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.


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.


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.

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