3 Tales of Kids Countering Prejudice with New Passions

Here are three stories of kids working against prejudice to find pride in who they are, as well as learning new skills along the way.  

Garvey's Choice by Nikki GrimesGarvey’s Choice by Nikki Grimes. Wordsong, 2016. ISBN 978-1629797403. Read Ebook on Libby.
This slim novel-in-verse, told in the Japanese Tanka form, tells the story of chubby Garvey, who feels rejected because his father only wants to relate to him through sports.  When he takes a chance on a new friend at school who encourages him to try out for choir, Garvey finds a new passion, one that gives him enough confidence for his family to see him in a new light.  I could really relate both to Garvey’s horror at the idea of athletics and his joy in music, and the words are beautiful.  I just wished that the book had shown him and his family becoming comfortable with his weight rather than his new passion helping him lose weight.  But fat positivity is still new enough culturally that I think it will take a while to start showing up in middle grade books.  

MartinMcLeanMartin Mclean, Middle School Queen by Alyssa Zaczek. Sterling, 2020. ISBN 978-1454935704. Read from library copy. 

Being good at Mathletes isn’t exactly social capital in middle school, and Martin is terrified of losing the little he has when a school bully threatens to out him, even though Martin himself isn’t sure he’s gay.  His single mother, sensing something is wrong, calls in help from Tío Billy.  Martin’s always known that Tío Billy worked in theater and has a husband, but when Martin sees him performing drag, he’s found a new passion.  But can he combine the rigorous schedules of both drag and Mathletes?  Featuring great relationships with his mother, two best friends, and his Mathletes teammates as well as the obvious one with Tío Billy.  I’m guessing that Martin has the absentee Irish-American father only for the rhyming last name – his mother is Cuban-American, and he’s described as having brown skin. (The author describes herself as white and queer.)  This is a joyful, feel-good book.  This would pair well with Maulik Pancholy’s The Best at It.  

Black Brother, Black Brother by Jewell Parker RhodesBlack Brother, Black Brother by Jewell Parker Rhodes. Little, Brown, 2020. ISBN 978-0316493819. Read from library copy. 

Brothers Donte and Trey have the same Black mother and white father, and their features look similar if anyone ever bothered to look.  But mostly people just see Donte as Black and Trey as white.  And at their mostly white private school, Trey fits in just fine while Donte is constantly the victim of bullying that he’s then framed for.  When he’s wrongly blamed for a classroom incident and gets frustrated about it, the principal calls the police.  Donte has never been athletic before, and his main purpose in starting fencing at the local Boys and Girls Club is to get even with the bully Allan, who’s captain of the school fencing team.

But the Boys and Girls Club is coached by a former Olympic fencer, Mr. Jones, who together with twins Zarra and Zion, help Donte find a better reason to fence than simple vengeance.  Meanwhile, Donte’s mother is an attorney who’s been looking for a local case to start challenging the routine criminalization of Black schoolchildren.  

The opening scenes were so painful that I almost couldn’t read on – I am very tenderhearted and also the mother of a brown-skinned boy, so I doubt most kids would have this problem.  But once past the opening, as Donte’s family rallies around him and he begins to find his way, I fell in love with it.  This is great both for people wanting to learn more about being a Black kid in modern American schools as well as those interested in fencing.

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Adventures with Charlie Hernández

I am always looking out for more books to give to kids looking for high-action, funny, and culturally relevant books.  This recent series fits the bill perfectly. 

Charlie Hernández and the League of Shadows by Ryan Calejo

Charlie Hernández and the League of Shadows by Ryan Calejo. Aladdin/Simon and Schuster, 2018. 9781534426580 Read from library copy.  

Charlie has been living with a not-so-great foster mother, Mrs. Wilson, since his parents disappeared not that long ago.  Her most notable quirk is having a very large, very creepy doll collection. He and his friends Alvin and Sam are preparing to compete with their rock band.  But when Charlie starts to grow horns and feathers, his life is thrown into even more disarray.  He and his crush, cheerleader and budding journalist Violet Rey, set out to discover if the stories his deceased Abuela told him about the Morphling and other Hispanic myths, have any real bearing on what’s happening to him.

