Four Favorite Graphic Novels: Twins, Class Act, Go with the Flow, and Katie the Catsitter

Even though I read mostly library books, my daughter reads and rereads her favorite graphic novels so often that it’s hard to resist buying them for her, especially right now when our local book stores need all the support they can get. Here are four of my daughter’s recent favorites that I also read and enjoyed.

Twins
by Varian Johnson & Shannon Wright.

Graphix, 2020.

ISBN 978-1338236132.

Read from purchased copy. 

Real-life twin Varian Johnson returns to the topic of middle school elections with this story that combines both elements. Maureen and Francine are twins and former best friends.  Maureen is the smart, quiet one, while Francine is more talkative and social.  But as they start sixth grade, they are suddenly in different classes, even different lunches.  Maureen is crushed at first, and when she finds out that it was Francine’s request, she feels utterly betrayed.  When the girls both run for class president, for different reasons, their rivalry threatens to tear their family and their mutual friends apart.  Will their relationship survive?  And can they both find their own places in middle school? Shannon Wright’s art echoes that of Raina Telgemeier and Victoria Jamieson, amplifying the emotions and keeping the twins visually distinct. Combining the allure of twins with the ever-relatable topic of shifting friendships in middle school, this was an instant hit.  

Class Act
by Jerry Craft.

Quill Tree, 2020.

ISBN 978-0062885500.

Read from purchased copy. 

In this sequel to New Kid, the focus is split between our former narrator Jordan and his friend Drew, one of the few other Black kids at their private middle school.  Though Drew’s known for his humor, things can still sting – things like a girl who likes him enough to bake him fresh treats every day, but won’t listen when he tells her to stop touching his hair.  Or teachers telling him to be humble when he walks into class, when the white boys are told to act as if they own the place.  The school also starts a new diversity & inclusion effort which is hilariously badly done, excluding the school’s Black teacher.  And though Drew loves the grandmother he lives with and isn’t ashamed of their apartment, it still puts a strain on his friendship with rich, white Liam when he visits his mansion for the first time.  As with New Kid, though the daily microaggressions are easy to catalog, the sense of humor, the joy in friendship, and the genuine heart with which the story is told make this a story everyone should read.  My daughter has read it at least 15 or 20 times since we bought it for her.  

Go with the Flow
by Karen Schneemann & Lily Williams.

First Second, 2020.

ISBN 978-1250143174.

Read from library copy.

Three girls who are already friends, plus one new girl, bond on the first day of freshman year in high school.  The new circle includes African-American Brit, who is amazing at math but has cramps so painful that she often has to miss class; uncoordinated blond Christine, just deciding if she’s comfortable telling people she likes girls, red-haired artist and rebel Abby, and tiny Asian-American Sasha, determined not to ruin her chances of friendship at her new school.  When Sasha experiences the teen nightmare of getting her period unexpectedly on that first day, while wearing white pants, the other girls come to her rescue.  But they are still filled with rage at the injustice related to girls and their periods.  Why does Sasha’s accident carry such large and long-lasting stigma?  And why do the boys get new football uniforms but the school won’t pay to keep period supplies in the restrooms? This is a story of friendship, struggle and activism, with a teensy bit of romance.  The art is appealing done and shaded with reds and browns.  Though the girls are in high school, it’s perfect for middle school.  It took my own daughter two of the three weeks I had it out from the library to warm up to the idea of reading it (period stigma at work??), but once she did, she loved it, and read it at least once a day until I had to take it back.  

Katie the Catsitter
by Colleen AF Venable and Stephanie Yue.

Random House Graphic, 2021.

ISBN 978-1984895639.

Read from purchased copy. 

