Posted in Fantasy, Graphic Novels, Teen, Uncategorized, Young Adult/New Adult

Wishes aren’t free: The Well

The Well, by Jake Wyatt/Illustrated by Choo, (Apr. 2022, First Second), $17.99, ISBN: 9781626724143

Ages 14+

A seaside village is attacked by a monster. A woodcutter, his wife and mother in law, two powerful witches, join forces to battle it, and disappear, leaving behind their child and her grandfather, to raise her. Thirteen years later, Lizzie is a teen who helps her grandfather by selling their wares at the local market, but when she needs money to cover her passage home, she grabs money from the sacred well and awakens a spirit that urges her to repay her debt. Lizzie must grant wishes, but every wish comes with a price; some are painful to bear. In her quest to cover her debts at the well, Lizzie will learn about the magic that almost destroyed her family.

The Well unfolds like a fairy tale: a monster, a tragedy, a child left behind, and a legacy of magic to be discovered. The moral – every wish comes with a price, and having a wish granted isn’t always what it seems – runs through the story, reminding readers to think before they act, even before they wish. The artwork is dreamlike, with vibrant color and fantastic monsters. A must for your fantasy fans.

I love the idea of having tweens and teens create their own fairy tales, and The Well is a great way to introduce a program like that. Invite readers to volunteer fairy tale elements they see in the story. Outback Aussie Teaching has a planning template on Teachers Pay Teachers, to help writers organize their thoughts; the Bilingual Language Institute has a Spanish/English picture board with options for characters, setting, problems, solutions, and magic powers to help give readers a flow to work with.

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

Pepper Page Saves the Universe!

Pepper Page Saves the Universe (Adventures of the Supernova, Book 1), by Landry Q. Walker, (Feb. 2021, First Second), $14.99, ISBN: 9781250216922

Ages 8-12

What happens when a comics superfan discovers that she IS her favorite superhero? That’s what happens to orphaned Pepper Page, a high schooler who loves her Supernova comics more than anything: she can rattle off major storylines, lament retcons and canon versus headcanon and fancanon with the best of us fangirls, but imagine if you woke up one day to find a supreme being telling you that you’re really Wonder Woman, and all these comics have been chronicling your adventures? It’s a little much for Pepper to handle; thank goodness she’s got her cat companion and her two best friends to help out. When they aren’t under a supervillain’s influence, that is. Comics fans will love the nods to comics fan favorites like Peter David and the iconic Jack Kirby; there are tips of the hat to Golden and Silver Age comics throughout the story, and this is just a great new series to get in on right now. Parents and caregivers, read along with your tweens and share your comics knowledge! I know I will. Have Zita the Spacegirl fans? Get them reading this series immediately.

Pepper Page Saves the Universe has a starred review from The Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books.

Posted in Adventure, Fantasy, Teen, Tween Reads, Young Adult/New Adult

Secret Societies, Angels, and Demons: Toward a Secret Sky

Toward a Secret Sky, by Heather Maclean, (Apr. 2017, Blink YA), $17.99, ISBN: 978-0-310-75474-9

Recommended for readers 12+

Seventeen year-old Maren Hamilton is an orphan; her father dead for years, her mother, the recent victim of a freak accident. Sent to Scotland to live with grandparents she’s never met, she discovers much more about her parents than she could ever have realized. They weren’t systems analysts, as she’d always thought; they were members of a secret organization that fought demons. Real demons. Now that she’s discovered her mother’s secret journal, she’s a target for the demons – and so is everyone around her. Luckily, she’s got Gavin, her literal guardian angel, to help her, but against all the rules, she finds herself falling in love with him and is pretty sure the feeling is mutual. When Maren’s friends and grandparents find their lives in danger, it’s up to Maren and Gavin to save them all.

I thoroughly enjoyed Toward a Secret Sky. There’s some DaVinci Code-level action, with secret societies, code-breaking, and angels fighting demons over the United Kingdom skies. It’s also got a solid set of characters and good world-building, and an ending that left me excited for another installment. YA romance fans will love the burgeoning forbidden love between Maren and her angel, the gorgeous, Scottish, Gavin (and I don’t even have to feel like a cougar because he’s over 200 years old). The book teases us, giving little hints about not only The Abbey; the secret organization Maren’s connected to, but about Maren’s own heightened abilities. It’s the perfect amount of information to keep us guessing and reading. It’s a fast-paced, wild ride that YA fans will love, and it’s a solid book to put in your more conservative readers’ hands, too.

