Book available, along with two books of development artwork, through author Evan Dahm’s website. There’s a great review by the AV Club here.

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

Hispanic Heritage Reading: My Brigadista Year, by Katherine Paterson

My Bridgadista Year, by Katherine Paterson, (Oct. 2017, Candlewick), $15.99, ISBN: 978-0-7636-9508-8

Recommended for readers 10-14

It’s 1961, and Lora is a 13 year-old girl who signs up to be one of Fidel Castro’s Brigadistas – groups of students, some as young as 8, most between the ages of 10 and 16 – who went into the rural areas of Cuba to spend a year with families, teaching them to read and write. Lora sees this as an opportunity to grow as a student and a person; she wants to be a doctor, and she wants the space to learn and discover on her own. Her parents protest: she’s lived a comfortable life in Havana, why would she want to live in poverty for a year? With some help from her grandmother, Lora’s parents relent, and she joins the Brigadistas, promising to come home if it gets too hard. Lora is placed with a family to teach, and before she knows it, is teaching a neighboring family, too. The group becomes an extended family as she takes part in the daily chores, taking as much encouragement as she gives, but all is not easy: not everyone is in favor of the Cuban Literacy Initiative. Counter-revolutionaries have martyred those who would lift Cuba out of illiteracy in the past, and the Brigadistas know that risk is part of what they’ve signed on for.

This was the first I’ve read about the Cuban Literacy Initiative. It’s a little-talked about moment in history, and it’s fascinating. Lora is a wonderful character who we see coming of age with each turn of the page, and her students consist of parents, grandparents, and children. Things don’t come easily to Lora, but she never gives up, her larger goals in mind, and her determination at her back. This is a short but powerful book that I’d love to see on summer reading lists next year. An overview of the Cuban Literacy Initiative fills provides more information for readers who want to learn more.

Katherine Paterson is the Newbery award-winning author of Bridge to Terabithia and Jacob I Have Loved. You can visit her website to find her bio, information about her books, and interviews with the author.

As our relations with Cuba continue to open, I’d love to read more first-hand accounts from brigadistas and the rural families with whom they lived. Until then, Tulane University’s Roger Thayer Stone’s Center for Latin American Studies has some information on the campaign, and Al-Jazeera posted an interview with a former brigadista.



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

Spinning: a memoir of skating and self

Spinning, by Tillie Walden, (Sept. 2017, :01First Second), $17.99, ISBN: 9781626729407

Recommended for readers 12+

Cartoonist and illustrator Tillie Walden’s graphic memoir looks at her childhood and adolescence as a competitive figure skater and her journey out of the closet. Spinning is Walden’s chance to look back at skating (a key part of her identity for over a decade), bullying, first love, sexual abuse, depression, coming out, and the stress of outgrowing a passion.

Sensitive but visceral, Tillie quietly tells her story. The rigor of her skating routine, the loneliness of practice and traveling without her parents and the stress of competition. She talks about her first love, and the pain of enforced separation. It’s a coming of age story that teenagers will embrace. Tillie speaks plainly, but with powerful emotion underneath the surface. I felt her crushing depression and anxiety as I continued throughout the book; told in two-color artwork, Tillie’s often in the shadows or drawn solitary, alone, speaking volumes to the reader.

Spinning is brilliant and beautiful.  If you’ve ever competed in a sport, played an instrument, or felt alone, Tillie Walden understands you. A strong addition to graphic novel and memoir collections.

Tillie Walden is an Ignatz award winner. You can find her webcomic, On a Sunbeam, online and more of her comics at her website. Spinning has received a starred review from Booklist and mentioned in Entertainment Weekly’s LGBTQ YA Book List for 2017.

Posted in Fantasy, Science Fiction, Teen

Gork the Teenage Dragon serves up scaly green goodness

Gork the Teenage Dragon, by Gabe Hudson, (July 2017, Knopf), $24.95, ISBN: 9780375413964

Recommended for readers 14+

Gork’s a dragon, but don’t even think about mentioning Smaug to him. He’s not happy at all with the way dragons are portrayed in Earth fiction, and he’s here to set the record straight. So begins the story of Gork: teenage dragon, student at WarWings Academy, orphaned on Earth during his parents’ mating mission and raised by his scientist grandfather, Dr. Terrible.

Starting off on Crown Day – the day dragon and dragonette cadets at the Academy agree to be mating partners – Gork has one goal in mind: to get the luscious Runcita Floop to wear his crown and agree to be his queen. The problem? His nickname is Weak Sauce, his Will to Power ranking is Snacklicious (if you’re a gamer, think of Will to Power as a CON/DEX/overall attractiveness level) and he’s got a bad habit of fainting when he’s scared. If Runcita says yes, she and Gork will go off in his spaceship and find a planet to conquer together. If Gork can’t sea the deal, he’s doomed to be a slave.

