Early Chapter Book Trio: Juana & Lucas, Polly Diamond, Phoebe G. Green

Here’s a trio of fun early chapter books!  Because Cybils nominations will be opening up October 1, I’ve added notes on which books would be eligible to be nominated.  

Juana & Lucas: Big Problemas by Juana MedinaJuana & Lucas: Big Problemas by Juana Medina. Candlewick, 2019. 978-1536201314
It’s been three long years since we first met Juana and her dog Lucas, growing up in Bogotá, Colombia. I was so happy to see her again!  In this book, we meet more of Juana’s neighbors and family members. Now, years after Juana’s father died in a fire, Juana’s mother is falling in love again.  This leads to the big problemas of the title: the horrible idea of her mother getting married and Juana not having her all to herself, moving to a new house, and having to wear a scratchy dress for the wedding.  In the end, of course, love and Juana’s big personality win. I still adore Juana, and wish that we had many more books about her. This came out this year and is eligible to be nominated for a Cybils award.  

pollydiamond1Polly Diamond and the Magic Book by Alice Kuipers. Illustrated by Diana Toledano. Chronicle Books, 2018. 978-1452152325
Polly Diamond has a baby brother on the way.  The problem with that is that when he arrives, she’ll have to share her room with her little sister – ugh! Then, a magic book arrives in the mail.  With the help of the book (and an inobservant babysitter) she’s able to remake the house into something a little (okay maybe a lot) bigger, and much, much more fun – except maybe for the part about turning her sister into a banana. Charming illustrations illuminate both the family and Polly’s wishes. 

Polly and her family appear to be African-American; the author is white and the illustrator is Spanish-American. It might be rainbow sprinkle diversity to show Polly and her family as Black when there’s nothing else linking them to African-American culture, but the story about her adjusting to her new family size is heartfelt, and the wishes are over-the-top silly in a way that feels enormously appealing to kids.  It’s also relatively rare to find kids books where the main characters wear glasses.

This book came out in May 2018, and is thus not eligible for the Cybils this year (though it’s now out in paperback for those looking to purchase!), but the sequel, Polly Diamond and the Super Stunning Spectacular School Fair, is eligible.  Mia Mayhem is a Superhero! by Kara West and illustrated by Leeza Hernandez, which came out in December of 2018 and is therefore also eligible this year, looks like it would appeal to a similar audience.  

phoebeGgreen1Phoebe G. Green: Lunch Will Never Be the Same by Veera Hiranandani. Grosset & Dunlap/Penguin, 2014. 9780448466958
I looked into this older early chapter book series by Newbery Honor-winning author Hiranandani.  Phoebe, who is white, gets school lunches, and her parents “assemble” the same rotation of simple meals for dinner each week at home.  When a new girl from France, Camille, comes with very fancy lunches, which Phoebe describes in numbered lists, it’s a revelation to Phoebe.  She tries her best to get a dinner invitation from Camille, because if her lunches look amazing, the dinner must be truly spectacular. In the process, though, she ends up alienating her best friend, Sage (who is of East Indian origin), and Camille also isn’t sure that Phoebe really wants to be her friend.  There is lots of yummy food, some very believable friend issues, and it made me laugh out loud. The only thing that would have made it better would be if the POV character could have been East Indian, like the author. And if there were more than four books in the series, because four books is not enough to satisfy avid early chapter book readers.  

Posted in Books, Early Chapter Books, Fantasy, Print, Realistic | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Two Fantasies and a Truth

Well, technically, two fantasy books and a nonfiction – I do believe that fiction can hold just as much truth as nonfiction – but going for the catchier title.  Here’s catching up on reviews of some more of my reading for adults.