Definitely add this to your Summer Reading TBR, and match it with proper romances like Duels & Deception and Jacob Gowans’ A Tale of Light and Shadow duology. There’s also a good 2016 article from Bustle with YA DaVinci Code readalikes that fit nicely with this one.


Posted in Espionage, Fiction, Fiction, Graphic Novels, Humor, Middle Grade

Introducing Pops and Branwell, an all-ages teamup!

shortcon_1The Short Con, by Pete Toms/Illustrated by  Aleks Sennwald, (Feb. 2017, Alternative Comics), $9.95, ISBN: 9781681480084

Recommended for ages 8-12

In the first installment of a new mystery teamup, Pops and Branwell – two orphans in an orphanage that’s a cover for a full-scale detective operation run by kids – take on their first mystery: who killed Branwell’s parents, and what does her Uncle Lamb know?

This is an all-ages graphic novel that’s too much fun; taking on the hard-boiled detective genre with kids. Branwell is the new kid, the only survivor of the fire that destroyed her life. “Pops” is the seasoned detective that takes her under her wing, with a smart comment and nickname for everyone around her. (My favorite was “Sylvia Plath” for the disconsolate Branwell.) Being assigned the new girl doesn’t sit right with Pops, who prefers to work alone, but it creates a hilarious relationship between polar opposites. The supporting cast includes a nun who wonderfully apes the frustrated boss, and a John Watson-type fangirl, who writes fanfiction adventures where she inserts herself and a “hot guy” into the detectives’ adventures. The conclusion is laugh-out-loud hilarious, and the ending left me happily waiting for another installment.

Booktalk this with your Nancy Drew, Hardy Boys, and Encyclopedia Brown series. It would also work nicely with the Series of Unfortunate Events, which is getting renewed interest thanks to the Netflix series. Display with any Adventure Time graphic novels you have around; artist Aleks Senwald is a writer and storyboard artist for the series.





Posted in Fiction, Fiction, Graphic Novels, Historical Fiction, Humor, Intermediate, Middle Grade, Tween Reads

Sibling antics in the Wild West: Varmints

varmints_1Varmints, by Andy Hirsch (Sept. 2016, First Second), $16.99, ISBN: 9781626722798

Recommended for ages 7-12

Set in the Old U.S. West, Opie and her younger brother, Ned, are orphaned siblings searching for the man who shot their Ma. Problem is, their Pa is THE bad guy – the kingpin, the big bad, cue the dramatic music at the mere mention of his name kind of bad. And he’s expert at not being found. Opie and Ned are undeterred, though; they mean to find their Pa and have some words: if they can just stop arguing with one another long enough to stay out of trouble, that is.

There’s a lot of action and dialogue in this first volume of Varmints. The sibling squabbling provides some quick-witted entertainment, and the explosions and fights, not to mention the cartoony art and bright colors, will hold kids’ interests. It’s a very old-school type of storytelling, with humor, wit, and pathos.

Good addition to graphic novel collections, especially where Westerns are popular; otherwise, a good secondary purchase. There’s a 2013 Varmints story, “The Coonskin Caper”, on Andy Hirsch’s website, along with links to his other work, including The Baker Street Peculiars, for fellow Sherlock Holmes fans who love a touch of the supernatural in just about anything. Check out some of his work on Adventure Time, Garfield, and The Regular Show, too.

varmints_2 varmints_3


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

McSweeney’s brings back a classic by the author of The Neverending Story

momoMomo, by Michael Ende/Illustrated by Marcel Dzama/Translated by Lucas Zwirner, (Aug. 2016, McSweeney’s), $14.95, ISBN: 9781944211066

Recommended for ages 12+

Momo is a little girl who just appears, seemingly out of nowhere, and lives by herself in a small amphitheater in town. The people in the neighborhood embrace her and seek her out; she has the gift of listening, that seems to help soothe everyone’s nerves, solves problems, and fixes broken friendships. But the awful gray men are moving in and sucking the joy, the life, out of the neighborhood’s inhabitants. They Gray Men recognize that Momo is special and are determined to get hold of her before she can throw a wrench in their plans to steal time from everyone around her.