Gork has a heck of a day ahead of him: Dean Floop – his intended’s father – hates him; his sadistic grandfather is on the run from the Dean, he’s being hunted down by a group of WarWings cadets that have murder on their minds, and the Trenx, a fellow cadet who had similarly low ratings, has seemingly blossomed overnight. Before the day is out, Gork will have to survive and learn some hard truths about his family. He’d better keep his best friend – a robot dragon named Fribby – by his side.

Gork is an out-there novel. It’s a page-turner, and Gork is an endearing first-person narrator, if a bit single-minded in focus. He’s obsessed with mating, but he is a teenager, after all. He refers a lot to his “scaly green ass” a lot, which gets tedious. Gork’s story uses fantasy to tackle some very real points: bullying, friendship, self-esteem, and falling in love. It’s a much deeper novel than the title “teenage dragon”encompasses; it’s a fantasy, a YA romance, and a coming of age story.

Posted in Fantasy, Teen, Young Adult/New Adult

Creepy historical fantasy: Fear the Drowning Deep

drowning-deepFear the Drowning Deep, by Sarah Glenn Marsh, (Oct. 2016, Sky Pony Press), $16.89, ISBN: 9781510703483

Recommended for ages 12+

Sixteen year-old Bridey Corkill has hated the ocean ever since she watched her grandfather drown himself, called by mysterious music that only he could hear. She was ridiculed for saying that the sea took her grandfather, so she’s learned to keep to herself, but things are changing in her Isle of Man village. A dead girl washes ashore, and so does a handsome young man, still alive but bleeding from something that attacked him in the water. Bridey calls him Fynn, because he claims no memory of anything that happened or who he is, and she finds herself falling for him. But things are getting worse when other girls start disappearing, and the town starts pointing their fingers at Fynn. Bridey – who’s now apprenticed to the village witch – knows there is something in the water that’s to blame, but no one wants to listen to her, except for the woman she’s apprenticed to; and she’s got secrets of her own. Can Bridey save everyone she loves from walking into the water and never returning?

Set in 1913, Fear the Drowning Deep is good, creepy historical fantasy. Setting the story on the Isle of Man in pre-World War I era Europe gives a true feeling of isolation, providing an almost claustrophobic mood as Bridey tries desperately to unlock the secrets of the water before it takes any more of her friends or family. Every single character in this book has depth and lends something to the narrative. The prose is beautiful; literary and fantastic all at once; the dreamlike haze she spins for the water’s victims almost lulls readers into a similar, comforting feeling before the author chills you with the revelation that someone has been taken. The relationship between Bridey and Fynn will please YA romance fans, and the pairing of Bridey and Morag, the village witch, is wonderful: atagonistic yet loving, strong and supportive. There’s intrigue, secrets, and revelations to be had all around, making this a solid dark fantasy/romance read for your teens. Pair this with Ananda Braxton-Smith’s Merrow forĀ a pair of water-based mysteries with a touch of the paranormal.



Posted in Fantasy, Fiction, Historical Fiction, Teen, Tween Reads

Folklore, myth, and memory: Merrow

merrowMerrow, by Ananda Braxton-Smith, (NOv. 2016, Candlewick), $16.99, ISBN: 9780763679248

Recommended for ages 12+

Twelve year-old Neen Marrey lives with her Aunt Oshag on Carrick Island. Her father drowned and her mother disappeared when she was a baby; now, she and her aunt endure the town gossip – that her mother was a merrow, a mermaid, that returned to the ocean and her father drowned himself trying to reach her. Oshag dismisses the gossip as nonsense, but the myth keeps Neen going; she wants desperately to believe that her mother didn’t just desert her; that maybe even Neen herself has merrow in her, and can reconcile with her mother one day.

Merrow is beautiful and heartbreaking. Braxton-Smith spins a tale that weaves together historical fiction, Celtic folklore, and a coming of age story. Neen and Oshag are both incredibly constructed characters that come alive; characters that you come to ache for. The supporting cast are equally likable and believable, and having such a small group of characters adds to the intimacy of the novel.

This is a gorgeous novel that literary fiction readers, readers of magical realism, realistic fiction, and historical fiction alike will love. Merrow has received four starred reviews: Booklist, Publishers Weekly, Kirkus Reviews, and School Library Journal. Maybe the Printz committee will agree?

Posted in Fantasy, Teen

The Well of Prayers continues the Temple of Doubt series

well-of-prayersThe Well of Prayers, by Anne Boles Levy, (Aug. 2016, Sky Pony Press), $17.99, ISBN: 9781634501934

Recommended for ages 13+

The second book in Anne Boles Levy’s Temple of Doubt series picks up soon after the events of Temple of Doubt. Hadara, now 16, works as a healer’s apprentice. Her father has been promoted to portreeve, a local official. The Azwans are keeping an eye on Hadara and her family, and they’re also cracking down on the community. Homes being searched for heretical items – strictly in the eye of the beholder – and anyone branded a disbeliever is punished severely. Hadara is horrified when she sees one of her neighbors in custody, and tries to think of ways to hamper the culling and mass punishments.

