Food, Friendship, and Immigration – Measuring Up and A Place at the Table

Here are two and a half reviews of books for middle grade readers that combine cooking (or eating together) with making friends and the immigrant experience. What could be yummier?

Cover of Measuring Up by Lily LaMotte and Ann Xu.

Measuring Up by Lily LaMotte and Ann Xu.

Harper Alley, 2020.

ISBN 978-0062973863.

Read from my daughter’s library-sponsored Comic Book Club copy.

12-year-old Cici has just arrived in Seattle from Taiwan, heartbroken that they had to leave her beloved grandmother, Am-ma, behind.  Cici enjoyed cooking with Am-ma, and now takes over the family cooking as her parents are both working.  She’s also making her first friends, and while Jenna seems very nice, Cici is self-conscious about her own home and her own parents don’t understand the importance of American friendship rituals like sleepovers. When Cici discovers a cooking contest that would earn her enough money to bring Am-ma over to visit, she decides to enter.  At first, she’s partnered with Miranda, the daughter of a chef, who isn’t impressed with her skills being only in Taiwanese food.  Meanwhile, she has to keep the contest secret from her parents, who would be angry at her not putting all her energy into school. Cici starts reading and cooking her way through The Art of French Cooking, trying to find a way to impress the contest judges while still staying true to her Taiwanese roots. 

The thin, slightly angular line work has a nice juvenile feeling, a distinct departure from the polished lines of the popular Telgemeier-style artwork. It felt expressive and immediate, as if Cici were drawing her own story.  The mix of the new immigrant experience with the excitement of a cooking contest and the everyday struggles of middle school friendship make for a winning combination.  

Cover of A Place at the Table by Saadia Faruqi & Laura Shovan

A Place at the Table
by Saadia Faruqi & Laura Shovan.

Clarion, 2020.

ISBN 978-0358116684.

Read from library copy. 

Sara has just started middle school at the local public school, instead of the private Muslim school she’d gone to all her life.  She’d like to stay invisible, but this is impossible when her mother – with her accent, wearing her hijab – is teaching a Pakistani cooking class at her own school and Sara has to wait with her.  Even though she knows everything being taught, sshe’d rather just sit in the corner and draw.  Sara is really not interested in making new friends, but video chats with her bestie just aren’t the same as being together in person (we can all relate to this now!)  

Elizabeth was looking forward to middle school with her best friend Maddy, but Maddy seems to be changing into someone she doesn’t recognize.  Elizabeth’s mother has been depressed ever since her own mother died back in England earlier in the year, and her father is almost always traveling for work, meaning also that they’re not making it to Shabbat services at their temple as often as Elizabeth would like.  But Elizabeth loves cooking, especially the Pakistani cooking videos she watches on YouTube.  

It’s not until they’re forced to start cooking together that they realize that they are both stressed because their mothers aren’t US citizens and won’t take time to study for the test.  Maybe this could be the solution?  As we read their stories, narrated separately, we also see that both girls are old enough to start noticing their parents’ problems, but are frustrated by parents who tell them that they’re taking care of things.  Both girls, too, find comfort in their different religious communities, and have to decide what to do about racist comments directed mostly towards Sara’s mother.  There are a lot of issues, but they are presented in a way that feels real rather than like a laundry list, and the problems are offset by the fun of cooking and of inventing a new recipe for the cooking contest, as well as the genuine joy of new friendship and some fun sibling hijinks.  

When I first heard about this book, I thought it would make a great pairing with Save me a Seat by Sarah Weeks and Gita Varadarajan, which I had been meaning to read for a few years.  I’ve now read both – I still think they feel similar, and yet quite different.  Save Me a Seat is a much shorter and tighter book. It focuses much more on the two boys’ situation at school and their personal issues, and takes place over the course of a single week.  I really enjoyed them both, but Save Me a Seat could work better in a classroom setting because of those factors. There is definitely room for both on the shelf – and even more stories of cross-cultural school friendships.  

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One Long, Two Short: The City We Became, Remote Control, and The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water

If you have been following me for any length of time, you will have noticed that most of the books I read, I get from the library.  (I think that at my daughter’s current rate of reading, we would be buying upwards of 500 books a year if we bought everything just the two of us read ourselves, and who can afford that? )  But here, dear readers, are three recently-read books by authors that I trust enough to buy them to be part of my personal home library.  