Soon, they’re swept up into an epic clash between the evil El Mano Peluda and la Liga de Sombras or League of Shadows.  Their adventure roam all over the globe (with the help of magic portals), and we’re introduced to creatures from the stories of many Spanish-speaking countries, including La Llorona, calacas, and more, making clear the breadth and variety of these cultures while still being based in Charlie’s hometown of contemporary Miami. His first language was Spanish, and there is plenty of that mixed in, usually clear from context and defined only when it’s not. 

Charlie Hernández & the Castle of Bones by Ryan Calejo

Charlie Hernández & the Castle of Bones by Ryan Calejo. Aladdin, 2019. ISBN 978-1534426610. Read from library copy.  

In the second book of the series, Violet and Charlie find themselves with the mostly good witch queen Joanna (introduced in book 1)  at the Concurs de Castell celebration in Spain, where people entertain themselves by making human pyramids or castles.  But, while there, they find a disgusting castle made out of cow bones, a sign that a dangerous necromancer is trying to rise from the dead. Just being close to it visibly weakens Joanna, and when they return to Miami, she is soon kidnapped.  It’s clear she doesn’t have long, so Violet encourages Charlie to sneak out to find and rescue Joanna.  They know they only have a few days, and to make matters worse, Charlie’s morphling powers aren’t under control at all, only showing up at all when his life is in danger and not working smoothly even then.  They are followed by werewolves and hordes of zombies and forced to work with Brazilian trickster legend Saci Pererê.

The pace and the humor definitely keep up here, and there are also increasing numbers of meaningful looks and blushes exchanged between Violet and Charlie.  I was starting to get that Wyld Style feeling, though, that Violet is just cooler than Charlie and stuck being his sidekick because he’s destined to be the hero, but she does have plenty of chances to shine.  

Where the first book was around 350 pages, this book is 588 pages and could turn off less confident readers.  Once they get started, though, the action is so non-stop and the chapters short enough that it’s hard to stop. (I found myself turning to nonfiction at bedtime.)   This series is an excellent choice for Rick Riordan fans.  

(I’m trying the new block editor here, in which having an image next to text works quite differently. Let me know if it looks okay!)

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Summer and Winter: Stepping Stones and Midwinter Witch

Here are two quarantine purchases that my daughter and I were both very excited for – both with strong but opposite seasonal settings.  She’s been especially enthusiastic about Lucy Knisley ever since she saw her give a talk (for librarians!) at A2CAF last spring, and looking forward to something by Ms. Knisley written for her own age range.  We’ve also been following the Witch Boy series since it came out.   

Stepping Stones by Lucy KnisleyStepping Stones by Lucy Knisley.  Random House Graphic, 2020. ISBN 978-1984896841. Read from purchased copy. 

At a presentation I saw this spring (SLJ’s DOD, probably?) Knisley joked that she was taking baby steps from her signature memoir to writing fiction, with this fictionalized story based on her own childhood.  In it, a young girl named Jen moves from Chicago to a farm, where she not only has to adjust to country life but also to her mother’s annoying new boyfriend and his two daughters, who are there on weekends, all events from Knisley’s own childhood.  Jen misses the city, struggles with doing math at the farm stand, and especially hates being expected to be cheerful and helpful in a situation she didn’t choose for herself.  Her journey towards acceptance and feeling some sense of agency is slow and genuine, with plenty of funny moments along the way.  The full color art is excellent at conveying emotions. My daughter really enjoys it, though it has if anything made her more enthusiastic about reading Knisley’s written-for-adults memoirs. This should appeal to a wide range of kids, especially fans of the Telgememoir style.  

midwinterwitchMidwinter Witch by Molly Knox Ostertag. Graphix, 2019. ISBN 978-1338540550. Read from purchased copy.  

