full moon

Thursday, September 29, 2022 | | 0 comments

New, impeccably designed picture books that appeal to a discerning artistic eye AND to kiddos are sometimes hard to find. It’s my favorite sort of picture book to gift – not only to give my friends-who-are-parents a break, but also because as a child, I was fascinated most by the picture books that weren’t endlessly cheery cartoonish escapes, and instead had what felt like grown-up art, excellent use of negative space, and details to pore over read after reread. In case you too are looking for this sort of picture book, Princeton Architectural Press publishes several each year! And while I missed it when it came out in 2021, I’m happy to report that Camilla Pintonato’s Full Moon fits the mold beautifully.

 

full moon by camilla pintonato book cover
As the sun sets, the little gray rabbits are busy in their secret workshop, but what could they be making? Follow along as the rabbits prepare for the big event, inviting all of their forest friends to the celebration. The mice, foxes, porcupines, and other forest creatures gather as the full moon rises, and finally the big surprise is revealed. The little rabbits release beautiful paper lanterns into the sky, where they sparkle like stars in the light of the full moon.

Camilla Pintonato's endearing illustrations invite us into a secret world, where wonders take place while the humans are away and the animals play. Striking, full-spread images of the rising moon and sun illuminate the magical way the natural cycle of the sky unites us in wonder, giving children a connection to nature they can experience from anywhere in the world.

 

I was immediately charmed by cover art featuring small gray rabbits wearing bright orange backpacks. If you were too, let me assure you: Pintonato’s story lives up to that first charming image. Created originally as a wordless picture book, and then published first in French and now in English, Full Moon is a nighttime adventure full of animals, mystery, and important questions – such as, “What are they carrying in their backpacks?” The answer to that includes forest shenanigans and lots of industrious bunnies, and is a fun, fresh flight of imagination.

 

In Full Moon, author-illustrator Pintonato taps into some enduring themes and visuals in children’s books: what happens when the world goes to sleep, the movement of the planets, the wonder of the natural world, and whimsical, personified animal societies. These will be familiar to little ones and adults alike from classic picture books such as Goodnight Moon. However, Pintonato puts her own spin on these themes with humor and illustrations full of vibrant color and detail. The rabbits are preparing for a big event, and they have many things to coordinate to make it happen! I think my favorite page was the one of the bunny with the orange flags, directing the start of the “show.”

 

The story would not have the same impact without Pintonato’s excellent art. When you first open the book, you’ll notice that the endpapers are illustrations of sunrise, and throughout several page spreads break from the busy world of the bunnies on the ground to look at the night sky above. This alternating focus slows the pacing down and makes it a perfect bedtime read. Pintonato’s fuzzy linework and varied colors feel reminiscent of the bleed of water-based markers and watercolors, but her illustrations are created completely in Photoshop. My brain wanted to say that it was all hand drawn, so I looked up that fact to confirm. After taking in the art, you might be similarly amazed!

 

In all, Full Moon is a delightful picture book about what animals might get up to after small children are tucked in bed. Its whimsical art is sure to appeal to both children and the adults reading aloud to them.

 

Recommended for: read alouds and storytimes, children ages 3 and up, and anyone who likes rabbits, parties, tales about the moon, and beautiful books that demand several rereads.

talli: daughter of the moon

The art is the first thing I notice when I pick up a graphic novel. I know this isn’t groundbreaking, but stay with me. If the art appeals, I am sold on reading the story. I have a particular weakness for detailed linework and innovative use of perspectives, and Sourya’s young adult graphic novel Talli: Daughter of the Moon, translated by François Vigneault, has these in spades. Ergo, I was interested immediately in its classic adventure story, set in a fantastical medieval past.

 

Talli is a Summoner: a nearly extinct people, hunted by those who fear their mysterious powers. As a baby, she was adopted by Lord Koska, and all was well for many years... But one day, their castle is sacked by Koska's rival, Lord Ulric. Talli escapes in the chaos and darkness with the help of the noble (some might say
too noble) knight Sir Alan.

With Ulric's forces hot on her heels, Talli and Alan keep one step ahead, gathering a motley crew of companions and protectors that includes the lethargic-but-incredible swordsman Lélo. Ulric's Captain Nina pursues them doggedly, but she is unaware of the secret of Talli's blood: the secret of the Summoners!


Title character Talli (or Lady Talli to you, commoner!) is a girl with mysterious antecedents, distinctive hair and jewelry (think Sailor Moon, but medieval), and a history of being locked up in her adoptive father’s castle for her own good. When other nobles sniff out her powers (?!), she must flee before they capture her. On the way, she amasses a crew made up of a loyal-but-dim knight, an oddball merchant with an uncanny nose for treasures, and a young boy with excellent sword skills. Will they be able to evade the special brigade? Will Lady Talli’s past and powers be revealed? Read to find out!

 

As with the first in any series, there is a lot of exposition in this volume, though it is broken up by fight scenes as various people discover that Talli is on the run and try to capture her for profit. Talli herself doesn’t know her past or the extent of her powers, and doesn’t say or do a lot (aka doesn’t have agency) for the first three quarters of the volume. I realize that this is the first in a series, but it doesn’t quite coalesce until the final few pages. Talli’s band are in a rush to make it to asylum in a foreign land, and they respond more to the fight others bring to them than anything else.

 

Unfortunately, the dialogue does not flow easily in parts, and it seems as though some humor is lost (in translation? unclear) as well. There’s also a creepy bit about Summoner powers manifesting during menstruation that feels gender essentialist and like a throwback to fantasy stories from 30-40 years ago. To be clear, I don’t think menstruation is creepy, but I am wary of how it will be treated in the narrative, since it is tied to Summoner magic. Menstruation = calling monsters into being? Seems like a bad formula! But what do I know.

 

Let’s get back to positives, aka the art! Sourya’s illustrations are exquisite: black linework on white pages in pen and ink, with lots of heavy lines, fine cross-hatching, and finer details around the characters' faces. The art was penciled digitally, and hand-inked on paper, which the artist demonstrates in a mini "The Making of Talli" comic in the backmatter. There are a wide variety of perspectives (many aerial views), and several panels focus not only on the characters, but a sense of the land and landscape that feels video game-inspired. It is truly beautiful, and I am just as much a fan of the art as I was at the start!

 

In all, Talli: Daughter of the Moon is an adventure story with some promise. Volume 1 lags in parts, but fans of sword fights, daring escapes, and a video game-crossed-with-manga aesthetic will love it.

 

Recommended for: fans of historical fantasy graphic novels and manga, and anyone who likes to play video or computer games set in medieval Europe or a quasi-medieval setting.

 

Talli: Daughter of the Moon will be available from Oni Press on October 18, 2022.

 

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

victory. stand!: raising my fist for justice

I’m always on the lookout for graphic novels and books that will appeal to my students (9th and 11th graders). Often that means finding and reading nonfiction, sports books, science books – things that aren’t necessarily in my own reading wheelhouse but would spark the interest of a kid who has given up on reading for pleasure. The upcoming young adult graphic novel Victory. Stand!: Raising My Fist for Justice by Tommie Smith, Derrick Barnes, and Dawud Anyabwile is just such a book. I’m so glad I took a moment to read it after Norton sent me a copy – I can tell that it will not only resonate with my students, but it is a fantastic text, and it meant a lot to me.


victory. stand! by tommie smith, derrick barnes, dawud anyabwile book cover
On October 16, 1968, during the medal ceremony at the Mexico City Olympics, Tommie Smith, the gold medal winner in the 200-meter sprint, and John Carlos, the bronze medal winner, stood on the podium in black socks and raised their black-gloved fists to protest racial injustice inflicted upon African Americans. Both men were forced to leave the Olympics, received death threats, and faced ostracism and continuing economic hardships. 

