across a field of starlight

I am always happy to read science fiction. That’s especially true in today’s modern sci-fi landscape, where more queer, diverse stories are available from major publishers all the time. One of the titles that I’ve had on my radar for a while is Blue Delliquanti’s young adult graphic novel Across a Field of Starlight. Reading for the graphic novel panel for the Cybils Awards gave me the nudge I needed to pick it up, and I fell in love with its innovative plot, excellent characters, and themes. It was one of my favorite books of the year!

across a field of starlight by blue delliquanti book cover
When they were kids, Fassen's fighter spaceship crash-landed on a planet that Lu's survey force was exploring. It was a forbidden meeting between a kid from a war-focused resistance movement and a kid whose community and planet are dedicated to peace and secrecy.

Lu and Fassen are from different worlds and separate solar systems. But their friendship keeps them in each other's orbit as they grow up. They stay in contact in secret as their communities are increasingly threatened by the omnipresent, ever-expanding empire.

As the empire begins a new attack against Fassen's people--and discovers Lu's in the process--the two of them have the chance to reunite at last. They finally are able to be together...but at what cost?

This beautifully illustrated graphic novel is an epic science fiction romance between two non-binary characters as they find one another through time, distance, and war.


Across a Field of Starlight is a sci-fi epic. The Ever-Blossoming Empire and the Fireback resistance are at war, and almost everyone is caught in the cross-hairs – including young Fassen, a resistance orphan, and Lu, part of a neutral party survey team who find them stranded planet-side in the aftermath. These two, in a moment born of stress, find a way to stay in touch despite diverging paths, and the rest is a story of resistance, of broadening perspectives, of unimaginable technology, and of finding ways to do the right thing, even when it is hard.


Fassen has grown up in the resistance, and knows no other world but one of duties, working for your food allotment, and dreaming of destroying the Empire at all costs. Lu, on the other hand, has a best friend who is an AI, pilots their own small research vessel, and lives in a secretive community that doesn’t welcome combatants on either side of the galactic war. They maintain a friendship based on storytelling and delayed communication but cannot share most of their lives with each other. When Fassen is faced with choices that stretch their understanding of right and wrong, Lu and the Field community show them another way of being – but there are deeper and more dangerous elements at play than culture clash. The future of the resistance, and the future of humanity, may be at stake.


I really appreciated the way that this story was one that echoed themes in other popular sci-fi franchises (the Star Wars films, for one), while making its own, hopeful way. Fassen’s place in the Fireback resistance is one that depends on healthy soldiers, and each soldier only has as much value as they bring to the war effort. Lu’s world is completely different – a commune based on mutual aid, sharing, and personal choice beyond subsistence. Author-illustrator Delliquanti asks the reader, through their characters, to consider a kinder, less capitalistic, and more peaceful future for humanity, and resists falling into the storytelling pitfalls of white saviorism and all resistance = good. Across a Field of Starlight is amazingly complex for a young adult graphic novel, and while it won’t appeal to all readers, I loved it.


I also appreciated the fact that Lu is Black and fat, and there’s no discussion of that at all – it’s just the way they are, and Fassen (and other characters’) genderqueer/trans identities are only brought up in the context of being able to afford meds, or what accommodations they must make to appear in a way that matches their identity, or why they might idolize certain other characters. The narrative doesn’t ask them to suffer, or give up their ideals, or even to fall in love, to be who they want to be. I found that added a refreshing, optimistic, and satisfying note to go along with some heavier, more serious notes in the story.


Delliquanti’s art is a major highlight of the book – it’s colorful, imaginative, makes great use of lighting, and totally sells the sci-fi elements of the plot with small details and costuming. A note in the book shares that Delliquanti plots & thumbnails on paper, and then completes the rest of their process digitally. The result is a polished, warm, and interesting take on science and space. There is no cold distance in Delliquanti’s art – it is amazingly cozy, with a rainbow palette. It doesn’t dwell much on the emptiness of space, but instead on the human lives that people it, and how they intend to survive (and thrive) together.


In all, Across a Field of Starlight is not to be missed – it’s beautiful, hopeful, and set in a galaxy that will feel welcome and unique all at once.