Ariel, the witch from The Hidden Witch who doesn’t know her family, is now learning with Aster’s family how to control her magic and use it for good. They encourage her to join the family for the annual Midwinter Festival, where multiple magical families will enjoy spending time together and young witches and shape-shifters will compete for the title of Midwinter Witch or Shape-Shifter.  Even though he’s still shy about being a witch rather than a shape-shifter himself, and knows it will expose him to more teasing, Aster is determined to compete.  Meanwhile, Ariel has to decide if she wants to compete as well, even though she wasn’t born into the family. And their friend But along with dealing with others in the family who aren’t happy with these breaks in tradition, Ariel is starting to have terrifying dreams, dreams that might not be just in her head… 

This book is as much of a delight as the previous volumes, filled with relatable, diverse characters, as well as magical adventures, moral dilemmas and challenging the status quo, especially in regards to gender roles.  The art ranges from the realistic to the magical as well, with scenes of impromptu kitchen dancing interposed with full-page spreads of magical fire or mirror shards reflecting different things. It is partly my own biases for things I love being so perfectly blended here, but I’d recommend this to any fantasy-loving kid as well. 

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12 Middle Grade Books for Fans of Role-Playing Games

Every so often I come across books that feel like they would make a great start to a role-playing game. I love the collaborative story-telling they encourage. And while the fantasy dungeons of Dungeons & Dragons are where it started, any setting with an ensemble cast and the possibility for adventure will do, as the following books illustrate. Please let me know in the comments what books you’d add to this list!

Text reads "Books for RPG Fans. Read a book. Start your adventure." with the covers of the 12 books listed below.

Books for RPG Fans

The Adventurers Guild by Zack Loran Clark and Nick Eliopulos. “Conscripted into the dangerous Adventurers Guild, best friends Zed and Brock must defend what is left of humanity against terrible monsters in this epic fantasy.

A Crack in the Sea by H.M. Bouwman “Pip, a young boy who can speak to fish, and his sister Kinchen set off on a great adventure, joined by twins with magical powers, refugees fleeing post-war Vietnam, and some helpful sea monsters”

The Dungeoneers by John David Anderson “In an effort to help make ends meet, Colm uses his natural gift for pickpocketing to pilfer a pile of gold from the richer residents of town, but his actions place him at the mercy of Finn Argos, a gilded-toothed, smooth-tongued rogue who gives Colm a choice: he can be punished for his thievery or he can become a member of Thwodin’s Legions, a guild of dungeoneers who take what they want and live as they will.”

Frostborn. Thrones and Bones Book 1. by Lou Anders. “Destined to take over his family farm in Norrøngard, Karn would rather play the board game Thrones and Bones, until half-human, half frost giantess Thianna appears and they set out on an adventure, chased by a dragon, undead warriors, an evil uncle, and more.”

Geeks, Girls and Secret Identities by Mike Jung “Twelve-year-old Vincent and his fellow members of the Captain Stupendous Fan Club help out when someone new becomes Earth’s most famous superhero, without knowing anything about him, just as evil Professor Mayhem and his robot arrive in Copperplate City.”

Great Greene Heist by Varian Johnson -Jackson Greene has a reputation as a prankster at Maplewood Middle School, but after the last disaster he is trying to go straight–but when it looks like Keith Sinclair may steal the election for school president from Jackson’s former best friend Gabriela, he assembles a team to make sure Keith does not succeed.

Homerooms & Hallpasses by Tom O’Donnell “In the mystical realm of Bríandalör, every day the brave and the bold delve into hidden temples or forgotten dungeons, battling vile monsters and evil wizards to loot their treasure hoards. But in their free time, our heroes—Thromdurr the mighty barbarian, Devis the shifty thief, Vela the noble paladin, Sorrowshade the Gloom Elf assassin, and Albiorix the (good!) wizard—need to relax and unwind.”

The Jumbies by Tracey Baptiste “Eleven-year-old Corinne must call on her courage and an ancient magic to stop an evil spirit and save her island home.”

League of Secret Heroes by Kate Hannigan “Soon after being recruited by the mysterious Mrs. Boudica to join a secret military intelligence operation, Josie, Mae, and Akiko discover their superhero abilities and use them to thwart a Nazi plot to steal the ENIAC computer.”

Maya and the Rising Dark by Rena Barron  “Twelve-year-old Maya’s search for her missing father puts her at the center of a battle between our world, the Orishas, and the mysterious and sinister Dark world.”

Snared: Escape to the Above by Adam Jay Epstein. “Wily lives underground, creating traps to keep treasure-seekers away from the gold in an ancient wizard’s dungeon. But then an unusual band of adventurers–an acrobatic elf, a warrior with a magic arm, and a giant made of moss–successfully defeat Wily’s traps. And they want the ultimate treasure: Wily himself.”