In his first-ever memoir for young readers, Tommie Smith looks back on his childhood growing up in rural Texas through to his stellar athletic career, culminating in his historic victory and Olympic podium protest. Cowritten with Newbery Honor and Coretta Scott King Author Honor recipient Derrick Barnes and illustrated with bold and muscular artwork from Emmy Award–winning illustrator Dawud Anyabwile, Victory. Stand! paints a stirring portrait of an iconic moment in Olympic history that still resonates today.


Tommie Smith is famous for a stand he took after accepting the gold medal for running and winning the 200 meters (and breaking the World Record) at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics. That photo, of Smith’s and bronze medalist John Carlos’ fists raised in the sky on the Olympic podium, is an iconic protest image. But who is (and was) the man behind that gold medal? In Victory. Stand! Tommie Smith tells his life story for young adults: how he grew up as a sharecropper’s son in rural Texas, moved out to California with his family, focused on his education, gained cultural consciousness, how his sporting life proceeded, and eventually, how he ended up in that fateful race and made a stand for justice.

 

I’ve read Smith’s story before, and I remember being horrified at how his moment in the spotlight prompted almost 50 years of racist backlash – death threats, economic hardship (he was fired immediately and then had a hard time finding a job for years), and awful vitriol directed not just towards him, but towards every member of his family. Only in the last couple of decades has there been some softening into acceptance, appreciation, and acknowledgement of Smith’s legacy. The end of this book does not shy away from those hard truths – in concise terms, Smith details what a life of uncompromising morals and purpose may result in. He also makes a connection to others in the current spotlight or not-so-distant past who have stood up for what they believe is right, and faced the consequences.

 

As a graphic novel memoir, Victory. Stand! is tight, focused narrative told in linear format interspersed with flashbacks. The “present” is the race for Olympic gold, and the flashbacks are to Smith’s early childhood in Texas. There is a constant feeling of moving forward with purpose, and Smith’s connection to places and family share the focus for much of the story. It’s a gripping tale, and one with excellent: pacing, mix of dialogue and narration, and artwork. The full package, if you will.

 

Speaking of artwork, Dawud Anyabwile’s black and white linework and art is exceptional. Each panel is considered, framed for effect, and contains gradations of black and white that make the scene pop. In the action moments, there’s a palpable sense of movement and focus, and the use of shadow and lighting that merge with the text to tell a story. A variety of the panel sizes keep the reader’s eye moving. While there is quite a bit of text on the page, it the book never feels text-heavy – it is just right: balanced, moving, and electric.

 

In all, Victory. Stand! is a standout graphic memoir. I can’t wait to put it in kids’ hands. I think Tommie’s message will resonate with not only those who remember the Olympic moment, but also folks learning about it now, and those with eyes and hearts open to the world today.

 

Recommended for: readers ages 10 and up, fans of American history, graphic novels, and sports, and anyone interested in learning how to use their unique talents to be a better person in the world. 

 

Victory. Stand! will be released by Norton Young Readers (W. W. Norton & Company) on September 27, 2022.


Fine print: I received an advanced copy from the publisher for review and course adoption consideration. I did not receive any compensation for this post.

the wondrous wonders

I love graphic novels. They are fun to look at, quick reads, and for my students, they are accessible texts. You don’t have to be the strongest reader in the class to get something out of the story in a graphic novel. I have a poster in my classroom that looks like lines on a chalkboard, with the words “AUDIOBOOKS ARE NOT CHEATING” listed over and over. I wish I had one for graphic novels too! Anyway, all that to say, I pick up graphic novels whenever I can, and my latest read was Camille Jourdy’s The Wondrous Wonders, translated by Montana Kane. It is a whimsical and funny portal fantasy for the middle grade set.


the wondrous wonders by camille jourdy book cover
From Camille Jourdy comes a magical graphic novel filled with gentle, offbeat humor and gorgeous watercolor artwork,
The Wondrous Wonders.

It’s perfect weather for a family picnic, but Jo is in a bad mood. Hurt by her parents’ recent divorce and struggling to accept her new stepmother and sisters, she decides to run away and make a new life for herself in the forest. She soon finds herself tumbling through a weird and wonderful landscape, in a realm ruled by an evil cat prince and the dream-logic of a child's imagination. She'll need courage, hope, and heart to overcome all the obstacles she encounters on this adventure.


Young Jo is unhappy with her parents’ divorce and her new stepfamily, and so she runs away to the woods one day. What she finds there is unexpected – a whole world peopled with elves, talking animals, a dastardly Emperor Tomcat, and Wondrous Wonders: beautiful wild horses (ponies?) in all colors. Jo almost immediately joins a rescue mission with her new friends. On this adventure, she meets characters (and I do mean characters) who speak bits of wisdom to her, mock her, and make ridiculous asides. It’s a fun and funny – but the lingering question remains – where will the adventure end?

 

When I first heard about this title, my attention was caught by the beautiful watercolor artwork, and the phrase “offbeat humor.” I have complicated feelings about that phrase regarding this title. It’s not strange or weird humor – it’s just adult? And I don’t mean that it’s inappropriate. There are simply all sorts of conversations going on around Jo that don’t involve her. And they’re funny! As a child reading this book, the jokes might or might not make sense, but it’s exactly the sort of language that children figure out by listening to adults talk to each other. I think it’s charming that Jo’s adventure, while fantastical, still has so many elements of “real life” in it. And Jo herself, a bit fractious and feral – but open to friendship – is like a lot of little kids I knew or know now.

 

I also appreciate that there’s no heavy-handed moral at the end of the story. Jo’s adventure is just that: a widening of perspective and trying something new, and if she learns a little bit from the characters she encounters, then good for her. But if she doesn’t, she wandered through a beautiful land, saw lots of weird things, and adapted well. There are themes of course, but they’re not overt, and some things Jourdy leaves the artwork to express best.

 

Speaking of the art! Jourdy’s panels are watercolor delights, rarely enclosed in black lines. The vibe is classic storybook-turned-graphic novel, and the text’s playful feeling manifests in many ways, including the costumes the characters wear: Maurice the fox in a creampuff suit and Pompom the dog in rainbow-striped boots, for instance. Lots of small panels, set in an ever-changing landscape, keep the adventure moving not only pacing-wise, but distance-wise as well.

 

The Wondrous Wonders is a delightful, quirky story that recalls Puss in Boots, The Princess Bride, and Alice in Wonderland all in one go. In other words, it’s got adventure, quips, antics, and a safe landing for its young readers. I enjoyed it!

 

Recommended for: graphic novel readers ages 8 and up, fantasy fans young and old, and anyone who liked Johan Troïanowski’s The Runaway Princess.

 

The Wondrous Wonders will be available from First Second on November 1, 2022. 

 

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

the wild hunt

Wednesday, September 7, 2022 | | 1 comments

I had a heck of a week last week. A list of things that happened: the first four days of the school year, a traffic ticket & car trouble, a stolen wallet, a lunch left in a ride share car, a trip to Iowa, and a general feeling of possibly being cursed? So in the midst of it all I obviously bought a book I had barely heard of before in an airport bookstore and read it in the space of the weekend. Emma Seckel’s The Wild Hunt is a haunting and harrowing historical adult fantasy, and it was an excellent escape from the world.  


the wild hunt by emma seckel book cover
The islanders have only three rules: don’t stick your nose where it’s not wanted, don’t mention the war, and never let your guard down during October.

Leigh Welles has not set foot on the island in years, but when she finds herself called home from a disappointing life on the Scottish mainland by her father’s unexpected death, she is determined to forget the sorrows of the past—her mother’s abandonment, her brother’s icy distance, the unspeakable tragedy of World War II—and start fresh. Fellow islander Iain MacTavish, a RAF veteran with his eyes on the sky and his head in the past is also in desperate need of a new beginning. A young widower, Iain struggles to return to the normal life he knew before the war.

