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.


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.

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