marshmallow & jordan

Now that I’m a teacher, it’s much harder to keep track of all of the awesome books releasing each week. I don’t have the attention span (or time) I used to have to track what’s going on in the book world! Luckily, the folks at Macmillan and First Second do a great job of getting the word out about their books to bloggers, librarians, and educators. And when I heard about Alina Chau’s middle grade graphic novel Marshmallow & Jordan, I perked right up. A mysterious white elephant, a story set in Indonesia, playing sports with a disability, and water polo (which I played myself!) all rolled into one story??! Sign me up. And the result, you’ll be glad to hear, is enchanting.


Jordan's days as star player for her school's basketball team ended when an accident left her paralyzed from the waist down. Now, she's still the team captain, but her competition days seem to be behind her...until an encounter with a mysterious elephant, who she names Marshmallow, helps Jordan discover a brand new sport.

Will water polo be the way for Jordan to continue her athletic dreams--or will it just come between Jordan and her best friends on the basketball team? And with the big tournament right around the corner, what secret is Marshmallow hiding?


Jordan, a former basketball star growing up in Indonesia, is still on her school’s team even after an accident left her paraplegic. However, Jordan misses playing in games – she’s not allowed to compete in a wheelchair, even though she can still make amazing shots. Enter Marshmallow, a mysterious white baby elephant who needs Jordan’s help and friendship. With Marshmallow’s help, Jordan learns how to play water polo, joins the water polo team, and works for her chance to compete again. Two mysteries remain: who, or what, is Marshmallow? And will Jordan’s new team get to compete next year at nationals?

 

Oh my goodness, this is SUCH a cute book! It’s solidly middle grade, with adorable art, bittersweet moments of loss and could-have-been futures balanced by a solid here-and-now main character, and a fantastic setting and cultural milieu. Jordan’s family, including her parents and her nenek (grandmother) are a welcome change from many YA and middle grade books – they’re alive! and present in Jordan’s life. Their banter and support are refreshing to read, and help the reader understand how Jordan has become who she is. Jordan also has an amazing friend group through her basketball team, and throughout the book she gets to know girls on the water polo team as well. Overall, Chau’s storytelling is fairly simple, but the setting, amazing network behind Jordan, the mystery and cuteness (kawaii!) of Marshmallow, and the gorgeous artwork raise the book a level above.

 

If there is a weakness in this book, it is that there’s not quite enough of it – but isn’t that always the way? I was having such a good time with Jordan and her crew that I wanted to keep reading. Marshmallow’s fantastical origins could have been explored a little more? But really, what you get as a reader is a sweet, good-hearted story with just a bit of angst to carry you through. And it is a wonderful read for those reasons!

 

Let’s talk a bit about the art. When I first saw it I thought refined watercolors, vibrant colors, attention to cultural setting and details (especially food and flowers!), and an elephant that is too cute to be real – and I was right on that point! Chau’s art was sketched and cleaned up in Photoshop, watercolors painted by hand, and then composites were detailed in Photoshop, according to the back matter. Chau captures movement well, including illustrating plays in both basketball and water polo, which is tough! Her background in the film and game industries no doubt helped develop that skill, and she brings it and the storytelling to the page with grace.

 

In all, Marshmallow & Jordan is a heartwarming, thoroughly middle school tale of overcoming obstacles, making (and keeping!) friends, and familial love. The dash of fantasy at the end just adds to the delightful whole.

 

Recommended for: fans of Shannon Hale’s Real Friends, Victoria Jamieson’s Roller Girl, and Raina Telgemeier’s books, anyone interested in sports depicted in graphic novels, and readers ages 8+ looking for wholesome, pure-hearted heroines and reads!

 

 Marshmallow & Jordan will be available from First Second on October 5, 2021.

 

Fine print: I received an advanced e-ARC for review consideration from the publisher. I did not receive any compensation for this post.

death & sparkles

Graphic novels are always on my radar: I’m interested in the ones for young adult readers for my classroom library, and the ones for younger readers for… the young readers in my life! I get such a kick out of kiddos connecting with graphic novels. They’re a great way to introduce a love of reading, and the art is fantastic too! When Chronicle sent me Rob Justus’ graphic novel Death & Sparkles, I knew immediately that I’d enjoy it, or at least be able to recommend it to a young reader who would. And I wasn’t wrong!

 

Being Death is a lonely job, especially when everything you touch instantly dies (not to mention the paperwork), but being Sparkles the Last Unicorn is not much fun either, since everyone just wants to take selfies with you or use you to sell stuff. But when Death and Sparkles meet between life and, well, death, it's the beginning of a friendship that just might change the world.


Death & Sparkles is volume 1 in a planned series about an epic friendship. But it doesn’t start that way, no. First, it introduces lonely, skeletal Death, burdened by paperwork and isolation. Everything he touches dies. Enter morbid humor! In another world, Sparkles the Last Unicorn has forgotten his life’s purpose entirely, and lives from cupcake to cupcake, while doing the bidding of his money-hungry manager without question. When his manager puts him up to a risky, extreme stunt the two finally meet. What follows? Adventures big and small: some involving ancient lizard people, one involving falling off a mountain, and yet another involving the very first party Death has ever attended (and his first cupcake!). By the end of the book, the two have learned what friendship means, and had their lives upended, in more ways than one.

 

Things I liked about this book: the odd couple combination of Death and a sparkly, snarky unicorn. The message of accepting your friends – and any slightly weird hobbies they have – on their own merits. Ancient, alien lizard people (what a choice!). The inclusion of climate action (not fully developed), and how people can be distracted from good causes by wealth and fame. Actually, the condemnation of consumerism and celebrity culture was handled really well overall. What I didn’t like: there aren’t many female (or female-coded) characters. I’d like to see more in upcoming volumes! Also, not all of the humor was for me, but it will hit well with the target audience. There’s just enough of a glimpse into the world of adults and adult-speak to make kids laugh but let the action keep moving onward. 