Recommended for: all young adult graphic novel enthusiasts, fans of LGBTQ+ fiction, and anyone who likes their sci-fi with a heavy dose of hope and cozy vibes, à la Becky Chambers’ The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet.

the wolf suit

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I’m glad, as an adult with limited free time for reading, to have the motivation (and a list of nominees!) of being a panelist for the Cybils Awards. It focuses my reading, forces me to set aside the time in my schedule, and picks some of the best titles of the year that I might not have heard of already. A book I wouldn’t have selected on my own, but enjoyed immensely, was Sid Sharp’s elementary/middle grade graphic novel The Wolf Suit.


the wolf suit by sid sharp book cover
Bellwether Riggwelter is, once again, out of blackberries. This time, rather than tiptoe through a forest full of predators, he comes up with a new plan. He will keep himself safe by blending in—he will sew a Wolf Suit! The disguise works perfectly... sort of. Bellwether realizes he can’t enjoy the forest in a bulky suit, and he may not be the only creature in the forest who feels that way. Perhaps not everyone is as wolfish as they appear.

Bellwether the sheep is afraid… of wolves. And since wolves live in the forest, he’s afraid of the forest as well. Since his house is *in the forest* this is really cramping his flower-smelling and blackberry-eating lifestyle! In a fun and funny graphic novel for the ages 7+ set, author-illustrator Sharp plays with the traditional tale of a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Their lovely, stylized, and slightly unsettling artwork is juxtaposed with humor, and twists and turns for a thoroughly entertaining volume.


The Wolf Suit features themes of changing yourself to fit expectations or face your fears and finding unique ways to cope with the tough moments in life. But really, the themes take a back seat to the entertainment factor, which I think is just right for the target age of the audience. Bellwether the sheep also has some mad quilting skills – I appreciated that were no gendered activities/expectations in this book! The moments of hilarity resulted most often from the creatures’ expressions, the situation, and the narrative’s surprises.


Graphic novels live and die by their art, and this title is no exception: it features lush full-color art done in pencil, watercolor, ink, acrylic, and dirt (yes, that last one was a surprise to me too!). In my notes I originally wrote that the art was gorgeous – and I do think it is. But it won’t be everyone’s cup of tea because it’s not cute and sanitized. It’s meant to have a bit of an edge, and I loved that. Mushrooms and spiders appear on several pages, so young readers accustomed to reappearing motifs in picture books will have fun looking for those. The endpapers featured beautiful details of the natural world, with slightly creepy offset eyes – all adding up to a whole that is a little zany and a lot of fun.


In all, The Wolf Suit is beautifully designed, engaging, and just sinister enough. It’s the next step up from Bethann Woollvin’s picture book fairy tale retellings, and features funny anthropomorphic fantasy with no magic, but with a twist.


Recommended for: graphic novels for the younger end of the middle grade reading category (ages 7-9, most likely), and anyone who appreciates twists or new takes on fairy tales.

numb to this: memoir of a mass shooting

There’s a lovely tradition in the high school I work at where teachers to post the title of the book they’re currently reading on their classroom door. I was puttering around last Friday, packing up before Winter Break, and I changed my sign over to show my latest read, Kindra Neely’s graphic novel Numb to This: Memoir of a Mass Shooting. A student who has struggled in my class asked me about it, and then wanted to see the book, and then asked when is it gonna be on the bookshelf? I was reading a library copy, but you can bet I placed an order for this one as soon as I had a spare moment. In my opinion, there’s nothing better than finding a book (the right one, the one they choose!) for that student who needs it. And on top of that, this book is a must-read – an important, shattering story from a gun violence survivor – a chance to listen to someone share what that aftermath looks and feels like. 


numb to this: memoir of a mass shooting by kindra neely book cover
Kindra Neely never expected it to happen to her. No one does. Sure, she’d sometimes been close to gun violence, like when the house down the street from her childhood home in Texas was targeted in a drive-by shooting. But now she lived in Oregon, where she spent her time swimming in rivers with friends or attending classes at the bucolic Umpqua Community College.

And then, one day, it happened: a mass shooting shattered her college campus. Over the span of a few minutes, on October 1, 2015, eight students and a professor lost their lives. And suddenly, Kindra became a survivor. This empathetic and ultimately hopeful graphic memoir recounts Kindra’s journey forward from those few minutes that changed everything.

It wasn’t easy. Every time Kindra took a step toward peace and wholeness, a new mass shooting devastated her again. Las Vegas. Parkland. She was hopeless at times, feeling as if no one was listening. Not even at the worldwide demonstration March for Our Lives. But finally, Kindra learned that—for her—the path toward hope wound through art, helping others, and sharing her story.


