I recently moved houses and “pared down” my book collection. I gave away 8 bags of books, and when the movers came I still had 16 boxes for them to haul… (!!!). Jessi Zabarsky's young adult graphic novel Witchlight moved with me, and I’m glad I finally got around to picking it up. The combination of girls doing things, a Black main character, cooking, sword-fighting, and witchy magic was delightful, escapist, and just the thing to kick off my first summer as a teacher.

witchlight by jessi zabarsky book cover
Love—loss—witches—this YA fantasy graphic novel has it all! This thoughtful, emotional story will entrance you with its moving story and organic artwork. 

Lelek is a witch. That’s all Sanja knows when she meets Lelek in the marketplace. But Lelek is hiding something — and as her life begins to intersect with Sanja’s, all that she’s kept to herself starts to come to light. Secrets, friendship, and magic all come together as Lelek gets closer and closer to uncovering the truth about her past... 

Witchlight is a wonderful adventure filled with friendship, family, falling in love, and dealing with the hardest bits of your past all along the way.

Sanja and Lelek’s world is one of small hamlets, markets, and magic. When Sanja (a good cook and fighter from a family that values boys and violence) and Lelek (a witch! you can tell by the candle over her head!) meet for the first time, assumptions are made, challenged, and eventually the two join forces on an epic quest. Along the way they search for truths and find fragile friendship, interesting people, and eventually love (yes, this is a gentle queer love story!).

Zabarsky’s storytelling heavily centers the two main characters, Sanja and Lelek, with fleshed out secondary characters joining the storyline only rarely. The timeline of their journey is nebulous (over a season or maybe two?), but flashbacks and/or dream sequences referencing both characters’ pasts offer clarity about what shaped them and why they might be willing to join forces. The slow reveal of Lelek’s past trauma especially engages the reader’s interest and information reveals and reactions keep the narrative moving forward.

The heart of Witchlight is its depiction of Sanja and Lelek’s relationship: learning to compromise and learning to trust and making real mistakes – the kind that can break fragile friendships – and figuring out how to move past that. One of the themes that runs through the book is that while there are those who are fearful and make awful choices because of that fear, people are essentially good, or they can learn to be, and that it is human to extend them grace.  Another thread that was present but not fully fleshed out: that it is important to find nonviolent ways of being.

Also of note: Lelek’s witchy creativity and setting healthy boundaries in relationships! This really is a wholesome, lovely sort of book, with character growth and relationship growth and companionship and food. So cozy! I want a series of books about the various side characters that Sanja and Lelek meet on the way!  They don’t get much page time but the art and thought that went into creating each of them shows that there’s backstory there!

Speaking of art, it is very striking, and a definite strength of the graphic novel. Author-illustrator Zabarsky works in ink on paper, then colors digitally. The most impressive bit is the way that Zabarsky plays with lighting, as Lelek has a candle (light source!) atop her head. The color palette shifts throughout the journey, but each combination feels warm, if you know what I mean. Most of the way magic works in this world is shown through artwork, and not included in dialogue – overall the book feels a little light on words. That’s okay, obviously – because the art tells its own story.

In all, Witchlight is an appealing story of friendship, healing, and love, and it’s hygge as all get out. If you want a warm blanket of a book, this is it!

Recommended for: fans of graphic novels, readers who enjoy upper middle grade and young adult books, and anyone who liked Molly Ostertag’s The Witch Boy and/or Suzanne Walker and Wendy Xu’s Mooncakes.

laura dean keeps breaking up with me

I’ve been hearing buzz about Mariko Tamaki and Rosemary Valero-O'Connell's young adult graphic novel Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me for over a year now, and that gorgeous cover just snags your attention, doesn’t it? I meant to have this review up for Valentine’s Day, because I assumed it was a romance… But I think I’m happier with what it actually is – a beautifully-illustrated story about figuring out when love isn’t right for you, and learning how not to let that consume everything, and to be kind to others and/or love yourself in spite of that knowledge. It was also good for my soul to read a YA book about friends being solid and wonderful – those close-as-family relationships really matter to me (and to a lot of people!).

laura dean keeps breaking up with me by mariko tamaki and rosemary valero-o'connell book cover
Laura Dean, the most popular girl in high school, was Frederica Riley's dream girl: charming, confident, and SO cute. There's just one problem: Laura Dean is maybe not the greatest girlfriend.

Reeling from her latest break up, Freddy's best friend, Doodle, introduces her to the Seek-Her, a mysterious medium, who leaves Freddy some cryptic parting words: break up with her. But Laura Dean keeps coming back, and as their relationship spirals further out of her control, Freddy has to wonder if it's really Laura Dean that's the problem. Maybe it's Freddy, who is rapidly losing her friends, including Doodle, who needs her now more than ever.

Fortunately for Freddy, there are new friends, and the insight of advice columnists like Anna Vice to help her through being a teenager in love.