The Raven Tower by Ann LeckieThe Raven Tower by Ann Leckie. Orbit, 2019.
Ann Leckie’s Imperial Radtch trilogy was told from the point of view of a conscious, intelligent ship, which had taken on a body.  With this book, she goes even farther by making the narrator a stone – a very large stone, The Strength and Patience of the Hill, telling a human character, Eolo, aide to the Lease’s Heir of Raven Tower, about events after the death of Lease.  It’s set in ancient times, and the second-person narration gives us a strange distance from Eolo. I found it fascinating, but it is out there enough that it isn’t going to work for everyone. Indeed, many of my blogging friends who usually agree on books were sharply divided on this one.   Continue reading

Posted in Adult, Audiobook, Books, Fantasy, nonfiction, Print | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

LaGuardia and Self/Made

Onwards, with some graphic novels featuring powerful women of color from the adult section of the library. I’m a big fan of Nnedi Okorafor, and I buy the adult graphic novels for my library, so naturally I had to purchase and read her new graphic novel!  Self/Made came in with the same order and also caught my eye. 

LaGuardia by Nnedia Okorafor, Tana Ford, and James DevlinLaGuardia by Nnedi Okorafor, Tana Ford, and James Devlin. Berger Books/Dark Horse, 2019. 9781506710754
In a not-too-distant future, aliens – many of them sentient plants – have arrived in the world, with Nigeria as their base.  Professor Citizen Raphael Nwabara tends to large numbers of these plants at his apartment, while perhaps secretly being a human separatist, and definitely pulling any green shoots from his beard.  Meanwhile, his pregnant fiancee, physician Future Nwafor Chukwuekuba is coming back to her grandmother in New York without telling him – harboring a tiny sentient plant who calls itself Letme Live, with troubles of its own.   The scanning at LaGuardia is intrusive and offensive (though this is only a brief part of the story, inspired by the author’s own experiences there), and the hospital her parents once worked at is now treating only humans, despite the large numbers of aliens living there.  Alien technology could help with many of people’s problems, but suspicions are high and protests grow as politicians try to shut down borders. 

This is by its nature more of a short story than a novel, and so just doesn’t have room for the depth I’m used to from Okorafor.  I do like the social commentary on our current treatment of “aliens” who are just other people, when maybe if there were actual aliens, we’d still be better off approaching with compassion and an open mind.  The main characters here are all people of color or aliens, and they are drawn beautifully by Tana Ford – pregnant Future is beautiful and so beautifully confident and powerful, though Ford is also able to show Letme’s emotions.  The scenes of so many diverse creatures working together for change is inspiring, so while this isn’t my favorite of Okorafor’s works, I’m glad I read it.  

Self/Made by Mat Groom, Eduardo Ferigato, and Marcelo CostaSelf/Made volume 1 by Mat Groom, Eduardo Ferigato, and Marcelo Costa. Image, 2019. 978-1534312272
Amala, a fierce female warrior, is the last of her unit left after an attack.  She joins forces with an arrogant hero, but turns on him when she decides he isn’t on the side of right – multiple times as the scene replays.  The scene cuts to us finding out that this is a video game. Amala is an NPC who’s turned on the developer playing the hero – just as arrogant and furious in real life as he was in the game.  He tells the coder, Rebecca, to delete her. 

But Rebecca, an older woman with limited social skills, who’s turned down advancement opportunities to work on her character building, would rather lose her job than Amala.  She steals Amala and puts her in a robotic body. But what happens when Amala figures out she wasn’t meant to be a real person?  

So, this is not the groundbreaking story the creators seem to think it is – reflections on how human an AI can be have been going on for decades, and Murderbot has a much more rounded-out character than Amala. And a white man writing about a white woman creating a woman of color who struggles for her own freedom gives me pause.  Still, if you want a high-action story about women fighting obnoxious, entitled men, with a side of the personhood of AIs, you could do worse than this one.  

Both of these are in the adult section more because of being about adult characters than about anything that parents of teens are likely to find objectionable – there is some violent death in Self/Made, but it’s pretty minimal for an action comic.  I offered both of these to my son to read, though he was too busy reading They Called Us Enemy to get to them. 

