beetle & the hollowbones

My favorite thing (well, ONE of my favorite things) is when I see a recommendation online for a book that sounds like it's 110% my cup of tea, but I hadn't heard of it yet. YAY for the internet and friends (I consider you all friends, is that weird??!) knowing exactly what I'd like and pointing to it with flashing lights and saying "READ THIS, no really, trust me!!" I don't know who exactly said that about Aliza Layne's middle grade graphic novel Beetle & the Hollowbones, because my brain is made of Swiss cheese, but just know that I love you! Beetle's story is just THE MOST gosh darn adorable thing I've read in a long, long time. It made my heart so happy!


In the eerie town of ‘Allows,
some people get to be magical sorceresses, while other people have their spirits trapped in the mall for all ghastly eternity.

Then there’s twelve-year-old goblin-witch Beetle, who’s caught in between. She’d rather skip being homeschooled completely and spend time with her best friend, Blob Glost. But the mall is getting boring, and B.G. is cursed to haunt it, tethered there by some unseen force. And now Beetle’s old best friend, Kat, is back in town for a sorcery apprenticeship with her Aunt Hollowbone. Kat is everything Beetle wants to be: beautiful, cool, great at magic, and kind of famous online. Beetle’s quickly being left in the dust.

But Kat’s mentor has set her own vile scheme in motion. If Blob Ghost doesn’t escape the mall soon, their afterlife might be coming to a very sticky end. Now, Beetle has less than a week to rescue her best ghost, encourage Kat to stand up for herself, and confront the magic she’s been avoiding for far too long. And hopefully ride a broom without crashing.


Beetle is a young goblin growing up with (and apprenticed to) her grandmother, the Town Witch, in 'Allows, a town full of uncanny creatures. She's slowly learning lowly goblin magic, and of course she loves her grandmother... but she does wish that she could learn sorcery, like her the heroines in her favorite shows and stories. Instead, she's struggling through potion-making and trying to master broom riding, in between visits to her friend Blob Ghost (B.G. for short), who haunts the local mall. But when her former best friend Kat moves back to town to apprentice with her Aunt Hollowbone, everything starts to speed up: evil plans, learning magic, and rescuing dear friends from certain destruction!


Beetle and her grandmother are just... delightful?? I want them to adopt me and teach me magic in their adorable, snug little house. They accept all comers too – not just goblins! It could happen!! Ha. But seriously, Layne's writing and art introduces you to these characters, and makes you fall in love with them in a matter of pages. That is its own kind of magic! Beetle herself is thoughtful, distractible, mischievous, and self-conscious in that early-adolescent way... basically, a normal twelve-year-old. She wishes she could go off to sorcery school, but knows her gran couldn't afford it, so she tries to make her dreams fit the circumstances she lives in. Meanwhile, she's a good friend to B.G., a shape-shifting ghost who is just... too cute for words. It's an ideal-ish world until it isn't, but Beetle never compromises herself, and that's a fantastic lesson for readers young and old alike.


Ummm... what to gush about next? Oh, I know... THE ART. Yes, I am yelling about it because it is fantastic. And I mean that as in it is of otherworldly quality, and also in that it features many and assorted supernatural and/or undead creatures. Just. UGH. I don't have the words, but I'll try. First, it is layered: Layne had help from colorists Natalie Riess and Kristen Acampora, and I think you can totally tell that there were multiple hands involved, because how else you could the art be so detailed and tightly-woven – the shades and magic of it all!! And that brings me to part 2: the colors. The palette is very vibrant, but most scenes are either in shades of purple or orange. Pair that with Beetle and her grandmother's skin tone (a light green), and the effect is very Halloween-y, which matches the cast of eccentric characters (cat skeletons? giant grub/bug janitor? shape-shifting ghosts? pumpkin-head shop assistants?). The loving care and detail in every single character is just... *kisses fingers.* I did not expect to love this book and the world in it so much when I picked it up, but I really, really did/do.


Let's see, other things to mention: this title has really sweet LGBTQ+ representation, both in the media that Beetle consumes (she likes manga shows about sorcery and writes fanfiction!) and in her life – mostly consisting of declarations (and one other thing, which I won't spoil here). Beetle and her grandmother also have a healthy relationship: one of honesty and mutual respect. There's one character who espouses the idea that girls aren't meant to be friends, that they always compete with one another in the end, and that person is soundly beaten and shown to be untrustworthy and abusive. Good messages throughout, accompanied by great art, make for a sweet and wholesome upper middle grade graphic novel! I do think that YA readers on the younger end (12-15) will love this too – it definitely bridges that early tween-teen divide.


Beetle & the Hollowbones is happy-making and delicious, and also inventive and FUN as all get out. I want to read it again immediately.


Recommended for: young fans of middle grade fantasy, magic, and graphic novels, and anyone who is up for a fantastic adventure, beautifully illustrated!

bedtime picture books for little ones with big imaginations

There's a delicate balance that bedtime books must strike: they should be entertaining and spark the imagination... but only so much. After all, the little ones being read to need to fall asleep! These two titles, one newer and one a couple of years old, have loads of imagination packed into them, but also, in their own uncanny ways, tell the story that it's nighttime, and it's safe to go to sleep.


nasla's dream book cover
At bedtime, a mysterious yellow dot appears above the top of Nasla's wardrobe--the new home for her toys now that she's decided she's too old to sleep with stuffed animals. Could it be Timboubou the elephant, or her hippo with the broken foot? As a wondrous, dreamlike world with dancing moons and swinging elephant trunks emerges from the shadows, she longs to sing and reassure her toys, but she worries that dancing and singing at night is not allowed. When her fear grows too big, she finds comfort in the secret charm under her pillow and falls asleep. The surreal imagery of
Nasla's Dream beautifully depicts the imaginary world of a young child learning how to become independent.


In Cécile Roumiguière's picture book Nasla's Dream, illustrated by Simone Rea, a young girl named Nasla has decided she's too old to sleep with her stuffed animals – but she is still a little bit worried about the mysterious yellow dot that shows up in her room once the lights are turned off. Her imagination takes several turns, supposing what the dot might be: her stuffed turtle? An elephant? A squid? All the while Nasla reminds herself that nighttime is not the time for singing, talking, or playing, but for sleeping. And eventually, she falls asleep.