 

As befits a book featuring the last unicorn as a main character, Justus’ artwork is vibrant and fun. The digital art looks like a mashup between crayon and watercolor, and though there are bright colors on every page, the effect is not a paintbox explosion, but a joyous celebration. This contrasts nicely with the slapstick and (sometimes!) morbid humor throughout the book. I think the art is just right for the story – it’s a surprising choice for the subject matter, but the juxtaposition works.

 

In all, Death & Sparkles is a beautifully-illustrated graphic novel with tons of kid appeal and a good message under the childish humor.

 

Recommended for: fans of the Wimpy Kid, Captain Underpants, and Catwad series (basically, graphic novels for young readers with a little bit of an edge!), anyone who appreciates colorful sequential art, and those who appreciate humor with a message. 

 

Death & Sparkles will be available from Chronicle on September 7, 2021.

 

Fine print: I received an advanced copy of Death & Sparkles for review consideration from the publisher. I did not receive any compensation for this post.

good girls don't make history

While I was visiting upstate New York earlier this summer, I spent a day at the Women’s Rights National Historical Park in Seneca Falls. It was powerful to experience the museum there, and visit the houses and places where Americans met and fostered a movement to win women the vote. What I appreciated most were the words of women long gone: women who believed with their hearts and backed up with their actions that change and progress were necessary, inevitable, and good. It was a pleasure to continue to think about those extraordinary women (and many more!) by reading Good Girls Don't Make History, a new graphic novel for young adults written by Elizabeth Kiehner, Kara Coyle, and Keith Olwell, and illustrated by Michaela Dawn and Mary Sanchez. 


History has rarely been told from a woman’s point of view. 


Good Girls Don’t Make History is an important graphic novel that amplifies the voices of female legends from 1840 to the present day. 
 
Reliving moments from the lives of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Sojourner Truth, Alice Paul, Ida B. Wells, and Susan B. Anthony, these inspiring stories are boldly told from one of the most formative eras in women’s history—the fight for the vote in the United States.

The tale begins at a modern-day polling station in California with a mother and daughter voting together, then flashes back 180 years to the World Anti-Slavery Convention where the women's movement got its legendary start.
 
The twists and turns take readers across the country and through time, illuminating parallels between epic battles for liberty in the past and similar struggles for justice today. 
 
A powerful and important examination of some key figures in the ongoing fight for equality,
Good Girls Don’t Make History’s accounts of bravery, perseverance and courage are truly inspiring for readers of any age.


Good Girls Don’t Make History isn’t quite nonfiction, but it reads like it. I say it isn’t, because it takes some creative license with the conversations historical figures may have had with each other, and it also includes some original characters for the sake of the narrative – to intro specific stories and vignettes. What it is: a collection of the experiences of influential women in the women’s suffrage movement. The book attempts to illustrate most of the important events from a history often excluded from mainstream U.S. History narratives. It does this by taking readers through a rough timeline of events in the suffrage movement, and by introducing many of the historical figures involved. The effect is a skim: for fully-fleshed out history and context (and to truly “meet” the characters and know all of their aims and dreams, and to read them in their own words), most readers will want to do additional research.

 

According to the forward, the team behind Good Girls Don’t Make History hopes to present women’s history that is glossed over in textbooks in an accessible, easily digestible format. The goal is to educate, to reveal hidden (or forgotten, or ignored) history, and to reach those who might not dive any deeper than their high school assignments for information about America’s past. While that is admirable, the book itself suffers from a lack of cohesive storytelling and from trying to pack too much history into a short volume. The sheer number of names, organizations, dates, and competing interests are confusing, even to someone with prior knowledge of the events covered.

 

One thing I appreciated about this graphic novel was that it complicated the view of suffragettes as heroes focused on equality for all. The book tells the story of Black women who were excluded from national suffrage organizations and points out that they did their own organizing as a result. Good Girls Don’t Make History also makes clear that many women of color did not receive the vote until many years after the passage of the 19th Amendment. This may, even in 2021, still be news to a lot of people.

 

Let’s talk about art! It was constructed digitally, with a watercolor-like look, in a palette of blues, reds, and yellows. My favorite page spreads were those with a short quote from an important woman in history one page, and a portrait of that woman on the facing page. I also appreciated the spreads with illustrated renderings of actual newspaper headlines from important dates and events related to woman’s suffrage. I would have liked to see a little more emotion in the art – the closeups of women’s facial expressions could have told more of the story instead of relying completely on the text or dialogue.

 

In all, Good Girls Don’t Make History is an introductory text that covers the timeline of an important history. While I didn’t find it compelling, I think it could spark conversation, especially if included in a library alongside graphic novels like Mikki Kendall’s Amazons, Abolitionists, and Activists.

 

Recommended for: middle and high school libraries and classroom libraries, and those who may not know where to begin reading about the women’s suffrage movement.

 

Good Girls Don't Make History will be available from Wide Eyed Editions (Quarto) on August 31, 2021. 


Fine print: I received an e-ARC from the publisher for review consideration. I did not receive any compensation for this post.

the sprite and the gardener

While I’m not much of a gardener myself (more of a houseplant hoarder), I love to enjoy other peoples’ gardens! I also love to take flower and book photos, as my Instagram account proves. My uncle has a fabulous garden, and he generously offered me some of his flowers for my photos this week – and that reminded me that I had a fetching little graphic novel on my to-read list: Rii Abrego and Joe Whitt’s The Sprite and the Gardener. It turned out to be charming and gentle, and I have decided that I want to be a sprite when I grow old, if only for the fabulous clothes and wings!