The Thief Knot  by Kate Milford -“Marzana and her best friend are bored. Even though they live in a notorious city where normal rules do not apply, nothing interesting ever happens to them. Nothing, that is, until Marzana’s parents are recruited to help solve an odd crime, and she realizes that this could be the excitement she’s been waiting for.”

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Homerooms & Hall Passes by Tom O’Donnell

My library purchased this book when it was named a Cybils finalist in January this year.  I was trying to read all the middle grade speculative fiction finalists, of course, as it was the first year in awhile I hadn’t been a panelist myself, only this one was checked out every time I looked for it in the winter. Then of course we were quarantined and the library was closed.  When we reopened, I still had to put a hold on it to be able to get it.  Well done on the kid appeal, Cybils team! (And you still have time to apply to be a Cybils panelist yourself!) 

homeroomsandhallpasses2Homerooms & Hall Passes by Tom O’Donnell. HarperCollins, 2019. ISBN 978-0062872142. Read from library copy.
Homerooms and Hall Passes is not just the title of the book, but the name of the role-playing game that a group seasoned adventurers meets to play once a week, taking a break by joining to create the non-adventure of life as students at James Alexander Dewar Middle School (for the curious, the real-life inventor of the Twinkie.) The beginning of the book gives us the map of the school and their character sheets.  (I am not a role-player myself, but have enough in the family to appreciate the jokes.) 

As the book tells us, some of them are playing analogous characters, while some are playing characters quite the opposite of their own natural inclinations.  Here they are: Devis the Thief plays Stinky the Class Clown; Vela the Valiant, a paladin, plays Valerie Stumpf-Turner, Overachiever; Sorrowshade the Gloom Elf plays Melisssa the Loner; and Thromdurr the Barbarian Berserker plays Doug the Nerd. Their game master is Albiorix, an apprentice wizard.

When Devis steals a jewel from a cursed cave, the whole crew finds themselves actually at J.A. Dewar Middle School, still in their normal adventurer clothing.  All of them face challenges – none of them has actually studied algebra, for example, no matter how high their character sheets say their skills are.  But Albiorix doesn’t even have a character to inhabit, and having read every supplement in the game won’t give him a student ID number or a place to sleep at night.  Maybe, just maybe, he can convince another new student, June Westray, to help them out? (I will note that Albiorix, as shown on the cover, looks African-American, though of course he isn’t from America and his skin color affects neither his culture nor what happens to him in the story.)  

The language here is delightfully epic, as in this example: “Yet that feeling of triumph was destined to be fleeting.  As the bell rang, the five brave companions proceeded from the gymnasium to their most harrowing middle-school challenge yet: math class.”

And each chapter begins with an excerpt from one of the player handbooks like, “Table 106b: Random Middle School Locker Contents. To determine the contents of a student’s locker, roll five times on the following table:…” 

Yet as the companions slowly get the hang of middle school, they still wonder if they can find a way back home, and if all of them want to.  The emphasis is definitely more on the adventure than on well-rounded character arcs, but I did care what happened to our team.  And it is absolutely hilarious, especially for those who enjoy role-playing games themselves.  
Book 2, Heroes Level Up, will be out October 6, so now is the perfect time to read this one if you haven’t already!

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Compelling Nonfiction Graphics: Astronauts and When Stars are Scattered

Here are two recent nonfiction graphics, both with stories strong enough to be interesting for readers who don’t naturally gravitate towards nonfiction as well as those who do.  

Astronauts by Jim Ottaviani and Maris Wicks
Astronauts: Women on the Final Frontier
by Jim Ottaviani and Maris Wicks. First Second, 2020. ISBN 978-1626728776. Read from purchased copy. 

The top-notch science comic duo of Jim Ottaviani (Dignifying Science reviewed here, and many others as well) and Maris Wicks (Primates with Jim Ottaviani, and several of the Science Comics books on her own) team up again to tell the story of real women astronauts, mostly from the point of view of real-life astronaut Mary Cleave, but also including the story of Soviet cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova and others.  It’s really engaging, and the illustrations add so much to the story, showing when people are elated or sick to their stomachs when flying, wanting to eat their words, or flattened by extra-heavy gravity when practicing moving in zero G during airplane flights.  It illustrates the uphill battle women faced, especially in the United States, and NASA’s slow shift towards deliberate inclusiveness with help from Star Trek star Nichelle Nichols.  My daughter wouldn’t pick it up until she heard me laughing over it, and since then, part of my struggle to review it has been that she keeps stealing it out of my pile of books to review to reread.  