It’s summer in New York City, and both of Katie’s best friends are off to spend the whole of it at camp.  Katie and her mother just can’t afford it, though, so she promises to write her best friend Bethany while hanging up posters in her apartment building offering to do odd jobs for her neighbors.  After multiple failures, she winds up cat-sitting for the glamorous Ms. Lang, who has 217 cats with minor to major superpowers.  As if that wasn’t enough excitement, Katie is sure she’s uncovering a mystery regarding one of the city’s super-powered residents – but is that person a hero or a villain?  She’d love to talk it out with Bethany, but the once daily postcards have gotten fewer and farther between, leaving Katie feeling unsure of their friendship.  Katie and her mother are white, while Bethany is brown-skinned and Ms. Lang appears African-American.  This book is just lots and lots of fun, with a core of reflection about friendship underneath.  It’s no surprise that my cat-loving daughter is also in love with this one. 

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Unicorn Island by Donna Galanti

Here is a sweet and exciting fantasy for kids bridging up from early chapter books.

Unicorn Island
by Donna Galanti.
Illustrated by
Bethany Stancliffe.

Epic!/Andrews McMeel, 2021. ISBN 978-1524864705.

Review copy received from the publisher.  

As the story opens, our heroine Sam is preparing to use her very limited cooking skills to make a special meal for her mother to celebrate them living in the same place for a year, only to find out that her flutist mother has taken a short-term, no kids gig in Europe.  

Sam is sent off to stay with her grouchy Uncle Mitch in Foggy Harbor, and the elements of a classic fantasy-mystery are introduced.  There is an old house full of character and secrets, the aforementioned grouchy and reticent uncle (who shares her affinity for burning food as well as her hair color), a local kid her age to befriend, and an unchanging fog bank off the coast, into which Uncle Mitch regularly rows deep into the night.  

The large text size and numerous full-color illustrations put this at the chapter book or not quite middle grade level for me, but despite all the main characters having single-syllable names, the text includes good descriptive language and a mystery that isn’t quite wrapped up in this book.  Though her friend Tuck is only shown in the pictures as Black, not described as such, I did appreciate that his veterinarian mother plays a key role.  The illustrations are in a crisp digital style, with pictures that contrast happy and tense moments, as in Sam and her mother first shown dancing with cheerfully steaming pots and then both sadly looking at a burned mess.  A picture of her talking with Tuck becomes more than just talking heads with a misty beach setting, and Sam’s always-flowing hair adds to the fantasy feel of it all.  

The unicorns advertised on the cover don’t make their appearance until halfway through the book, but the action builds enough to keep things moving pleasantly along.  I am personally hoping that Sam’s long-lost aunt will be rediscovered in the next book. We can always use more fantasy books at younger levels to engage those readers who aren’t interested in realism, and this is a lovely choice, particularly for readers who enjoyed books like the Kingdom of Wrenly and Zoe and Sassafras series or Pip Bartlett’s Guide to Magical Creatures.

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Complex & Compelling Teen Fantasy: Legendborn and Burn

These two books – both finalists in the Teen Speculative Fiction category of the Cybils Awards – have complex, multilayered, and very compelling narratives. Legendborn also won the Coretta Scott King – John Steptoe for New Talent Author Award. (And watch for the Cybils Awards winners to be announced on Valentine’s Day!)

Legendborn by Tracy Deonn. Narrated by Joniece Abbott-Pratt.

Simon & Schuster, 2020.

ASIN B084KQMM99.

Listened to audiobook on Libby.

 I’d been excited about this book from the moment I heard about it, and was so excited that my hold came in the day it was announced as a Cybils finalist. 

16-year-old Bree Matthews is still reeling from her mother’s sudden death in a car accident. She’s changed so much she hardly recognizes herself, but decides to go ahead with her plans to start an advanced high school program at UNC-Chapel Hill with her best friend anyway. 

Then, on her first night there, she sees a demon.  And one of the two people who sees it as well tries – but fails – to erase her memory of it.  But the feeling triggers a memory of the hospital after the accident – someone there tried to erase her memory as well.  Could these two incidents be related?  When the boy she’s assigned as a mentor, Nick, turns out to have been involved in the same group, she comes up with a very risky plan to infiltrate the group to find out the truth about her mother – though being the only person of color in a very white group requires both a thick skin and making more scenes than she’d really planned for.  The group claims to be descendants of King Arthur and his knights of the Round Table, still carrying out his mission centuries later.  Will Bree be able to keep herself separate, or will she be forced to join for real?  What about the increasing number of lies she has to tell her father and her best friends? Things get even more complicated when her psychologist, a Black woman who knew her mother in college, introduces Bree to traditional Black magic, Root, and warns her of the evil of the magic used by the Order.  And yes, there’s some of the expected love triangle as well. 