The City We Became
by N.K. Jemisin.

Orbit, 2020.

ISBN 978-0316509848. 

Read from purchased copy. 

New York City is awakening – and as it does, one person from each of its boroughs can suddenly sense what is going on in their borough, the other avatars, and the struggling person who’s meant to unite New York City as a whole.  Manny, a soon-to-be graduate student of indeterminate ethnic origin, forgets his own name as his whole consciousness is filled with Manhattan.  Brooklyn is represented by a former hip-hop star turned politician, also named Brooklyn, while the Bronx is represented by Bronca, a Lenape art director.  In some, the instinct to find the others is strong, while others resent the other boroughs.  But even as they aren’t getting along with each other, New York himself is in danger, and an ever-shifting Woman in White is making her way around, leaving waving white tentacles in her wake.  Paulo – the avatar of Sao Paolo, the most recently awakened city – is there to help, but even he can only do so much…

I admit when I read this, after finishing her Inheritance trilogy, I was rather afraid that it would require more brain power and emotional strength than my pandemic-addled brain and heart have.  Happily, even though the stakes are great, I was able to keep track of all the characters and enjoy the epic struggle against Cthulu-woman.  When, oh when is the next book coming?

Remote Control by Nnedi Okorafor.

Tordotcom, 2021.

ISBN 978-1250772800.

Read from purchased copy. 

Once upon a time, a girl named Fatima in Ghana climbed a tree and read the messages in the stars.  When a mysterious box fell from the sky, she took it and cared for it in secret – until both the government and powerful international tech companies came looking for it, willing to do anything to get it.  In the explosive incident that follows its theft, leaving her family dead, the girl forgets her name and becomes Sankofa, the adopted daughter of death, feared by all as she wanders the earth following the pull of the box and tries to avoid using her powers.  This book combines a mythic feel with descriptions that bring Ghana to life.  It’s a short, sad and powerful reflection on the meaning of life, and who has or does not have power.  

The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water
by Zen Cho. 

Tordotcom, 2020.

ISBN 978-1250269256.

Read from purchased copy.  

A too-handsome stranger walks into a coffeehouse and starts a brawl in his efforts to protect the waitress, obviously a nun by her shaven head, from a handsy patron.  As Fung Cheung, said stranger , is enjoying his martial prowess, his much less beautiful companion, Tet Sang, comes in to save the day. Drawing attention by starting fights and taking souvenir copies of one’s own wanted poster is exactly the opposite of what one should be doing when one is an “independent contractor.” Though they leave the town immediately to complete their current mission (multiple layers of smuggling), the nun, Guet Imm, follows them and begs to join them.  Her tokong has burned down, she’s been fired from her job, and she has nowhere else to go.  This innocent helpless front hides a stubborn character and the magical skills that come only from deep faith and long practice in the service of the Pure Moon.  

This is a short book set in a magical historical Malaysia that packs in an enormous amount of both character and world-building – even though our main point of view character is hiding a lot of secrets himself, things we only learn as Guet Imm figures them out.  It starts off with the feel of a classic wuxia movie, and while the action remains through the book,, the focus on faith, compromise, and survival in a world at war told through the eyes of characters left out of most stories even today makes it exceptional.  Also, lots of laugh-out-loud funny moments.  I’ve now bought two copies of this – one for my goddaughter and one for myself. And since I was slow getting to it, her new book, Black Water Daughter, is coming out later this month.   

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Amari and the Night Brothers by B.B. Alston

Amari and the Night Brothers by B.B. Alston.

Balzer + Bray, 2021.

ISBN 978-0062975164. 

Read from library copy. 

It’s been six months since middle schooler Amari’s adored older brother Quinton disappeared.  Since then, the cops haven’t really looked, telling their mother that he probably just got involved in something bad.  At the private school she attends on scholarship, Amari is constantly in trouble as she lashes out physically whenever other kids make fun of her for living in the projects or for having a missing brother.  Only Amari still believes he’s still out there somewhere, and she’s determined to find him and bring him home.