When Stars are Scattered  by Victoria Jamieson and Omar MohamedWhen Stars are Scattered  by Victoria Jamieson and Omar Mohamed. Dial Books, 2020. ISBN 978-0525553908. Read from purchased copy. 

The graphic memoir for kids gets a new twist here, as Somali refugee Omar Mohamed teams up with Newbery-Honor winner graphic novel artist Victoria Jamieson (Roller Girl, All’s Faire in Middle School) to tell his story, growing up in a refugee camp.  He and his little brother Hassan have been here for seven years, clinging to the hope that their mother will find them, though they are cared for by an kind older lady, Fatuma, whose own family is missing.  The camp has been set up for so long that it’s grown into a city, with markets, a school, and mosques, even though it doesn’t have electricity or plumbing.  The art captures the beauty of the desert, the monotony of daily life, and the warm community around them despite the difficulties.  As he watches his friends go to school, Omar is torn between his own desire to go to school and learn and his need to take care of his younger brother, who is nonverbal.  Always, for everyone, is the wild hope that they will be selected for visas to come to the US or Canada. Omar has blocked his memories of the events that brought them to the refugee camp, so that only tiny bits of these worst moments come out late in the story.  There is also some mention of a young teen girl being made to drop out of school to get married, and this is handled as gently and with as much nuance as possible.  

 I had been worried that this subject would be too intense for my very sensitive daughter, but she asked to buy it as soon as she heard that Victoria Jamieson was coming out with a new book, and has gone on to read it several times since.  This is gripping and essential reading. 


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Into the Tall, Tall Grass by Loriel Ryon

Into the Tall, Tall Grass by Loriel RyonInto the Tall, Tall Grass by Loriel Ryon. Margaret K. McElderry, 2020. ISBN 978-1534449671. Read from library copy. 

Yolanda Rodríguez-O’Connell has a little too much on her plate and not enough support.  Her grandmother, Wela, has been asleep for weeks with butterflies hovering around her hair, while her father and only living parent is on a military mission overseas.  Her twin sister Sonja has not only usurped Yolanda’s position with her best friend, Ghita, but is already showing signs of the magical gift the female side of their family is known for, while Yolanda is showing no sign of magic.  It doesn’t help that Yolanda is allergic to the bees that are now following Sonja around everywhere! And people in town keep calling both Sonja and Wela brujas, a term Yolanda finds offensive.  How does she feel about Ghita’s brother Hasik, who might be crushing on her?  And what on earth would happen to her dog, Rosalind Franklin, if social workers find out that she and Sonja don’t have any adults living with them?  

All of this is too much, especially when they are all still grieving Welo’s death just a year ago.  

So when Wela wakes up one night and asks Yolanda to bring her to the old burned pecan tree far out on their property in the New Mexico desert, Yolanda is sure both that taking her there will fix everything and that she doesn’t need any help to get there.  But even as she gets ready for a day of pushing Wela there, grass starts to grow, so fast she can hear it, and taller than her head.  (This didn’t sound so magical to me in the title, but is very magical experiencing it in the book.)  And it turns out that all of the previously mentioned young people are unwilling to let Yolanda go off on her own.

And then the way back disappears, leaving them no option but to continue forward, with plenty of time to think about how they got where they are, including learning some tragic family secrets from Wela in her brief moments awake.  Though the book starts out with Yolanda feeling isolated and overwhelmed with sadness, it doesn’t stay that way through the book.  This is perfect for people who love character-driven fiction with a side of wilderness survival. 

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More Teen Love: Opposite of Always, Emergency Contact, and Frankly in Love

In these trying times, I find I’m gravitating towards romance more than usual, and have been catching up on some books I’ve been meaning to read for a year or two.  But don’t let the word “romance” make you think these are all fluffy happiness – there are serious issues underlying all three of these. 