So, very intense (corroborated by my goddaughter, to whom I gifted a copy), with lots of demon-fighting, secret societies with even more secret plots, but also family and friend issues, and dealing with both the good and bad parts of being a Black teen in a racist society.  It was reminiscent of Buffy with that mix of demon battles mixed with the social challenges of school and family, but with much more up-to-date racial consciousness.  I am definitely looking forward to the next book! 

Burn by Patrick Ness.

Quill Tree, 2020.

ISBN 9781406375503.

Read ebook on Libby
(audiobook also available.)

It’s 1957 in the tiny town of Frome, Washington.  Sarah Dewhurst, whose Black mother died two years ago, is waiting at a gas station with her white father for the dragon they’ve hired to help with their failing farm – something that will make them even more outcasts than being a biracial family.  But though her father tells her not to talk to the dragon, she does.  Kazimir tells her that she is in danger, and though she’s not really special, she’s prophesied to save the world.  He thinks, anyway – prophecies are slippery things.  Meanwhile, Sarah and her almost-boyfriend, Japanese-American Jason, are definitely in danger from the openly hostile deputy sheriff. 

And in Canada, Malcolm, a teen follower of a cult of dragon worshippers who call themselves Believers has been sent on a mission that will involve him killing some people to save the world from war.  He’s not excited about the killing part, but thinks that saving the world will be worth it.  Finally, we follow the pair of FBI investigators who are tracking the assassin while trying not to offend the Candian officials too much.  

This sounds complicated enough to start with, but there are also some cold war politics and multiple universes thrown in, along with Malcolm meeting a young man who might be the one he’d want to settle down with, if only such a thing were possible.  Yet somehow, Ness manages to pull all these elements together into one cohesive, action-packed whole. There is beauty and heartbreak and devastation, a very high body count, including both mass deaths and individuals we care about.  All the characters are interesting and multi-faceted, and I did not lose track of who they were even with my Covid brain.  I know people have been raving about Patrick Ness for years, and I had only ever read The Rest of Us Just Live Here until now.  I may need to fix that.  I will definitely recommend the audiobook to my son and my love. 

Posted in Audiobook, Books, Fantasy, Print, Reviews, Teen/Young Adult | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

Blog Tour! THE IN-BETWEEN by Rebecca K.S. Ansari

I am so excited today to be part of the blog tour for this spooky, twisty brand-new middle grade book, THE IN-BETWEEN by Rebecca K.S. Ansari. Thanks to Walden Pond Press for the invitation and the review copy of the book!

ABOUT THE BOOK

A dark, twisty adventure about the forgotten among us and what it means to be seen, from the acclaimed author of The Missing Piece of Charlie O’Reilly.

Cooper is lost. Ever since his father left their family three years ago, he has become distant from his friends, constantly annoyed by his little sister, Jess, and completely fed up with the pale, creepy rich girl who moved in next door and won’t stop staring at him. So when Cooper learns of an unsolved mystery his sister has discovered online, he welcomes the distraction.

It’s the tale of a deadly train crash that occurred a hundred years ago, in which one young boy among the dead was never identified. The only distinguishing mark on him was a strange insignia on his suit coat, a symbol no one had seen before or since. Jess is fascinated by the mystery of the unknown child— because she’s seen the insignia. It’s the symbol of the jacket of the girl next door.

As they uncover more information— and mounting evidence of the girl’s seemingly impossible connection to the tragedy—Cooper and Jess begin to wonder if a similar disaster could be heading to their hometown.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Rebecca K.S. Ansari

Rebecca lives in a very loud house in Minneapolis with her husband, four boys, and her seriously massive pets. After twelve years as an ER doctor, she shed her scrubs to write magical and mysterious worlds for middle-grade readers. She is drawn to any story that evokes, “Please, Mom! Just one more chapter!” and she strives to craft the same. Rebecca was the winner of the Minnesota SCBWI Mentorship for 2015. When she isn’t writing, you can find her biking, cooking or escaping “up north” with family, friends, and a stack of good books.