Then, after a vivid dream of him, she’s delivered a briefcase that contains an invitation to a magical summer camp, where she can be trained to be an agent. Her brother was part of famous agent duo VanQuish with Maria Van Helsing, the oldest daughter of the director. But just as it feels like this might be a wonderful arrival at Hogwarts-type moment comes the let-down – Amari doesn’t come from a legacy family, and her particular magical specialty makes people assume she’s evil.  Only her roommate and new best friend Ellie, who’s hoping that her were-dragon powers will show up soon, seems to be truly on her side.  Meanwhile, attacks against the Agency by truly evil magicians are escalating, so that Amari has very little time to figure out what’s going on and find her missing brother before things fall apart completely.

Despite the darkness and threat, there’s a lot of humor and charm here, with a wide array of fantastical creatures, talking elevators with distinct personalities, and fun technology.  Some of the trainers are described with Southern or Scottish accents, but white is still the default, with Amari (and previously her brother) being the only characters of color I noticed.  And while Amari is yet another main character more talented than even the other magical kids around her, she has enough grit and gumption and such an uphill battle that I was rooting for her instead of rolling my eyes as I sometimes do at this trope. This is a fantastic option to give to kids looking for a more modern take on the magical school story

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Interwoven Stories: The Raconteur’s Commonplace Book and Ancestor Approved

Here are two books, both filled with interwoven stories, and both of which made me sigh with pleasure and the just-rightness of the perfect book for that moment

The Raconteur’s Commonplace Book
by Kate Milford.

Clarion, 2021.

ISBN 978-1328466907.

Read from library copy. 

The waters are rising outside the inn (a different inn, not Greenglass House) in 1930s Nagspeake.  (The time is only mentioned in the afterward.)  As is traditional, the diverse group of people there decide to tell stories to pass the time.  Most of the characters are adults, some familiar from other Milford books, though many of them are especially protective of the one child there, Maisie, who is being cared for by the innkeepers while waiting for her aunt.  The tales range from funny to scary to romantic, all with beautiful illustrations, and it’s not until the end that it’s clear how tightly they are all linked.  There were so many characters that I got to know them only gradually, through their stories, but I didn’t mind.  This return to beloved characters and place was such a balm.  I found myself wanting to reread many of the older books just to better be able to recognize returning the characters.  

Here are two of my favorite quotes from the book: 

“If you succeed…you will discover something about yourself that you will be glad to know. You will find that you are brave.  And not because you had to become brave, but because you were brave all along.”

p 93

“Love can hurt. Love can be one-sided. And sometimes love requires sacrifices, too. But love is not predatory.  Wherever you go from here, please be wary of anyone who demands to be given your heart rather than asking to be invited into it.”

p 171

Ancestor Approved: Intertribal Stories for Kids edited by Cynthia Leitich Smith.

Heartdrum, 2021.

ISBN 978-0062869944.

Read from library copy.

17 authors, including familiar to me names Tim Tingle, Rebecca Roanhorse, Traci Sorrel, Dawn Quigley, Joseph Bruchac, and Carole Lindstrom, join to tell this story of people from many Native Nations traveling and meeting at the (real) Dance for Mother Earth Powwow at Skyline High School in Ann Arbor, Michigan.  Although the stories are written individually, major characters from one story often appear as side characters in another, and the star of one of my favorite stories, Rebecca Roanhorse’s “Rez Dog Rules”, a free-spirited, owned by no-one dog who decides to help sell t-shirts, appears in all of them.  Other highlights include the very funny story of a kid named Luksi escorting a bus full of outspoken seniors from Oklahoma in “Warriors of Forgiveness” by Tim Tingle.  “Little Fox and the Case of the Missing Regalia” by Erika T. Wurth is light, but hints at more serious problems.  I also really enjoyed “Joey Reads the Sky” by Dawn Quigley, in which a boy who has difficulty reading English has no trouble reading the patterns in the sky, which speaks to him in Ojibwe.  Though no one’s lives are too happy to be believable, the overall feeling is warm and happy, filled with the warmth of family, heritage, discovered connections, and fresh fry bread. 

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The House That Wasn’t There BLOG TOUR

Today I’m honored to be participating in the blog tour for Elana K. Arnold’s latest book, The House that Wasn’t There.


Alder has always lived in his cozy little house in Southern California.