Opposite of Always by Justin A. ReynoldsOpposite of Always by Justin A. Reynolds. Read by Nile Bullock. Katherine Tegen Books, 2019.  ISBN 9781509870042. Listened to audiobook on Libby; also available on Hoopla.
High school seniors Jack and his best friends, Jillian, are visiting the college he hopes to attend next year when he falls for their tour guide, college freshman Kate.  They stay up all night talking and eating sugary cereal until it’s time for Jack and Jillian to go back home.  But we as readers know that something is wrong – we saw Jack being stopped by police as he was trying to save his girlfriend’s life before being jerked painfully back to this part of the story. He goes through several iterations, looking not just at Kate’s health but their relationship and Jack’s with his parents, Jillian, and his other best friend Franny, who has been raised by his abuela since his father has been jailed most of his childhood.  Jack, Kate, and Jillian are all described as African-American, while Franny is Cuban-American.  The romance is sweet, but the other characters are all real as well, and Jack’s challenge is not as simple as it first seems.  Can a guy who’s always thought of himself as the “almost” guy figure out what it takes to find a truly happy ending?  

emergencycontactEmergency Contact by Mary H. K. Choi. Simon & Schuster, 2018. ISBN 978-1534408968. Read from library copy.  Also available on Libby in ebook and audiobook formats.
Penny (Korean-American) is heading off to college in Texas in this teen/new adult crossover book.  She’s leaving behind her overly-sexy single mother and a rather depressing specimen of a boyfriend, but taking with her a beautiful new rose gold iPhone and her penchant for mentally verbalizing lists of possible actions to take in awkward situations.  It’s just her luck that someone like her who’s not that fond of people in general and considers shapeless black the perfect outfit winds up with a fashionable and oppressively friendly roommate, Jude.

Jude takes her to meet her “uncle” Sam, only a year or two older than them.  Sam (trailer park white) is a barista and aspiring documentary maker with mother and girlfriend issues of his own.  Jude specifically forbids both her best friend and Penny from falling for Sam.  But when Penny is out on her own later and finds Sam in trouble, they start texting and can’t seem to stop…

This book was blurbed by Rainbow Rowell and really does have the heart-tugging, can’t stop rooting for the characters feeling that I felt with Eleanor & Park.  

franklyinloveFrankly in Love by David Yoon. G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2019.  ISBN 978-1984812209.  Read from library copy.  Also available on Libby in ebook and audiobook formats.
Warning: Although Frank Li, also Korean-American, is definitely in love in this book, it is also not a traditional “Happily Ever After” romance.  Frank is a member of several groups.  At school, he’s an “Apey,” certified geeky member of the AP set.  That’s where he met his best friend, African-American and fellow D&D player Q.  It’s also where he fell in love with Brit Means, who’s just as clever and fond of puns as he is.  She’s also white, which means he has to keep her a secret from his parents.

But when not at school, Frank is  helping his parents run their corner store in a not-so-nice neighborhood, sending unanswered texts to his sister Hanna, who graduated from “the Harvard” just like she was supposed to and then was disowned for marrying a Black man.  And once a month, there is a Gathering where he hangs out with the kids of a group of other Korean immigrants who came over with his parents, a group he calls the Limbos.  And when he learns that one of the Limbos, Joy Song, is also hiding her not-Korean boyfriend from her parents, he comes up with a plan to get them both the freedom they crave.  

This starts off hilariously, but there is a lot of heartbreak along the way as Frank figures out what it means to be in love, be Korean-American, and be himself.

Here are some more teen romances I read this summer. Any more you think I’d like?  


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Apply to be a Cybils Judge!

If you have been reading my blog for a year or more, you’ll know that many years I have served as a panelist for the Cybils awards.  This is a great deal of fun, allowing me to read lots of new books and discuss them with other book-minded people every year.  Last year I wasn’t able to participate because of planning KidLitCon, and I missed it a great deal.  If you are a book blogger, bookstagrammer, booktuber, or tweet about books for kids and teens… you, too could apply to volunteer for the Cybils Awards!  And what better way to spend the fall and/or winter than diving into piles of reading?

Cybils Awards 2020 logo

Whether or not you’re able to be a judge this year, nominations will be opening up to the public October 1.  Now is the time to figure out which books you might want to nominate!

