Posted in picture books, Preschool Reads

Book bundle: Back-to-School Strong

I’m back after a brief staycation! How’s everyone doing? I needed to get some time before my little guy goes back to school, and help get my teen settled for his first week of college. I thought I’d start off my grand return with some books about feelings, emotions, and inner strength as our kids head back to school, so let’s see what we’ve got.

Born to Sparkle : A Story About Achieving Your Dreams, by Megan Bomgaars/Illustrated by Pete Olczyk, (Sept. 2021, Flowerpot Press), $12.99, ISBN: 9781486721108

Ages 5-8

Megan Bomgaars, a leading Down syndrome spokesperson, artist, and star of A&E’s reality TV show Born This Way, gave a powerful speech in 2010 called “Don’t Limit Me”, which inspired this book about working hard and finding your sparkle. It is unshakeable in its upbeat tone, filled with inspiring thoughts for readers: “You can sparkle. / There are no limits. / Anything is possible. / Don’t limit yourself”. The important thing here is that Megan Bomgaars follows through and lets readers know that you have to work for it, nothing that “dreams are not like wishes. You can’t just wish upon a star and then wait”, letting readers know that there are no limits but those which we place on ourselves. Colorful illustrations show a cartoony group of jungle animal friends supporting a young lioness who wants to share her sparkle and be a singer. Sparkly endpapers and a glittered texture cover make this an eye-catching, texture-friendly book for young readers, and a great storytime read. Kids starting the new school year could use this wonderful dose of encouragement.

Learn more about Megan Bomgaars by visiting her Instagram page @meganbomgaars.

 

Be Strong, Pat Zietlow Miller/Illustrated by Jen Hill, (Aug. 2021, Roaring Brook Press), $18.99, ISBN 9781250221117
Ages 3-6
Tanisha, a young girl of color, faces down the rock-climbing wall at school. Her friend Cayla can easily climb it, but Tanisha struggles doesn’t reach the top. This gets her thinking about strength and what her family says about strength. Different members of her family see strength in different ways, from showing up to help neighbors, speaking up to make changes where you see problems, and never giving up. Tanisha mulls this advice over and decides to be strong: she helps other kids at school, whether with classwork or with feeling lonely; she takes up playing an instrument, and keeps practicing. She also understands that being strong also means accepting a helping hand, because “when I’m not strong enough alone, I can be strong with someone else”. A powerful, eloquent statement for kids to hear, Be Strong is the companion book to Pat Zietlow Miller and Jen Hill’s 2018 book, Be Kind and is an essential for preschool and early classrooms.
Teaching children that strength takes so many forms – including knowing when to ask for help! – is an important and necessary lesson in creating strong, kind future adults. Gouache artwork shows a diverse group of people helping one another: a neighborhood comes together to help families who have lost their homes and lobby for safer streets. Illustrations show that doing the right thing isn’t always the easy decision, as we see Tanisha watch friends play outside as she stays indoors during recess, helping friends with math work. Images like this are so important, because we know that sometimes we’re split in what we want to do versus what we know we should do: it’s honest and affirming to see images like this, and know that Tanisha made the truly selfless decision to show up for what she knows is being kind and strong. Great for starting discussions, Be Strong is a great book for getting the school year off to a strong start.
Be Strong has a starred review from Publishers Weekly.
Small Knight and the Anxiety Monster, by Manka Kasha, (Sept. 2021, Feiwel & Friends), $18.99, ISBN: 9781250618795
Ages 4-7
A Small Knight feels pressured by their parents to be a perfect princess, but that’s not what they see for themselves. They want to go on adventures with their Teddy Bear! Worrying about how to explain this to their parents brings on an Anxiety Monster that follows Small Knight everywhere until the Knight and Teddy realize that they have to save themselves on this one. They set off on a journey and discover that the answer to defeating the Monster lies inside themself.
This is such a good book for kids to see: a nonbinary child lets all children see themselves in Small Knight’s place; the scribbly menacing anxiety monster that only Knight and Teddy can see – and that parents dismiss as imagination or “just part of being a princess” – understands that kids feel unheard or told to just endure some things as “part of childhood”; the understanding that the key to defeating the monster lies with Knight believing in themselves to call out the monster lets kids know that they have all the tools they need to beat their own anxiety monsters, no matter what those forms take. Told as a fairy tale, the watercolor and ink illustrations give us softly colored kings and queens, an adorable knight with a soft blue shirt, helm, and sword, and an anxiety  monster that kids can draw on their own and defeat in any type of class or library exercise. The artwork shows us a young hero on their journey, and it’s a hero that all kids can look up to.
Small Knight and the Anxiety Monster is a Kids’ Indie Next List Pick.
When I See Red, by Britta Teckentrup, (Sept. 2021, Prestel Junior), $14.95, ISBN: 9783791374949
Ages 3-5
A beautiful and moving meditation on anger by Britta Teckentrup, When I See Red takes readers through a young girl’s anger from beginning to end. In verse, we view her anger as a storm, untamed; the artwork dramatically whirling and spinning our heroine in the middle of her own emotional storm. She roars at the sea, her anger giving rise to tornadoes and hurricanes; we understand that anger can be a force for confidence as we see her rage propel her above the waves, allowing her to stand tall. When I See Red is about the cleansing power of unbottling rage, using one’s words, not forcing things down where they can hurt us (or unleash our own anxiety monsters!). Beautiful verses weave the girl’s anger into something powerful, propelling her forward, until, anger spent, her “monsters and dragons have disappeared”. Rage as a journey and a tool for moving forward, this is an excellent book to explain the power of positive self-expression for preschoolers and kindergarteners.
Posted in Graphic Novels, Middle Grade, Non-fiction, Teen, Tween Reads, Young Adult/New Adult