She also discovers that Valeo, the guard she thought dead, is very much alive; it brings up feelings that she thought she successfully pushed down. This, mixed with her continuing suspicion of the god Nihil, and her own concerns about the demon they may or may not have destroyed at the end of Temple of Doubt help set plans in motion that could put Hadara, her family, and possibly all of Port Sapphire in Nihil’s sights.

I really enjoyed the second book in the Temple of Doubt series. I felt more comfortable with the characters, the setting, and the overall faith structure running throughout the book, something that confused me a bit in the first novel. The continuing struggle over who decides what is “faithful enough” vs. “sinful” is all too relevant today; teens will be sucked right in, particularly with Hadara’s mixed emotions about herself and her place in this world, her feelings for Valeo, and her questions about her faith. Give this series to your high fantasy fans and booktalk Hadara with other positive female protagonists like Katniss, Celaena (from Throne of Glass), and Greta from Scorpion Rules.

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

Teddycats: A coming of age animal adventure

teddycatsTeddycats, by Mike Storey (July 2016, Razorbill) $16.99, ISBN: 9781101998830

Recommended for ages 9-13

Bill Garra is a Teddycat – a unique jungle-dwelling mammal, living high up in the tallest trees; a community they call the Cloud Kingdom, far away from the other animals in the forest. The Teddycat elders want to keep Cloud Kingdom a secret; to remain separate, to keep outsiders out. Bill doesn’t always understand the rules the elders make; rules like keeping their extra sharp claws hidden unless they need to climb or get out of a life-or-death situation, and he definitely doesn’t understand why he has to keep his friend, Luke, an olingo, out of Cloud Kingdom. When he sneaks Luke into Cloud Kingdom for a look around, the problems seem to begin: predators, including humans, take notice and stalk the Teddycat community. When Bill’s best friend’s sister is trapped and taken by the humans, the Teddycat elders vote to go into hiding, but Bill sets out to rescue her, along with an old frenemy, Omar, a grizzled scout named Diego, a recuperating jaguar named Felix, and Luke. Bill and his group risk banishment from Cloud Kingdom as they face the dangers of the forest.

Wow. Look at this cover. I thought I was going to read a sweet animal adventure when I picked up Teddycats, but what I got was an emotional read about the dangers of deforestation and trophy hunting and a strong subplot about isolationism. Throughout the novel, Bill discovers the downside to the elders’ choice of isolation and the power of teamwork. The big danger here, though, does not come from other animals: it’s the humans, referred to as “Joe” by the Teddycats. They burn, kill, and leave devastation in their wake. They want to sell the Teddycat claws as trinkets, or figure out how to weaponize them, with no regard for the lives they impact. It’s a strong statement, and it may affect some more sensitive readers when animals die. It’s not over the top or gory, but the narrative is matter of fact in stating that these animals are at the mercy of humans and the havoc we wreak.

There are some strong characters in this book. Bill is the self-centered youth who comes of age on his journey; the elders are the frightened old men who are afraid of change; Felix is the wise old cat, and Diego is the grizzled voice of experience. There are more wonderful characters to meet here, and it’s a great opportunity to learn more about animals in the forests of the Andes. Yup, I looked it up. I didn’t see “teddycats” specifically listed, but I did find Olingos versus Olinguitos, which were much more recently discovered. I’m making a wild guess here, but I’m relating Olinguitos to Teddycats (since that’s also what came up in an initial Google search on “Teddycat”).

olingo olinguito
Left: Olingo; Right: Olinguito (images via Google Images)

Grab an atlas to booktalk this story! Explain where the Andes are, talk about some of the residents of the forest that they’ll encounter in the book, and use this opportunity to talk up conservation and preservation of our rain forests, our environment, and the folks we share this world with. Heck, show them the scene from the Spongebob Squarepants movie, when they discover Shell City, and see all the dried starfish and sea life that gets sold as souvenirs!

Talk about movies like Finding Nemo and Happy Feet, that also deal with human impact on the environment, and then talk about all the ways they can help make a difference. Whether it’s writing a letter to a politician, cleaning up after themselves, or being aware of the world around them, they count.

This is a solid animal adventure story with a message; animal fiction fans and kids that are on the lookout for environmentally conscious stories will love it.