But this October is anything but normal. This October, the
sluagh are restless. The ominous, bird-like creatures of Celtic legend—whispered to carry the souls of the dead—have haunted the islanders for decades, but in the war’s wake, there are more wandering souls and more slaugh. When a local boy disappears, Leigh and Iain are thrown together to investigate the truth at the island’s dark heart and reveal hidden secrets of their own.

Rich with historical detail and a skillful speculative edge, Emma Seckel’s propulsive and pulse-pounding debut
The Wild Hunt unwinds long-held tales of love, loss, and redemption.

 

Leigh Welles is accustomed to loss—her mother disappeared into the sea when she was ten and never came back, her brother left for university soon afterward and then disappeared into the Second World War and never sailed back home, she lost her own big city dreams in the slog of trying to make it on the post-war mainland, and now she’s finally returned because her father fell and drowned, and there’s a funeral to attend and a discarded life to shake the dust off of and return to. Put all that together with the fact that on their remote Scottish island, something uncanny happens in October, and you have the setting for The Wild Hunt. How the next month plays out—the unrest and cruelty of the sluagh (spirits who take the form of crows and only appear in October) will either make or break the island, and Leigh and those she loves will be closest to it all.

This book does a lot: it is a post-war imagining, both pastoral and historical. It is also speculative and literary, and dips into horror in places as well. It succeeds as a narrative because of the pervasive atmosphere Seckel creates within its covers. There’s an overarching heaviness and darkness in Seckel’s tale, a countdown sounding in ominous bass notes in the background, the unbearable weight of history and at the same time tradition and superstition knocking up against the modern world. There’s a sense of isolation that butts up against belonging, and cloying despair battling it out with small moments of hope. I found it fascinating, but I like a slow build and excessive world building. The gathering unrest of it all—contained, quiet, and devastating, did not feel fully resolved, but it did feel fitting. If you like stories that slowly sink their claws into your psyche and leave small openings for what may come next, you’ll like this book.

As mentioned above, loss colors much of the narrative, and no one’s loss seems more personal or immediate than Leigh’s…until you meet the wreck that is Iain MacTavish, slowly sinking in a sea of guilt over death — those island boys lost in the war, a wife lost in the Blitz, and survivors carried away in senseless post-war slaughter, both memory- and sluagh-caused. Seckel skillfully interweaves Leigh and Iain’s voices, dreams, pieces of the past (long-gone and near), and other villagers’ perspectives to create a poignant whole. The characterization rests against a foggy and indistinct background, on some small Scottish isle — never positively identified by name but described in eerie detail. Aside from loss, the most immediate themes are the futility of war, legend and myth crossing over into reality, and community identity. The fact that this story is not easily categorized, but still succeeds, is a credit to Seckel’s writing ability: neither spare nor overblown, and careful in its urgency and construction.

In all, The Wild Hunt is convincing and emotion-laden. It’s a trip straight into the past, into the liminal spaces between worlds, and to an island held in the malevolent spell of mysterious creatures and too-present grief.

Recommended for: fantasy fans who enjoy a dark fantasy/horror vibe, readers who think mythology-meets-post-war-despair sounds intriguing, those who enjoy bird-based horror and myth, and anyone (quite rightly!) obsessed with Scottish coastline, expertly and lovingly described. 

remote control

Monday, September 5, 2022 | | 0 comments

As an English teacher now, and a book blogger of longer standing, I am asked quite often for book recommendations. If someone wants science fiction, I nearly always steer them towards Nnedi Okorafor. Her stories are inventive and deeply interesting, and novella Remote Control is no exception. It is a concise, layered, and wondrous mystery.

 

remote control by nnedi okorafor book cover
"She’s the adopted daughter of the Angel of Death. Beware of her. Mind her. Death guards her like one of its own."

The day Fatima forgot her name, Death paid a visit. From hereon in she would be known as Sankofa­­--a name that meant nothing to anyone but her, the only tie to her family and her past.

Her touch is death, and with a glance a town can fall. And she walks--alone, except for her fox companion--searching for the object that came from the sky and gave itself to her when the meteors fell and when she was yet unchanged; searching for answers.

But is there a greater purpose for Sankofa, now that Death is her constant companion?

 

A young girl mysteriously glows with a green, killing light, can stop a bullet, and is widely feared – this is how Remote Control begins. Author Okorafor spends the rest of the story unraveling just how Sankofa became this creature of legend. How can she emit and evade death all at once? What about the uncanny red fox Movenpick who follows her everywhere? Does the ever-present and ominous corporation LifeGen have something to do with her powers? Or the mysterious glowing green that came from the sky when she was small?

 

Remote Control is a masterful, open-ended tale, rich in imagery and allusions, history and the future, natural world and the human-constructed one – and it is also a science fiction puzzle. Sankofa knows little about why and how she came to be who she is, and this guides the storytelling structure. Also unavoidable are tragedy, sorrow, and close encounters with fear and violence – some of the byproducts and antecedents of death. As she wanders Ghana on foot, first in a chase and then in avoidance, Sankofa studies human nature, even as she is held apart from it. Sankofa’s musings are perhaps best represented by this quote, from pages 112-113:

 

“…people were complicated. They wore masks and guises to protect or hide their real selves. They re-invented themselves. They destroyed themselves. They built on themselves.”

 

Okorafor’s tale is not especially kind to humanity, nor to those who find themselves with money and power – it is interested in how we treat those on the margins, and perhaps those who choose to unplug from the digital detritus of modern life. It also feels – in a very distant way – like a riff on the Superman mythos, if the only thing you knew about it was that the mysterious object that emits green light kills him.

 

In all, Remote Control imagines a weird, haunting, and visceral future where perhaps alien contact has mingled with the mythos of the harbinger of death, and a young girl has been caught in the crosshairs.

 

Recommended for: fans of Okorafor’s Binti, those on the lookout for original science fiction, and anyone looking for adult sci-fi and fantasy with YA crossover appeal.

city under the city

I had the pleasure of hearing Dan Yaccarino, author-illustrator of picture book- slash early reader-hybrid City Under the City, speak on a panel at Picture Book Palooza last month. He and the other panelists had very interesting things to say about how they create images to go with picture book words – telling their stories through images as well as (or married to!) the author’s text. Yaccarino’s title is science fiction for very young readers, and its words AND images evoke a whole different world.


city under the city by dan yaccarino book cover
Bix lives with her family in a city where people rarely talk or play together, and no longer read books. Instead, they stare at small portable screens, monitored by giant eyeballs. The Eyes are here to help! With everything. But Bix would like to do things for herself. Running from an Eye, she discovers another world: the City Under the City. There, she befriends a rat who leads her to a library and its treasure trove of books and knowledge. As she explores the abandoned city, she’s thrilled to learn about the people who lived there, with no Eyes. But she misses her family, and decides to head home, where, just maybe, she can help defeat the intrusive Eyes—and show her people how to think for themselves and enjoy each other’s company. 

Told through Dan Yaccarino’s stunning graphic style, this page-turning picture book/early reader crossover will spark a new appreciation of reading, books, independence, friendship, and family.

 

The people in Bix’s city are watched by the Eyes, who see, direct, and know all. Bix, unlike the rest of her family, does not like the help of the eyes, and tries to refuse their directions (this does not go well). One day she spots a rat and follows it through a crack and into… a hidden city below her own. There she sees many strange sights and learns to read books, which teach her about a great many things: history, music, art, animals, and friendship, for starters. She also lives by herself and cares for herself for the first time. But after a while, and a great deal of learning, Bix wants to go back to her family. What will happen next? Revolution!

 

With a premise that’s a cross between 1984 and The City of Ember, City Under the City takes some classic science fiction tropes and adapts them for young readers. While the idea of an AI surveillance state that controls humanity and doesn’t allow for noncompliance is a familiar storyline in modern media, it may be brand new for little ones just starting to read independently. Bix’s flight to an unknown world below, where mysteries abound and are unraveled, is another familiar premise – for adults. City Under the City has the potential to create and/or nurture the next generation of science fiction fans.