PHOTO CREDIT: PIXEL DUST

The In-Between by Rebecca
K. S. Ansari.

Walden Pond Press, 2021. ISBN 978-0062916099.

ARC kindly provided by the publisher for review purposes. 

MY TAKE

Cooper has been angry with everyone in his life and hating himself ever since his father left to start a new family. His friends’ invitations and his little sister’s hopefulness only make him feel more isolated and broken. More than anything, he wants to go back to the way things were before. Failing that, any kind of distraction would be good. He already dislikes the girl in the recently renovated house across the street, who is always staring, but won’t talk to him. When his sister Jess notices that the crest on her private school uniform is the same as that on an unidentified child from a train crash 100 years earlier, he both welcomes the mystery and is instantly suspicious.

As the story unfolds, it gets increasingly creepy, even as we learn more of Cooper’s history with his now-absent father and with Jess, whose diabetes Cooper helps to manage. The tension that builds is intimately intertwined with Cooper’s inner journey, away from the intense pain of the opening, and the ending has multiple twists that I didn’t see coming. Though I felt part of the mystery was left unsolved, the ending was still satisfying enough that I’m guessing most readers won’t notice or care. Give this one to kids who love stories of magic in the real world, spooky mysteries, or who are struggling themselves with reality right now.

TOUR SCHEDULE

Blog Tour 1/27-2/2

January 27  Satisfaction for Insatiable Readers @grgenius

January 28  Michele Knott @knott_michele

January 29  Writer’s Rumpus @writersrumpus

January 30  Maria’s Melange @mariaselke

February 1  StoryMamas @storymamas

                   Charlotte’s Library @charlotteslibrary

February 2  A Library Mama @alibrarymama

          Iowa Amber Reads @iowaamberreads

Posted in Books, Fantasy, Format, Genre, Middle Grade, Print, Reviews | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

Picture Books: Odd Dog Out and Ronan the Librarian

Here I am belatedly reviewing some picture books that came my way last year, because just because 2020 was rough doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t hear about these fun books, both stressing the power of staying true to yourself to make change in the world.  

Odd Dog Out
by Rob Biddulph.

HarperCollins, 2019.

ISBN 978-0062367266. Review copy kindly received from the publisher.

In a world of Dachsunds who all dress alike, appropriate to the situation, one dog stands out for her flamboyant dress.  Though her outfits are cheerful and expressive, it’s hard being the only one different.  Rhyming text describes her traveling across the country to a place where she fits right in – but is that really what she wants? The art is bright and detailed enough to warrant closer looks. This light-hearted story is one that my daughter, despite being mostly a middle grade reader at this point, returned to multiple times and refused to let me donate to the school library (the ultimate fate of most of my finished review copies.)  

Ronan the Librarian written by Tara Luebbe & Becky Cattie. Illustrated by Victoria Maderna.

Roaring Brook Press, 2020.

ISBN 978-1250189219. Review copy kindly received from the author.  

In a Norse-inspired but multi-ethnic barbarian world, Ronan is known for his raiding, looting, and fighting.  When he discovers a trunk full of books and figures out how to read them, he falls in love with reading.  But barbarians aren’t supposed to read!  While still continuing to raid, now looking for books, Ronan battles expectations for barbarian behavior.  And when he’s amassed enough book treasure, naturally the next step would be to start a library.  But can he interest a horde of barbarians in a library?  

In strict historical accuracy, the Norse society this book is very loosely based on was more literate than the English and European societies they raided – and the Norse did not have horns on their helmets.  But this reservation is just for the record, as historical accuracy is not at all the point here.  The story, with loose and lively painted art (at least by look) hits just the right level of silliness to make for a very fun read-aloud.  And, as our culture is definitely prejudiced against men reading, especially those who are active or athletic, I am really happier to teach modern children that reading is for everyone through humor and save the actual history for later.  All in all, charming, especially for fantasy- and history-loving families.  I think my own children would have wanted multiple readings had it been out when they were small!

