Posted in Fiction, Graphic Novels, Middle Grade, Non-fiction, Teen, Tween Reads, Young Adult/New Adult

Graphic Novels check-in: CYBILS and some new books!

The TBR catch-up continues. Wow, did I overextend myself over the quarantine, but who can blame me? The books have been AMAZING. I know I’ve been light on the middle grade novels, but I promise you, they are coming, too. For now, here are a couple of CYBILS nominees, and some new books for you to investigate.


Black Heroes of the Wild West: Featuring Stagecoach Mary, Bass Reeves, and Bob Lemmons : A TOON Graphic Novel, by James Otis Smith/Introduction by Kadir Nelson, (Sept. 2020, TOON Graphics), $16.95, ISBN: 9781943145515
Ages 8-12
This is a MUST buy for your nonfiction and graphic novel shelves. The New York Times calls Black Heroes of the Wild West “Comics That Dismantle the Cowboy Myth”, and I couldn’t put it any better. Three profiles: Stagecoach Mary Fields, a woman who ran her own business, was a stagecoach driver, and played cards and chomped cigars with the best of the boys; Deputy US Marshal Bass Reeves, the first black deputy US marshal west of the Mississippi, who was charming and caught the bad guys with style; and Bob Lemmon, a Texas horseman who calmed wild mustangs by making them believe he was one of their own. Incredible lives, told in small moments in this book that will whet kids’ (and adults!) interests with stories of life in the Wild West. I loved the stories, the artwork, and the incredible history lesson that unfolds in the back matter. It’s time to recognize the diversity of the Old West, and it’s time to celebrate the Black Lives that helped build the U.S. TOON has free, downloadable lesson plans, videos, and teachers guides for Black Heroes of the Wild West, and the book received a starred review from Booklist. One can only hope there’s a second volume in the works. Black Heroes is a CYBILS graphic novels nominee.
Manga Classics: Anne of Green Gables, by L.M Montgomery/Adapted by Crystal Chan/Illustrated by Kuma Chan, (Nov. 2020, Manga Classics), $19.99, ISBN: 9781947808188
Ages 12+
I’ve been happy to have Manga Classics available for my tweens and teens who struggle with reading the classics, but devour manga. This latest one gave me the chance to sit down again with Anne of Green Gables, the classic story of the orphan reluctantly adopted by older siblings Marilla and Matthew Cuthbert, taking place on Canada’s Prince Edward Island. The artwork will immediately draw in manga readers, and the story is faithfully adapted here. Anne’s melodrama is wonderfully translated from words to pictures, and Marilla’s ice queen exterior is softened considerably by the artwork, which shows the struggle to keep herself at a distance as this quirky red-headed girl wins her heart. Manga Classics has been doing justice by my library kids for a few years now; I’ll make sure to keep this one handy, too. If you have readers who are interested in diving deeper, display and booktalk author LM Montgomery’s illustrated biography, House of Dreams; Anne’s life is heavily influenced by the author and will make for a wonderful author study for middle and high school students. Anne of Green Gables is a CYBILS graphic novels nominee.
Last Pick: Rise Up, by Jason Walz, (Oct. 2020, First Second), $17.99, ISBN: 9781626728950
Ages 12+
The third book in the Last Pick series is finally here! Last Pick is a sci fi trilogy where Earth has been taken over by a cruel alien race; they’ve taken countless humans as slave labor across the universe, but the disabled; the elderly; the too young are left behind. These “last picked” have banded together to fight the alien menace, and Wyatt – a teen boy with autism – is at the head of the revolution. His sister, Sam, has been sent off into the stars, but she’s been fomenting revolution, too, with her new girlfriend, Mia; an underground freedom radio broadcaster. In this final chapter of the trilogy, everything that’s been put into motion over the last two books is coming together, and the aliens won’t know what hit them. The artwork ad action explode off the page while the very human story of resistance, family, and burgeoning romance keep the reader turning pages. This is one of the best sci-fi series in recent years, with intense, smart portrayals of characters who are left behind and how take charge to save a planet. I recently took part in a graphic novels panel, Librarians Love Comics!, and one of my colleagues mentioned how much he liked this series, so don’t just take my word for it. Last Pick is librarian-approved.
The Challenger Disaster: Tragedy in the Skies (History Comics), by Pranas T. Naujokaitis, (Oct. 2020, First Second), $19.99, ISBN: 9781250174291
Ages 8-12
It’s the year 2386, and the students on Space Station Sagan are celebrating Challenger Day. The students begin their presentations, and through the magic of AI and holograms, meet the seven members of the 1986 Space Shuttle Challenger crew, hear about their selection and training for the Challenger mission, and what went so horribly wrong that day in January 1986. Written as nonfiction within a fictional setting, The Challenger Disaster creates fun, engaging characters and lets them interact with actual people from US history to deliver a narrative that is great for history and STEM readers, and graphic novel readers alike. Each member of the 1986 Challenger crew is developed and invites readers to meet the people behind the legend, behind the headlines. Back matter includes an afterword from the author about growing up in a post-Challenger world and additional Challenger facts. The artwork introduces a fun science fiction feel while solidly addressing the nonfiction portion of the book. Sketches and diagrams throughout will help readers gain an understanding of the many moving parts it takes for a space shuttle to come together, and the discussion on the story behind the disaster is sobering and, quite frankly, chilling. It’s a mistake that should never have been made, and it brings home the risk of stepping outside our front doors.
Fangirl: The Manga (Volume 1), by Rainbow Rowell/Adapted by Sam Maggs, Illustrated by Gabi Nam (Oct. 2020, Viz Media). $16.99, ISBN: 9781974715879
Ages 12+
The manga adaptation of one of Rainbow Rowell’s most beloved novels is here, and written by a force in fandom, no less. Sam Maggs has written comic book storylines for Star Wars, Star Trek, Captain Marvel, and more; she’s written Geek Girls Guides to the Galaxy and the Universe; she’s even written an original middle grade novel, Con Quest, which takes place at a thinly veiled facsimile of San Diego Comic Con. So of course she’d be the person to adapt a love letter to fan fic, fandom, and finding your own way. Cath and Wren are twin sisters heading to college. Wren is ready to make changes and become her own person, but Cath is more of an introvert, holding onto her fanfiction and her fandom for Simon Snow, a Harry Potter-esque type of story about magic and vampires. As Wren branches out and gains new (and sometimes dubious) experiences, Cath finds herself inching out of her own comfort zone thanks to her roommate and her boyfriendish friend and a classmate who’s a little too stuck on himself but so good-looking. At the same time, Cath worries about their dad, who’s alone for the first time in years, and frustrated with her professor, who doesn’t see fanfiction as a legitmate form of writing. This is only Volume 1, but its so well-adapted that the Rowell fans are going to be howling for more. The subtle shifts from “real” life to Cath’s magnum Simon Snow opus, Carry On, are wonderfully placed throughout the book, and seriously – were two characters ever better suited for a manga interpretation than Simon and Baz? The artwork is perfect; readers will love seeing their favorite characters with life breathed into them. A manga interpretation of Fangirl is going to bring new fans to Rainbow Rowell’s fanbase as the manga readers discover this series – I hope there are plans for a Carry On manga next.
Posted in Fiction, Fiction, Middle Grade, Realistic Fiction, Teen, Tween Reads