I am a huge Neverending Story fan, so I picked up Momo with tons of good childhood feelings (and that Limahl song on a loop in my head). Much like Neverending Story, Ende tackles a lot of big concepts in a middle grade book. The Neverending Story gave us a story about conquering depression: The Nothing was a devastating darkness that threatened to consume all of Fantasia. Ende also uses The Neverending Story to address concepts like grief, loss, and existential crisis. It’s the kind of book you read as a kid and appreciate the fantasy, and read as an adult, on a completely different level. Momo is similar in scope, contemplating the loss of free time and personal relationships. Pretty weighty and forward-thinking, especially when you consider that this book was written 40 years ago, before we were consumed with smartphones, tablets, and cable television. Momo’s gift for listening makes her adored until the gray men – who live off the time they steal from everyone – decide to isolate her by corrupting everyone around her. Children aren’t allowed to run and play in the streets any longer; parents don’t have time to spend with their children because they’re working so hard to save up free time – the rat race isn’t a new concept, and Ende mourns a time when people knew one another by name, listened to one another, and had time for one another.

Previously published in hardcover in 2013, McSweeney’s is giving the book a proper 40th anniversary celebration, with new illustrations from Marcel Dzama and a new translation from the original German by Lucas Zwirner. I’ve seen The Neverending Story on quite a few reading lists over the last couple of summers, which makes me really happy – and I’m going to happily booktalk Momo to middle schoolers who are looking for more realistic fiction with a touch of the fantastic: no gnomes, no knights, no spells, but something… more. If you know readers who love Rebecca Stead’s When You Reach Me, give them Momo.

A strongly suggested addition to middle grade and middle school-level collections.

Posted in Fantasy, Fiction, Middle Grade, Tween Reads

Alistair Grim’s Odditorium – fantasy and steampunk fun!

odditoriumAlistair Grim’s Odditorium, by Gregory Funaro (Jan 2015, Disney-Hyperion), $16.99, ISBN: 9781484700068

Recommended for ages 9-12

Poor Grubb. He’s 12 – or thereabouts, and leads a pretty miserable existence. He was a foundling, and the woman who took him in died, leaving him at the mercy of her drunk, abusive husband, who feeds him only enough to keep him from starving and forces him to work as a chimney sweep. After he stows away in a trunk to hide from his master/stepfather after an on-the-job incident, he discovers Alistair Grim and his Odditorium, a weird and wonderful place where he meets a young prankster, an honest-to-goodness fairy, a talking pocket watch, and a samurai army powered by blue energy. Right after the mysterious Mr. Grim agrees to take him on as an apprentice, the Odditorium falls under attack, and it’s up to Grubb to make sure that the mysterious blue energy doesn’t fall into the wrong hands.

Alistair Grim’s Odditorium is a fun steampunk read for fantasy fans. Grubb is the classic orphan protagonist, whose origin is surrounded in mystery; Mr. Grim is the mysterious benefactor who takes him in to teach him his magic. There are automatons, there are evil forces, there’s good vs. evil, and a mysterious aether-type magic. All the elements are there, and Mr. Funaro makes them blend together to provide an exciting story that kids will love.

The author’s webpage offers a bio and links to social media, information about the Odditorium, and contact information.

Posted in Fantasy, Fiction, Tween Reads

Book Review: Alex and the Ironic Gentleman, by Adrienne Kress (Miramax, 2007)

Recommended for ages 10-13

Alex Morningside is a 10 1/2 year old girl who’s often mistaken for a boy; she wears her hair short and is something of a tomboy. Orphaned at a young age, she lives with her uncle in their home above his doorknob shop. When Mr. Underwood, a new teacher, shows up in her sixth grade classroom at the prestigious Wigpowder-Steele Academy, Alex finds herself finally liking school. Mr. Underwood has a good sense of humor and is fun to talk with.

Mr. Underwood also has a family secret – he’s the descendant of a famous pirate family. When he’s kidnapped by a rival pirate family over a long-secret buried treasure, Alex is the only one who can help him. She goes on a journey that will take her through strange places, where she meets equally strange people and one Extremely Ginormous Octopus.