Kindra Neely survived the Umpqua Community College mass shooting in Oregon in 2015, and her beautiful, poignant, and searing memoir of the years after is absolutely required reading. There’s some background and context-setting, but the majority of Neely’s book focuses on the day of the shooting and what happened next: how she reacted in the short- and long-term, the impact of PTSD on her life, and the reality of a suicide attempt: all while presenting a front to the world. In the 300 pages of this debut graphic novel, Neely lays herself bare for a purpose, saying “I…went looking for a book about how to deal with the aftermath of a shooting, but I couldn’t find one. Maybe I could make a book to show people like me that they aren’t alone, or that their feelings are normal.”


Neely’s story is not just one of trauma, though it does deal with that. It keeps the tension between hope (she survived, she keeps surviving, she finds meaning in making art & helping others) and realism (there are bad days full of fear, depression is very real, and some people are uncomfortable around those who are open about their trauma). The pacing and scene changes are also telegraphed well and keep the “journey” of Neely’s life (narrative) moving. It is also heartwarming to see the real-life friends come alongside Neely in tough moments, and vice versa, even though no one is without flaws (except maybe Neely’s mom). The supportive, healthy relationships and networks from her life are excellent guides for young readers to follow, internalize, and model in their own lives.


Pacing and storytelling in the graphic novel format rely so much on the art… and I just want to say that Neely’s art is fabulous. I would have no idea that this was a debut – her style and linework are polished, modern, and evocative. The emotion bleeds through the pages, and while this volume is in full color, I think Neely’s neat linework and focus on facial expressions would work in any color palette. There’s doesn’t seem to be a predominant or overarching color theme, but teals and purples show up quite a bit in scenes set in Oregon, and harsh yellows and reds during moments of stress and trauma. Overt symbolism of dragonflies appears throughout (and is explained directly in the text).


Overall, Neely’s story and art are indistinguishable/inseparable – and the result, a compulsively-readable volume, allows her to be vulnerable in the service of helping others. Numb to This is heart-wrenching and incisive and belongs in every high school library in the country.


Recommended for: high school nonfiction collections, and anyone ages 14+ who has been touched by a mass shooting in some way (at this point, everyone in the US).

alte zachen / old things

One of the things I value about volunteering as a Cybils Awards judge is the element of book discovery. I have publishers, authors, librarians, bloggers, etc. that I trust to suggest excellent titles, and I don’t step outside that circle very often. But the Cybils push me to read more widely within a genre (in this year’s case, in graphic novels). One book that I’m not sure I would have picked up on my own? Nominee Alte Zachen / Old Things by Ziggy Hanaor, illustrated by Benjamin Phillips. And that would have been a tragedy because it’s a heart-full title, and one I’ve been thinking of over and over since I put it down. 


alte zachen / old things by ziggy hanaor, illustrated by benjamin phillips book cover
A beautifully illustrated and presented intergenerational graphic novel that follows 11-year-old Benji and his elderly grandmother, Bubbe Rosa, as they traverse Brooklyn and Manhattan, gathering the ingredients for a Friday night dinner.

Bubbe’s relationship with the city is complex – nothing is quite as she remembered it and she feels alienated and angry at the world around her. Benji, on the other hand, looks at the world, and his grandmother, with clear-eyed acceptance. As they wander the city, we catch glimpses of Bubbe’s childhood in Germany, her young adulthood in 1950s Brooklyn, and her relationships; first with a baker called Gershon, and later with successful Joe, Benji’s grandfather. Gradually we piece together snippets of Bubbe’s life, gaining an insight to some of the things that have formed her cantankerous personality. The journey culminates on the Lower East Side in a moving reunion between Rosa and Gershon, her first love. As the sun sets, Benji and his Bubbe walk home over the Williamsburg Bridge to make dinner.

This is a powerful, affecting and deceptively simple story of Jewish identity, of generational divides, of the surmountability of difference and of a restless city and its inhabitants.


In Alte Zachen (Yiddish for “old things,” as the title suggests), grandmother Rosa and her young grandson Benji zigzag New York City on a mission: to gather the necessary ingredients for Friday night dinner. Along the way Rosa comments on the changes in the city, and in life and culture over time. Some of these remembrances and flashbacks are sweet, but many are bittersweet, or sad, or resonate with unfulfilled longing. The parallel journeys of a modern-day shopping trip and a long life, combined with watercolor illustrations in a wash of grays and other muted colors, create a deeply impactful narrative.


Some of the most poignant moments in the book occur when Bubbe Rosa is rude, and Benji must deal with this embarrassment in the moment, and buffer between her and others. These moments aren’t indicative of a cruel temperament, but rather open the way for the reader to learn about some of the traumas of Rosa’s life: escaping to Switzerland from Germany ahead of the Holocaust, the loss of old love, changes to cultural norms, and more. At the same time, you feel almost viscerally for Benji, who loves his grandmother but is trying to gracefully manage in the real world. His Bubbe is trying to impart words and traditions (there’s a Yiddish glossary at the back for context if the reader is struggling), and Benji is just trying to get them to the shops and back without incident. It’s sweet, authentic, and entirely human.