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2020 in Review – the Books

Following my report of how I read by the numbers, here’s looking at a different set of numbers – the books that I rated 9 or 10.  It’s always fun to look back at the books I loved over the past year!  Even if I wonder at myself for the ratings I gave at times – why, for example, did I rate only one book in a trilogy a 9, when I now have overwhelmingly positive memories about all the books?  Nevertheless, giving you all the books I loved would officially be Way Too Many, so for the most part, I stuck with my original ratings to put this list together.  

This is the first year that there are no picture books on this list.  My picture book reading has gone way down since my own children rarely read them.  While I still read a few dozen picture books over the year, I didn’t write reviews of them because of trying to focus on keeping up with the reviews of my other reading, and I traditionally only log them if I’m writing reviews of them.  Now I’m realizing that that makes it hard to go back and find the picture books I loved when I need them, so I may need to reconsider that policy!  And (as I drafted this post last week and am now posting it after watching the ALA Youth Media awards), I am super excited that one of the two picture books I bought for myself this year, We Are Water Protectors, won the Caldecott Award!

Here is my standard disclaimer about rating books:

“I have never liked doing a public scale rating of books – the librarian in me would rather describe what’s in the book and let you decide if it sounds good for you. But I do give books number ratings on my own private spreadsheet. I shamelessly borrowed the Book Smugglers’ 10-point rating system for this, where 0 is “I want my time and my money back”, 5 is “meh” and so on. For my purposes, 7 is a book I enjoyed, 8 is one I loved and 9 is one I really, really loved. 10 only gets given out retrospectively to books I find myself re-reading and thinking about a lot – a true personal classic.”

Not Quite Middle Grade

  • Skunk and Badger by Amy Timberlake. Illustrated by Jon Klassen. Read by Michael Boatman

Middle Grade

  • Go with the Flow by Karen Schneemann & Lily Williams
  • Guts by Raina Telgemeier
  • Indian No More by Charlene Willing Mcmanis and Traci Sorell
A Wish in the Dark by Christina Soontornvat

Teen

Adult

  • Broken Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin. Narrated by Cassaundra Freeman
  • Bryony and Roses by T. Kingfisher
  • The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin. Narrated by Cassaundra Freeman
  • Paladin’s Grace by  T. Kingfisher
  • The Self-Driven Child by Ned Johnson and William Stixrud
  • “Why are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?” by Beverly Tatum

Rereads

All but the first of these are books that I had previously read to myself and then read aloud or listened to with one of my kids. I also read bits and pieces of two other books without finishing them: Ghosts of Greenglass House by Kate Milford, and Home Comforts by Cheryl Mendelsson – because somehow reading about how to keep one’s home in perfect order is enormously comforting during global chaos.  

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2020 In Review – by the Numbers

Every year since 2014, I’ve tried to do an audit of my reading, as well as a list of my favorite books of the year. Most of you, dear readers, seem more interested in the books than the numbers, but publishing the numbers is my way of keeping myself accountable.

2019 Overview

Bar graph of the books I read, finished, reviewed, and rated 8 or above in 2020.
I logged 206 books in 2020, finished 196 (though some of this was abandoning comfort re-reads partway through rather than not liking the book), reviewed 118, and rated 50 8 or above. This is again many fewer books than the year before, but nearly double the number of reviews. For 2020, I’ll take it.
Pie chart of how I got the books I read in 2020 - 72% from the library, 16% purchased, 10% from publishers, and 2.4% from authors.
I am still a library reader! But having the library closed for several months, and worrying about my local bookstores closing, led me to turn more to friendly publisher and buying my own books.
Pie Chart of the format of my reading in 2020 - 52.9% print, 25.2% audio, 11.2% ebook, 10.2% graphic and one lone cd book.
2020 makes itself known in the format, too, with my ebook reading jumping from 1 to 11 percent.