 

Yaccarino indicates full immersion in the worlds above and below through use of a limited color palette – purples and yellows for the world above, and deep orangey-red for the city below. He also includes allusions in his illustrations that adults will be sure to pick up on: distinctive landmarks, a very famous painting, etc. His style (ink on vellum, rendered digitally) relies on fluid linework in varying shades, architectural details, inventive use of perspective and lighting, and that limited color palette described above. The result is a picture book with: A) more to discover upon each re-read, and B) a deceptive simplicity with layers of meaning. It's also impeccably designed, with fun and unusual end papers and some page spreads that read like a graphic novel.

 

In all, City Under the City is simple enough for independent reading, but also complex enough (particularly with the help of images) for a science fiction premise. I loved the plot, the cheerful illustrations, and Bix’s can-do attitude. It is sure to delight readers young and old.

 

Recommended for: storytimes and independent reading for children ages 4-7, for anyone looking for unique picture books with distinctive plots and artwork, and for young science fiction and fantasy aficionados. 

 

City Under the City will be available from mineditionUS/Astra Books for Young Readers on November 15, 2022.


Fine print: I received an advanced copy of this title at Picture Book Palooza. I did not receive any compensation for this post.

shifting earth

I don’t want to admit it quite yet, but the end of summer is almost here… and I’m still thinking about all the books I meant to read over the summer. I was very ambitious, and I haven’t finished enough of them, but I’m an incurable book collector – it’s a law of the universe. Speaking of universes, Cecil Castellucci, Flavia Biondi, and Fabiana Mascolo’s new sci-fi graphic novel Shifting Earth imagines our own future world ravaged by climate change contrasted with a mirror universe where the population works together in astonishing ways, but cannot completely escape human darkness.


shifting earrth by cecil castelluci, flavia biondi, fabiana mascolo book cover
In a not-so-distant future, a freak particle storm has landed botanist Dr. Maeve Millay on an idyllic yet strange parallel Earth, with no way back home.

Here, two moons rule society, and nature outshines science. But just like her own climate ravaged planet, this verdant Earth has a sinister side. Children are rare. Humans must serve a purpose or pay an unthinkable price. Astronomer Zuzi battles this underlying darkness every day—just like Maeve did at home. Both women are fighters, and both face a choice: forge new paths, or save the worlds they've always known? Maeve will have to decide, and fast—because she's fighting for more than just herself.


In Shifting Earth, botanist Maeve is frustrated and, in some ways, hopeless – humanity has wrecked her near-future planet, and she’s struggling to preserve wild seed varieties to find something that will help humanity survive growing plagues and devastation. When she connects with an old friend at a conference, he urges her to come see his work, and this leads eventually to Maeve’s landing on an alternate earth with two moons and very different problems. On this other earth, usefulness is the true measure of value, and astronomer and scientist’s Zuzi’s work has been deemed useless. Maeve’s arrival unsettles Zuzi’s utopian-esque world in new ways, and it will take the effort and will of many to unravel what happened, and how to send Maeve back home.

 

I liked that this graphic novel asked some big questions in a fairly short volume. What is the good life? How do we create it for ourselves and generations to come? How do we preserve what we have and remain adaptable and open to the future and change? All of these are good questions, and Castellucci’s story not only poses them, but tries to begin answering them through Maeve and Zuzi’s intertwined narrative as well. I also liked that a variety of relationship dynamics were portrayed in the story, and the déjà vu interactions between Maeve and the alternate universe versions of her loved ones and friends.

 

One thing I had complicated feelings about: *spoiler alert* (highlight if you want to read) the forced birth plotline. *end spoiler* I also didn’t feel as invested in Zuzi’s portion of the story – perhaps partially because the stakes did not seem high until later in the narrative. It felt as though she and her partner did not get as much page time as Maeve & co. The stars of this story are the premise (getting sucked into an alternate universe: COOL!) and the climate change urgency driving the plot forward. The conclusion is meant to be a stunner but is weakened by neatly-tied resolution on one hand, and a sort of blank, unknowingness on another. After thrilling build-up, I felt unsatisfied.

 

Let’s talk the art, an ever-important part of any graphic novel experience! Biondi’s creativity comes through – especially in the depiction and imagination of what the shifting particles scenes that transport a character from one universe to another might look like, and in the visual conception of alternate earth. The art reminded me of the clean, professional lines of the Saga series, and it’s clearly created for the discerning adult comics reading fan. The palette contains a lot of earth tones (apropos for an earth-y story, ha ha) and what I call muted brights – colors that would be vivid at full contrast but are darkened or muted a bit.

 

In all, Shifting Earth is a thought-provoking science fiction graphic novel about climate change, alternate universes, and the essential humanity that ties us together, for good and bad.

 

Recommended for: fans of science-heavy science fiction and inventive adult graphic novels.

 

Shifting Earth will be available from Berger Books/Dark Horse on August 30, 2022.

 

Fine print: I received an ARC from the publisher as part of a giveaway. I did not receive any compensation for this post.

a marvellous light

Wednesday, August 10, 2022 | | 0 comments

When people ask what your favorite book is, how do you answer? I never know quite what to say – my tastes are ever-shifting, and so many favorites are books the questioner will not have heard of. But if I had to fill out a questionnaire about what I’d enjoy reading most, Freya Marske’s A Marvellous Light would tick almost all of the boxes. It feels almost tailor-made for me, with 1920s-era shenanigans, a m/m relationship that goes from strangers-to-friends-to-lovers, magic, British manners and dressing, and trying to solve a mystery at a country house.


a marvellous light by freya marske book cover
Robin Blyth has more than enough bother in his life. He's struggling to be a good older brother, a responsible employer, and the harried baronet of a seat gutted by his late parents' excesses. When an administrative mistake sees him named the civil service liaison to a hidden magical society, he discovers what's been operating beneath the unextraordinary reality he's always known.

Now Robin must contend with the beauty and danger of magic, an excruciating deadly curse, and the alarming visions of the future that come with it--not to mention Edwin Courcey, his cold and prickly counterpart in the magical bureaucracy, who clearly wishes Robin were anyone and anywhere else.

Robin's predecessor has disappeared, and the mystery of what happened to him reveals unsettling truths about the very oldest stories they've been told about the land they live on and what binds it. Thrown together and facing unexpected dangers, Robin and Edwin discover a plot that threatens every magician in the British Isles--and a secret that more than one person has already died to keep.


What is A Marvellous Light? A lot of fun!! As I told a reading friend, it feels like a mashup of Garth Nix’s Newt’s Emerald and Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. By that I mean it has some of the hallmarks of a British historial romance/romp, but there’s also a strong thread of philosophical inquiry into magic throughout the book, which makes sense as Edwin Courcey is into spellcraft, and Robin Blyth is new to magic and must have everything explained to him. Academic theory gives way to hands-on mystery and crime-solving, peppered with musings on specific patterns of wallpaper (??!), magical party games, and interpersonal conflict. It works, especially because of the growing sympathy between the main characters. There’s also a murder and a missing object right off the bat – and the main character Edwin and Robin spend most of the rest of the book trying to solve it (aka it is structured as a murder mystery).

 

Now I’ve also said the words romance and romp, and I don’t want to mislead you, so there are NO: formal dances, dinners, Season, or courtship. There ARE: curses, hedge mazes, spunky younger sisters, unpleasant characters, family trauma, and interesting digressions into how magic might work in an already classist system. At the heart of A Marvellous Light are two imperfect and dissimilar men doing as best they can with the hand they are dealt, both lonely in their own ways, meeting and finding something within each other to trust and cherish. Not really a romance (though we do leave them happy!), but an interesting historical mystery with a heaping helping of finding unexpected love.