Graphic Novels for Tweens and Teens

I’m back with more graphic novels! It’s an all-consuming joy of mine; I love them all. I’ve got some newer and up-and-coming books, and some backlist that shouldn’t be missed. I’ve got books for middle grade/middle school, and I’ve got teen/YA, so let’s see what’s good!

Sylvie, by Sylvie Kantorovitz, (Jan. 2021, Walker Books US), $24.99, ISBN: 9781536207620

Ages 9-13

An autobiographical graphic novel that really hits the sweet spot for middle schoolers but will also appeal to upper elementary and high schoolers, Sylvie is the story of the author and illustrator’s life, quirks and all. She grows up in a school where her father was principal. She loves art from an early age, but her mother is focused on her pursuing a career in math or science. The book follows her family as they add more children to the family and Sylvie’s mother doggedly pushes her academically. As she grows in confidence, and seeks her father’s council, Sylvie takes control of her own future. Artwork is cartoony and friendly, and easy-to-read, first-person narration makes Sylvie readers feel like they’re talking with a friend. Discussions about racism and anti-Semitism in ’60s and ’70s France sets the stage for discussion.

Candlewick/Walker Books US has a sample chapter available for a preview.

 

Tell No Tales: Pirates of the Southern Seas, by Sam Maggs/Illustrated by Kendra Wells, (Feb. 2021, Amulet), $21.99, ISBN: 9781419739668

Ages 10-14

Another middle school-geared book, Tell No Tales is a fictionalized account of pirate Anne Bonny, pirate Mary Read, and their female and non-binary pirate crew. They have a growing reputation, but a privateer is on their heels: Woodes Rogers, a failed pirate turned pirate hunter for the Crown, has sworn to wipe the stain of piracy from the seas. There are strong positive female and non-binary characters, based on characters from history, but the overall story falters, leaving readers to look for the thread in between the individual stories of Bonny’s crew, all of which are fascinating. The artwork is colorful, manga-inspired, and will grab viewers. Back matter includes a word on the real-life exploits of Anne Bonny and Mary Read, notes, and a bibliography.

Publishers Weekly has an interview with Sam Magga and Kendra Wells. 