Long, long ago, sprites were the caretakers of gardens. Every flower was grown by their hand. But when humans appeared and began growing their own gardens, the sprites’ magical talents soon became a thing of the past. When Wisteria, an ambitious, kind-hearted sprite, starts to ask questions about the way things used to be, she’ll begin to unearth her long-lost talent of gardening. But her newly honed skills might not be the welcome surprise she intends them to be. 

The Sprite and the Gardener, the debut graphic novel by Joe Whitt and Rii Abrego, is bursting with whimsical art and vibrant characters. Join our neighborhood of sprites in this beautiful, gentle fantasy where both gardens and friendships begin to blossom.


Wisteria is new in town, and finding it difficult to fit in with the other sprites of Sylvan Trace. They’re all very close-knit, and talk about people and places she either barely knows or doesn’t know at all. She wanders away from one of these get-togethers and into a mess of a backyard one day, and decides to help a drooping bloom out – after all, sprites were the original caretakers of plant life before the humans moved in! When the human gardener trying to revive the garden sees Wisteria’s work, the story really begins, and it one about making new, unexpected friends, the power of teamwork, and reconnecting with the natural world.

 

The focus of this graphic novel is squarely on the visuals, and to be completely fair, they are *stunning*. Rii Abrego’s plant-forward art and adorable sprites (small fairy-type creatures with enormous, detailed eyes!) take center stage, and while there is a storyline, I found myself saying “plot?? what plot?” a couple of times. The book begins with a vague introduction to the origins and history of sprites – that portion reads like a fable, and a little wink to the audience about what is really going on here (it’s fostering harmony and plant-growing!). The common threads throughout are those of sprites reconnecting with their former flower magic, and humans reconnecting with their families and former hobbies. It’s a soothing, simple, one-note story, and that’s okay – just don’t go in expecting too much complexity. Also, what it may lack in detail it makes up for in enchanting visuals!

 

Let’s talk about that art a little more! It’s lovingly-detailed and vibrant, in what I would call a strong pastel palette of colors (does that make sense??): pinks, purples, teals, yellows, and soft oranges and greens and blues. Abrego’s art relies on precise linework, color contrasts, and color coordination. There are very few shadows and prints, and almost everything that isn’t a flower is one solid color. This imbues the art with a flat feel that pairs well with its vintage subject matter (round little fairies caring for flowers!) and lettering. I can also see this art eventually being collected in a gorgeous coloring book – the color choices Abrego makes are amazing, but I’m sure fans would love to make their own color choices as well.

 

In all, The Sprite and the Gardner is a feast for the eyes, and a quiet story for fairy- and flower-lovers of all ages, and for anyone who has been looking for a graphic novel with Studio Ghibli-slash-The Secret Garden vibes.

 

Recommended for: fans of #cottagecore, those who loved of Katie O’Neill’s Tea Dragon Society series, and anyone who loves intricate art, flowers, fairies, and gardening mythos.

 

Fine print: I received an e-ARC of this book from the publisher for review consideration. I did not receive any compensation for this post.

almond thumbprint cookies with jam

I’m in upstate New York for the month of July with extended family, and one of the joys of that (aside from cooler weather, doggie cuddles, and lake swimming!) is staying just 45 minutes from my grandmother, Cynthia, who is now 102! She’s currently in assisted living, but with both of us vaccinated, I’ve been able to visit. Last week I couldn’t see her because of a virtual class during daylight hours, so I’m going to see her today, and I tried a new recipe for jam thumbprint cookies to brighten up a rainy week.

 


Almond Thumbprint Cookies with Jam (adapted from Smitten Kitchen)

 

INGREDEINTS

 

4 ounces almonds (any kind), ground, OR almond meal
2/3 cup sugar, plus extra 1/3 cup, for rolling dough
1 1/3 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1 stick (1/2 cup or 4 oz) unsalted butter, melted and cooled to room temperature
1 large egg, lightly beaten
1 generous teaspoon vanilla extract
Jam, any kind (I made basic strawberry jam over Memorial Day, so I used that)

 


DIRECTIONS

 

If using whole or chopped almonds, grind them into a fine powder (I do this either in a food processor or a coffee grinder). Add almond meal/ground almonds, sugar, flour, and salt to a bowl and whisk to combine. Stir in butter, egg, and vanilla extract until incorporated. Scoop and mold dough into a large ball, cover with plastic wrap, and refrigerate until firm, about 30 minutes.

 


Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper. Move ball of dough back to countertop and uncover. Scoop tablespoon-sized portions of dough into your hand, squeeze to help the dough adhere, and roll between your palms into a smooth ball. Drop each ball of dough into small bowl filled with the remaining sugar. Rotate/roll until dough is coated on all sides, and place on one of the baking sheets. Because you’ll be chilling the dough one more time before baking, you don’t need to worry about spacing at this point. Discard remaining sugar.

 

 

Make an indentation in center of each ball using your thumb, index finger, or the rounded end of a wooden spoon. If dough cracks, let it warm a little more, or nudge it back into place. Return the cookies to the refrigerator (20-25 minutes) or freezer (10 minutes) to chill.

 

 

Move racks to the middle of your oven and preheat to 350°F. Take cookies out of the fridge or freezer and fill with jam up to the edges of the indentation. If jam is too dense or stiff, put 2-3 tablespoons in a small bowl in the microwave for 15 seconds. Warm jam should be easier to work with! Space filled cookies 2 inches apart, moving some to the second baking sheet.

 


Bake 11-12 minutes. Let cookies cool on baking sheets. Makes 24-36 cookies, depending on size.