 

Roumiguière’s text takes the authentic twists and turns that minds do when deprived of stimuli in the dark, right before bed (especially imaginative young minds), but it is Rea’s stunning oil paintings that really distinguish this book. The surrealist style is deeply weird and yet somehow comforting: each page spread pictures exactly the sort of thing the brain conjures up while dreaming – ripples in the floorboards, ghosts with long arms, a box with tentacles, and a playful moon, to name a few! The background of all of the pages is black, with vivid colors painted over top or details picked out in primary colors. This is a beautiful, strange book, and it has an unusual appeal. It’s not wholly heartening, and yet it’s also not eerie – it’s just right for bedtime.

 

Recommended for: little ones ages 3 and up, for bedtime storytelling, and especially for young ones who are always dreaming, either awake or asleep.


the night box by louise greig and ashling lindsay book cover
When a little boy opens the Night Box, darkness swoops out, a fox uncurls, and a thousand stars sparkle and shine. Night flows freely then, cavorting and exploring, caring for all its creatures until morning comes, and it’s time for Night to rest again.

With its soothing cadences and air of quiet wonder, The Night Box is sure to charm any sleepy listener who wonders what happens between sunset and sunrise.

I originally picked up Louise Greig's The Night Box, illustrated by Ashling Lindsay, because it was exceptionally pretty, with a whimsical art style and hand-lettered title (and if we're being honest, because of the fox on the cover!). What I found when I read it was a lovely book all-around, with evocative prose, beautiful word choices, and a message about the day ending, the night beginning, and the rhythms of that shift at dusk. The title refers to the metaphor/personification of nighttime living in a locked box, and being mischievous and kind when it is "unleashed" and chases away the day. Nocturnal animals come out to play while others bed down, and the pastoral scenes are gorgeously detailed by Lindsay.

This book is destined to be great bedtime reading, especially to reassure little ones that the dark isn't something to be feared, but to be welcomed. It may not help children already convinced of monsters under the bed, but the comforting and thoughtful text and detailed and whimsical art are sure to be a hit with parents and kids alike.

Recommended for: bedtime story fodder, readers of all ages who want to chase away nighttime's bad reputation, and anyone who appreciates a gorgeously-illustrated picture book.

Fine print: I received a finished copy of Nasla's Dream for review consideration from the publisher. I did not receive any compensation for this post.

two picture books for the little thinker in your life

If the little reader in your life is less than impressed with tall tales of derring-do and/or anthropomorphic cars and dump trucks, let me recommend two quieter picture books. They're excellent for the little thinkers and serious small ones – and the gorgeous illustrations will please adults and children alike.

look, it's raining by mathieu pierloot, illustrated by maria dek
It's Sunday, and Camille, having finished her school work, is feeling a little bored. Her parents are busy with their own projects, so she puts on her raincoat and goes outside to play. Suddenly she hears the thunder roar, and shivers with excitement. She sticks out her tongue to catch raindrops. They taste like clouds. She notices a group of red ants zigzagging along a trail and asks "Where are you going?" The ants reply, "We're going to a show." Camille embarks on an adventure to discover what the show is about and the astounding beauty to be found by closely observing her surroundings.


The last time I visited with my best friend and her two little ones, it was on a rainy September afternoon, and I brought several picture books with me. A surprise favorite with the three-year-old boy was Look, It’s Raining by Mathieu Pierloot, illustrated by Maria Dek. I don’t know if it was due to the day’s rainy weather, just like in the book, or Dek’s watercolor illustrations (and their myriad details), but he was enthralled, reading by himself without knowing any of the words. If a high-energy, go-go-GO! boy can slow down and appreciate this title, I know more contemplative personalities will enjoy it too.

 

Look, It’s Raining is about exactly what you’d expect – noticing the natural world on a rainy day, and all of the little joys and wonders in it. The bugs are putting on a show, the thunder roars, and Camille, the protagonist, takes it all in while wearing her yellow rain slicker, and then returns to her warm, snug home a little more enlightened and less bored.

 

Recommended for: rainy day reading for little ones ages two and up, and those who value observing the beauties of the natural world.


little cheetah's shadow by marianne dubuc cover
Little Cheetah's shadow is missing. When Little Cheetah finds him and learns that Little Shadow is sad because he never gets to go first, Little Cheetah is happy to switch places. As they travel about their neighborhood, Little Cheetah is surprised to learn how hard it can be to follow. Eventually they decide that walking side-by-side is much better, and when they go through a scary tunnel on the way home, they discover they can face the dark together. Little Cheetah's Shadow is a sweet tale of friendship, empathy, and the importance of seeing things from a different perspective, rendered in Marianne Dubuc's warm and inviting illustrations.


In case you’ve never encountered them before, I’ll warn you: Marianne Dubuc’s picture books are sweet, short, and charming, with cozy-beautiful illustrations. Little Cheetah's Shadow is no exception. In it, Little Cheetah has lost his shadow. When he finally finds him, Little Shadow is dejected, and lets Little Cheetah know it’s because he never gets to go first, and Little Cheetah closes the door on his tail when they visit the bakery! Little Cheetah says that doesn’t sound nice, and the two switch places for the day – leading to some revelations and good friendship behavior (caring for others, checking in on them, and helping them when they are scared).

 

Little Cheetah’s Shadow is a satisfying tale with lovable characters and a wholesome message, and beautiful colored pencil-and-watercolor illustrations.

 

Recommended for: little ones ages 3-5, for bedtime story read alouds, and for teaching and modeling empathetic behavior between friends (and siblings!).


Fine print: I received finished copies of these titles from the publisher for review purposes. I did not receive any compensation for this post.

frankie and the creepy cute critters

 I’m on a bit of a roll right now reading books with sassy, strong protagonists who are interested in “monsters” or spooky creatures. Caitlin Rose Boyle’s middle grade graphic novel Frankie and the Creepy Cute Critters is the latest in that lineup. It contains: fairies, encounters with and information about (real life) creepy animals, excellent, vibrant artwork, and a cool vibe.


frankie and the creepy cute critters book cover
Frankie Fairy loves to learn about creepy crawly critters in her own backyard! Now that she's at a new school, she's excited to learn even more about them! Instead, she learns that the other fairy kids in class think she's the creepy one. Is Frankie really that scary? And if she is—is that really a bad thing? Maybe her creepy crawly friends can help her figure it out!