What I Read

Pie Chart of the genres of my 2020 reading: 61.2% Fantasy, 16.5% Realistic, 6.3% Nonfiction, 4.9% Sci-Fi, 3.9% Historical, 3.4 % Romance.
I guess I wanted even more fantasy than usual this year? Poor science fiction, though!
Lagging behind nonfiction for the first time ever.
Pie chart of the intended reading age/audience of the books I read in 2020: 71.8% middle grade, 14.6% teen, 10.7% Adult, 2.4% Early Chapter Book, .5% Not Quite Middle Grade
Middle grade was even higher than usual, with fewer teen and early chapter books read.

The Authors

Pie chart of author ethnicity of my 2020 reading - 49.3% white, 18% African/Black, 13.7% Asian, 8.3% Latinx, 2.9% both South Asian and Native.
Woot! This is the first year since I’ve been tracking that I’ve read more books by authors of color than white authors. There are many more to read, but this is real progress!
Pie chart of author ethnicity from my 2015 reading - 85% white authors.
For reference, here’s the same chart from 2015, with 85% white authors.
Author Nationality - 82% American, 6% UK, 3% Canadian, 1.5% Australian, and a handful of other countries with just one or two books.
I don’t think there’s much change here, as I don’t make too much of an effort to read authors outside of the US. It’s always fun when other countries pop up, though!
Author Gender - 72% F, 20 % M, the rest mixed.
71% books by female authors is the same as last year. Also the same as last year, I need to work on reading more books by trans and non-binary authors. Recommendations, please!

The Characters

Character ethnicity pie chart - 33.7% white, 16.8% Black, 11.4% Asian, 8.4% Latinx, 3.5% South Asian, 3% Native, 3% animal, 3% unspecified brown, 8.9% mixed (including both single mixed race characters and multiple main character stories.)
In 2019, my percentage of white characters was 39%. That’s telling me that not only am I moving in the direction I want as far as reading more diversely, I’m also doing better at choosing books by authors of color, instead of white authors writing characters of color. Thanks to publisher and authors for making this easier!
Pie chart of random other character traits, including 7.9% LGBTQ, 2.5% disabled, and 2% Muslim - lots of room for improvement here.
This is the column in my reading spreadsheet where I track things other than character ethnicity, such as other religions than Christianity, LGBTQ things, etc. It is most common in middle grade books for characters to seem middle class, cis-gendered, not religious, and to have no romantic feelings. But it looks like I have work to do as far as looking for characters from different walks of life.

I’ve been doing these graphs for several years now – here they are from 2019, 2018, 2017, 20162015, and 2014. As always, if you know of any middle grade or teen books, especially fantasy books, that would help me round things out as far as reading more LGBTQ or Native authors, and authors outside the US or UK, please do let me know!  

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Shifting Friendships: a Middle School Book List

When my teen librarian, Ms. D, and I started talking about a realistic fiction list for middle school, the way that formerly close friendships often start shifting in middle school came up as a particularly relevant topic. I’d been working on this slowly when my daughter’s Cadette troop started working on their aMAZE journey, which covers very similar themes. Several of these are books that Ms. D recommended, and which I still need to read myself. If you’ve read any of these, or have others you’d add to this list, please let me know in the comments!

As usual, links are to my reviews where available. Most of the books are available in ebook and audiobook formats from the library through Libby or Hoopla.

Best Friends by Shannon Hale and LeUyen Pham – In this sequel to Real Friends, Shannon, now in sixth grade, is part of the popular crowd! But this comes with strict requirements about dress and behavior – can she follow these rules, and is it worth it?

The Boys in the Back Row by Mike Jung- Sixth graders Matt and Eric have been best friends ever since fourth grade, enjoying hanging out together at the back of the band. When they learn that Eric has to move, they plan the adventure of their lives – sneaking away from their band competition at an amusement park to go to a nearby comics convention and meet their favorite author.

A Good Kind of Trouble  by Lisa Ramee Libby – Shayla’s world has been rocked when she and one of her best friends want to take the same boy to the middle school dance. Then, an unarmed Black man is killed in their community. Shayla starts wearing a black armband to school to protest – only to get in trouble with the administration.

