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.

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