Posted in Adult, Books, Graphic Novel, Reviews, Sci-Fi | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

They Called Us Enemy by George Takei et al

Star Trek actor turned activist George Takei shares the moving story of his life before his acting career in this graphic memoir.  It’s been getting a lot of deservedly good press, and I knew I had to read it. I brought it home at the same time as Cheshire Crossing, and my son passed over that much more light-hearted book to read this one.  

They Called Us Enemy by George Takei et alThey Called Us Enemy by George Takei, Justin Eisinger and Steven Scott, with art by Harmony Becker. 

Mr. and Mrs. Takei met in America – George’s father an immigrant from Japan, his mother born and raised in California, where the couple met.  They owned a business and their own home, and had three children when the Pearl Harbor bombing took place and Japanese-Americans were moved to internment camps.

George’s memories as a child growing up in the camps, with his limited understanding, are mixed together with stories of his parents, historical information, and the fights he got into with his father as a teen, blaming his father for what happened. This mixed format – along with the warm family memories that happened even in the camp – keep the narrative from descending into despair, despite the horrible injustices.  Multicultural artist Harmony Becker does an excellent job with the art, too, bringing life to what would otherwise be dull accounts of the passage of bills through Congress, for example, and keeping even very young George recognizable and giving the many inhabitants of the camps distinct appearances.  

As a four-year-old, George saw living in a horse stall at a newly converted racetrack as an adventure, but as time goes on, he comes to understand the pain of the assumed disloyalty, as the government not only confiscates homes and businesses, but also removes men in any kind of leadership position – from teacher to Buddhist priest – from their families.  The extreme efforts of those in the camps for years to create something like normalcy for their children – setting up schools and visits from Santa – are also inspiring. As the author points out, we are again in a time where we are placing people in camps, simply because of where they come from. As uncomfortable as it can be to revisit our past, it is necessary to keep from repeating our mistakes.  This is a very accessible way to bear witness, and one that my normally sci-fi only teen son read and endorses.  

Posted in Books, Graphic Novel, nonfiction, Teen/Young Adult | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

Rebel Girls and Gowns: YA Graphic Novels

Continuing with the graphic novels, here are some aimed at teens (or at least, from the teen section of the library.) 

The Prince and the Dressmaker by Jen WangPrince and the Dressmaker by Jen Wang. First Second Books, 2018.
This book was tearing up the award and best-of charts last year, winning an Eisner award and being a Cybils finalist, among many other honors. 

Frances is working as a lowly seamstress, dreaming of being a big designer, when she gets the job of her dreams: personal designer to Prince Sebastian, who secretly goes out on the town dressed as Lady Crystallia.  But what future is there for a cross-dressing prince in 19th century Belgium? And will Frances’s dreams of greatness ever come true? Her fashion designs felt much more 21st-century daring than truly 19th century, but it’s drawn for a modern audience.  I feel obliged to note that this prince was a real person (I’m guessing the dressing is imagined), his father famous in real life for committing atrocities in the Congo. The author has stated that she didn’t know anything about this when she created the book.  The ending, too, was a vision of how you’d want things to go – not realistic, but worth it for creating a space where such a thing could have been true. Despite my criticisms, this was great fun to read, with a worthy message.  

Sleepless vol. 1 by Sarah Vaughn, Leila Del Duca, Alissa Sallah, Deron Bennett. Image Comics, 2018.
Sleepless vol. 2 by Sarah Vaughn, Leila Del Duca, Alissa Sallah, Deron Bennett. Image Comics, 2019. 978-1534310582
This fantasy duology was recommended by Stephanie Burgis, and, like the first book, features some beautiful dresses, this time with a fantasy Burgundian feel.  Lady Pypennia, or Poppy, has grown up the acknowledged illegitimate daughter of the now-deceased king of Harbeny, though in distant Mribesh, where her mother is a great star reader, she is considered legitimate.  Still, Poppy has grown up in Harbeny and considers it her home. The kingdom of Harbeny has long been protected by the Sleepless Knights, who stay magically awake for years in service to the Crown. Poppy has a sleepless knight, Sir Cyrenic, assigned to care for her. Political intrigue and forbidden romance ensue as Poppy’s uncle assumes the throne, with extra cuteness provided by Poppy’s pet fennec fox, all told with lush illustrations. 