Frederica Riley is stuck in a cycle of breaking up and making up with her sometimes-girlfriend, the super-cool Laura Dean. Freddy feels like she’s on top of the world when Laura Dean is with her, but Laura doesn’t seem able to stay with one person… and it’s breaking Freddy’s heart. Meanwhile, Freddy’s supportive friends wish she’d open her eyes and grow a spine (ouch!). But some lessons you have to learn yourself, and Freddy will have to find a way to break out of this toxic cycle before she irreparably breaks herself.

The story rings true AND it made me feel those crappy love-isn’t-working-out feelings at the same time. Tamaki’s storytelling is raw and real, and it explores some of those “people can be terrible to each other in relationships” moments with clarity that is sometimes uncomfortable. It’s not all painful moments, and Valero-O’Connell’s art lightens some of the bleak feels, but gosh the angst and indecision and hurt… they’re there, and it takes you right back to the immediacy and impact those emotions have on the teenage brain and psyche. Whew. What a book!

The thing is, Freddy isn’t in denial – she’s self-aware, and she observes the world around her. But as we all know, young love (any time of love, really!) can cloud every moment and influence all our relationships. And while Freddy sees that Laura Dean isn’t good for her, she’s also using all of the brain power she can spare to try to tell herself that it’s okay, that her friends and family are fine, and that the world isn’t going to fall apart any time soon – except none of that is guaranteed, right?! So yeah, I’d say this book captures teen angst and the millions of things that go on in your head at any given moment (we get a bit better at blocking some inputs/compartmentalizing as we age, right?).  I’m repeating myself at this point, but this book is just viscerally real, and it made me feel feels, and I’m a little mad about it but mostly in awe.

Okay, I’ve been going on too long, so here’s a short-ish list of other things I liked about this book! A) The set-up of the storytelling that goes between in-the-moment action and emails to a romance advice columnist. B) Different combinations of family and friends – in their dynamic and imperfect reality (there’s no one way to have a family or to “be”). C) Freddy’s queer friends/coworkers/cultural moments: just there, part of the scenery and the world. I love that kind of representation. There’s so much joy in normalizing Freddy’s kaleidoscopic life – it’s diverse, it’s modern, and there are so many bits I want to call attention to but I’m running out of space ahhhh I said “short-ish!” (also: yes, I am buying a copy of this book for my classroom).

And because it deserves its own goshdarn paragraph, Valero-O’Connell’s art. The art is just… AHHH gorgeous! The patterns, the backgrounds, the movement on each page. The cute three-color (black, white, light pink) palette and how that interplays with the angst and heavy subject matter. The exquisite details like characters’ accessories and school and home environments. Truly lovely.

In all, Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me is brilliantly told, and the emotional notes are sincere and tough and authentic. And the art slays. You should totally read it.

Recommended for: fans of contemporary young adult literature, anyone who enjoys fantastic storytelling and the graphic novel format, and those looking to update their libraries with quality LGBTQ+ rep.

our dining table

When I’m too busy to think, my optimal reading choices (if I can muster up the energy!) are: graphic novels, novellas, and short stories. My reading in 2020 so far has consisted of: 4 novellas and 2 graphic novels. I think that tells you all you need to know about how the month has gone! The graphic novel I finished this morning, Mita Ori’s Our Dining Table, was a delightful escape from reality. It also made me ravenously hungry for ramen. Luckily, there’s a ramen shop down the street…

our dining table by mita ori book cover
Eating around other people is a struggle for salaryman Yutaka, despite his talent for cooking. All that changes when he meets Minoru and Tane—two brothers, many years apart in age—who ask him to teach them how to make his delicious food! It’s not long before Yutaka finds himself falling hard for the meals they share together—and falling in love!

Our Dining Table follows the solitary Yutaka, a young man who is a talented cook but doesn’t like to eat with others due to past trauma. When he bumps into the adorable Tane and his older brother Minoru at the park during his lunch hour, he is charmed by their relationship. Four-year-old Tane, in turn, is obsessed with Yutaka’s homemade food.  So begins an association, and then a relationship, first based on a shared love of food… that eventually leads to love love.

First of all, I have to give a shout-out to the Cybils, because if I hadn’t been on the graphic novel award committee in 2018, I never would have added myself to the Seven Seas (a manga publisher) email newsletter. And then I never would have heard of Our Dining Table, which is, for the record, ADORABLE. My interest was piqued by this book because: food + graphic novel = instant yes. THEN I saw that it also featured an LGBTQ+ romance, and I was like, yes, okay, let’s GO. One of my favorite books of 2019 (Bloom) was another graphic novel that mixed food and love. It also has the CUTEST cover? So really, I was primed to be enchanted by this book.

And then, it had the gall to be just… super sweet?? With good pacing, great art, and moments of light angst that pulled my heartstrings??? Ugh, yeah, it was wonderful. And satisfying. Even if I am still hungry. Ha!