Goodbye, Stranger by Rebecca Stead Libby – Best friends Bridge, Em, and Tab join different clubs and making new friends as they enter middle school. Bridge is very unsure about this, wearing cat ears every day, and wondering about her role in the universe.

Hello Universe by Erin Entrada Kelly Libby – “Lives of four misfits are intertwined when a bully’s prank lands shy Virgil at the bottom of a well and Valencia, Kaori, and Gen band together in an epic quest to find and rescue him.”

Keep it Together, Keiko Carter! by Debbi Michiko Florence Hoopla – Middle school romance, changing friendships, and a bit of dealing with casual racism blend with Keiko’s love of both chocolate and dogs to make a sweet read with a solid heart.

Look Both Ways by Jason Reynolds Libby – Ten kids walk home from school, all on the same day, their stories intertwining in unexpected ways.

The Only Black Girls in Town by Brandy Colbert Libby – Two girls with different backgrounds bond over being the only two Black girls in their seventh-grade class. But when they discover a box of old journals in the attic, everything they thought they knew about their town changes.

So Done by Paula Chase Libby – When Tai’s best friend Bean comes back to the city after spending some time with family out of town, Bean is changed – more interested in ballet than in going along with the adventures Tai planned for them, and wanting to go by her real name, Jamila. Can Tai figure out what happened to drive them apart and fix it?

The Stars Beneath our Feet by David Barclay Moore Libby – “Unable to celebrate the holidays in the wake of his older brother’s death in a gang-related shooting, Lolly Rachpaul struggles to avoid being forced into a gang himself while constructing a fantastically creative LEGO city at the Harlem community center.”

Strange Birds: a Field Guide to Ruffling Feathers by Celia C. Pérez – “After Ofelia, Aster, Cat, and Lane fail to persuade a local girls club to change an outdated tradition, they form an alternative group that shakes up their sleepy Florida town.”

Tight by Torrey Maldonado Libby – “After his quick-tempered father gets in a fight and is sent back to jail, sixth-grader Bryan, known for being quiet and thoughtful, snaps and follows new friend Mike into trouble.”

Twins by Varian Johnson and Shannon Wright – Maureen and Francine are twins who have always had the same best friends as well. But when they start middle school, Francine starts pulling away, leaving Maureen struggling to make her own way. Before she quite knows what’s happening, they’re running against each other for class president.

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2020 Cybils Finalists and Ones that Got Away

The Cybils finalists have been announced!  

Here is the list of the finalists in my category, Elementary/Middle Grade Speculative Fiction – as always, it was hard to narrow things down, and especially hard this year with so many other things dragging our attention away from the books.  Still, digging deep into so many good books was an excellent distraction!

The individual titles below are linked to my own reviews where available, but click above to see a beautiful blurb for each of the books written by my fellow panelists.

A Wish in the Dark by Christina Soontornvat

Curse of the Night Witch (Emblem Island) by Alex Aster (I nominated this one myself! It’s rare and exciting to have books I nominate make it to this round!)

Eva Evergreen, Semi-Magical Witch by Julie Abe 

In the Red by Christopher Swiedler

Mulan: Before the Sword by Grace Lin

Rival Magic by Deva Fagan

Thirteens by Kate Alice Marshall

But as always, there were books that I loved that didn’t make it.  Here are some of my other favorites: 

The Clockwork Crow by Catherine Fisher

A Game of Fox and Squirrels by Jenn Reese

The Girl and the Ghost by Hanna Alkaf

The Girl Who Speaks Bear by Sophie Anderson

The Magic in Changing Your Stars by Leah Henderson

Paola Santiago and the River of Tears by Tehlor Kay Mejia

Skunk and Badger by Amy Timberlake – no review yet, but this book, strongly reminiscent of Frog and Toad for slightly older readers, and with good openings to discuss racism and unconscious bias, was funny and heartwarming, with the potential to make a great read aloud.

When You Trap a Tiger by Tae Keller

Now I’m off to read a couple of adult fantasy books I had on hand waiting to be read – The City We Became by N.K. Jemisin and Daughters of Nri by Reni K. Amayo. But I definitely want to read some of the finalists in other categories. I’m already partway through teen speculative fiction Legendborn on audio and have graphic novel finalist Class Act on hand as well. So many books!