Posted in Fiction, Fiction, Graphic Novels, Middle Grade, Realistic Fiction, Teen, Tween Reads, Young Adult/New Adult

Sea Change: Memories of Summers Past

SEACHANGESea Change, by Frank Viva (May 2016, TOON Books), $18.95, ISBN: 9781935179924

Recommended for ages 10+

Twelve year-old Eliot is dreading summer vacation this year: his parents are shipping him off to his great-uncle’s fishing village in Point Aconi, in a remote area of Nova Scotia. Summer starts off pretty rough: his uncle is cranky, Eliot has to crew his fishing boat, which means he’s up before the sun is, and he’s not the most able-bodied crew member. Plus, there are bullies who can’t wait to get him alone and beat him up, just for being from somewhere different. This is a summer vacation? Slowly but surely, though, Eliot starts seeing Point Aconi through different eyes; he starts to see the place that his mother claims changed her life. Is he going to run back to his home in Lakefield when summer’s over, or will Point Aconi leave a little piece of itself in him?

Sea Change is a gorgeous coming-of-age story. It’s a graphic novel, but in a completely different sense from what pops into most people’s heads when they hear the words “graphic novel”: written in prose with quirky, evocative drawings in shades of blue, black, cream, and hot pink, the words themselves become part of the graphics: a curve, coming out of Eliot’s mouth as he describes being sick; following the trajectory of his uncle’s beard; morphing into a fishing line, where a day’s catch is hanging out to dry. The words and illustrations gel beautifully together to create an entire reading experience that will draw you in and leave you thinking of your own summer vacations. It’s all here: going fishing, swimming at the local swimming hole, a group of kids running barefoot and having fun, and the first blush of a summer romance. Skillfully woven into the story are some more serious topics about families in crisis.

This would make a great first book to introduce at the beginning of the next school year – don’t come at me with torches, I know we’re barely into summer vacation! – when the dreaded “what I did on my summer vacation” essays are assigned, maybe ask your readers to create art with their words and pictures. A picnic blanket, with the meal itself marching around the blanket, describing the treats laid out; words wandering up the edge of a beach umbrella or tossed on the sea, describing a day at the beach.

If you’re a kid, you’ll enjoy reading about another kid’s adventures over a summer break. If you’re an adult, read this book and just bask in the nostalgia of summers gone by. Then go create some new ones with the people in your life.

Frank Viva’s illustrations have appeared in the New York Times and The New Yorker. He’s also authored the TOON Book, A Trip to the Bottom of the World. Sea Change has received starred reviews from Publishers Weekly and Shelf Awareness, and Publishers Weekly has also designated it one of the Best Books for Summer 2016. TOON offers a free, downloadable discussion guide for parents and educators.






Posted in Fantasy, Fiction, Middle Grade, Tween Reads

It’s a Fairy Tale Summer: Girl in the Tower

girl in the tower_1The Girl in the Tower, by Lisa Schroeder/Illustrated by Nicoletta Ceccoli, (March 2016, Henry Holt & Co.), $16.99, ISBN: 9780805095135

Recommended for ages 8-12

In true fairy tale fashion, we have an evil queen, a magic spell, and a hidden princess. Young Violet has never known life outside of the castle tower: the evil Queen Bogdana imprisoned her mother shortly after Violet was born, believing that Violet’s beauty will allow her to create a spell that will make her just as beautiful. Bogdana enchanted Violet’s father, sending him away with no memories of his wife or new baby. Mother and daughter pass their days making up stories for one another, alone in their small cell. Thankfully, the palace staff looks after the two, even creating a beautiful garden to sneak the young girl out to once in a while, where she plays with the hummingbirds that live in the garden. As Violet nears the age where the queen can work her spell, she takes Violet, telling her she will become a princess and be adopted by Bogdana and the king, but can never see her mother again. Violet’s mother makes the sacrifice for her daughter’s sake, but Violet is far too smart for Bogdana – she knows something is strange in the castle, and she’s going to find out and reunite her family.

girl in the tower_3

This is a wonderfully modern fairy tale that retains the sense of wonder and magic from classic tales. Violet is a spunky, smart young princess in training, the Bogdana is a perfectly evil queen with a deep-seated self-esteem complex. Ms. Schroeder may humanize Bogdana by letting us in on her motivation, but it doesn’t change the fact that she’s done horrible things to people for the most insipid purposes, and Violet – a naturally lovely and kind foil to Bogdana’s darkness – is going to set the balance right. It’s a great book with strong heroines – her mother is pretty outstanding, herself – and I can’t wait to get this onto my shelves and into my booktalks. I love my fairy tales – the kids here all know it – so I’ll be chattering this up alongside Imelda and the Goblin King for a nice discussion on smart heroines. The black and white illustrations by Nicoletta Ceccoli add beautiful depth to the story.

girl in the tower_7

Add this one to your middle grade fairy tale collections, and take a look at some more of the artwork here:

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