 

After never making them before in my life, I’ve made jam thumbprint cookies twice this summer. The first time I made them, I used a recipe that called for all flour and additional corn starch. While they looked fabulous and disappeared quickly at the party I took them to, I didn’t love the taste of so much starch. Naturally, I went looking for an alternative. Deb of Smitten Kitchen posts reliably good recipes, so I adapted hers a bit for my own needs. The result may be more rustic and less perfect, but they taste MUCH better than my first effort, and they melt in your mouth. If you don’t mind cracks here and there in your cookies, these will be a hit! They’re still visually stunning, and they taste delicious!

 

This recipe post is part of Weekend Cooking, hosted by Marg of The Intrepid Reader. Learn more about Weekend Cooking here.

xoxo

Thursday, July 15, 2021 | | 1 comments

We all know it by this point, but social media sells books. I don’t know who retweeted a two-sentence synopsis of Axie’ Oh’s contemporary young adult novel XOXO in my feed on Tuesday when it released, but I was immediately smitten by the cover art and concept. IMMEDIATELY smitten as in ordered it online POSTHASTE. One-day shipping worked its magic and this K-pop and K-drama inflected love story arrived in the mail yesterday after lunch. Despite taking all-day teacher training classes this week (or maybe because of that?!), I read it in one afternoon and evening. As I write this review I am like, aglow with the cute, the fun, and the excellent chain of decision-making that led me to this book and its dreamy, secret romance. 

 

Jenny didn’t get to be an award-winning, classically trained cellist without choosing practice over fun. That is, until the night she meets Jaewoo. Mysterious, handsome, and just a little bit tormented, Jaewoo is exactly the kind of distraction Jenny would normally avoid. And yet, she finds herself pulled into spending an unforgettable evening wandering Los Angeles with him on the night before his flight home to South Korea.

With Jaewoo an ocean away, there’s no use in dreaming of what could have been. But when Jenny and her mother move to Seoul to take care of her ailing grandmother, who does she meet at the elite arts academy she’s just been accepted to? Jaewoo.

Finding the dreamy stranger who swept you off your feet in your homeroom is one thing, but Jaewoo isn’t just any student. Turns out, Jaewoo is a member of one of the biggest K-pop bands in the world. And like most K-pop idols, Jaewoo is strictly forbidden from dating anyone.

When a relationship means not only jeopardizing her place at her dream music school but also endangering everything Jaewoo’s worked for, Jenny has to decide once and for all just how much she’s willing to risk for love. XOXO is a new romance that proves chasing your dreams doesn’t have to mean sacrificing your heart, from acclaimed author Axie Oh.

 

Jenny Go is a talented and driven Korean-American girl living in L.A., attending a performing arts school, and planning her future. Her goal: to get into the best music school possible to achieve her dream of becoming a concert cellist. In her free time, she works at her Uncle Jay’s karaoke bar. When her uncle challenges her to be more spontaneous and live life in the moment, it leads her to an unexpected and perfect night out with a mysterious boy from Korea. But Jenny has a plan, and one encounter isn’t going to change her path… right? When an unexpected chance to travel to Korea presents itself, Jenny goes. There she meets her maternal grandmother for the first time, finds friends, and… runs into that boy from that one night in L.A.… only it turns out he’s a K-pop star. Jenny will have to grapple with secrets, figuring out what she values above all, and deciding whether a relationship is worth possibly losing everything you’ve worked for and dreamed about.

 

First things first: this is an adorable teen romance that deals with having big dreams and matching expectations for success, what celebrity culture means for the celebrity and those around them, and culture shock and the strangeness (and fun exploration) that comes with moving to a new place. It’s also a charming YA romance with supportive family members, healthy ambition, sweet friendship dynamics, and just the right amount of tension – Jaewoo and Jenny must keep their situation-ship under wraps for the sake of his budding career. There’s lots of fluff, and very little angst, to use fanfiction terms.

 

My favorite bit: Jenny! She’s a grounded soul: a little guarded, but a good listener and observer, passionate about music, and if you don’t fall in love with Seoul through her eyes (and through the food she eats!) then I don’t know what to tell you! I want to book a trip there like, now. I also loved the introduction to the way that the K-pop idol “machine” works! I had no prior knowledge about K-pop going in, and I got the context I needed through author Oh’s descriptions. I also appreciated the seamless inclusion of Korean language throughout the text. The feel, sound, smell, and tastes of Seoul (and L.A.’s Koreatown) set the stage for Jenny’s adventures and were a major strength of the book.

 

If I wanted anything more from this novel it would have been interactions between Jenny and her mother and grandmother. I could sense a deep well of love in their relationships, but it all plays a very secondary role to the main romance (as it should, to keep the story tight and moving along). If this story is ever made into a movie – and it 100% should be! – I would hope that they build out more plotlines based on Jenny’s family (and Jaewoo’s family, for that matter!). The scenes Oh included were heart-warming. And if I’m already creating a wishlist, let’s get to know the other members of XOXO too! I want follow-up books that feature Sun and Youngmin at the least (and Nathaniel and Sori deserve happy endings too, yes, okay, FINE!).

 

In all, XOXO is a hug in book form. I like books with high stakes as much as anyone, but every now and then it’s lovely to read something wholesome, heartfelt, with a light dose wish-fulfillment, and travel through it to a new place. XOXO is that book.