Cheshire Crossing by Andy Weir and Sarah AndersenCheshire Crossing by Andy Weir and Sarah Andersen. Ten Speed Press, 2019. 978-0399582073
My love requested that I bring this home from the library, because he and my son are such fans of The Martian. Upon getting it home, my daughter jumped on it and read it more than once.

In this story, Alice, Wendy and Dorothy all wound up in boarding school together – this time, hopefully friendlier than the many other places where they’ve been cruelly treated because of their “delusions.”  Here, the headmaster believes their experiences but wants to study them, though these girls definitely have minds of their own. Alice is particularly distrustful and wants to escape immediately, causing a problem that will need all the girls and even the Mary Poppins-inspired Nanny to solve, as the Wicked Witch of the West and Captain Hook team up for maximum villainy.  The SLJ review recommended this for teens, as Peter Pan starts growing up and gets very hormonal, but there’s nothing terribly explicit and my daughter at least was not fussed.  

This is an engaging and humorous take on the problems of girls returning to a world that doesn’t believe in their adventures, also dealt with in much darker form in Seanan McGuire’s Every Heart a Doorway.

Posted in Books, Fantasy, Graphic Novel, Historical, Teen/Young Adult | Tagged , , , | 3 Comments

Cats and the Sea: Graphic Novels for Kids

I’ve found myself reading a lot of graphic novels lately.  Here are some for the elementary to middle grade set.  Curiously enough, they all have either cats or the sea as central themes – or both, in the case of Sea Sirens.  

Sea Sirens: a Trot and Cap'n Bill Adventure by Amy Chu and Janet K. LeeSea Sirens: a Trot and Cap’n Bill Adventure by Amy Chu and Janet K. Lee. Viking, 2019. 978-0451480163.
Trot is an enthusiastic surfer girl of Vietnamese ancestry, who loves to spend afternoons on the beach with her grandfather and her beat-up cat Cap’n Bill while her mother is at work.  When sneaking off after it’s been forbidden one day, Trot and Cap’n Bill find themselves in the underwater kingdom of the Sea Sirens, which is at war with the sea snakes. Trying to resolve this conflict leads her to learn more about both her grandfather and her cat, with whom she is able to talk thanks to Sea Siren magic.  This is a short and sweet story with a non-violent resolution, told with ink and watercolors. The only issue that I had was that the faces are odd, never quite looking the same. My daughter decided based on the face on the cover that the book was creepy, though she did enjoy it once I convinced her to overlook that.  The adventure and the elaborate costumes of the sea sirens make this one with lots of appeal for young readers.

Queen of the Sea by Dylan MeconisQueen of the Sea by Dylan Meconis. Walker Books/Candlewick, 2019. 978-1536204988
I’m tempted to use the hackneyed phrases “sweeping historical” to describe this beautifully detailed graphic novel, set in a very recognizable alternate 16th century, based around the rivalry between Elizabeth and Margaret, even if the time span and character count are both shorter/lower than that term usually implies.  

Eleanor is the exiled queen of Albion, whom we meet in the first pages of the book, but most of the book is told from the point of view of young Margaret, growing up in an Elysian convent on a tiny island off the coast.  Margaret’s first friend is William, son of a noblewoman seeking refuge in the convent, but after he leaves, Eleanor herself arrives, prickly and arrogant. But as Margaret learns chess from Eleanor and both of them learn more of the history of the nuns and servants on the island, disillusionment and growth for both are the result.  The art here includes changes in art and lettering style between the main narrative and stories from the past. This is one that got passed around between most of the many children on my summer camping trip, but has plenty of substance for adults to enjoy as well, definitely one of my favorites this year.