 

Frankie Fairy and her mother have just moved to Mosstown for her mother’s new job as a professor, and Frankie is excited to start at a new school. However, on her first day, the other kids say she’s creepy, and no one will be her friend. Frankie is disappointed, and ready to tell her mom all about it – but she decides to go on a nature walk first. On her walk she encounters many creepy-cool creatures, and the friends she makes (and encouragement from her mom) eventually help her turn around her experience at school.

 

Frankie is a fun little fairy, starting with her appearance. She has bat-like wings and nose and teeth, and is all-around royal blue – a little more goth than the other fairies (who have the more “typical” looking dragonfly-ish wings and pastel skin and hair). She’s also super interested in the natural world – she keeps a field journal for her observations on and facts about animal and creature behavior. These two things set her apart from her new classmates, and as we know, people (and fairies) don’t respond well to anything “other.” Boyle has set up a scenario that many children will identify with: feeling ostracized and/or left out, and resolved it in a fun and surprising way. Frankie’s big personality is the best thing about her, but her cool room décor and outfits will enchant young readers as well.

 

That’s a great segue to a discussion about the art – which has a neon sour gummy worms color palette and vibe to match. Boyle uses heavy black lines, cute (almost twee!) details, and vibrant colors to appeal to young readers. The bugs and other creepy-crawlies in the book are rendered in loving, accurate detail, and in the back matter more animal facts are included for a field guide-esque feel. The overall effect is ridiculously charming, and I am hopeful that Frankie’s adventures don’t stop with one volume – I want to know more about her adventures in Mosstown!

 

In all, Frankie and the Creepy Cute Critters is a smart, charming graphic novel for young readers, and a quick read. It’s sure to be a hit with kids who think they’re too old for picture books, but love everything related to nature (and the supernatural!).

 

Recommended for: baby goths (or goths-in-the-making), readers ages 6-10+, fans of the Hex Vet series and Snapdragon, and anyone who likes learning about animals AND fantasy fiction!

bo the brave

Bethan Woollvin’s picture books are always beloved by the littles in my life. Kids are enamored of Woollvin’s subversive reinterpretations of classic fairy tales, and her art’s distinctive color schemes and shapes. Their parents and grandparents are (usually) amused too.  When a publisher sent me Woollvin’s latest, Bo the Brave, I was sure I’d fall in love with it just like I did with Rapunzel and Hansel & Gretel and Little Red. And I did! And so did the two children (ages 3 & 5) I tested it with. It’s a winner!

bo the brave by bethan woollvin book cover
Once, there lived a little girl called Bo. Bo wanted to be just like her brothers and capture a fearsome monster. Bo is small, too small to catch a monster—or so her brothers say. But Bo isn’t one to take no for an answer, so she sets off on a quest to catch a monster of her own. Can she defeat the furious griffin, conquer the hideous kraken, and triumph over the monstrous dragon? Or has Bo got the wrong idea who the real monsters are?

Author-illustrator Bethan Woollvin, the creator of the New York Times Best Illustrated Little Red, employs her signature style in this original fairy tale with a clever twist. Readers are sure to fall in love with Woollvin’s newest vibrant and sassy protagonist.

When Bo asks to come along on their quest, her brothers Erik and Ivar say no. At first Bo stews a bit, but then she decides to do something about it, and sneaks out to catch a monster of her own. Along the way Bo’s quest changes course – and new friends help her reimagine the world and her place in it. Bo, who christens herself “the Brave,” is my favorite sort of princess – one who doesn’t judge based on appearance, values friendship and good behavior, and is “smart, and strong, and brave!” She also has pink hair!

 

The best sorts of fantasy books start with a map – and Bo the Brave has maps for endpapers – a sign of delightful things to come, and at the end a delightful recap of the storyline. This book introduces the reader to several traditional science fiction and fantasy monsters: dragons, a kraken, and a griffin to start. But there are more hiding in the trees… for little ones and adults to identify on their own (and imagine their powers!).

 

Woollvin’s text emphasizes using your senses AND your thinking before making decisions or judging folks – and that’s an excellent lesson for readers of all ages. As an English teacher I love the idea of teaching inferences (based on behavior) to the younger set this way, and of course as a reader it’s fun to see the tired old monster-hunting script turned on its head! This, combined with Bo getting her chance to save the day after being told ignominiously that she’s too little to join her brothers, will resonate with young readers and have them asking for read aloud after read aloud.

 

And finally, the most important bit: ART. Woollvin’s signature style uses geometric shapes and uncomplicated human figures (with big eyes) to great effect. Add in a limited color palette of black, gray, teal, pink and orange, and the look is effective and engaging. Woollvin’s monsters’ different textures (scales, feathers, etc.) are created using simple methods: scallops, dots, and lines! The overall look is a cross between cute and uncanny, and I can’t think of a better way to describe the book as a whole, so… there you go!

 

Bo the Brave is a funny, unexpected tale about a girl determined to do great things, even when no one else believes in her. I’m super fond of it and I’m sure it’ll be a hit for holiday gifting! It’s A+ fun!

 

Recommended for: fairy tale and mythology fans ages four and up, clever and faintly subversive books for storytimes and read alouds, and anyone who likes seeing tired old tropes turned on their heads.


Fine print: I received a copy of this book for review consideration from the publisher. I did not receive any compensation for this post.

one fox: a counting book thriller

I’ve said it before, and I’ll probably say it again – I have a lot of little humans in my life, so I’m almost always looking for new picture books to gift… for birthdays, holidays, or even just a casual visit! It’s one of my life goals to be known as the aunt or cousin who always gives books. Some years I find an across-the-board winner and it gets gifted to everyone (see: anything by Oge Mora!), and some years each kiddo gets their own pick. This year, I have a couple of excellent candidates for picture books, and Kate Read’s One Fox: A Counting Book Thriller is one of them!

one fox: a counting book thriller by kate read book cover
One hungry fox with two sly eyes is on the prowl…three plump hens had better watch out! Rich and colorful illustrations plunge the reader into a dramatic and exciting story set in a moonlit farmyard. With something different to count on each page, learning to count from one to ten has never been so thrilling!