 

Recommended for: fans of young adult fiction and romance, anyone with an interest in K-pop or celebrity culture, and fans of Jenny Han’s To All the Boys I've Loved Before.

long way down: the graphic novel

I’ve been part of the same book club (FYA, DC chapter) for 10?? years now, and I’ve made some really fantastic reading friends in that time. I am only an occasional attendee at this point, but when I do make it it’s nice to just slot right in and chat about books with people who get my reading taste. For May we read Long Way Down, and to prepare I listened to the audiobook, narrated by author Jason Reynolds. The audiobook is just SO GOOD, I thought that there was no way that the newly-released graphic novel adaptation, illustrated by Danica Novgorodoff, could top it. However, after reading and thinking about Long Way Down: The Graphic Novel, I’ve revised my opinion. Both the audiobook and the graphic novel are brilliant ways to tell a story that is the same at its core, but different in execution.


Jason Reynolds's Newbery Honor, Printz Honor, and Coretta Scott King Honor–winning, #1
New York Times bestselling novel Long Way Down is now a gripping, galvanizing graphic novel, with haunting artwork by Danica Novgorodoff.

Will's older brother, Shawn, has been shot.
Dead.
Will feels a sadness so great, he can't explain it. But in his neighborhood, there are THE RULES:

No. 1: Crying.
Don't.
No matter what.

No. 2: Snitching
Don't.
No matter what.

No. 3: Revenge
Do.
No matter what.

But bullets miss. You can get the wrong guy. And there's always someone else who knows to follow the rules...


Long Way Down is the story of Will, whose brother Shawn was gunned down last night on his way back from the corner store. Will is headed out to take revenge. As he steps into the elevator, his brother’s gun tucked into his waistband, he’s determined to follow “The Rules” his brother taught him, about crying (don’t), snitching (don’t), and revenge (do). His uncle and father passed on those rules to Shawn before that, and these rules govern the lives of everyone in the neighborhood. In the 60 seconds it takes for Will to reach the ground floor, he encounters the ghosts (or spirits) of several people, and these encounters change the way he views himself, Shawn, and the history he thought he knew.

 

At its core, Long Way Down is a book about choices: the ones that individuals feel like they must make, the inter-generational impact of choices over time, and the way that communities are held together by certain choices (or “rules”) and experiences. Will’s life (and story) is one deeply affected by gun violence, and as an heir to that history, he feels as if he has an obligation to avenge his brother’s death. Within this framework of choices, and Will’s intention, Reynolds weaves a modern homage to Dickens’ A Christmas Carol by allowing Will, through interactions and conversations with ghosts, to realize that he may not know what he thinks he knows, and that there is room to make a different choice.

 

Obviously, the core of the book did not change between the original and the adaptation, and much of the language was preserved – and that language was poetic to start with. As with any graphic novel adaptation, the amount of text was reduced, and in this case transformed into visuals. There were certain things I especially appreciated about the graphic novel version: the depiction of the 9 blocks between Shawn and Will’s apartment and the corner store, the look and feel of the block Will lives on (including the basketball court), and the ways in which Uncle Mark’s movie came to life through Danica Novgorodoff’s illustrations. While reading the original I had my own idea of how things might look, but the visualization piece that comes with detailed art is second to none.

 

Let’s talk about that art. Because it is stunning. I had read a Novgorodoff graphic novel before, The Undertaking of Lily Chen, so I was familiar with her watercolor and ink illustration style. However, I was not prepared for the ways in which her art has grown and the masterful way she would interpret Reynolds’ story on the page. This is truly a lovely book. Gritty, tough, heavy – yes. And the art does not spare the reader that. But with judicious use of color, shadowing and shading, framing memories as illustrated polaroids, by outlining a body and filling it in as a cracked mirror – Novgorodoff adds layers and meaning to the text. While listening to the audiobook I got teary. Reynolds is a masterful narrator and the story is powerful. While reading the graphic novel, I full on cried twice. I cry easily, I’ll admit it… but there’s something special about this graphic novel, and I think (I know) it’ll reach even more children who need to hear its message in this format.

 

In all, Long Way Down: The Graphic Novel is an emotion-filled, potent, and honest adaptation of Jason Reynolds’ original award-winning novel-in-verse. It’s a must read and a necessary addition to any graphic novel collection.

 

Recommended for: everyone ages 12+ (and I’d even say 10, with some adult guidance), and especially those interested in contemporary graphic novels of exceptional literary and artistic merit.

a wizard's guide to defensive baking

Last year when the world began grinding to a halt, I started calling people more often – people I love (siblings, friends, etc.) but know are mostly busy with full time jobs, relationships, and the other important bits of life. Many of these people live in different time zones, so it has always been tough to make it work. But when I got my brother on the phone and babbled about making sourdough starter from scratch, he told me how much he had loved T. Kingfisher’s A Wizard's Guide to Defensive Baking. And I promised to read it, and then didn’t… Later on, my sister ALSO picked it up and said I’d like it, and I said okay, and… didn’t pick it up (you see the theme here). Finally, my sister gave me the book as a birthday gift, and I finally, finally read it last Sunday.


a wizard's guide to defensive baking by t. kingfisher
Fourteen-year-old Mona isn’t like the wizards charged with defending the city. She can’t control lightning or speak to water. Her familiar is a sourdough starter and her magic only works on bread. She has a comfortable life in her aunt’s bakery making gingerbread men dance.

But Mona’s life is turned upside down when she finds a dead body on the bakery floor. An assassin is stalking the streets of Mona’s city, preying on magic folk, and it appears that Mona is his next target. And in an embattled city suddenly bereft of wizards, the assassin may be the least of Mona’s worries…


In A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking, main character Mona is a minor magical talent – and a fourteen-year-old orphan working in a bakery. Mona’s affinity is for bread: making it rise, keeping it moist and delicious, and, from her earliest days, making gingerbread men dance. The book begins with Mona finding a dead body in the bakery, and never stops building from there: soon Mona learns that other wizards have gone missing, is warned to watch out for someone called the “Spring Green Man,” and finds herself hiding in a church tower. Eventually, everything spirals to an ending full of bread, battle, and unlikely heroism.