Catwad: It's Me and Catwad: It's Me, Two covers by Jim BentonCatwad: It’s Me by Jim Benton. Graphix, 2019. 978-1338326024
Catwad: It’s Me, Two! by Jim Benton. Graphix, 2019. 978-1338326031
I only realized after I got the second of these books from the publisher (thank you!!) that I’d never reviewed the first book… because my daughter fell in love with it and spirited it away.  This time, she brought both books back to me with strict instructions to read them. Both books consists of shorter, mostly four panel gag sequences, telling stories of life with grumpy, often mean Catwad and his dim but kind friend Blurmpf.  The art is simple but conveys the emotion well, and filled with bright, appealing colors. The pranks and body fluid jokes definitely appeal more to kids than adults, as evidenced by my daughter’s reaction. It reminded me of the classic Garfield, while she recommends it to fans of Big Nate or Captain Underpants.

Posted in Books, Fantasy, Graphic Novel, Historical, Middle Grade | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

We Want You to Be a Cybils Judge !

Just in case you missed it earlier – the call for Cybils judges for this year went out a few weeks ago, but you still have one week left to apply to be a Cybils judge yourself!

Cybils - Children's and Young Adult Bloggers' Literary Awards 2019 Logo

Though the Cybils have been in existence for more than a decade now, I have been a judge for just the past five of them.  I highly recommend the experience!  I have always been a Round 1 panelist, which means I spend a couple of months trying to read all the nominated books in my category.  I really love the broad view of the category, the intensive discussions with my fellow panelists, and coming up with a list of stellar choices for any kid interested in the category.

But, if the thought of trying reading dozens of books in a couple of months feels like too much for you, you could also apply to be a round 2 judge, and select a winner from the much shorter list of finalists.

Though I really recommend the Cybils judging experience, and new judges are always needed, if you aren’t able to be a judge at all, now is still a good time to start looking at the different categories and think about what you might want to nominate, because the Cybils works by having a very large pool of people nominating all those books for the judges to read! But, please do consider being a judge as well…

Posted in Challenges | Tagged | Leave a comment

Blended by Sharon Draper

Blended by Sharon M. DraperBlended by Sharon Draper. Simon and Schuster Kids, 2018. 978-1442495005
11-year-old Isabella’s parents divorced when she was 6.  It’s always been hard, but since her dad moved back to Ohio and she’s splitting her time between two houses, it’s even harder.  It feels like she’s being asked to be two separate people. Izzy lives in a small house with her pale blond mother, spending time at the Waffle House where she works and at the bowling alley her mother’s boyfriend manages and plays a Casio keyboard set up on the dining room table. Isabella  lives in a large house with her African-American lawyer father, his girlfriend, and her (super cool!) teenage son. Isabella has music room with a baby grand piano all her own and lessons twice a week.  

If my friend Nakenya hadn’t warned me otherwise, I would have expected this book to be mostly about Isabella’s mixed-race identity.  There is some of that, as people ask her whether she considers herself white or Black (yes), and is treated differently in stores at the mall when she goes in with just her Black best friend Imani, rather than in a group with Imani and their other best friend, who is white, as well as some racial incidents.

But a lot is just about the conflict of two parents who fight over her and don’t realize that they are pressuring her to be different people, and the feelings that come up when she realizes that her parents getting more serious about their new partners meaning that they will never get back together again.  And the musician in me was very happy as Isabella comes to embrace playing both Clementi and more modern, swinging African-American music. This is one for any kid who struggles with multiple identities, and I had to wait several months to read it because it’s been so very popular at my library. 

This would pair well with So Done by Paula Chase or New Kid by Jerry Craft.

Posted in Books, Middle Grade, Print, Realistic, Reviews | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Riverland by Fran Wilde

Though Fran Wilde apparently didn’t make my list of Top 10 Fantasy Authors I’ve Never Read, she has been on my radar but unread for quite a while. Good thing she came out with a middle grade book, rather than the purely adult books that tend to languish on my TBR lists!  