The Disaster Days is fantastic!

The Disaster Days, by Rebecca Behrens, (Oct. 2019, Sourcebooks), $16.99, ISBN: 978-1-4926-7331-6

Readers 9-13

Thirteen-year-old Hannah Steele lives in the Pelling Island community of Elliott Bay, right off the coast of Seattle. On the day she sets out on her first big babysitting assignment – the first one was just while her neighbor, Andrea, ran local errands – a major earthquake hits the Pacific Northwest. Hannah is stranded with her two younger charges, siblings Zoe and Oscar Matlock. And their pet guinea pig, Jupiter. Both kids are injured in the aftermath, and Hannah, who’s asthmatic, left her rescue inhaler at home. With the power out, cell phones down, and rescue uncertain, Hannah has to use all of her mental and physical resources to keep the kids, Jupiter, and herself alive and safe, especially when the Matlock’s house becomes an unsafe shelter.

Narrated by Hannah, The Disaster Days is a tense, consuming page-turner. By taking everything away from Hannah at the outset – adults, internet, cell phones, TV – Rebecca Behrens creates a survival story fraught with peril. The Zoe and Oscar’s home is not safe; food and medical supplies are almost nil; there’s a gas leak in the Matlock home, so Hannah moves the kids to a tent outside, where they narrowly miss an encounter with a bear. Aftershocks can hit at any moment. Hannah doesn’t know the fates of her parents; Zoe and Oscar’s mother, Andrea; or her best friend, Neha, with whom she had an argument minutes before the earthquake. Within the scope of the big disaster, Hannah copes with her world being upended, and the stress of keeping Zoe and Oscar as comfortable – which includes keeping a lot of their situation from them – as possible. She relies on a crank radio and the voice of a newscaster, Beth Kajawa, to get periodic updates that will help guide her decisions. An author’s note at the end touches on earthquakes, post-quake threats like sand volcanoes and liquefaction, and emergency preparedness. Rebecca Behrens’ author website includes free, downloadable resources for parents and educators and links to websites and online resources about earthquake science, and emergency preparedness.

The Disaster Days is reading you, and your readers, will not want to put down. Have readers who like Hatchet or Rodman Philbrick’s The Big Dark? Give them The Disaster Days. This one is a definite must-read, must-have.