 

Unfortunately, the world in A Marvellous Light is not a great alternate world for women: they have no rights of their own, and the male characters in the book, even if they recognize the harm, do not do anything or think of it beyond a passive sort of “oh, right, that’s the way things are, seems a bit unfair.” Characterization of Edwin’s sister Bel and her marriage is particularly unfinished: she’s portrayed as an extremely selfish, awful person, who runs a house and a social group… but she cedes always to her husband, and lets him mansplain happily – does she have agency or no? Robin’s sister Maud is mad to go to university, and Robin is passively undecided about the whole thing for most of the book – and this is his sister’s FUTURE he has in his hands, and he claims to love her. In addition, the inclusion of the Morrisey sisters (both secretaries, women of color, and seemingly doing men’s jobs for them) felt a bit tokenized, but I will leave that to others who know more.

 

Of course, you can fully enjoy an imperfect book, and I did. This title was 100% my catnip. I loved the descriptions of English houses and grounds, the complicated magical system that we only scratched the surface of, Robin’s cluelessness giving way to insight, Edwin’s slow progression towards trust, and various adventures in curse breaking. I can’t wait to see what Marske writes next.

 

In all, A Marvellous Light is a romp of the first order. Not completely fault-free, but marvelous fun! (see what I did there?)

 

Recommended for: fans of UK-set romances and mysteries, anyone who likes historical AUs (basically, stories with murders and house parties and man-eating hedges), and those interested in queer fantasy.

lakelore

Wednesday, August 3, 2022 | | 0 comments

Want some silly, unimportant life advice? Enter contests and sweepstakes! If you do, once in a long while you’ll win something cool. At least that’s been the case for me! At the start of the summer I won a box of Pride books from Fierce Reads (Macmillan’s YA publishing arm). It was a lovely surprise, and I immediately was interested in one of the books in particular: Anna-Marie McLemore’s Lakelore, because A) I’ve read their work before, B) the cover was *fire emoji*, and C) the title was just too perfect – I’m spending this summer on a lake.


lakelore by anna-marie mclemore book cover
Everyone who lives near the lake knows the stories about the world underneath it, an ethereal landscape rumored to be half-air, half-water. But Bastián Silvano and Lore Garcia are the only ones who’ve been there. Bastián grew up both above the lake and in the otherworldly space beneath it. Lore’s only seen the world under the lake once, but that one encounter changed their life and their fate.

Then the lines between air and water begin to blur. The world under the lake drifts above the surface. If Bastián and Lore don’t want it bringing their secrets to the surface with it, they have to stop it, and to do that, they have to work together. There’s just one problem: Bastián and Lore haven’t spoken in seven years, and working together means trusting each other with the very things they’re trying to hide.

 

In short chapters, and using dual perspectives, McLemore spins up a world where two trans/nonbinary teens visit a weird and mystical alternate universe that has something to do with the local lake and its folklore… and maybe their relationship? Lore and Bastián met once as children, and now through circumstance these two queer Mexican American teens are thrown together again, in a vibrant narrative with little sense of the passage of time and/or place (it’s America, and probably California, but it’s not clear where). The work of the book is quiet: unraveling identity, trauma, how the world responds to neurodivergence, how to let others see who you truly are, and more – in a sometimes-dreamlike contemporary fantasy setting.

 

McLemore’s extensive use of metaphor and personification infuse the text with emotion, and lead to ever-rising stakes until there’s a crescendo – an unraveling and unknotting of stories, hurts, feelings. Both narrators have a lot in common: the way their brains work require adaptation, the trans or nonbinary experience, supportive parents and families, and Mexican American identity. However, they are working with a different set of formative experiences. Lore has recent trauma that is school bullying-related, and Bastián is coping with feelings around starting testosterone (T) and brotherhood.

 

Things about this book that are absolutely lovely: the way that Bastián describes their mental health as weather, the way Lore expresses their reading process, how old and new trauma are tied up for them with learning, reading aloud (as an educator, this breaks my heart – knowing that even though Lore is fictional, there are children who have been failed just like Lore), the way both characters think and speak about color and art. The way that difficult words and memories can haunt, especially when we are young – but also how acceptance and new experiences can alter our perception, blunt the sting of hurts, or simply bring them into a kinder focus.

 

So that’s what the book is about, approximately. Let’s get down to business: this book *wrecked* me. Over the final 45 pages, I was crying too hard to read at points, but also simultaneously smiling – feeling heart-full and heartsick, hopeful and tasting that bittersweetness of life that is good and hard at the same time. I cannot believe that McLemore’s writing keeps getting better and better. I felt so deeply during the reading, and I also couldn’t stop thinking that this book would be incredibly important for young queer folks, and also for anyone trying to relate to young LGBTQ+ and neurodivergent kids (especially those dealing with dyslexia and ADHD). It was lovely, literary, and necessary, all in one. And the prose flowed! I’m almost mad at how much I loved this book.

 

In all, Lakelore is a queer group hug in book form, featuring an in-depth look at the neurodivergent experience, magical realism, and lyrical prose.

 

Recommended for: fans of A.S. King, soft, mystical fantasy, and LGBTQ+ books, anyone who loves character-driven stories, magical realism, and literary young adult fiction, and teens who really need to see themselves in books, even though they may not know it yet.

 

Fine print: I received a finished copy of this book in a publisher-sponsored giveaway. I did not receive any compensation for this post.

crumbs

As much as I would like to, there’s no way to stay on top of every YA and middle grade book with a baking or cooking element as part of the plot. Trust me, if I could, I would! After all, those titles combine two of my favorite things (reading & food). I do try to pick up most books that feature baking AND MAGIC, though. That combination is somehow even more perfect. When I saw the cover art for Danie Sterling’s young adult graphic novel Crumbs I immediately knew I’d have to have it, because magic (a broom) + food (title & treats) + graphic novel (quick reading!) = love.


crumbs by danie sterling book cover
In a very special town, there’s an even more unusual bakery with a selection of baked treats hand-crafted to help your dreams come true. For Ray, a quiet young woman with special powers of her own, the order is always the same: a hot tea with a delicious side of romance.

When Ray meets Laurie, the kind barista who aspires to be a professional musician, she gets a real taste of love for the first time. But even with a spark of magic, romance isn’t so simple. Both Ray and Laurie are chasing their own dreams and even when Ray starts to see the future, she can’t predict her fate with Laurie.

Based on the beloved webcomic from WEBTOON, this sweet coming-of-age story of friendship and first love comes to life in graphic novel format with gorgeous illustrations and exclusive content.


Ray is a young Seer who can see the present exactly as it is, but that power usually means friendships and relationships are short, and it has also meant a move away from family to live in the city, where the magical leadership, a.k.a. the Council, does its work. Ray allows herself one vice– a single helping of Romance pastry each week at Marigold’s Bakery. To her, the taste feels like opening oneself up to possibilities. When Ray gets to know a little more about Laurie, one of the workers at Marigold’s and a budding musician, her life suddenly fills up with more than just work and studying. What will that mean for the future? Ray’s task is to find out by following her heart, mind, and trusting those who love her.

 

Crumbs has a lot to offer: a warm, cozy illustration style, a sweet heroine figuring out how to follow her dreams, and of course magic and baked goods. The storytelling has an episodic feel to it, with lots of twists, turns, and reveals throughout. It also has a young romance that doesn’t feel “fated” or rushed like many in YA fiction. Both Ray and Laurie are beset by doubts, then by bad timing, and they finally come to an understanding that feels realistic without leaning towards syrupy sweet. Crumbs shines brightest when it focuses on the central, coming-of-age storyline of young people figuring out how to be independent in the world, and weighing what is most important to them.