Fantastic Tales of Nothing, by Alejandra Green & Fanny Rodriguez, (Nov. 2020, Katherine Tegen Books), $12.99, ISBN: 9780062839473

Ages 8-13

One of the most beautifully illustrated graphic novels I’ve ever seen, Fantastic Tales of Nothing is one of heck an epic fantasy for middle graders and tweens, and early teens. Nathan is a human living what he considers a pretty ordinary life until that fateful day when he wakes up in the middle of nowhere and meets a being named Haven and a race of shape shifters called the Volken. As the unlikely group find themselves on a quest, Nathan also learns that he isn’t that ordinary – he has mysterious power in side of him, and the fate of Nothing lies in his hands. Vivid color, breathtaking fantasy spreads, and solidly constructed worldbuilding lays the foundation for what could be a groundbreaking new fantasy series for middle graders, with nonbinary and Latinx representation to boot. Where are the starred reviews for this book?

Tales of Nothing received IndieNext Honors. The website has more information about the characters, authors, and upcoming projects.

 

Poems to See By: A Comic Artist Interprets Great Poetry, by Julian Peters, (March 2020, Plough Publishing House), $24, ISBN: 9780874863185

Ages 12+

Illustrator Julian Peters has taken 24 poems by some of the most recognizable names in the art form, and brought them to life using different art forms, from manga to watercolor to stark expressionist black and white.  Organized into six areas of introspection: Seeing Yourself; Seeing Others; Seeing Art; Seeing Nature; Seeing Time, and Seeing Death, Peters illustrates such master works as “Caged Bird” by Maya Angelou, “Annabel Lee”, by Edgar Allan Poe, and “Juke Box Love Song” by Langston Hughes. It’s a great way to invite middle school, high school, and college students to deep dive into some of the greatest works of poetry.

Marvin: Based on The Way I Was, by Marvin Hamlisch with Gerald Gardner/Adapted and Illustrated by Ian David Marsden, (Feb. 2020, Schiffer Kids), $12.99, ISBN: 9780764359040

Ages 9-13

This graphic adaptation of PEGOT (Pulitzer, Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, Tony) winner Marvin Hamlisch’s biography is one I did not see coming! The legendary musician, composer, and conductor discusses his family’s flight from Hitler’s Austria and settling in America, Hamlisch’s admittance to Julliard at the age of 6, and the intense anxiety that plagued him before every performance. He tells readers about attending high school with Christopher Walken and Liza Minelli, and playing the piano for Judy Garland as a teen; about composing pop radio hits and learning to compose music for a motion picture as he went along. By the time he was 30, he’d won his first major award. Hamlisch’s voice is funny, warm, and conversational throughot, and Marsden’s realistic art has touching moments, particularly between Hamlisch and his father. A great read for theatre and music fans – this one is going to be my not-so-secret weapon.

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

Middle Grade SF Mystery: The Unexplainable Disappearance of Mars Patel

The Unexplainable Disappearance of Mars Patel, by Sheela Chari, (Oct. 2020, Candlewick Press), $17.99, ISBN: 9781536209563

Ages 9-13

Mars Patel is a middle schooler with a penchant for getting in trouble. He and his friend, Aurora, love pranks and practical jokes that land them in detention, but when Aurora disappears – followed by his friend, Jonas – Mars is determined to find out what happened. All signs are pointing toward Oliver Pruitt, a tech genius (think Elon Musk) and Mars’s hero. Pruitt runs an elite school for the best and brightest; a school that Mars’s own school tests for every year, and he has a podcast that seems to be dropping hints tailor-made for Mars. Mars and his group of friends – Toothpick, JP, and Caddie – start digging and investigating, which puts them on Pruitt’s radar, and that’s when the kids learn that Oliver Pruitt may not be the benevolent mentor everyone thinks he is. Based on an award-winning podcast, this is the first in a series that mixes mystery, sci-fi, and a little touch of the paranormal.