 The book is a fun adventure for young ‘tweens, with enough interesting characters and plot twists to keep a reader’s interest. The only problem for me is in the occasional plodding of the storyline, which bogs down the story and may bore less patient or committed readers. The main characters – Alex and Mr. Underwood, to a degree – are fairly well-developed, and the supporting players don’t really need to be: they aren’t part of the story for long enough to necessitate it.
The book has won several awards in the UK and Canada, including the Heart of Hawick Children’s Book Award in 2009. It was shortlisted for the Red Cedar Award in 2009/2010.
The author’s website offers the usual biography, FAQ, book and appearance information. Extras include Alex and the Ironic Gentleman desktop wallpaper.
Posted in Adventure, Espionage, Tween Reads

Book Review: Alex Rider – Stormbreaker, by Anthony Horowitz (Walker Books, 2000)

Recommended for ages 10-14

The first book in Anthony Horowitz’s Alex Rider series, Stormbreaker introduces readers to 14-year old Alex Rider, an American boy being raised by his British uncle after his parents’ death. At the beginning of the book, Alex learns that his uncle was not a banker, as he thought, but a spy for MI6 who was killed in the line of duty; the British government now wants him to finish his uncle’s mission – to infiltrate technology billionaire Herod Sayle’s empire and find out the secret behind his new computers, the Stormbreakers. The series has received numerous awards including Children’s Book of the Year at the 2006 British Book Awards and the Red House Children’s Book Award in 2003. Stormbreaker was made into a movie in 2006.

The book is fast-paced and has enough gadgets and intrigue to keep readers engaged. Alex’s character is believable as the reluctant spy pushed into working for MI6, and Horowitz does not shy away from grisly outcomes. Rider’s finds his uncle’s bullet-ridden, bloodstained car in a junkyard, and a madman with a Portuguese man-of-war jellyfish figures prominently in the story. Rider is put through rigorous MI6 training with military men who try to make him fail because of his age; he is not given a free ride and we do not get the sense that any of his training or knowledge came easily. Rider is likeable as much as he is relatable – missions and gadgets aside, he is a young man coping with his uncle’s death and seemingly insurmountable circumstances in front of him, and readers will cheer him on.

The author’s webpage features an Alex Rider minisite with information about all of the books in the Alex Rider series and downloadable desktop wallpapers. The Alex Rider website offers exhaustive information on missions, characters, and criminals in the series; readers can create user accounts on the site to receive regular updates and additional content about the series. The site also links to Alex Rider’s Facebook page and YouTube channel.

Posted in Historical Fiction, Tween Reads

Book Review: The Midwife’s Apprentice, by Karen Cushman (Clarion Books, 1995)

Recommended for ages 8-12

Brat is an orphaned girl with no name or family. When the village midwife discovers her sleeping in a dung heap to keep warm, she takes her on as an apprentice. The reader sees Brat grow in confidence and ability.

A 1996 Newbery winner, this historical fiction novel has a strong message: you can make your own way in this life, no matter what cards you are dealt. Alyce remembers no mother and no home; she is the target of village bullies and sleeps in a dung heap to keep warm, but she never believes in giving up. When the midwife is cruel with her words, she shakes it off and continues to learn by observation. She does not wait for someone to provide her with a kinder name than Brat or Beetle, the name given her by Jane the midwife; she decides she likes the name Alyce and tells people to call her by that name. She finds a way to even the score with the cruel villagers and earns the respect of one of the village bullies when she aids him in delivering a calf. This is medieval girl power.

In addition to winning the Newbery medal, The Midwife’s Apprentice has also been designated as one of the American Library Association (ALA)’s Best of the Best Books for Young Adults and the New York Public Library’s “One Hundred Titles for Reading and Sharing”. Ms. Cushman also received Newbery Honors for her book Catherine , Called Birdy.

The author’s website offers a full bibliography of Ms. Cushman’s books, along with an author biography and “odd facts”. An FAQ is available for popular questions, and there is a link to contact the author for appearances. There are a wealth of resources available online for discussing and teaching this book, including a robust guide at eNotes.