This surprisingly simple counting book with a gripping tale, great for early education and read-alouds, has a hugely satisfying ending that’s sure to delight generations.

In this entertaining picture book, a hungry fox is determined to make dinner out of at least one of the three hens in the hen house. Everything is going as you’d expect… with tension amplified over the course of each page spread… until there’s an unexpected twist at the end! One Fox is an inventive, beautifully illustrated take on the classic counting book genre, and is sure to be a favorite with both children and the adults doing read alouds.

 

The text in One Fox is charmingly minimalist: the story is told through the counting, with each number accompanied by only a short phrase. There are no full sentences until the very last page of the book, yet author-illustrator Read imbues each page spread with a sense of growing menace and danger (kid-appropriate, of course). The stripped down text means more time for pondering the art, and an appeal to a wider age range. In addition, Read uses adjectives that may be new to young readers: famished, sly, and beady, for example. Several of the word combinations are alliterative or rhyme, making the brief text even more of a delight to read.

 

Of course, the most important part of any picture book are the PICTURES – and Read’s art is fantastic. Her painted, textured, cut-paper art is reminiscent of both recent favorite Oge Mora (Thank You, Omu! and Saturday) and celebrated, classic children’s book author Ezra Jack Keats (The Snowy Day). Of course, Read’s art is all her own: her choice to center the main character(s) – or the part of them described – in each panel and keep the background understated and restrained helps to build the sense of unease and thrill necessary to this story. Her vivid color choices also gratify, and the way the gradations in hue are layered, one on top of another, impart the sensation of fur and feathers.

 

I could go on, but it’s a short book in the end, and I don’t want to spoil it. One Fox is a lot of fun (which books should be!), and it feels clever, hilarious, and the tiniest bit subversive. An enjoyable read for all ages!

 

Recommended for: little ones ages 1-5, for librarians/teachers/parents looking for smart and short read alouds, and for anyone who enjoys their reading with unexpected twists.


Fine print: I received an unbound copy of this book for review from the publisher. I did not receive any compensation for this post.

the fire never goes out: a memoir in pictures

As someone who rarely reads nonfiction books for fun, but plenty of nonfiction articles, personal essays, and magazine features, the graphic novel memoir format has turned out to be something of a revelation. I already love reading graphic novels (see: volunteering to read 100+ nominations as a Cybils panelist this year), and graphic novel memoirs (I want to point out there’s a bit of an oxymoron right there in the genre identifier!) are just about the right length – they don’t feel endless, and I don’t lose interest. So when I heard about Noelle Stevenson’s graphic novel memoir The Fire Never Goes Out: A Memoir in Pictures, I knew I’d give it a read at some point – or at the very least buy it to add to my classroom library (and all of the 9th grade Nimona and Lumberjanes fans at school).

From Noelle Stevenson, the
New York Times bestselling author-illustrator of Nimona, comes a captivating, honest illustrated memoir that finds her turning an important corner in her creative journey—and inviting readers along for the ride. 

In a collection of essays and personal mini-comics that span eight years of her young adult life, author-illustrator Noelle Stevenson charts the highs and lows of being a creative human in the world. Whether it’s hearing the wrong name called at her art school graduation ceremony or becoming a National Book Award finalist for her debut graphic novel, Nimona, Noelle captures the little and big moments that make up a real life, with a wit, wisdom, and vulnerability that are all her own.

Noelle Stevenson, author of the fantastic graphic novel Nimona (originally a webcomic) and showrunner of the recent animated She-Ra series on Netflix, has compiled a series of vignettes, comics, and commentary about her young adult years in what is titled “a memoir in pictures.” In various mini-comics and end-of-year/birthday roundups, Stevenson details professional highs and lows and shares some physical and mental health journeys of the past several years, giving fans a close-up on not only her life, but also her changing self-perception.

 

Writing a memoir is a deeply vulnerable act – it exposes elements of your personal story to the light that you’ll never get back for yourself alone: those memories become public property.  I’ve read several really excellent graphic memoirs: everything/anything Lucy Knisley writes, including Relish, Tillie Walden’s Spinning, Vera Brogsol’s Be Prepared, etc. Stevenson’s memoir… is not really a memoir as such. It cannot decide what it wants to be: a “greatest hits” list, a “making of the artist” autobiography, or a therapeutic reevaluation of the past for the author’s sake. And while that does not lessen Stevenson’s bravery in baring parts of her soul, it does muddle the poignancy and purpose of her message.

 

The book is arranged in a loose timeline by year, with annual review/birthday posts that Stevenson blogs each New Year serving as the backbone, combined with previously published fan art, personal art from her sketchbook at the time, and new mini-comics. The static year-by-year progression does the narrative no favors – at times it reads very much as a “This is what I drew when, and here’s how it helped me get famous!” and other times is so sparse (looking at you 2014 and 2015…!) that it is hard to see why Stevenson and the editor did not do more… editing. Instead of a clear, unified story, I found myself asking questions like: “Is this about mental health? Or is this a fanbook for people who already love Noelle Stevenson?”

 

It’s not that there’s a dearth of material to work with: Stevenson touches on coming out to herself and others, bipolar disorder, losing her religion, self-harm, national tragedies such as the Pulse nightclub shooting, and workplace disasters (frustratingly vague for someone who is quite open about successes). She also tries to interrogate an idea she admits she internalized: that achieving things at a young age makes you better than everyone else. However, she doesn’t quite find the context or connections necessary to make the reader believe she has fully unpacked that. Instead, the book falls into a frustrating place where no metaphor is fully explored or linked to another, even the titular one.

 

If you’re looking for a bright spot (I certainly was!) the art is great. Stevenson’s style uses minimal lines and sparing color, and will be familiar to anyone who has read her books and comics or watched her shows before. She also includes the occasional personal photo to contrast against her art. I remain a fan of Stevenson’s fiction, but I cannot help feeling let down by the nagging thought that if she’d had a braver editor (or maybe felt less like she needed to prove her chops and credentials, page after page?), her memoir/journal might have had a better, and more courageous, thematic finale.

 

In all, The Fire Never Goes Out is a disappointing attempt at memoir by a celebrated young queer comics and animation pro.