There is so much going on in this book that I didn’t want it to end! Mars and his friends are a great group of kids; well-written and fully realized on the page. There’s a lot happening that we don’t know about in this first volume: what does Mars’s mom do for a living, for starters? All roads in this book lead to Oliver Pruitt. There’s science, conspiracy theories, and, at its heart, an engrossing character-driven story told in narrative, e-mails, and text messages. The end will leave you impatiently waiting for the next volume, and I’ve just subscribed to the podcast to learn more. A definite win for bookshelves and readers.

The Unexplainable Disappearance of Mars Patel has a starred review from School Library Journal. You can read a sample and get a free, downloadable discussion guide at Candlewick’s website.

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

Graphic Novels, Life Stories

I’ve been really loving the graphic novels coming out this year. Lots of life stories have found their voices in the pages of graphic novels; it’s a trend I’m enjoying, because the artwork really helps bring a person’s story to full, visual life, with little nuances and nods to things not always easily described with just words. Shades of grey; pops of color; a flash of a poster in a teen’s room: these are all things that a graphic novel can illustrated and communicate much more easily and quickly, reaching visual readers who may otherwise not experience the full breadth of a story. Here are some great lives I’ve read about recently.

Frankie, by Rachel Dukes, (Oct. 2020, Oni Press), $17.99, ISBN: 9781549306884

Ages 12+

This is the sweetest book! Cartoonist Rachel Dukes is the Lucy Knisley of pet parenthood, as she chronicles life with her cat, Frankie. Rachel and their spouse, Mike, find the cutest black and white kitten outside their door, and Rachel is in love. Inspired by Rachel’s webcomic, Frankie is a series of vignettes in pet parenting, with comics taken from their webcomic and with some new material. Cat-lovers and pet-lovers will all recognize moments like Frankie choosing Rachel’s backpack over a snuggly new bed; the conversations we have with our furry friends; the nicknames we give them, and many, many, bedtime moments (what is it about sneezing in our faces as they settle in on our chests?). Frankie is adorable and full of personality that comes shining through the page. Rachel’s artwork is fun and expressive, silly and upbeat: it’s just what so many of us need to read these days! Each vignette has a name that pet parents will relate to, including moments like “Language Barriers”, “The Box”, “Night Song”, and “Cuddles”. Rachel includes a section on Quick Tips for Aspiring Cat Parents. Talk up to your readers who love Chi’s Sweet Home and Pusheen, and visit Rachel’s Frankie website for adorable downloadables! See more of their artwork on Rachel’s Instagram, and read more of their comics and buy some swag by clicking here, at MixTape Comics.

Little Josephine: A Memory in Pieces, by Valérie Villieu/Illustrated by Raphaël Sarfati, (Apr. 2020, Humanoids Inc.), $17.99, ISBN: 9781643375342

Ages 12+

Visiting nurse Valérie Villieu tells the story of Josephine, a patient that touched her heart, in this aching and quietly lovely story that examines the bonds between patient and nurse while it gives readers a look at the unsettling treatment of the elderly by overwhelmed social workers and home health aides. Josephine, an Alzheimer’s patient, lives alone in a Paris apartment when Valérie is assigned to her. While Josephine is at first resistant to Valérie’s help, the two eventually find common ground in humor. As Valérie strives to learn more about her charge, she discovers that Josephine is a playful, charming woman who enjoys conversation. Valérie expresses her frustration at an overloaded health care system, which leaves an elderly woman in the care of a conservator who just isn’t able to keep up with their caseload – a relatable, upsetting issue. Josephine’s lapses are creatively envisioned in fractured panels, where she’s swept away on her bed, or thrust into the middle of a chaotic panel. The colors are muted shades, giving the story a quiet dignity, even as we ache, seeing Josephine increasingly lost in her own world. A beautiful story of connection and a painful memoir of Alzheimer’s from a caregiver’s point of view, Little Josephine is gorgeous storytelling. Back matter includes an author’s note on Alzheimer’s Disease.