But yeah, let’s dig in to what I liked so much about it. There was the food, of course – Yutaka ingratiates himself to (and integrates into) the Ueda family recipe by recipe. First he shows them how he makes rice, and then onigiri, and then curry... and in turn they accept him unquestioningly and show him their own recipes. The mentions of food don’t break up the narrative, but they sound (and look!) mouth-wateringly good.

The increasing intimacy between Minoru and Yutaka is also played exactly right. Their relationship is sweet, slow-moving, and comes along with growing trust and interruptions from a certain excitable younger brother. Each of them open up, bit by bit, to the other, and yes it may be idealized but it’s so delightful. This book was a joy to while away an hour with, and I can already tell I’ll want to pick it up again.

Also, the art! I don’t read many manga style graphic novels, but as far as I can tell the black on white line art was fairly standard for the genre. HOWEVER, I feel attacked by how cute Tane was. Like Studio Ghibli cute. Every time he was excited (which was nearly always) his eyes got even more enormous and it was unsustainably adorable! I also thought Mita Ori’s use of texture and patterns was excellent – and of course the panels featuring food were incredible. I remain impressed overall, but the art was really special.

In conclusion: if anything in my review struck a chord, you should read this book, preferably with some snacks nearby. It’s adorable (have I used that word enough?), and it’ll make you hungry and happy all at once.

Recommended for: readers who like gentle, quiet love stories, à la Kevin Panetta and Savanna Ganucheau’s young adult graphic novel Bloom, fans of light manga, and those intrigued by graphic novels about food.

Interested in reading other posts about food? Check out Beth Fish Reads' Weekend Cooking!


Tuesday, September 17, 2019 | | 2 comments
In case you weren’t reading my blog last winter, I am in love with Oge Mora’s art! I bought… oh, 5 or so? copies of her debut picture book Thank You, Omu! and gave them to the small children in my life. It was that. good. So when I saw that Mora was doing a signing at ALA, I bought a copy of her new book, Saturday, without hesitation. And friends? It is delightful. Gorgeous, intricate illustrations paired with a lovely story make for another future classic. Saturday is outstanding.

saturday by oge mora book cover
Today would be special. Today would be splendid. It was Saturday! But sometimes, the best plans don’t work out exactly the way you expect...

In this heartfelt and universal story, a mother and daughter look forward to their special Saturday routine together every single week. But this Saturday, one thing after another goes wrong–ruining storytime, salon time, picnic time, and the puppet show they’d been looking forward to going to all week. Mom is nearing a meltdown...until her loving daughter reminds her that being together is the most important thing of all.

Author-artist Oge Mora’s highly anticipated follow up to Caldecott Honor Thank You, Omu! features the same magnificently radiant artwork and celebration of sharing so beloved in her debut picture book.

In Oge Mora’s second picture book, Ava and her mother look forward to Saturday each week, because Ava’s mother has to work the other days (Sunday-Friday). Saturdays have a special routine, and a treat at the end – but this Saturday doesn’t go as planned! Each time something doesn’t turn out, mother and daughter take a deep breath and move on, determined that the day will still be special. On the surface, Saturday is a story of family togetherness, but it also includes lessons on continuing through life with a positive attitude instead of getting frustrated in the face of obstacles, valuing people over things, and making your own fun no matter what happens.

One of the things I loved about Mora’s debut was that although the story had the look and feel of a classic, it also contained the touchstones and details that set it in a particular cultural community and neighborhood (African-American, immigrant). Mora’s Saturday does the same, but even more so. While any parent and child with too little quality time together will identify with the story, it will be especially poignant for working mothers, single parents, and African-American families (the salon scenes!). That doesn’t mean it won’t be a classic (it will)! The themes in Saturday are universal, and the story is told so charmingly that I can see this book being requested over and over again for storytime, bedtime, and any time.

But let’s get to the Art, with a capital “A” intended – the true highlight of a Mora picture book (and yes, I feel comfortable saying that after only two books!). Mora works in a bright palette, using paint markers, patterned paper, and old book clippings. The layering of cut paper pieces adds texture and dimension to each scene, and the vivid patterns and colors are a feast for the eyes. Mora is also excellent at imbuing her spreads with motion – choosing to portray things that are happening “mid-shot,” and including rounds of changing character looks on a single page. I also love the inclusion of hand-cut letters that distinguish the text and add excitement (“zoom” and “Saturday” are the two most frequently singled out words).

Listen, it’s just a beautiful book, through and through. Mora is a fantastic artist and a good storyteller, and she has a crew at her publisher (Little, Brown) who compliment her art with gorgeous design. I want to keep this book to myself forever, but I suppose I’ll share it with some lucky little in my life!

Recommended for: fans of vibrant, diverse picture books in the vein of The Last Stop on Market Street and The Snowy Day, and any and all readers ages 4 and up.

Saturday will be released by Little, Brown on October 22, 2019.
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