Phillips’ art – a muted watercolor palette in the book – contrasts with the bright orange of the book’s spine, title, and end papers (illustrations of lots of everyday food items in black-and-white on an orange background in a repeating pattern). The art feels unfinished and unpolished in a way, even as it washes over memorable architecture in precise detail. There are wordless stretches, where the art is the only context, and Phillips’ art then shines with the attention to expressions, small details, and the elements of culture: dancing, music, and family. Somehow, they all come to life, in real ways.


In all, Alte Zachen / Old Things is a tribute to memory, to culture, and to intergenerational relationships. It’s a lovely meditation on how we pass on ourselves to our loved ones – imperfectly, but with care (and feeding). I loved it, and I think you will too.


Recommended for: fans of contemporary graphic novels featuring intergenerational relationships, Jewish traditions and culture, and city life. Excellent reading and art for the 12+ set, though appropriate for younger ones as well.

counting board books for art lovers: kahlo's koalas and one white crane

I like gifting board books and picture books whenever I visit the children in my life – it is not-so-secretly my ambition to be remembered as that aunt, the one who always gave interesting books! (and maybe also in some small way sparked a love of reading) I’ve noticed that at most baby showers and birthdays, folks give the same board books they cherished as children. And that’s lovely – who wouldn’t want to share the books they hold dear! I am a little paranoid, however, that I will copy the same book that someone else just gave, so I am ALWAYS, always on the lookout for standout board books to add to my gifting repertoire. Grace Helmer’s Kahlo's Koalas and Vickie Lee and Joey Chou’s upcoming One White Crane are two that I wholeheartedly recommend for art-appreciating parents and their little ones.

kahlo's koalas by grace helmer book coverFrom Henri Matisse’s monkeys and Jackson Pollock's poodles to Roy Lichtenstein's llamas and Wassily Kandinsky’s kangaroos, this beautiful 1-10 counting book provides an imaginative learning experience that will appeal to adults and children alike.

Introduce your little one to some of the world’s best artists while teaching them their numbers 1 to 10. With illustrator Grace Helmer's quirky renderings of animals in the style of world-famous artists, Kahlo’s Koalas extends the basic counting concept in a simple, one number, one image per spread format that introduces the smallest children to their first concept of numbers, animals and art appreciation.


On each page of Kahlo’s Koalas, a different animal and number are featured in the style of a different artist. For example, the book starts with 1 Picasso panda, 2 Kahlo Koalas, and goes from there. The alliterative animal choices make for a fun tongue twister with the artists’ last names, and there are playful artistic choices as well (the Monet mouse in an inner tube among the water lilies was a fun touch!). The artists featured within hail from a wide range of styles and eras, but there are none who are pre-Modern – it’s all Impressionists and onward. One final page at the back of the book talks about each artist’s style and “how” they made their art. Helmer focuses on creating illustrations that mimic the artists’ styles, and leaves the text simple – an effective choice among complex images.


In all, Kahlo’s Koalas is a beautiful, interesting board book introduction to art and counting that is sure to appeal to both toddlers and their parents.

one white crane by vickie lee, illustrated by joey chou book cover
One white crane, two black bears . . .

Simply told and beautifully rendered, this counting board book takes young readers through the months of the year. Each month focuses on a new animal, from seals in May to cicadas in September. Sweet, accessible text in English and Chinese pairs with eye-catching art for a wonderful repeat reading experience.

One White Crane is a bilingual (English and Mandarin) counting book that also teaches the months of the year, and colors as well! Given the twelve months, the count goes up to 12, and there are 12 different animals. The gorgeous Charlie Harper-esque geometric art is featured on each left facing page, and text in English and Mandarin on the right. It is a simple, effective, and quite frankly, beautifully designed book – even if you don’t speak Mandarin and don’t intend to learn! I enjoy gifting bilingual books to children even when their parents don’t speak both languages because any language exposure is good exposure, but this could be a fun way for parents and children to learn side-by-side, or for bilingual parents and families to share their language culture together with their children.


In all, One White Crane is a delightfully simple board book with beautiful art and a lot of learning potential.


One White Crane will be available from Henry Holt & Co./Godwin Books on December 13, 2022.

Fine print: I received a finished copy of Kahlo's Koalas and an ARC of One White Crane from the publishers for review consideration. I did not receive any compensation for this post.

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