 

Recommended for: die-hard Noelle Stevenson fans and readers who are LGBTQ+ graphic memoir completists.

where's halmoni?

I read Julie Kim’s picture book-slash-graphic novel Where’s Halmoni? a couple of years ago, and every now and again I’ll remember it and feel so glad (not warm and fuzzy glad, but “that was a fantastic book! UGH, so much talent!” glad). It’s a super fun, vivid journey through a portal and into a world of magic, and it’s a great bridge read during that age when picture books are still preferred by kids, but not by parents.

where's halmoni? by julie kim cover
Beautifully illustrated and told by debut author Julie Kim, this book follows a young Korean girl and boy whose search for their missing grandmother leads them into a world inspired by Korean folklore, complete with mischievous goblins (dokkebi), a greedy tiger, a clever rabbit, and a wily fox.

Two young children pay a visit to Halmoni (grandmother in Korean), only to discover she's not home. As they search for her, noticing animal tracks covering the floor, they discover a window, slightly ajar, new to their grandmother's home.  Their curiosity gets the best of them, and they crawl through and discover an unfamiliar fantastical world, and their adventure begins.  As they continue to search for their grandmother and solve the mystery of the tracks, they go deeper into a world of Korean folklore, meeting a number of characters who speak in Korean along the way, and learn more about their cultural heritage.  

In this delightful book, siblings Joon and Noona are trying to find their Halmoni (grandmother), who is missing. Halmoni may also be more than she seems! Though the concept is simple, Kim keeps the story interesting with some unexpected reveals and a journey through a magical land. Included along with the quest of finding a lost person are games of charades, rock, paper scissors, outwitting the enemy, and escaping just in time. Children and adults alike will delight in turning the page to see what Joon and Noona will come across next.


The highlight, of course, is Kim’s art: lush, vivid, detailed, symmetrical, and aesthetically pleasing. The illustrations and text are tightly interwoven – and the stylized landscapes on each page will be familiar to anyone who has seen an example of Asian art or handicrafts. And as the journey the children take introduces them to creatures from Korean folktales (including deals, trickster creatures, the mandate to feed those you come across, and mystical old ladies!), the setting fits. It’s a beautifully produced book, with no dust jacket but an embossed cover, and it’ll be a title to keep in collections for many re-reads.


The story begins on the endpapers and ends on the endpapers – with lots of hidden details that will delight readers of all ages upon re-reads. It’s picture heavy, with fewer words – somewhere halfway between being a picture book and graphic novel. Where’s Halmoni? would fit in teaching units on mythology, with its lovingly-detailed illustrations and connections to traditional legends.


Where’s Halmoni? will be a favorite with anyone who likes animals and unexpected twists, and independent readers ages 6 and up.


Recommended for: young readers who like their books with pictures in, and anyone interested in fairy tale and mythology retellings in illustrated formats.

snapdragon

This past March, a week before the world shut down, I went to my local public library to pick up my holds. One of those holds was Kat Leyh’s middle grade graphic novel Snapdragon… and if you can believe it, it sat unread in my room (and then packed in a moving box)(and THEN unpacked in a pile in my new room) until… September. I don’t know how you felt these past several months, but my reading pace ground to almost a halt… until it didn’t. I picked up this witchy middle grade book at just the right time – and I am so glad I read it because it is not only a fantastic story, but an excellently spooky one for Halloween!
 
snapdragon by kat leyh book cover
Snap's town had a witch.


At least, that’s how the rumor goes. But in reality, Jacks is just a crocks-wearing, internet-savvy old lady who sells roadkill skeletons online—after doing a little ritual to put their spirits to rest. It’s creepy, sure , but Snap thinks it’s kind of cool, too.

They make a deal: Jacks will teach Snap how to take care of the baby opossums that Snap rescued, and Snap will help Jacks with her work. But as Snap starts to get to know Jacks, she realizes that Jacks may in fact have real  magic—and a connection with Snap’s family’s past.


Snapdragon, or Snap for short, is a little weird, and she’ll admit it, too. But you know who’s even weirder? The witch who lives in the woods in Snap’s town, who picks roadkill off the side of the road and keeps a graveyard next to her house! Snap thought the witch might eat her dog after a car accident, but instead she bandaged him up and let Snap leave, safe and sound. When Snap finds orphaned possum babies one day, she’s forced to ask the witch (or is she a witch??) for help, and thus begins a partnership that will reveal the truth behind creepy family stories, and see good triumphing over evil.


This book is ADORABLE. That might not be the first word that springs to mind for some (especially since it’s a morbid story about a witch who collects roadkill and sells the bones online??), but it works for me. This book has: gender- and sexuality-affirmation, a majority Black cast of characters, quirky family history, a great mother-daughter bond, standing up to bullies, making friends who appreciate your specific brand of weird, and finding something to be passionate about (even if that is putting together skeletons in your free time).


ALSO: ghosts, baby possums, useful magic, and multigenerational storytelling! I know I might not be selling the “adorable” vibe with some of these things, but trust me when I say this book is wholesome as heck, and it needs to be on your shelf or in your hands ASAP. I need a follow up immediately, so Lu (side character, I don’t want to spoil much but you’re going to fall for them!) can have their own story.


I also love how unpredictable the storytelling in Snapdragon is – it takes you to unexpected and wonderful places and ties everything together (I don’t know how – Leyh is a master!) in the end. It puts the fantastic (as in unbelievable) in fantasy in places, but in the best way – with tight storytelling, loveable characters, lots of animals, and families of all shapes, sizes, colors, and configurations.


And what about the ART?? Well, that’s really what ties a weirdly wonderful storyline together with my pronouncement of “adorable!” Not surprising, I suppose? Leyh’s style includes heavy-ish line work, big eyes, and lots of vibrant color. It is 100% part of the storytelling, so much so that I’m having a hard time separating it from the words on the page – you get a lot of the emotion in the story from the unspoken, the scenery, the panels without words. Leyh seamlessly tells Snapdragon’s story in a visual medium.


In all, Snapdragon is a sweet, entertaining, and mildly morbid middle grade graphic novel with nuanced LGBTQ+ characters and spooky Halloween night activities (that do NOT include trick or treat!). I liked it a whole lot and I think you will too.


