Pilu of the Woods by Mai K. Nguyen. Oni Press, 2019. 9781620105511.
Willow’s tears turn into actual monsters, and she seems to want to cry all the time. She tries to keep them bottled up, but that just leads to her lashing out – at the person teasing her at school, then at her older sister at home. After a fight with her sister, Willow runs away, looking for the magnolia tree in the woods that she remembers her mother showing her before she died. But in the woods, Pilu meets a young dryad, who has also run away from home. As they make friends, they are able to help each other talk through their difficulties. The story itself felt a little trite, but the beautiful art – showing the tear monsters and the calming beauty of the forest – really elevates it.
The Okay Witch by Emma Steinkellner. Aladdin, 2019. 9781534431461
Moth Hush has grown up with her single mom first helping to run and then taking over Keepers Secondhand Treasures, a little store in the small East Coast town of Founder’s Bluff. Moth’s always had a fascination with witches, but now in middle school, she finds she can do magic – only she can’t really control it. Her mother unbends enough to tell her that it’s a family thing, but has sworn off magic and wants Moth to do so as well. What’s a girl to do? With help from the former store owner, Mr. Lazlo, now inhabiting a black cat, Moth sets out to find the truth. She makes friends with a new boy at school and learns just how one-sided the town’s beloved story of Mayor Kramer kicking the evil witch family out of town was. It’s an empowering story of a new generation both learning from the past and finding their own way, with action and humor and plenty of heart. The art helps to keep it lighthearted, while shifts in palette make the different places and times in the story clear. My daughter read it at least five times and gave to all of our guests to read.
Stargazing by Jen Wang. First Second, 2019. 9781250183873
Christine has always done her best to be the perfect daughter her parents want her to be – playing violin, going to church, getting good grades, and learning Chinese. Then her parents rent a cottage on their property to a mother and her daughter, Moon, about Christine’s age. Moon is so different from Christine – crazier, louder, less concerned about grades, as well as being vegetarian and Buddhist. She’s drawn pictures in her sketchbook of the celestial beings she sees, who tell her that she’s not really party of this world. Moon introduces Christine to K-pop and nail polish, while Christine introduces Moon to her friends at school. But can Christine really be a good friend to Moon when Moon needs her most? I had to laugh out loud in front of my daughter while reading this book before she would pick it up, but once she did, she read it straight through and started it over again right away several times. There are so many really strong aspects of this story, from the personal history to the diversity of the Chinese-American community and the expressive art. I have read Jen Wang’s previous books Koko Be Good and The Prince and the Dressmaker, but this is my favorite so far.
Mighty Jack and Zita the Spacegirl by Ben Hatke. First Second, 2019. 9781250191731
And just briefly – if you are a fan of Zita and/or Mighty Jack, you will want to read their epic team-up! I would probably have enjoyed this a little bit more if I’d read Zita especially a little more recently, to pick up on all the references. But the story romps through fantasy worlds and space as the kids try to fend off an invasion of giants, with many favorite characters making appearances. There’s a lot of fun, many near escapes, a little personal growth, and even solving problems with diplomacy rather than swords. Though there is some diversity – Jack’s sister Maddy is nonverbal, though still an active character, and their family clearly struggles with money, while Lilly is homeschooled – all the major characters are white, and this bothers me more now than it did when Zita first came out in 2011. Still, they are brave kids doing their best, messing up, and trying again, and that’s worth a lot.