Gender Queer, by Maia Kobabe, (May 2019, Oni Press), $17.99, ISBN: 9781549304002

Ages 14+

Gender Queer is illustrator Maia Kobabe (pronouns: e/em/eir)’s autobiography. Assigned female at birth but never quite feeling that designation fit, Kobabe journals em’s journey through fandom, identity, and sexuality; finally coming to the discovery that nonbinary and asexual are the best descriptors. From a rustic childhood, through puberty, high school, college, and grad school, we walk with Maia through years of introspection and self-discovery. Written as a journal, readers will hopefully see themselves, or gain an understanding of others as Kobabe describes the trauma of body dysmorphia and gynecological exams; appreciate em’s supportive family, and come away with sensitivity and compassion. Have this available for readers who identify as nonbinary or asexual. There are some strong resources to keep available for asexual and nonbinary readers, including Queer Books for Teens, and booklists from YALSA, Book Riot, GoodReads, and Tor. Author Jeanne G’Fellers has an excellent author webpage, including The Enby Booklist, containing fiction, nonfiction, and poetry with a non-binary focus. There is a lesson plan available for Gender Queer through Diamond Bookshelf.

Gender Queer has a starred review from School Library Journal, is a 2020 ALA Alex Award Winner and a 2020 Stonewall — Israel Fishman Non-fiction Award Honor Book.

Invisible Differences: A Story of Asperger’s, Adulting, and Living a Life in Full Color, by Julie Dachez, (Oct. 2020, Oni Press), $19.99, ISBN: 9781620107669

Ages 12+

From her opening dedication: “This comic is dedicated to you. You, the deviants. People who are ‘too much like this’ or ‘not enough like that’, Julie Dachez creates a safe, welcoming space for readers delving into her graphic novel, revealing what life is like for a person living with Asperger’s Syndrome. Twenty-seven-year-old Marguerite loves staying home with her books, her little dog, her purring cats, and her soft pajamas. Within her silent apartment, they form her “cocoon”. She’s stressed by commuting to her job, but relies on routines to usher her through her day. Coworkers don’t seem to understand her. Her boyfriend is frustrated because she doesn’t want to go to parties and socialize as he does. As she searches for answers to her anxiety, she discovers that she is not alone: there is a community of people with Asperger’s Syndrome, a form of autism, and their experiences are there, online for Marguerite to read. No longer in the dark and alone, she begins a search for the right therapist, and the resources she needs to advocate for herself.

Julie Dachez’s black and white artwork skillfully uses reds and yellows to communicate Marguerite’s stressors and anxiety: loud conversations and everyday noise; panels are bathed in red to denote stressful moments in Marguerite’s day, when her defenses are running low, gradually fading back to black and white as she separates herself from social situations to recharge. Her red sneakers are the sole point of red that provide a reassuring, routine constant. Back matter includes a history of autism, information on Asperger’s Syndrome, and a list of resources for further reading (incuding children’s books!). A good book to have in your collection; consider also purchasing Camouflage: The Hidden Lives of Autistic Women, a nonfiction graphic novel by Dr. Sarah Bargeila and illustrated by Sophie Standing.

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

The Dragon Pearl takes Korean mythology to the stars

Dragon Pearl, by Yoon Ha Lee, (Jan. 2019, Disney-Hyperion), $16.99, ISBN: 9781368013352

Ages 8-12

The latest from Disney’s Rick Riordan Presents line gives readers a space opera, Korean mythology, ghosts, nonbinary characters, and moral quandaries! Min is a 13-year-old shapeshifting female fox spirit who lives with her widowed mother and extended family on the planet Jinu. Her older brother, Jun, is part of the Space Force – where Min intends to follow him in a few years, when she hits age 16 – but things change when an investigator shows up at Min’s home, with news that Jun has deserted his post and is rumored to be searching for the Dragon Pearl, a mythical object that could help turn planets into paradises… or destroy them. Determined to find her brother and clear his name, Min runs away from home and finds her way onto a starship; when the ship falls under mercenary attack, she wakes up on the very ship her brother served on: the Pale Lightning. Assuming the form of Jang, a cadet who died during the mercenary attack and subsequent rescue attempt, Min tries to unravel the mystery of Jun’s disappearance, and stumbles onto a plot much bigger than she could have imagined. She joins forces with Jang’s friends: Hanuel, a female dragon spirit, and Sujin, a nonbinary goblin spirit and continues her detective work.