Recommended for: fans of Raina Telgemeier and Molly Ostertag’s graphic novels, anyone who likes their reading with magic and/or weirdness mixed in, and anyone looking for queer-affirming stories for young people.

séance tea party

If there’s one thing I love about the proliferation of graphic novels for kids and teens over the past few years, it’s how many of them have a witchy, autumnal vibe. I don’t know how/why it happened (thanks writers, illustrators, and editors!!), but I approve of the trend one hundred and ten percent!! Reimena Yee’s middle grade graphic novel Séance Tea Party joins a cadre of lovely books with that cozy, fall feeling. I’m thinking of titles like The Witch Boy, Quince, Mooncakes, Witchlight, and more. Go grab a hot beverage, a warm blanket, and get ready for an enjoyable afternoon – Séance Tea Party is perfect October reading! 


séance tea party by reimena yee book cover
Growing up sounds terrible.

No one has time to do anything fun, or play outside, or use their imagination. Everything is suddenly so serious. People are more interested in their looks and what others think about them than having fun adventures. Who wants that?

Not Lora.

After watching her circle of friends seemingly fade away, Lora is determined to still have fun on her own. A tea party with a twist leaves Lora to re-discovering Alexa, the ghost that haunts her house — and Lora’s old imaginary friend! Lora and Alexa are thrilled to meet kindred spirits and they become best friends . . . but unfortunately, not everything can last forever.

Reimena Yee brings to life a story about growing up, childhood, and what it means to let go. A fantastical story following lovable characters as they each realize what it means to be who you are.

 

Twelve-year-old Lora Xi is into everything magical, supernatural, and spooky – and she is starting to feel like all of her friends at school have left her behind in their quest to grow up fast. Lora is happy as she is: being a kid, making believe, and playing outdoors – but no one else seems to feel the same way. On one of the newly lonely afternoons in her middle school existence, she decides to host a tea party séance… and meets a ghost! Alexa (the ghost!) is forever thirteen, perfectly content to be Lora’s best friend, and their adventures together are epic. But time doesn’t stop just because one person in a BFF pair is a ghost – what will happen to Alexa when Lora grows up?


Oh. My. Gosh. This book is so, SO cute. I can’t with it. It’s got bittersweet growing up vibes, a weird kid growing into herself character arc, realistic tween and teen friendship feels, and a lot of magical, halloween-y wonderfulness. Just… candy corn sweet. Kids and adults alike will connect with the feeling of being left out or left behind, and those with off-the-beaten-path hobbies, quirks, and obsessions will especially see themselves in Lora. Lora with two supportive parents, a huge imagination, and a tender soul. The feeling that stayed with me after finishing this book is that ache of longing for acceptance, and the way we hold onto the “right now” when we’re scared of change. In a healing way. It’s a good sort of book.


But hey, that reaction didn’t tell you a whole lot about the story – just my over the top reactions to it. So here goes: Yee’s graphic novel is a middle grade graphic novel with a ghost in it (but not the horrifying kind, the benevolent kind!). Main character Lora is a bit of a loner; hesitant about this growing up business, and so of course she spends the whole book learning to come out of her shell, with help from a lovely supporting cast, who I am not going share much about because: spoilers. And that supporting cast have fully formed identities too (though it may take a little time to unravel them). I got genuinely emotional over this one, which made me kind of laugh at myself, because it’s just the prettiest book, and it felt a little weird to be tearing up over it.


Let’s unpack what I mean by pretty – well, I mean you can guess from the cover art?? Yee’s art is charming and has an endearing, young vibe with pencil-like line work (I don’t do art myself, please do not mind me if I’m getting this horribly wrong), lots of color, and characters with big eyes and soft silhouettes. Yee adds lots of detail to pages with magical and ghostly shenanigans, and sometimes joins up the panels with illustrations behind them. It’s a very active, expressive art style that exudes fun, and looks a bit like a mix of Ngozi Ukazu's and Katie O’Neill’s styles.


In all, Séance Tea Party is a charming and satisfying take on growing up (or not), finding your people, and making room for the magic in the every day.


Recommended for: fans of Ghosts and The Tea Dragon Festival, the Toy Story films, and anyone who prefers their October reading more gentle than spooky.

a gift from abuela

I’ve spent the last few weeks in upstate New York, and it’s been a gift to be able to see my grandmother (now 101 years old!). For many months she couldn’t have visitors because of COVID-19, and we’re all very aware that that could happen again—so any time together is precious beyond measure. Thinking of how much I value my grandmother’s presence and appreciate her support as an adult made Cecilia Ruiz’s picture book A Gift from Abuela feel even more poignant.

a gift from abuela by cecilia ruiz cover
The first time Abuela holds Nina, her heart overflows with tenderness. And as Nina grows up, she and Abuela spend plenty of time together. Abuela can’t help thinking how much she’d like to give Nina a very special treat, so she saves a little bit of her money every week — a few pesos here, a few pesos there. When the world turns upside down, Abuela’s dream of a surprise for Nina seems impossible. Luckily, time spent together — and the love Abuela and Nina have for each other — could turn out to be the very best gift of all. With a soft and subtle hand, author-illustrator Cecilia Ruiz draws from her own history to share a deeply personal tale about remembering what’s most important when life starts to get in the way.

In this Mexico City-set picture book, a child and grandmother are fast friends. However, as the child grows up, life gets in the way of visiting, and slowly they grow apart. One day, the child learns that their grandmother was saving money for a special gift, but because of political/economic upheaval, those savings became worthless. Together, grandmother and grandchild decide to make banners out of the old paper currency, and bond anew.

A Gift from Abuela is a heartfelt and bittersweet story notable for its unique setting and its celebration of the small habits and special moments spent together that make relationships memorable. Children who have seen the film Coco will find much to identify with in this story, as the same threads of family, remembrance, and art are woven through out. The narrative itself is simple and universal, and while it could be set anywhere in the world, the Mexico City setting is uniquely lovely. The papel picado (cut paper art used in celebratory banners in Mexico) border design on the cover, textures used throughout the book, and varying colors all add to that sense of setting and place.