 

With that said, I think that the story suffers a bit from too many ideas, and too little space to execute them in. The magical world (and especially Ray’s work for the Council) feels more like an afterthought than a fully developed setting, characters’ backstory (and even trauma) is kept to a minimum, and there are several dangling threads related to side characters that seem to lead nowhere (but maybe there will be sequels??). What I’m trying to say is that even while Crumbs is an enjoyable read in stretches, it doesn’t cohere as well as it could. Don’t let my criticism keep you from reading the book though! If you like slice-of-life and cozy light fantasy stories, this title will be right up your alley.

 

Sterling’s illustration style is… hard to describe! It features soft, fuzzy, almost crayon-like digital linework. The layered, see-through quality lends the story a warm, slightly unfinished feel. Added light and shadow – and sometimes blurred out foregrounds/backgrounds – grant perspective. The art is detailed and sophisticated; it’s just not all sharp corners, decisive movements, and perfectly geometric shapes (except for the speech bubbles!). In general, characters have big eyes and show a lot of emotion in their faces, and page spreads feature lots of small boxes that keep the narrative moving along. The comic is full color, with no one dominant palette.

 

In all, Crumbs is a sweetly romantic young adult graphic novel with light side helpings of magic and figuring out how to follow your dreams.

 

Recommended for: fans of young adult romance and graphic novels/manga, and anyone who likes to the art style featured on the book cover.

a prayer for the crown-shy

I am happy to report that Becky Chambers’ latest novella in the Monk & Robot series – A Prayer for the Crown-Shy – is just as affirming, emotionally complex, and thought-provoking as its predecessor, A Psalm for the Wild-Built. There’s more musing on the place of humans in community, as well as the essential nature of ecosystems, and the human place in them, but just as much love and belief. It’s a gem.


a prayer for the crown-shy by becky chambers
After touring the rural areas of Panga, Sibling Dex (a Tea Monk of some renown) and Mosscap (a robot sent on a quest to determine what humanity really needs) turn their attention to the villages and cities of the little moon they call home.

They hope to find the answers they seek, while making new friends, learning new concepts, and experiencing the entropic nature of the universe.

Becky Chambers's new series continues to ask: in a world where people have what they want, does having more even matter?


I called the first novella in this series a post-apocalyptic utopia, and I stand by that description. This is the story of two beings (one a tea monk, the other a robot, a remnant of an older, crueler time) wandering a world where humans have figured out their needs, how to meet them, and how to live sustainably within their natural habitat in the meantime. It’s a lovely place to escape into and imagine. Of course, as with any place (even a fictional universe!) where there are humans, there are a few more complexities. Sibling Dex, the tea monk, describes how their society functions without capitalism, and what they see as their individual role in the world – and how they are not fitting into it now. This internal unrest contrasts with visits to various people groups as Dex and Mosscap traverse Panga’s inhabited areas.

 

In this second volume in the series, Chambers spends less time describing small human comforts and wonders. Crown-Shy’s focus is instead more philosophical, as the robot half of the duo asks its essential question (What do humans need?) to the people they meet on the road. When not meeting people, Mosscap is obsessed with new trees, reading, and learning about the variety of ways that humans live in and interact with the world. As befits a creature who has existed only in the wild to this point, Mosscap focuses on mundanities and mysteries that most (including Dex) would bypass, or consider scenery, or leave unknown. The result is a volume that feels deeply rooted in nature, in harmony, and in a very human puzzling about purpose, loneliness, and unpacking our feelings.

 

A Prayer for the Crown-Shy is, quite simply, a joy. I hope for more in the series, but am grateful for these two slim volumes if that is all there is. Chambers has managed to create a feeling of contentment in book form – both titles in the series are lovely and heart-warming reads, especially for these restless times.

 

Recommended for: fans of Martha Wells’ Murderbot series and first-class science fiction and fantasy, and anyone who likes quiet, thoughtful, character-driven reading.

himawari house

I heard lovely things about Harmony Becker’s young adult graphic novel Himawari House all last year, and that lead me to put it on my Christmas wishlist. If you’re wondering, yes, my wishlist each year is mostly comprised of books (with some music & baking implements sprinkled in here and there). My sister and I spent the holiday together, and she gifted me my very own copy – which has been waiting patiently for the end of the school year, and more time and headspace to read. I read it last week and absolutely loved it.


himawari house by harmony becker book cover
Living in a new country is no walk in the park—Nao, Hyejung, and Tina can all attest to that. The three of them became fast friends through living together in the Himawari House in Tokyo and attending the same Japanese cram school. Nao came to Japan to reconnect with her Japanese heritage, while Hyejung and Tina came to find freedom and their own paths. Though each of them has her own motivations and challenges, they all deal with language barriers, being a fish out of water, self discovery, love, and family.


Nao was born in Japan, but moved to America as a young child and lost most of her Japanese language skills. For a gap year between high school and college she moves to Japan to take language lessons and reconnect with her extended family and culture. In Himawari House, her home base for the year, she’ll connect with housemates Hyejung and Tina (from Korea and Singapore, respectively), and Japanese brothers Shinsan and Masaki. The girls bond immediately over shared food, Japanese language school, and exchange student experiences. Following the occupants of Himawari House as they experience various coming of age moments is both bittersweet and a vivid reminder (or reflection, depending on the age of the reader) of the trials of surviving your late teenage years and early twenties. Becker’s text lovingly explores the depths of each character and their emotions, and combined with manga-style illustrations, has created a standout graphic novel.

 

I know others have said this in reviews, but Himawari House authentically captures what it is like to study abroad, and the range of experiences you might have as someone who doesn’t know the primary language of the place you are living in. That true-to-life feeling of confusion, excitement, only catching half of a conversation, and muddling through while your brain is working overdrive hit my memories and heart hard. It also made me an instant fan of the inhabitants of Himawari House and author-artist Becker.

 

Favorite bits: elderly neighbor Baachan, who is lonely now that her husband has passed away, and makes the young crew of Himawari House a delicious dinner. And I loved Nao’s time with her family and flashbacks to her childhood, and the funny little side illustrations (not true panels) that show characters’ emotions – freaking out over something a girl or boy said, internal thoughts, etc. I also enjoyed the musing on food, the moments of introspection followed by group activities and fellow-feeling, the expressions of the characters – basically, I liked it all a whole lot!!

 

As mentioned above, Becker's style has a distinct manga flavor, and the backmatter of the book indicates that her black and white art was all completed digitally in Clip Studio Paint. I was impressed by the variety of textures that contribute to the scenes – the linework is excellent, and it makes small details in the setting, and facial expressions especially, pop. In addition, the lettering is done in whatever language is spoken on-page, and translated below in English if the character understands. This means that sometimes there are whole parts of conversations that the character, and thus the reader, just don’t get. Decisions and pieces like these feel the most representative of a real life language learning situation.

 

In all, Himawari House is a note-perfect rendering of what studying abroad/leaving the nest/entering adulthood feels like. It’s a sensitive, funny, and sweet ode to cultural and linguistic confusion, friendship, and finding oneself.

 

Recommended for: fans of Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me, contemporary graphic novel readers, and anyone who likes quiet fiction that speaks to the heart.

the unwanted: stories of the syrian refugees

In my spare time, I like to read fiction. If you’re familiar with my blog, you’ll know I especially lean toward the science fiction and fantasy end of the fiction spectrum. However, as a teacher, I must often read beyond my personal preference to find texts that will inform as well as entertain. Add that to the fact that my students prefer graphic novels (and why wouldn’t they – they’re accessible texts!), and I find myself searching graphic novel lists for nonfiction to incorporate in my classroom library. One excellent nonfiction graphic novel I read a few years ago (and put on the bookcase afterward), The Unwanted: Stories of the Syrian Refugees by Don Brown, has been quite popular with my 9th and 11th grade students.


the unwanted: stories of the syrian refugees by don brown book cover
In the tradition of Don Brown’s critically acclaimed, full-color nonfiction graphic novels The Great American Dust Bowl and Sibert Honor winning Drowned City, The Unwanted is an important, timely, and eye-opening exploration of the ongoing Syrian refugee crisis, exposing the harsh realities of living in, and trying to escape, a war zone.