 

Author Kingfisher (a pseudonym for Ursula Vernon) writes in the author’s note that she struggled to find a traditional publishing home for the book, and ended up going with a very small press. I can see why. A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking has a lot of the trappings of a middle grade book (poop humor, disdain for adults/musings on adult incompetence, etc.), and yet is too violent to fit into that category neatly, what with dead bodies to start, undead horses, multiple murders witnessed by the child protagonists, and a pitched battle by the end. It’s a LOT to fit into one narrative, and the first half of the book suffers from this lack of direction. The second half of the book recovers with good pacing, inventiveness, and a swift slide into battle, but never quite makes up for the lack of consistent worldbuilding.

 

What I liked: Mona’s carnivorous (sentient??) sourdough starter Bob – and yes, it’s as ridiculous and funny as it sounds – and his antics. Mona’s sense of humor and internal dialogue are also delightful, along with her very teenage, and founded, frustrations with adults and their ineptitude. I also appreciated the window into how tough the baking life is (early mornings, lots of hard work, and little thanks!) and Mona’s capricious gingerbread cookie men.

 

What I didn’t like: starting the book with a dead body on the floor almost turned me away permanently. This isn’t billed as a murder mystery, and to frame it as one in the first chapter is… false advertising. I also thought the political system was very hand-wavy (accurate, I suppose, if we only go off of Mona’s understanding), and found it suspect that Mona doesn’t have any friends, barely any family, and next-to-no knowledge of the workings of the city she lives in. Even with anti-magic prejudice, Mona’s lack of community, given her personality and strengths, is hard to come to terms with. Finally, Spindle’s thieves cant came and went, and that drove me up a (linguistic) wall, along with the mishmash of historical time periods and references. I couldn’t tie the setting to anything I knew, and the little bits and pieces provided didn’t come together into a cohesive whole.

 

The book needed at least one map of Riverbraid, Mona’s city, and possibly a diagram of the Duchess’ garderobe (or perhaps a cross-section of the whole palace). There are probably other things that could have been removed or added to pull it all together, but I am not the expert on that – I just know it just needed a nudge, though in what direction, I couldn’t tell you.

 

In all, A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking is a funny-silly story that manages to merge magic, baking, murder, and musings on responsibility and heroism into a slightly lumpy but satisfying whole.

 

Recommended for: anyone who liked Robin McKinley’s Sunshine (especially the titular heroine herself), fans of the Gingerbread Man from the animated Shrek films, and readers who enjoy YA and MG fantasy, especially with strong lashings of humor.

 

This post is part of Weekend Cooking, hosted by Marg of The Intrepid Reader. Learn more about Weekend Cooking here.

turtle in paradise

Turtle in Paradise: The Graphic Novel has one of the prettiest and most colorful book covers I’ve ever seen. And obviously, as a human (aka someone who judges books by their covers), I was drawn to it. I had never read a Jennifer L. Holm book before, but I thoroughly enjoyed this middle grade graphic novel, an adaptation of a book by the same name, illustrated by Savanna Ganucheau and colored by Lark Pien. It’s sweet, tart, and endearing – just like a Key lime pie.


turtle in paradise by jennifer l. holm and savanna ganucheau book cover
A graphic novel adaptation of the beloved, bestselling Newbery Honor-winning novel.

Eleven-year-old Turtle is smart and tough and has seen enough of the world not to expect a Hollywood ending. After all, it’s 1935 and money—and sometimes even dreams—is scarce. So when Turtle’s mother gets a job housekeeping for a lady who doesn’t like kids, Turtle heads off to Florida to live with relatives. Florida’s like nothing Turtle’s ever seen before, though. It’s full of ragtag boy cousins, family secrets to unravel . . . and even a little bit of fun. Before she knows what’s happened, Turtle finds herself coming out of her shell. And as she does, her world opens up in the most unexpected ways.

Inspired by family stories, three-time Newbery Honor winner Jennifer L. Holm blends family lore with America’s past in this charming gem of a novel, now adapted into graphic novel form by rising star Savanna Ganucheau.

 

For Turtle, growing up in the South during the Great Depression means that she’s used to uncertainty. She and her mother Sadiebelle (who has her head stuck firmly in the clouds) make due with any situation – even when Sadiebelle’s employer won’t allow children. So Turtle is shipped down to the Florida Keys to live with her cousins and aunt, whom she has never met before. Upon arrival, Turtle is alerted to the existence of a Diaper Gang, barefoot life, and other Conch (Florida Keys native) peculiarities. As she adjusts to life in the Keys, several mysteries unravel – and the only question remaining is: will Turtle finally find her home in Florida? Or will her mother eventually buy them a home in Georgia?

 

Turtle in Paradise: The Graphic Novel is a gem of a graphic novel – full of shenanigans, feisty cousins, hard-headed Turtle, and the ups and downs of extended family life. For Turtle, who has been an only child, and a practical one at that, it is an adjustment. Turtle’s experiences, illustrated in loving detail and color, are by turns laugh-out-loud funny, bittersweet, and charming. The book reads as a series of connected vignettes, slowly illuminating the mysteries of Turtle’s parentage and lineage, the will-she/won’t-she of being able to keep her cat Smokey, and the all-consuming effort to earn money so that she and her mother can have the sense of security that a home would bring.

 

I loved the historical tidbits and worries that are particular to Turtle’s time. She’s a product of her upbringing: practical, clever, and able to fit in with any crowd, and yet she has soft spots: for her cat, for her crotchety old grandmother, and for her mother, a dreamer who left Key West and ended up a housekeeper. I also loved the illustrations! Especially those of activities that barely exist in the US any longer: sponge fishing, turtle harvesting, encyclopedia sales, and so on. Through this book, you can feel both the heat and the ocean breeze of the 1930s Keys.