The highlight, as it often (always?) is with picture books, is the art. Ruiz’s designs are symmetrical and almost architectural—and the page spreads often rely on these idealistic outlines of the grandmother’s kitchen/building/city for structure. In addition, Ruiz uses lots of patterns in primary colors, with a screen-printed effect. The art will appeal to adults just as much as the children.

This book would make a wonderful gift for a grandparent to share with their grandchild (no guarantees that the grandparent won’t cry, though!). It’s also a good candidate for cultural learning units that include Day of the Dead traditions (without a specific reference to that holiday). It’s a must for libraries that are looking to add to or feature diverse voices and experiences in their collections.

In all, A Gift from Abuela is a meticulously-illustrated and poignant look at the relationships between grandparents and grandchildren.

Recommended for: fans of culturally diverse picture books, parents, grandparents, and libraries looking for stories featuring Latinx characters, and anyone who enjoyed Dreamers, Juana & Lucas, and Duncan Tonatiuh’s picture books.

when stars are scattered

In 2018 I started volunteering at an immigration legal aid clinic. I wanted to find a way to help, and I needed to focus on positive change rather than my rage over how the US treats immigrants. Sometimes a happy side effect of helping others is that you see yourself more clearly, too. Soon after, I went back to school to become a teacher. And now I’m evaluating graphic novels about immigration to share with my students! The important things circle around (if you're paying attention!). This brings me to today’s book review: fantastic middle grade graphic novel When Stars Are Scattered by Victoria Jamieson and Omar Mohamed. Omar’s story is poignant, relevant, and beautifully illustrated: it’s well worth the read!

when stars are scattered by victoria jamieson and omar mohamed book cover
Omar and his younger brother, Hassan, have spent most of their lives in Dadaab, a refugee camp in Kenya. Life is hard there: never enough food, achingly dull, and without access to the medical care Omar knows his nonverbal brother needs. So when Omar has the opportunity to go to school, he knows it might be a chance to change their future . . . but it would also mean leaving his brother, the only family member he has left, every day.

Heartbreak, hope, and gentle humor exist together in this graphic novel about a childhood spent waiting, and a young man who is able to create a sense of family and home in the most difficult of settings. It’s an intimate, important, unforgettable look at the day-to-day life of a refugee, as told to
New York Times Bestselling author/artist Victoria Jamieson by Omar Mohamed, the Somali man who lived the story.

Meet Omar and Hassan, brothers who live in Dadaab, a huge refugee camp in Kenya. Forced to flee Somalia’s civil war when they were little, now every day in the camp they follow the same routine: pray, wait for water, clean the tent, and play. When Omar is offered the chance to attend school, he must balance his dreams with what he always thought of as his future: caring for Hassan, who has medical needs and does not speak, and waiting for their mother to find them. Omar loves school, but he worries that his thirst for learning means abandoning Hassan.

When Stars Are Scattered is a heavily autobiographical graphic novel about former refugee Omar Mohamed’s experiences as a young boy and teenager, illustrated, fictionalized, and co-told with celebrated graphic novelist Victoria Jamieson. At its core, When Stars Are Scattered is a story of two very different brothers growing up together, and the ways that they learn to trust each other and those around them. It’s also a story of experiences in a refugee camp, the privation of daily life and vanishingly small chances of resettlement, and how hope and despair can develop side by side. And lastly, it’s entertaining, bittersweet, and deeply authentic. I have read several refugee and immigrant graphic novels recently (The Unwanted, Illegal, Escape from Syria, Alpha, Undocumented), and this one is the most personal and accessible I have found. I think my students will eat it up.

The book is organized into three parts, or time periods: childhood, early teens, and late teens. At the end of the book Mohamed and Jamieson share real-life photographs of Omar and Hassan and others mentioned in the narrative, and add a small epilogue to tell you what happened “after the story.” This will please any reader who likes resolution to their stories, and it offers parents and educators a chance to connect Omar’s story to news stories and laws around immigration today. In addition, Mohamed and Jamieson discuss how they met and decided to tell Omar’s story together – interesting information for aspiring writers!

I want to touch on what I found most impressive about the book: that it is deeply personal, literarily valuable, and also offers a big picture view of refugee camp life that children and teens will relate to. Managing and balancing these three elements takes enormous talent and speaks to Jamieson and Mohamed’s skill. When I told my uncle about this book yesterday, he said, “That doesn’t sound like something that kids would just pick up on their own!” And if it was just the subject matter, he’d be right. But this is a story is told with heart-wrenching honesty, in an accessible and enjoyable format, and readers of all ages will root for Omar and Hassan to finally find “home.” I can see myself using When Stars Are Scattered as an additional reading suggestion when I teach The Odyssey in parallel with immigrant journey photo essays, and recommending it as choice reading to any of my students, full-stop.

Really quick before I wrap up, let’s talk about the art! It’s very colorful, and in Jamieson’s regular style (slightly rounded heads that are bigger than bodies). The focus is on human figures rather than landscape, and because there is so much story packed into the book, most pages are full of traditional comic panels. The occasional full-page illustration helps moderate the pacing. Visual and text elements that wouldn’t be immediately recognizable to an American audience are explained either in footnotes or as part of the story. As always in a graphic novel, the illustrations make or break the book. The book is fantastic, ergo… the art is perfectly suited to this story!

In all, When Stars Are Scattered is an engaging and necessary addition to any graphic novel library. Omar’s story (and all refugee and immigrant stories) is relevant for young people, and Jamieson and Mohamed have crafted a tale that will entertain, inform, and melt readers’ hearts.

Recommended for: all fans of graphic novels and comics, but especially the 10-15 year old crowd, readers and curators interested in a personal story of refugee life, and anyone who leans towards the nonfiction section when they get to pick their choice reading.

dreamers

Unless I type up a review within minutes of finishing a book (a vanishingly rare occurrence!), I organize my thoughts by writing them down long-hand. And then… given my current rate of production… it may take a year or two to actually convert a review to a digital version and post it on my blog. In the autumn of 2018 I had a hugely productive couple of months, reading- and review-wise, and I’m only just now starting to think about posting those reviews. Yuyi Morales’ beautiful and much-lauded picture book Dreamers was one of those titles, and today I’m finally getting around to reviewing it. While my thoughts may not be as fresh, I can say with conviction that the art has stayed with me – vivid in memory. Morales’ talent has definite staying power.

dreamers by yuyi morales cover
In 1994, Yuyi Morales left her home in Xalapa, Mexico and came to the US with her infant son. She left behind nearly everything she owned, but she didn’t come empty-handed.