In other news, my library has re-opened to the public in a “Grab and Go” phase.  Our new protocols are of necessity much more labor intensive than previously, and I had quite a bit of work that I wasn’t able to do remotely, so I have been struggling to find time for writing book reviews.  But our patrons are so happy to see us, and I am happy to see them and my co-workers, even if we are all staying distant and wearing masks. I’m hoping that as we settle into new routines, things will even out and I will have more time and brain space for writing book reviews.  I have lots of books I want to share with you!



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The League of Secret Heroes: Cape and Mask by Kate Hannigan

Once again, being behind both in reading and reviewing means that I get to review the first two books of a series at the same time.  I have enjoyed every book I’ve read by Kate Hannigan so far (see Cupcake Cousins and The Detective’s Assistant), and this being her first foray into speculative fiction, I was super excited.  This series mixes World War II history with superhero action.

Cape by Kate HanniganCape: the League of Secret Heroes Book One by Kate Hannigan. Illustrated by Patrick Spaziante. Aladdin/Simon & Schuster, 2019. ISBN 978-1534439115. Read from library copy. 

Irish-American and New Yorker Josie is looking for a way to help her country in WWII like her cousin, when she meets two other girls whose test scores were thrown out because the proctor thinks that only boys are wanted.  Japanese-American Akiko and African-American Mae are equally enraged, then won over when they are recruited by a secret, parallel organization.  After all, three innocent-looking girls can go where no one else can, right?  Despite their different backgrounds, the girls bond over their love of comics and pie and milkshakes at the local diner, as well as the shared experience of having their loved ones either in danger or already lost in the war. Then they learn a terrible secret – all over the country, superheroes are disappearing or losing their powers.  When the girls find their own, it’s up to them to stop the Nazi plot and save the day! 

While most of the story is told in prose, it switches to black-and-white comic sequences for the battle scenes.  Though the general tone stays upbeat, appropriate to the old-fashioned superhero feel, it also doesn’t shy away from the hardships that Akiko and Mae especially experience.  They also get to meet real-life female codebreakers and the women of ENIAC, with more information about them included in the back matter.  

maskbykatehanniganMask: the League of Secret Heroes Book Two by Kate Hannigan. Illustrated by Patrick Spaziante. Aladdin/Simon & Schuster, 2020. ISBN 978-1534464766. Read from ARC. 

In Book 2, Akiko and Mae tell Josie to stop thinking she’s the only one who can be in charge, and though that’s a short moment with no argument from Josie and she’s still our main point of view character, this book is Akiko’s story. The Infinity Trinity head to San Francisco to look for the missing superhero Zenobia.  Once there, Akiko shows them the house and car that used to be her family’s and are now being used by a white family.  This is upsetting enough, but when they go to check on the part of her family that’s in Manzanar internment camp, Akiko’s mother is missing, and no one seems to know where she is.  Akiko thinks she might see her back in San Francisco – together with the owner of a doll store – but before they can investigate further, the streets are invaded with a parade of sinister clowns led by one calling himself Side-Splitter.  Their clear target is a trio of warships being repaired in the harbor.  

Superhero work stays closely tied to the personal, with big consequences, as the Infinity Trinity investigates a suspected spy, breaks some codes, learns new self-defense techniques and discovers new individual powers.  They also meet some real-life female spies and codebreakers, continuing the trend of highlighting forgotten heroes. The war is definitely getting worse – restaurants aren’t able to serve the pie and milkshakes the girls crave due to rationing, and more and more superheroes are in trouble.  On 

I am generally wary of having World War II internment be the only story we tell about Japanese-Americans, but I thought this was a good take on it, with Akiko and her family’s hard work to help the American war effort highlighting the injustice of their treatment.  I really do appreciate that the author is telling a story where the main character reflects her own background, but is living in a world that hasn’t had the diversity whitewashed out. All the other middle grade superhero books I’ve read have been from a male viewpoint, so this is a nice addition to the genre. And though we only wish we’d had superheroes in World War II, this makes for a fun story that could also inspire readers to further research.  

Cape is out in paperback on August 12 and Mask is coming out August 18, 2020.  Book 3, Boots – which I’m hoping will be Mae’s story – is due out in 2021.  And you can read more of Kate Hannigan’s thoughts on the series at the Nerdy Book Club.

Here are some more superhero books – what would you add?


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