And for as long as he can remember, the old, reliable, comforting walnut tree has stood

between his house and the one next door.

That is, until a new family—with a particularly annoying girl his age—moves

into the neighboring house and, without warning, cuts the tree down.

Oak doesn’t understand why her family had to move to Southern California. She has to attend a new school, find new friends, and live in a new house that isn’t even ready—her mother had to cut down a tree on their property line in order to make room for a second floor. And now a strange boy next door won’t stop staring at her, like she did something wrong moving here in the first place.

As Oak and Alder start school together, they can’t imagine ever becoming friends. But the two of them soon discover a series of connections between them—mysterious, possibly even magical puzzles they can’t put together.

At least not without each other’s help.

Award-winning author Elana K. Arnold returns with an unforgettable story of the strange, wondrous threads that run between all of us, whether we know they’re there or not.


Elana K. Arnold is the author of critically acclaimed and award-winning young adult novels and children’s books, including the Printz Honor winner Damsel, the National Book Award finalist What Girls Are Made Of, and Global Read Aloud selection A Boy Called Bat and its sequels. Several of her books are Junior Library Guild selections and have appeared on many best book lists, including the Amelia Bloomer Project, a catalog of feminist titles for young readers. Elana teaches in Hamline University’s MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults program and lives in Southern California with her family and menagerie of pets.


The House That Wasn’t There by Elana K. Arnold. Walden Pond Press, 2021. ISBN 978-0062937063. Review copy kindly provided by the publisher.  

Alder and his mother have lived alone in their cozy house in southern California ever since his father’s death years earlier.  His father was a famous folk singer, nicknamed Canary, and he and his mother still enjoy listening to the records (yes, on vinyl) of him singing, the record player kept under a picture of the family under the walnut tree that divides their property from the house next door.  He is convincing himself not to be worried that his best friend hasn’t contacted him all summer, but is convinced that things will be all right again as soon as they start sixth grade together. 

The house next to his has always been empty, but that soon changes as a new family moves in. 

Oak is very unhappy that her family is moving from San Francisco, leaving their home and all her friends behind.  Even her father has stayed behind to wrap things up there before joining them.  She is angry with everyone, and especially so when her mother has the walnut tree cut down to make room for an addition to the house.  

Naturally, none of this puts Alder and Oak on an obvious path to friendship – but rocky though their start is, the book chronicles their path to friendship.  It is filled with many believable struggles, like Alder’s pain when he realizes that his best friend has truly moved on and Oak’s resentment at her mother not treating her feelings as needing to be part of family decision-making.  But there is also the charm of kittens, a goofy stuffed opossum named Mort, and a house in between Alder and Oak’s that is only sometimes there.  I also loved that Alder is a knitter (even if he seems to knit at superhuman speed) and that he grows more comfortable with claiming that publicly.  

And since I often review fantasy books, let’s take a little time to talk about the magic in this story. It is the subtle kind, only sometimes there if you happen to catch it in the right light, rarely or never there if you look at it straight on.  It is never explained outright and only rises to the surface a few times.  It’s neither the full-on definable magic system of a traditional fantasy nor the subtle but ever-present magic of magical realism.  Still, it adds a lovely sheen, definitely pulling moments of the story out of the everyday and helping the characters to see the miraculous in everything.  

This heartwarming story of friendship and family is perfect for those who are open to the magic of the everyday.

Tour Stops:

March 28 Nerdy Book Club @nerdybookclub

March 29 YAYOMG @yayomgofficial

March 30 Unleashing Readers @UnleashReaders

March 31 Teachers Who Read @teachers_read

April 2 Maria’s Mélange @mariaselke

April 7 Bluestocking Thinking @BlueSockGirl

April 10 A Library Mama @alibrarymama

April 12 Storymamas @storymamas

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Elatsoe by Darcie Little Badger

This book was on my radar even before it was a Cybils finalist, won the Golden Kite award, and turned up on over a dozen “best of” lists last year.  I was so excited when I finally got my hands on it, and it did not disappoint.

Cover of Elatsoe by Darcie Little Badger, Illustrated by Rovina Cai.

by Darcie Little Badger. Illustrated by Rovina Cai.

Levine Querido, 2020.

ISBN 978-1646140053.