She brought her strength, her work, her passion, her hopes and dreams…and her stories. Caldecott Honor artist and five-time Pura Belpré winner Yuyi Morales’s gorgeous new picture book Dreamers is about making a home in a new place. Yuyi and her son Kelly’s passage was not easy, and Yuyi spoke no English whatsoever at the time. But together, they found an unexpected, unbelievable place: the public library. There, book by book, they untangled the language of this strange new land, and learned to make their home within it.

Dreamers is a celebration of what immigrants bring with them when they leave their homes. It’s a story about family. And it’s a story to remind us that we are all dreamers, bringing our own gifts wherever we roam. Beautiful and powerful at any time but given particular urgency as the status of our own Dreamers becomes uncertain, this is a story that is both topical and timeless.

In Dreamers a mother (Morales) tells her son about her journey to the United States. She illustrates becoming an immigrant, navigating a new life and new customs, and reacting to the new, foreign world around her. While this memoir leaves out some more practical details, it’s an immigrant story made accessible for all ages. Morales trails more difficult, mature clues throughout the illustrations, and discusses what happened in some detail in the back matter in a section entitled “My Story.” But the undisputed center of the story is when mother and son encounter a library for the first time: an improbable, suspicious, and imagination-sparking place that makes all of the previous difficulties palatable and traversable.

Morales writes:
“Books became our language.
Books became our home.
Books became our lives.”

This love letter to books and libraries is accompanied by astonishingly beautiful art – the true star of the book. Morales’ mixed media art pops on each pate, and color is used as a metaphor for opening the mind (it grows as the author settles into a new life and makes discoveries). I loved the use of color, the embroidery art, and textures. Accompanying the art and exuberance over books is a back matter index of “Books that Inspired Me” if the reader wants to follow Morales’ path.

The book as a whole is very positive, and the focus is not on the hardships of the immigration journey (though they are hinted at, as I mentioned above), but the wonder of libraries and books as places and things that can act as a catalyst for creativity and take you as far as you can imagine (or farther!). Side note: this isn’t a book about DREAMers or DACA recipients. It’s an artfully told exploration of opening doors and flowering creativity after a rough transition. It would pair especially well with other books that touch on those themes such as Juana & Lucas and The Day You Begin.

In all, Dreamers is a beautiful book that will inspire fanciful art as well as deep questions and conversations. It’s more of a stare-at-the-pictures kind of book, but would also work well during storytime if combined with lots of context.

Recommended for: every picture book library, and especially for bibliophiles, no matter their age.

the black god's drums

I’ve been meaning to read P. Djèlí Clark's novella The Black God's Drums for a long time. I’m proud to say I finally finished it (and that the long wait had nothing to do with the book itself, which was fast-paced, satisfying, and a romp and a half!). A couple of years ago I borrowed this novella from the library and racked up a $13 late fee – before returning it unread. *sigh* And then I bought a hardcover copy sometime in the past year… but teaching (and grading!) burned through all of my personal reading time. And THEN I finally bought a digital copy as well – to read whenever. And whenever happened to be over the last few days, sitting with my Kindle in the sunshine at my uncles’ place. It was extremely satisfying to check this one off my to-read list!

the black god's drums by p. djèlí clark book cover
Creeper, a scrappy young teen, is done living on the streets of New Orleans. Instead, she wants to soar, and her sights are set on securing passage aboard the smuggler airship 
Midnight Robber. Her ticket: earning Captain Ann-Marie’s trust using a secret about a kidnapped Haitian scientist and a mysterious weapon he calls the Black God’s Drums.

But Creeper keeps another secret close to heart—Oya, the African orisha of the wind and storms, who speaks inside her head and grants her divine powers. And Oya has her own priorities…

Young orphan Creeper sleeps rough and knows the ins and outs of a steampunk version of New Orleans from her life as a pickpocket. Her dreams are bigger than the streets she loves, though – she wants to get away, to join an airship crew and fly the world. When she stumbles upon valuable information about a weapon of mass destruction called the Black God’s Drums, she thinks that selling it to the right source may be her ticket out of town on a Haitian pirate airship. The goddess Oya, who haunts Creeper’s thoughts with visions, may have a different plan – and so the intrigue and adventure begin.

The Black God’s Drums is primarily young Creeper’s story, but it is firmly moored in an alternate history and place: a steampunk version of New Orleans full of airships and mechanical marvels, where the North and South signed a treaty to end a much longer Civil War and Free New Orleans rebelled and lives in its own bubble. In this version of reality, Creeper is on her own and a master at avoiding the risk and danger of her world, and at the same time trying to escape to live in the skies. She’s dropped into intrigue by accident (is it really an accident or Oya’s will?), and thus follows an adventure that crisscrosses New Orleans and brings her up against sinister enemies.

One of the story’s great strengths is the crazy steampunk and cultural mashup in its pages (and that’s also one of the possible weaknesses, if you can’t untangle the threads). It’s speculative fiction, which you always take a bit on faith, but it imagines a mostly hopeful past: one where Haiti thrived and prospered after its slave uprising and revolution (even at terrible cost), the rest of the Caribbean followed it to freedom, and Free New Orleans is a diverse melting pot full of a Blacks, Creoles, and more. Also there are airships! And unlikely information gatherers, and queer characters, and a rollicking pace that catapult the reader through adventures one after another.

The one thing I wish we got more of in the story is MORE of the story – I’d love to see this become a series like the Murderbot novellas by Martha Wells did. Clark has woven a history and a cultural milieu that are rich with detail, and characters you want to know more about. I think there’s more to Creeper’s story, and I’d love to read it.

In all, The Black God’s Drums is an inventive, electric steampunk short story filled with Haitian airship privateers, the unique flavor of New Orleans, and a young heroine who will steal into your heart.

Recommended for: those looking to read more fiction by Black authors, fans of short stories and YA steampunk/alternate histories (e.g. Scott Westerfeld’s Leviathan series), and anyone on the hunt for a fast-paced read.

witchlight

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!
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