Starting in 2011, refugees flood out of war-torn Syria in Exodus-like proportions. The surprising flood of victims overwhelms neighboring countries, and chaos follows. Resentment in host nations heightens as disruption and the cost of aid grows. By 2017, many want to turn their backs on the victims. The refugees are the unwanted.

Don Brown depicts moments of both heartbreaking horror and hope in the ongoing Syrian refugee crisis. Shining a light on the stories of the survivors, The Unwanted is a testament to the courage and resilience of the refugees and a call to action for all those who read.

Don Brown’s book is haunting nonfiction that outlines the ongoing conflict in Syria and shares individual anecdotes of Syrian refugees fleeing that violence. He keeps the context streamlined – this is not a sprawling war epic, but a general timeline peppered with vignettes to personalize the sheer scope of the war and its consequences. In retelling personal stories of some of the 6 million refugees, Brown does not delve too deeply into sectarian or religious divides, but instead outlines the enormity of the need, and the proportionally tiny U.S. response. The Unwanted is a brutal indictment of American self-absorption.

 

I don’t know what you remember about your teenage years, but I remember having a rapacious curiosity about the world – wanting to know (or experience) all of the things my parents had deemed me too young for, or had perhaps purposely left out of my education. I see that same thirst for knowledge in many of my students: they’re angry at the state of the world, constantly taking in new information, and want to know WHY they were never told about some of the deep inequalities and tragedies of the past and the present. They want to know why we don’t tell the dark secrets – why we aren’t honest. I believe that books like The Unwanted are exactly the sort of texts that we can and should share with children. I don’t mean to prove that we do care, or to absolve ourselves, but to keep stories alive, and to look the truth straight on and without flinching.

 

Brown clearly means for this title to be educational – it is especially suited for use in politics and current events (even years after its first publication!!) units. The content is sobering, tragic, and at times violent. I can envision pairing it with Elie Wiesel’s Night, or in a graphic novel unit with Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis or Art Spiegelman’s Maus.

 

As a graphic novel, it’s important to address the art style. Brown uses pen and ink with digital paint in washed out colors – a palette of browns and grays for the most part. This color scheme matches the seriousness of the content. Brown’s illustrations are quite spare – facial expressions are not very clearly depicted, and the linework at time feels sparse as well. When first reading the book, I did not love the art style – but I came around – I think it is as necessary and important to the storytelling as the anecdotal, vignette-style prose.

 

In all, The Unwanted is one of the most honest, unvarnished graphic novels for young adults on the refugee experience – and I’ve read a fair few. Its honesty asks something of its reader. I think the world needs more books like it.

 

Recommended for: readers ages 12 and up; it is necessary reading.

tidesong

I’ve been a fan of Wendy Xu’s art since I saw it one year at Small Press Expo (SPX), a mini comics conference held in the DC area each year. I was excited to pick up Wendy’s middle grade graphic novel Tidesong for the art, of course, but I was also intrigued by the incorporation of water dragons, a gorgeous color palette, and a Studio Ghibli-esque feel. Tidesong did not disappoint – it’s a charming fantasy adventure with lots of heart.

 

tidesong by wendy xu book cover
Sophie is a young witch whose mother and grandmother pressure her to attend the Royal Magic Academy—the best magic school in the realm—even though her magic is shaky at best. To train for her entrance exams, Sophie is sent to relatives she’s never met.

Cousin Sage and Great-Aunt Lan seem more interested in giving Sophie chores than in teaching her magic. Frustrated, Sophie attempts magic on her own, but the spell goes wrong, and she accidentally entangles her magic with the magic of a young water dragon named Lir.

Lir is trapped on land and can’t remember where he came from. Even so, he’s everything Sophie isn’t—beloved by Sophie’s family and skilled at magic. With his help, Sophie might just ace her entrance exams, but that means standing in the way of Lir’s attempts to regain his memories. Sophie knows what she’s doing is wrong, but without Lir’s help, can she prove herself?


Sophie is descended from a long line of witches who can control the winds and the tides, and she is determined to make her family proud, but the pressure to perform is causing some problems. First, learning the family magic is tough, and her auntie Lan is hard on her. Second, when she goes rogue and tries it on her own, she traps young dragon Lir out of his dragon form and memories. Figuring out how to untangle the mess she’s created will take patience, a change of heart, talking it out, and teamwork.

 

Gosh, this book was cute! It also had solid messages and themes: dealing with family expectations (meeting them, bucking them, going your own way and owning your mistakes!), wanting to learn things right away and having to adapt and slow down when it isn’t easy, and how to respond in a healthy way to intrusive negative thoughts. Sophie is young, and while she thinks she’s ready for life’s challenges, she figures out pretty quickly that she still has quite a way to go. Her aunties Lan and Sage and family friend Eugenia make for by turns stern and supportive mentors, and the family chickens are an effective spy network. If that last phrase made you chuckle, this might be the book for you! It’s got humor and heart, and while the plot is fairly simplistic (no huge plot twists here!), it is worth the read.

 

Of course, I mentioned dragons, and I haven’t gotten around to those yet! The first few pages of the book are a retelling of the legend of how the Wu witches got their power (wouldn’t you know, they are descended from a dragon who fell in love with a fisherman!), and this inclusion at the start of the story sets the stage for a fairy tale- and mythology-tinged tale. The illustrations tell most of the story here – there’s no extended exposition about how the magic in Sophie’s world works, no questions about different magical creatures – they just are, and they are darn cute. Tiny, fluffy chickens with teeth, a mini dragon, and a kappa all steal the show at various points as insanely adorable sidekicks. This was what felt the most like a Ghibli film to me: strange and cute sea and land creatures bobbling about on each page.

 

Let’s talk about that art style! Xu is well-known for her previous graphic novel Mooncakes, and you can expect the same art style in Tidesong, both a bit more refined and a bit more open-feeling, if that makes sense. The cool color palette is appropriate for the setting (the sea! the seaside! an island village!) and the variation in panel sizes, shapes, and bleed on some spreads is evocative of whatever is happening in the story. This is a graphic novel that leans more heavily on imagery than on text, and it is 100% charming.

 

In all, Tidesong is a magical graphic novel with brilliant (and adorable!) illustrations. A must-have for middle grade graphic novel collections.

 

Recommended for: fans of the animated film Ponyo and Molly Knox Ostertag’s The Witch Boy, and readers ages 7 and up.

how high we go in the dark

I ordered a copy of Sequoia Nagamatsu’s debut How High We Go in the Dark for multiple reasons. It had an interesting title, and striking book cover, the author’s name was (is) cool, and I saw a glowing review of it somewhere (can’t remember where at this point!). So this book made its way into my possession, and was one of the 42 titles I packed to bring with me to the lake for the summer. I do understand that I sound like both a caricature of a book lover and/or someone in a novel when I phrase things that way, lol. Still, I didn’t know too much about How High: climate plague, prescient, and literary fiction were about the sum of it. I finished the book this past Friday evening, just as we learned that most of the house had Covid-19, so my thoughts and reactions were a weird mix of appreciation for a lovely, strange, atmospheric, and gentle book, and comparison to our very real pandemic.

 

how high we go in the dark by sequoia nagamatsu book cover
Beginning in 2030, a grieving archeologist arrives in the Arctic Circle to continue the work of his recently deceased daughter at the Batagaika crater, where researchers are studying long-buried secrets now revealed in melting permafrost, including the perfectly preserved remains of a girl who appears to have died of an ancient virus.