 

I already adored Savanna Ganucheau’s art from her collaboration with Kevin Panetta in their YA graphic novel Bloom, but this collaboration with Holm and Pien is something special. Ganucheau renders her art digitally in Photoshop, and Holm’s big-eyed characters emote in such a lovely way with those eyes. The art and text combination evoked smells, tastes, visuals, auditory stimulus, and, of course, feeling. In addition, colorist Pien’s pastel sherbet palette of colors is evocative of sun-drenched days and bright light. The combination of all three? A delight.

 

In all, Turtle in Paradise is a pearl, a peach, a star! of a graphic novel, and one that I enjoyed in one gulp.

 

Recommended for: fans of historical fiction, anyone who likes Savanna Ganucheau’s art (Bloom!), and those ready for a summer-y middle grade read filled with poignant moments, à la This One Summer and Be Prepared.

 

Fine print: I received an advanced copy of Turtle in Paradise for review consideration from the publisher. I did not receive any compensation for this post.

a deadly education

Tuesday, July 6, 2021 | | 1 comments

Does author Naomi Novik need an introduction? Just in case you are new here, she wrote the enormously successful Temeraire series (Napoleonic wars + dragons), as well as reimagined fairy tales Uprooted and Spinning Silver. Novik also writes fantastic fanfic – I especially love her Harry/Draco HP fic and Jaime/Brienne GOT fic. And while I’ve had a mixed reaction to her published novels, as soon as I heard that her latest title A Deadly Education (in the new Scholomance series) was a take on Harry Potter, with a dark Hermione Granger character, I was HOOKED. I preordered the book 8 months early, convinced my sister to buy it as well… and then when it arrived at the start of the pandemic-altered 2020-21 school year, I looked at it longingly and said… I’ll read that later. Later ended up being after the end of the school year, but I finally did it! And I just want to say that A Deadly Education is enormously interesting and fun, and I can’t wait for the sequel.

 

Lesson One of the Scholomance: Learning has never been this deadly. 

A Deadly Education is set at Scholomance, a school for the magically gifted where failure means certain death (for real) — until one girl, El, begins to unlock its many secrets. 

There are no teachers, no holidays, and no friendships, save strategic ones. Survival is more important than any letter grade, for the school won’t allow its students to leave until they graduate… or die! The rules are deceptively simple: Don’t walk the halls alone. And beware of the monsters who lurk everywhere. 

El is uniquely prepared for the school’s dangers. She may be without allies, but she possesses a dark power strong enough to level mountains and wipe out millions. It would be easy enough for El to defeat the monsters that prowl the school. The problem? Her powerful dark magic might also kill all the other students.

 

What is this book? Short version: it’s the story of Galadriel (or El, for short), who has survived to the end of her junior year at a deadly magical school called Scholomance, and desperately wants to make it out alive – but is hampered by her affinity for hugely destructive magics (and her unwillingness to “go bad”), her status as an outcast, and her upbringing as an indie kid, without the protection of a magical enclave to shield her from some of the dangers of life and school. El’s run-in with Orion Lake, school hero, changes everything. El’s strategy for survival will have to change, and fast, if she wants to make it out of Scholomance alive!

 

A Deadly Education is the magic school slaughterhouse of your dreams – or maybe your nightmares?? The setup of the school, its secrets, history, and architecture, are intricately imagined and described, and that will appeal to the love of world-building for most fantasy fans. There are partial map cross-sections as the endpapers, and illustrations of student rooms at the end of the book as well. Novik manages another difficult task simultaneously – she never info-dumps, and the plot and characterization are fast-paced and deep, respectively. As the reader gets to know Scholomance and its politics, and the world which would create such a deadly school, El is navigating its mal-infested hallways and trying to decide whether anyone’s intentions are pure (she thinks not!). The pacing is fabulous, and the tension ratchets up continuously – sometimes in predictable ways, and sometimes in surprising ones. Novik, and El, keep the reader guessing.

 

What I liked: El. She is constantly (constantly!) making up for her lower status, and it makes her resourceful and clever. I fell in love with the push-pull of her inner monologue, watching her work with/against her affinity handicap, and her either rude or calculating reactions to the other students she encountered. I cheered when she accidentally made friends, and wanted nothing so much as another whole book about her to keep the momentum (and enjoyment!) going. 

 

I also loved the world of the Scholomance itself. The school feels utterly original and yet pulled from the best parts of other magical school stories. It is rich in monsters, be they human or magic-created, and there is room for many histories and stories within the school itself, and in a world populated by those who have survived the trauma of such a school. If the novel wasn’t quite so violent, it might slot in nicely as a YA book – it deals easily with the conundrum of removing parents and other adults to inspire independence in young characters by creating a school that doesn’t require them at all.

 

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the valid criticism of representation and stereotypes in this book. Before I ever picked it up, I read excerpts about harmful stereotypes within the book: the way El (a person of color) “hisses” language, of Black hairstyles such as dreadlocks depicted as nests for dangerous mals, and more. A Deadly Education is not perfect. I enjoyed it despite its issues, and I think it’s important to acknowledge that I knew of them before reading, and I kept them in mind while reading, and I still enjoyed the reading experience. This is, for me, an exercise in liking (or perhaps loving!) a flawed thing, while still holding myself accountable as a reader. I’m interested to see if any others also had this experience?

 

In all, A Deadly Education is a ridiculously enjoyable roller coaster ride of a book. I already preordered the sequel!