What are you reading right now?

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Leaving Safety: The Magnificent Monsters of Cedar Street and Cleo Porter and the Body Electric

Here are two stories of girls – one past, one future – leaving the safety of their homes for the first time, and the adventures that follow. 

The Magnificent Monsters of Cedar Street by Lauren Oliver. Read by Reba Buhr.

The Magnificent Monsters of Cedar Street
by Lauren Oliver.
Read by Reba Buhr.


HarperCollins, 2020.
ISBN 978-0062345073. Listened to audiobook on hoopla. 

In late 19th-century Boston, Cordelia Clay (who, like all the other major human characters in the book, appears to be white) lives with her veterinarian father, learning everything she can of the monsters her deceased mother studied.  Since her mother died researching a particularly rare monster in Brazil, her father’s regular veterinary practice has suffered.  Instead, he and Cordelia spend their nights searching Boston for distressed monsters of all kinds, caring for them in their dilapidated mansion.  

But when Lizzie wakes up after they’ve found a baby dragon with an injured wing, her father is gone, as are all the monsters in the house except for the two in the oven – the baby dragon and a stinky filch.  She sets off to find her father with a street boy named Gregory, whose zombie puppy she saved, and a threatening note in handwriting she can’t quite decipher. 

The resulting adventure involves multiple chases, train and hot air balloon rides, as well as circuses, international travel.  On the intellectual side, it also involves Cordelia exploring what really ended her friendship with her former best friend Lizzie, who stopped talking to Cordelia and started wearing extravagantly ruffled dresses both around the same time. We also learn a lot about the big scholarly debate in which her mother had been involved between those who believe that monsters are unnatural and inherently evil and those who believe, like Cordelia’s mother, that they are just another expression on the tree of life.  

The biggest downside of listening to this on audio is that it starts off with Cordelia’s mother’s guide to monsters – a full 30 minutes of them described scientifically, mostly explaining away their magic.  I would probably have skipped or skimmed it in print – I find magical creatures interesting because of their magic.  And when some of them are animals and some clearly sentient and intelligent, it gets even more confusing.  However, once in the story, the magical creatures do still feel magical, and Ms. Oliver is making an important point about judging people by their actions and character, not their appearance, whether human or monsterish. Though I had been very impatient through the first section, once the story got going, I was invested and would recommend it to those who love stories of adventure, discovery, and magical creatures. 

Cleo Porter and the Body Electric by Jake Burt

Cleo Porter and the Body Electric
by Jake Burt


Feiwel and Friends, 2020.
ISBN 978-1250236555.
Read from library copy. 

In a timely happenstance, this book, written pre-pandemic, is about a girl living in a post-pandemic world.  In this future, humanity gave up on curing the pandemic, opting instead for permanent lockdown. The few remaining humans live in giant apartment buildings scattered across the country, with residents of each apartment sealed inside, receiving everything they need through drone-serviced delivery tubes, and socializing with people outside their apartments only through virtual reality. 

Our young heroine Cleo is already in training to be a surgeon.  But when the supposedly infallible drones misdeliver a package of life-saving medicine to her, she ignores the advice of her parents and AI teacher, Ms. VAIN, and decides to deliver it in person.  But the building outside her apartment is meant for drones, not humans, including drones to expel vermin.  And what will a girl raised inside a few small rooms do in the terrifying out-of-doors? 

Cleo herself is a satisfyingly empathetic and courageous heroine, and I know so many kids feeling her terror at leaving the safety of her apartment, and one by one, all the other supports she’s been accustomed to. She attracts an adorable little drone along the way (whom she puts in her skull replica for safety), has to escape multiple terrifying large drones (as seen on the cover) and meets some interesting characters on the outside.  There are some inconsistencies in the world-building, and it could have used some diversity in the characters, but overall, this is a compelling adventure with thoughts on what it means to be human in the face of pandemic.  

These books have been nominated for the Cybils awards. These reviews represent my opinion, not that of the committee as a whole.

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