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

Beautiful historical fiction: Outrun the Moon

outrun the moonOutrun the Moon, by Stacey Lee (May 2016, GP Putnam Books for Young Readers), $17.99, ISBN: 9780399175411

Recommended for ages 11+

Mercy Wong is a teenage Chinese-American girl living in 1906 San Francisco’s Chinatown. Her father labors as a launderer, her mother a fortune teller; her young brother Jack is sickly. Mercy wants to give her family much more in life, so she uses her wits and a bit of bribery to gain admission to the exclusive St. Clare’s School for Girls, convinced that she will learn the life skills and business acumen she needs to succeed in life. Life at St. Clare’s is frustrating: it’s essentially a finishing school for spoiled rich girls, and the Chinese girl is seen as beneath them – including by the school’s headmistress. Mercy’s determination is put to the ultimate test when the 1906 earthquake devastates San Francisco, destroying her school and Chinatown. Mercy pulls herself and her schoolmates together as they wait to be reunited with their families in the temporary park encampment. As the days press on and more news circulates about the devastation, Mercy sets a new task for herself: to ease the suffering of those around her.

I loved, loved, loved this book. Stacey Lee weaves a beautiful, powerful work of historical fiction, choosing a moment in time when people were forced to come together: black, white, Asian, wealthy, poor, the earthquake was the great equalizer. How the survivors chose to move forward often left me open-mouthed, as prejudices – racial and class (or perceived class) – prevailed.

Mercy Wong is the kind of protagonist whose name every reader needs to know. She’s smart, witty, determined, and full of love for her family. She has hopes and dreams, and she refuses to let other people’s ways of thinking narrow her own scope. When intimidated, she presses onward. She’s a survivor even before the earthquake hits, and in its aftermath, she becomes so much more: she becomes a beacon.

Stacey Lee brings every single character in this book to beautiful life. Every character moved me to a reaction, whether it was disgust, anger, or affection. She also reminded me that I’m as quick to judge others – even literary characters – on surface impressions – just as these seemingly skin-deep characters judge those around them. She unpacks these characters as the book progresses, and while their actions are still small-minded and cruel, the reasons are explained. She also weaves aspects of Chinese culture and true historical details into her narrative, giving us a work of historical fiction from a time period not usually touched on, through the eyes of a narrator with a very unique perspective.

I just told a colleague that I want to wrap myself up in Stacey Lee’s words; they’re beautifully written and just curl around you, even when describing dark, aching moments.

Author Stacey Lee is a We Need Diverse Books founding member. Her previous book, Under a Painted Sky, received starred reviews from PW and Kirkus, and Outrun the Moon has received a starred Kirkus review. You can read an excerpt at the Entertainment Weekly website.

Add this book to your collections, booktalk it for summer, and give it to anyone who loves good literature.


Posted in Fiction, Middle Grade, Post-apocalyptic/Dystopian, Tween Reads

The Big Dark will show you what you’re made of.

big darkThe Big Dark, by Rodman Philbrick (Jan. 2016, Blue Sky Press), $17.99, ISBN: 9780545789752

Recommended for ages 9-14

On New Year’s Eve, the lights went out. Everything went out. Charlie, a tween living with his younger sister and widowed mom in the mountains of New Hampshire, sets off on a seemingly impossible mission when he discovers that his diabetic mother doesn’t have enough medication to sustain herself for more than three weeks.

Charlie’s small town shows us how we can turn on one another – or reach out and help one another – when the worst case scenario happens. When a solar event causes all technology to fail, the entire country – maybe even the world – is knocked back to Colonial days, relying on wood stoves and preserved food to survive. There’s a volunteer policeman/school janitor who takes charge of the situation, urging everyone to band together to muddle through, and there’s a ruthless survivalist who sees his chance to form his own free state. In the middle of this power struggle, Charlie has to find a way to sneak out and search for medicine in the nearest city, at least 50 miles away. With no power and after a blizzard.

Philbrick’s books always hit like a gut punch. Whether it’s the stark The Last Book in the Universe, the heart-wrenching Freak the Mighty, or the desperation in The Big Dark, he knows how to create a taut, white-knuckled narrative that will keep you reading until the very last words are digested. He finds the humanity in the worst possible situations, and pits it against the worst in humanity. There’s always hope in a Philbrick novel. His characters keep going, keep fighting. That’s what I love about his books.

This book is realistic fiction, with a touch of dystopia. This is a scary thought, because it makes the seemingly impossible very, very real. Give this to your middle grade dystopian fans and tell them that this is what happens before The Hunger Games. Give this to your Hatchet fans, and your survival fiction readers. Tell your readers to read this, and then read Michael Northrup’s Trapped, for an interesting discussion.

Rodman Philbrick is an award-winning author of middle grade and young adult fiction. Visit his author website for interviews, teaching guides, and more information on his books.