Read ebook on Libby.  Audiobook also available.

Elatsoe – Ellie for short – is a Lipan Apache girl growing up in the present day in a world just slightly different than ours.  School, cell phones, cars – check.  But she, like her Six-Great Grandmother whose name she shares, can raise the spirits of dead animals.  Modern-day Ellie’s near-constant companion is her dog, who died several years ago.  Her best friend Jay is distantly related to Oberon, with the pointy ears to prove it, even if he hides them, and having some family troubles being stuck in the middle as his older sister is dating a vampire.  

When Ellie’s dog wakes her with his howling one night, she knows something is wrong.  She finds out what it is later that night when she dreams of her cousin Trevor, telling her that he was murdered, by whom, and where.  The police, though, think it was a simple car accident.  This is the part where I’d expect her to go off and investigate on her own without telling her parents.  But Ellie has been raised to respect her elders, so when she starts investigating, it’s with the full support of her parents – even if they do urge her to be very careful.  

What Ellie and her team uncover is not simple murder, but a twisty mystery with roots tangled in centuries of white supremacy…

I loved so very much about this story, from its grounding in Lipan Apache culture to the easy way that Ellie states that she can’t see herself ever being interested in dating and proceeds to have a romance-free adventure.  Her relationships with her parents, Jay, and the interesting dynamic with her cousin’s young widow, Lenore, who is Mexican-American and unknowingly violating important Apache traditions around death.  Also, a baby and an adorable ghost dog!  Ellie’s ties to her namesake Six-Great Gran are also very important, shown through many conversations about her and stories of her life, illustrated in pencil at the beginning of each chapter.   I read this with a great deal of enjoyment, and passed in on to my mother, who was delighted.  

Other exciting, modern-day fantasies that confront racism include Legendborn by Tracy Deonn and A Song Below Water by Bethany C. Morrow. The Marrow Thieves by Cherie Dimaline is a post-apocalyptic Native thriller, while Hearts Unbroken by Cynthia Leitich Smith is contemporary Native teen fiction.

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Knitting Detour

In times of stress – this certainly counts – I often turn to reading or just flipping through books of things I could do if I had more time.  When my son was a tiny baby and I couldn’t clean the house at all, it was Home Comforts. I turned to it again at the beginning of quarantine, to help the newly emphasized cleaning seem calming and restorative.  Now what I’ve been craving is knitting, and most especially knitting in bright colors.  Since I have more reading than knitting time in my day, it’s very satisfying to look at the beautiful things I might choose to knit next, or just enjoy that someone came up with the idea, even if I may never knit it myself.  

Operation Sock Drawer
by the Knitmore Girls.

Interweave, 2020.

ISBN 978-1632506962. Received as a gift. 

What sock knitter doesn’t dream of a drawer full of hand-knitted socks?  The Knitmore Girls and their friends are here to help you, with this book that contains some answers to common sock-knitting problems, different ways to knit those tricky heels and toes, darning instructions, and encouragement for those aspiring to that full sock drawer.  But the heart of this book is the collection of 20 new patterns from a variety of different designers. Many of these patterns use bold colorwork to make eye-poppingly bold patterns, like Funhouse by Lisa K. Ross.  I Scream by Caitlin Thompson uses tan yarn and a waffle pattern on the foot and stacked colors with wavy borders so that the whole sock looks like an ice cream cone.  But there are also some nice textured and cabled socks, like the Gentle Drizzle socks by Emily Kintigh.  So very fun, and so much inspiration! 

Knit Happy with
Self-Striping Yarn
by Stephanie Lotven.

Page Street, 2020.

ISBN 978-1645671824.
Read from library copy. 

More bright knitting, even without needing to do colorwork!  Why hide your beautiful self-striping yarn projects inside your shoes? asks the author, and provides a whole book of patterns for accessories – hats, mittens, fingerless gloves – as well as larger shawls and sweaters – all using beautiful self-striping yarn.  Most of the smaller projects are relatively simple, though one of the mitten patterns used an intellectually fascinating but somewhat intimidating center-out technique to make a rainbow curve around the outside edges of the hand.  Happily, she also includes thoughts on matching solids to your self-striping yarn for larger projects, and how to swatch to see if your yarn will work for any given project.  If I had the stamina for large projects, I’d happily knit and wear the Sock Arms cardigan, the Drop a Rainbow pullover, or the Daring Double shawl – but feeling mostly up for small projects right now, I’ll see if the new yarn I bought will work for the Wave at the Rainbow cowl and knit the Rainbow Adventure fingerless mitts (pictured on the cover) if not.  Or maybe socks after all, or as well if there’s enough yarn?  The dilemma is real!  