 

Recommended for: fans of resourceful heroes and heroines who are caustic and clever, those who liked Sarah Rees Brennan’s In Other Lands and other tales of magical schools, and anyone who likes their coming of age with a punch and a fantastical edge.

the house in the cerulean sea

Monday, June 28, 2021 | | 0 comments

This reading adventure began, as many do, with recommendations. The startling thing is that I followed through and read the book at all. In my life as an English teacher, I’ve learned that books are many, time is short, and during the school year I will get no reading done (unless forced). TJ Klune’s The House in the Cerulean Sea started popping up all over the place on Instagram first – and not just around its release date, but a swell of love and support over many months. That was fine, and I noticed it, but it didn’t prompt me to take action. Then I showed up to my book club’s Zoom meeting a couple of months ago and it was personally recommended by long-time reading friends. Their arguments were persuasive – I purchased the book then and there! And only 2ish months later, I read it all in one day. The House in the Cerulean Sea delivered on its promised cozy vibes, and reading it was a nice way to slide into summer mode.

 

the house in the cerulean sea by tj klune
Linus Baker leads a quiet, solitary life. At forty, he lives in a tiny house with a devious cat and his old records. As a Case Worker at the Department in Charge of Magical Youth, he spends his days overseeing the well-being of children in government-sanctioned orphanages.

When Linus is unexpectedly summoned by Extremely Upper Management he's given a curious and highly classified assignment: travel to Marsyas Island Orphanage, where six dangerous children reside: a gnome, a sprite, a wyvern, an unidentifiable green blob, a were-Pomeranian, and the Antichrist. Linus must set aside his fears and determine whether or not they’re likely to bring about the end of days.

But the children aren’t the only secret the island keeps. Their caretaker is the charming and enigmatic Arthur Parnassus, who will do anything to keep his wards safe. As Arthur and Linus grow closer, long-held secrets are exposed, and Linus must make a choice: destroy a home or watch the world burn.

An enchanting story, masterfully told,
The House in the Cerulean Sea is about the profound experience of discovering an unlikely family in an unexpected place—and realizing that family is yours.

 

The House in the Cerulean Sea is the story of Linus Baker, a government worker in a fictional (and nominally magical) world who is desperately lonely, but keeps himself too busy fulfilling his job according to the draconian Rules and Regulations to think very deeply about his dissatisfaction with his life. The only bits of happiness he has are the sunflowers in his garden, his cat Calliope, and his record collection. Linus’ internal monologue is immediately hilarious, but his life overall is sad and dreary. This metaphor is extended even further in tragicomic fashion: Linus constantly misses the bus (or it is late), forgets his umbrella on rainy days, and engages in light self-hatred (about his weight), along with holding a seeming life-long goal of blending in with the wall paint. Luckily, the business of the book is to make him happy. Author Klune accomplishes this by delving into the fantasy portion of the novel, when Linus must make an unusual casework visit to a whimsical island and observe the family who live there. Over the course of his visit, Linus (or Mr. Baker, as he goes by at the orphanage he is “investigating”) slowly develops his capacity for happiness, and by the end of the book all’s well that ends well.

 

What I knew going into reading the book: magical house/school, cozy vibes, quiet read, LGBTQ+ characters. What I got in the first several chapters: an absolutely miserable main character in an awful desk job that gave me flashbacks to some of my own worst working experiences. Let’s just say there was some whiplash between expectations and reality. I almost put the book down about 5 times in the first 5 chapters. I kept going because of the promised payoff from the recommendations of others. So, with that off my chest, I can say… this book IS lovely in many ways, as is Linus, but they both require a bit of patience from the reader to uncover their strengths and treasures.

 

Author Klune’s task in this novel is a complex and delicate one: to start with a character that the reader can immediately identify as unhappy, unambitious, and with low self-esteem, and expose them to a combination of plot and character elements that will thoroughly change their outlook on life, actions, and future, all without seeming “out of character.” It is a masterful character study, but it doesn’t feel contrived – it instead is a story suffused with homey, magical details, and I think that is why it is so beloved. 

 

So, that’s the book. I think it was successful on its own merits, and a feat of engineering! And obviously, cozy vibes and quiet reads are nothing to shake a stick at. BUT DID I ENJOY IT??? That is a tough question, and one I’ve been asking myself over and over again in the last 12 hours or so since I finished the book. And I think the answer is, to use one of my favorite words, complex. On one hand: yes. I can appreciate the underpinnings that make this book art, and I appreciate the aura of it all, and of course I love magical stories. But one thing about being in the head of a character with such low self-esteem, and such a dreary outlook on life, is that is hard not to get trapped in the emotional transference. Other people in the book kept telling Linus he was worthy and delightful, and yet… on his side, he couldn’t see it. And thus, in a way, the reader (or at least THIS reader) couldn’t see it. As I said, complex. I feel satisfied that I didn’t waste my time reading the book, but it’s not a favorite, or even a “keep it on my shelf” book. It’ll go live instead in my classroom library at school!

 

I do appreciate LGBTQ+ characters getting to live everyday lives, and being the centers of cozy books. I also appreciated that, while the book is marketed to adults, it will be very popular with younger readers and those who read YA and crossover titles. Because of the novel’s focus on children’s lives and children’s well-being through Linus’ line of work, the feel is quite innocent and light, even when it deals with heavier themes and subject matter like prejudice and child abuse. 

 

In all, a perfectly satisfactory summer read, and one for when you need a dash of whimsy and warmth in your life.

 

Recommended for: fans of Katherine Addison’s books (especially The Angel of the Crows, which I read and also enjoyed in a complex way last summer), those who enjoy quiet fantasy with hints of Diana Wynne Jones and/or Robin McKinley, and anyone who wants to see more LGBTQ+ representation in science fiction and fantasy!

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