Dragon Pearl is a space opera, complete with space battles, intrigue and shifting loyalties, and a mythos, based on Korean mythology, all of which come together to build an epic adventure that middle grade readers will devour. Min faces racism/species-ism as a fox spirit; she and her family present as humans, because foxes have a bad reputation for trickery being untrustworthy. She has to lie to Jang’s friends to keep her secret; that guilt is with her day in and day out, especially as her own friendship with them grows. She has to break rules for the greater good: to find her brother, who’s also considered a deserter. She’ll deal with the fallout as it comes; Min’s family is her priority. Is she a hero? Is she a traitor? It depends on whose point of view you’re viewing from. The same can be said of the Dragon Pearl, which can create a lush homeworld or destroy a planet. Is it a valuable treasure or a cursed trinket?

Let’s talk about the rich characters Yoon Ha Lee creates. Min and her fellow cadets inhabit a universe where rank and personal pronouns are part of the uniform. Sujin, the goblin cadet, uses “they/their” pronouns and no one has an issue with it. Sujin is a funny, creative character whose gender identity fits seamlessly into the Dragon Pearl universe. They wield a magical spork, for heaven’s sake. That’s the exciting news! Haneul is a dragon spirit who can communicate with the weather; the Pale Lightning’s captain is a tiger spirit who exudes charisma and a more than a wee bit of menace. Min, a fox spirit, exudes Charm to head off potential problems at the pass and is clever, constantly thinking of her next moves to get her to her goal. An exciting adventure, moral conflict, and rich character diversity make this one a nice addition to your fantasy middle grade collections, and yet another hit from Rick Riordan’s Disney imprint.

Dragon Pearl has a starred review from Kirkus.

Posted in Fiction, Historical Fiction, Teen, Young Adult/New Adult

The Unbinding of Mary Reade

The Unbinding of Mary Reade, by Miriam McNamara, (June 2018, Sky Pony Press), $16.99, ISBN: 9781510727052

Recommended for readers 14+

Raised as a boy to take the place of her dead brother, Mary Reade spent her formative years as Mark, mainly to get her drunken mother money from her wealthy grandmother, who would never name a female heir. Eventually, Mary took to the high seas, where her life depended on passing as male. She joined pirate Calico Jack Rackham and Anne Bonny after they raided a merchant ship she sailed with, finding herself fascinated with the fiery redheaded Bonny, who wore dresses and wielded weapons with pride and bravado.

This could have been so much more. I found the nonbinary, bisexual Mary Reade storyline brilliant, capturing the sheer terror of living in a male-dominated, homophobic society. Mary is constantly afraid for her life because of who she is, and the men around her shove their hands down her trousers and pull up her shirt, seemingly at will, to confirm rumors. She’s powerless to say or do anything, because in this society, different equals death, and it’s always over her head. She finds relief in living as a male, yet feels uncomfortable being gendered at all – despite the fact that the novel always refers to Reade as “she”. Anne is a study in frustration, appearing as a tragic, yet scheming, woman who attaches herself to any male – or male figure – that will help her navigate 18th Century society. Is she bisexual, or is she just using her sex to gain favor? There’s a lot of slow burn relationship work here between Mary and her childhood love, Nat, and some tumultuous relationship beginnings with Anne Bonny that never quite gain footing. I wish the book concentrated more on the two pirates’ adventures together, and that Anne emerged as a stronger female character. Mary’s gender confusion and self-doubt may resonate with nonbinary and trans readers, and engender empathy in all readers. It’s an add to consider for historical fiction and LGBTQ collections.