Seasonal Slow Knitting by Hannah Thiessen.

Abrams, 2020.

ISBN 978-1419740435.
Read from library copy. 

Too much of modern craft culture encourages crafters to work at a frantic pace to be able to work on the latest hot projects and be able to make things for gifts, too, the author asserts.  But much of the value in knitting is allowing yourself to slow down and enjoy the process, the connection to your local yarn stores and/or creators, fellow crafters, etc.  There are many essays on the particular tasks and types of knitting the author associates with each season – the loving washing and putting away of handknits in the spring, attending yarn festivals in the summer, digging into knitting in the fall and winter.  And there are ten different projects, including knitting, sewing, and general body care, a couple for each season.  I am by nature a very slow knitter already and have never been able to keep up with the knitting speed, but I enjoyed her meditations on season and craft nonetheless.  My favorite pattern from this book was the Friendship Bracelet cardigan, knit in the round in moss stitch, with charming Latvian braid trim around wrists and hem to look like friendship bracelets.  

Here are some other knitting books I’ve reviewed: 

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Reading with My Son – the Middle School Years

Recently, a friend asked me what audiobooks my son and I had enjoyed when he was in middle school.  It was a fun trip down memory lane to go through and pick out our favorites.  I’ll note with some chagrin that this list isn’t nearly as diverse as I would like, and I included some books we read when he was a bit younger that would still work for a middle school audience just for the diversity.  

Now that he’s in high school, even when school is in person, we don’t have the hour in the car every day we used to, so we’re not doing audiobooks anymore, and I’m only reading aloud to him once a week, so that it can take a year for us to finish a book (we’re now reading the latest Murderbot novel!)  

Links are to my reviews, and I’ve noted where audiobooks are available for download from my library, and hopefully yours as well.

Audiobooks with My Son

The Birchbark House by Louise Erdrich – Libby

Boneshaker by Kate Milford – hoopla

Bud, Not Buddy and The Mighty Miss Malone by Christopher Paul Curtis – Libby

Chrestomanci series by Diana Wynne Jones – hoopla – a classic series, which will make more sense if you read out of publication order and start with The Lives of Christopher Chant.

The Coming of the Dragon by Rebecca Barnhouse – sadly, only the ebook is on Libby – we listened on CDs from the library.  Check your system? 

Howl’s Moving Castle series by Diana Wynne Jones – hoopla – I seem not to review books I consider classics, but I am forever grateful to the Danish exchange student who introduced my family to Diana Wynne Jones in the 90s – we had somehow missed her previously, despite all being fans of British children’s literature.

Knife by R. J. Anderson – Libby – this is a series of human-fairy politics, which my son and I enjoyed. We read only the first of the series because it was too scary for my daughter, five years younger.

Magic Thief series by Sarah Prineas – hoopla 

Septimus Heap series by Angie Sage hoopla, Libby

The Eagle of the Ninth by Rosemary Sutcliff- hoopla – the first of a beautifully-written series set in Roman Britain, with small touches of magic. I read the whole series many times as a child.

The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien – Libby, but the wait was shorter on physical CDs. 

The Real Boy by Anne Ursu – hoopla

Where the Mountain Meets the Moon series by Grace Lin – Libby

Read-alouds with My Son

Geeks, Girls & Secret Identities by Mike Jung (this isn’t available on audio, but his new book, The Boys in the Back Row, which I still need to review, is.)

Greenglass House by Kate Milford (and several other books in the series) – hoopla

The Hero and the Crown and The Blue Sword by Robin McKinley – just the first is on hoopla

Jinx series by Sage Blackwood – hoopla, ebook only

The True Meaning of Smekday series by Adam Rex – Libby

Murderbot Diaries by Martha Wells (started in 8th grade – lots of adult content!) – hoopla and Libby

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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.

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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