Once unleashed, the Arctic Plague will reshape life on earth for generations to come, quickly traversing the globe, forcing humanity to devise a myriad of moving and inventive ways to embrace possibility in the face of tragedy. In a theme park designed for terminally ill children, a cynical employee falls in love with a mother desperate to hold on to her infected son. A heartbroken scientist searching for a cure finds a second chance at fatherhood when one of his test subjects—a pig—develops the capacity for human speech. A widowed painter and her teenaged granddaughter embark on a cosmic quest to locate a new home planet.

From funerary skyscrapers to hotels for the dead to interstellar starships, Sequoia Nagamatsu takes readers on a wildly original and compassionate journey, spanning continents, centuries, and even celestial bodies to tell a story about the resiliency of the human spirit, our infinite capacity to dream, and the connective threads that tie us all together in the universe.


In loosely connected vignettes, characters from both the near and far future react to a devastating Arctic Plague unleashed by global warming and melting permafrost. Devoted families try anything to save their families, disaffected loners work in a transformed funerary industry, doctors and scientists grapple with not only how to cure the plague, but how to escape and/or fix earth, and everyone deals in some way with grief, beliefs and responsibilities around death, and a planet transformed by mass trauma. Nagamatsu’s work imagines a world responding to a modern pandemic, and in doing so reveals an empathetic view of the future.

 

The elephant in the room is that there currently IS a global pandemic, and it has gone rather differently than Nagamatsu’s imagining – although he couldn’t have possibly known that, as he wrote his book pre-pandemic. It wouldn’t do you (or me!) any good to list all of the ways that things have gone differently in real life, so I will say only that Nagamatsu’s work is rather more generous to humanity. It imagines elaborate memorials, burial pacts, donating bodies to science, death hotels, parents taking their children to euthanasia theme parks for one last good day – at the core, remembrance and celebration of those lost to the plague. In doing so, Nagamatsu expresses a fundamental optimism (yes, in the midst of all of that death). Even as How High describes death in minute detail, the focus is on human beings striving for connection. Nagamatsu’s deft touch never feels emotionally manipulative, but – against all odds – tender and authentic.

 

Plague-fueled dystopias are not a new subgenre of science fiction, but I did appreciate architecture of this book, its literary fiction feel, and largely Japanese and Japanese-American characters as unique entry points. I also immediately liked the prose – not spare, by any means, but never overwrought. While each successive chapter is linked in some way to the others, there is no central (or even repeated) narrator, so it is not until you reach the end that everything unites into a cohesive whole. In that way the book feels more like a short story collection than a novel. At a couple of days’ remove, I can also point to Nagamatsu’s variations on intimacy (not sex) as a highlight. In other words, this book makes you think about what makes a loved one loved, and how people enter your life at different times, in different places, and mean different things depending on those times and places. It is a thoughtful work that makes the reader ponder human nature, our place in the world, and even our place in the cosmos.

 

In all, How High We Go in the Dark is an inventive, haunting, and extremely human story – one of striving to be our better selves/present/something in the midst of tragedy. It speaks to our current moment, of course, but it is also a meditation on loss, grief, and what is beyond all of this.

 

Recommended for: fans of Jodi Lyn Anderson’s Midnight at the Electric and Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven, literary fiction and atmospheric, soft science fiction aficionados, and anyone intrigued by the premise of a pandemic novel written just before our very own pandemic.

chef's kiss

One of my favorite bookish surprises is to find out that whatever I’m reading has recipes included in it. Not a cookbook, mind (though those are great too!), but a novel or a graphic novel with recipes after each chapter or at the end of the story. Going into it, I didn’t know that graphic novel Chef’s Kiss by Jarrett Melendez, Danica Brine, Hank Jones, and Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou would be one of these books. What I did know? Cooking plot, romance, gay protagonist, and I saw the cute, piggy cupid on the front cover – and that was more than enough to sell me on this title. I’m so glad it did! And I’ll be checking out the recipes too.


chef's kiss by jarrett melendez, danica brine, hank jones, hassan otsmane-elhaou book cover
Watch things start to really heat up in the kitchen in this sweet, queer, new adult graphic novel!

Now that college is over, English graduate Ben Cook is on the job hunt looking for something…anything…related to his passion for reading and writing. But interview after interview, hiring committee after hiring committee, Ben soon learns getting the dream job won’t be as easy as he thought. Proofreading? Journalism? Copywriting? Not enough experience. It turns out he doesn’t even have enough experience to be a garbage collector! But when Ben stumbles upon a “Now Hiring—No Experience Necessary” sign outside a restaurant, he jumps at the chance to land his first job. Plus, he can keep looking for a writing job in the meantime. He’s actually not so bad in the kitchen, but he will have to pass a series of cooking tests to prove he’s got the culinary skills to stay on full-time. But it’s only temporary…right?

When Ben begins developing a crush on Liam, one of the other super dreamy chefs at the restaurant, and when he starts ditching his old college friends and his old writing job plans, his career path starts to become much less clear.


Ben and his friends have just finished up college, and they are living together while figuring out what happens next: more schooling, job hunting, first job woes, etc. Ben, an English major, is not having any luck applying to jobs that might use his degree – and he’s feeling a little desperate one day when he sees a “Help Wanted” sign at a restaurant. Then it turns out that staff member Liam is hot, Ben gets to use his cooking skills, and (most) of the staff is nice… could this be the thing he’s meant to do? A gourmet food-loving pig will decide his fate, and Ben will have to wrestle with disappointed parents, friend conflict… and maybe dating too, if he’s lucky.


One of the lovely bits of Chef’s Kiss is that the side characters, Ben’s friends and coworkers, all have real moments in the story, from nonsensically talking about a bong decorated like Vlad the Impaler amid a friend negotiation, to a quick moment of asking someone to celebrate you transforming from surprise, to misunderstanding, to hurt when folks aren’t on the same page. I appreciated the healthy resolution of those moments. It may not have resulted in the most drama-filled plot, but it is excellent modeling for readers, and that’s okay to have sometimes! I also appreciated the conversation throughout the book about “what’s next” after college, and the affirmation that it’s okay not to know. So not only was this a cute and satisfying book, I felt that it was rewarding, too. I’m looking forward to putting it in my classroom library.

 

As with any graphic novel, the art plays a huge role. Danica Brine’s line art and Hank Jones’ color feel like a cross between manga and traditional superhero comics styling, and it is of course beautiful! The focus on each page is definitely on the clean lines and dialogue. I think this is the most text-heavy graphic novel I’ve read in a while. As a result, I got a sense of each character’s voice, which was a good thing. I also loved the art in the back matter, including the illustrated recipes (of course!) for Mushroom Ricotta Tart and Butternut Squash Soup.

 

The only thing I take issue with about this book is that the back cover (e.g. the publisher) calls it a romance. I think it is more of a coming-of-age story, with a little bit of incidental romance along the way. I say that because it doesn’t feel as though the romance is the POINT of the book – instead, the point is settling into adulthood, figuring out what you want to do, doing your best, and showing up for the people around you. Also, the romantic bits are quite innocent, so it definitely feels sweet in a YA kind of way. And none of this is a real criticism! I think the story and art are lovely and they don’t need a heavier romantic element. I just tried to think of a quibble and found one, don’t mind me, lol.

 

In all, Chef’s Kiss is an adorable, light read with: a satisfying conclusion, notes on healthy friend and family relationships, a hilarious pig character (and I do mean character), recipes at the end (!), and a sprinkling of romance. 

 

Recommended for: fans of Bloom, Our Dining Table, Check, Please!, and other food-themed graphic novels and manga, and those looking for sweet LGBTQ+ reads with a similar wholesome- and friendly-feel to Alice Oseman’s Heartstopper.

 

This review is part of Weekend Cooking, hosted by Marg of The Intrepid Reader. Click to learn more about Weekend Cooking.
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