Riverland by Fran Wilde.Riverland by Fran Wilde. Amulet Books, 2019.
Eleanor and her sister Mike live in a house with lots of rules.  If they follow the rules – things like not “bringing trouble home” by talking to people outside the house about what happens at home – the “house magic” will work, replacing things that their father has broken while they sleep.  These rules have worked to keep them safe so far, even though the girls hide under the bed telling stories to each other when their father starts throwing things. But now, the rules are getting harder and harder to follow, and even following them isn’t working the way it has in the past.  

One part of the change is not unexpected – Eleanor’s neighbor and best friend Pendra begs to visit her house, instead of Eleanor always going to visit Pendra. But even aiming for a visit short enough that the adults won’t notice isn’t enough.  They are decidedly unamused, especially because Pendra’s mother, Mrs. Sartri, is the school guidance counselor.  

The other change is decidedly unexpected – a river appears under the bed as they’re hiding, sweeping them into Riverland, a country beset by nightmares and in need of their help.  They’ll have to figure out the rules of this new country quickly, because the nightmares of Riverland are getting strong and bold, flooding over into the ordinary world.  

There is a lot here about sisters, obviously, as Eleanor tries to protect Mike.  And though their “house magic” may not have been real magic, there is real magic here, both in Riverland and in the real world.  Here again we have a fantasy novel tackling some really tough subjects, including Eleanor recognizing that her father’s behavior is abusive even if it isn’t the kind of abuse she recognizes from TV.  (Read more about this in Fran Wilde’s column at the Book Smugglers.) I loved that the children had choices and agency here, and that they’re shown as middle class white family, wealthy enough to replace all the frequently broken things, showing the truth that abuse is an abuse issue, not a race or class issue, however uncomfortable that is.  And though I’m focusing on that tough issue, there is enough time in the magical world and away from the abuse that the book as a whole didn’t feel weighed down to me. I could write more about the coolness of the magic and of Riverland, but I think I’ll let you discover it for yourself.

Posted in Books, Fantasy, Middle Grade, Print | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Game of Stars by Sayantani DasGupta

gameofstarsGame of Stars. Kiranmala and the Kingdom Beyond 2 by Sayantani DasGupta. Scholastic, 2019.
New Jersey middle schooler Kiran – aka Princess Kiranmala of the Kingdom Beyond – returns in the second volume of the series that began with The Serpent’s Secret. This is another one that I read first on my own and then listened to with my daughter, who is very much interested in anything with that Rick Riordan, modern-day kids interacting with mythology feel.  

Kiran has been home wondering why her friends from the Kingdom Beyond haven’t been contacting her, and bothered by nightmares of her friend Neel’s mother, the Demon Queen.  Then, she finds out that it isn’t a nightmare – the Demon Queen really wants her help. Neel has been taken captive to be used as target for a new reality TV show, “Who Wants to Be a Demon Slayer,” which also turns out to be using a stylized but recognizable picture of Kiran herself as its mascot.  Of course her parents forbid it – but Kiran still finds herself headed through space in a golf cart-like auto rickshaw, accompanied by an extremely chipper newcomer to her school, Naya, who just might have secrets of her own.

Once there, Kiran finds that things are not as she expects.  Neel’s brother, Prince Lal, isn’t the ally she expects, and her cousin Mati, who spent most of book one transformed into an inanimate sphere alongside Lal, is now the leader of an all-girl protest gang that zips around on skateboards wearing pink saris.  They are protesting the fact that rakkosh of all ages are being rounded up to be slaughtered by would-be demon slayers, whether or not they’ve done anything wrong.  

There are still lots of elements from traditional Bengal folk tales here, including giant messenger birds Bengomi and Bengoma, in a fast-moving plot with both tense and silly moments.  But there are also thoughts on deeper issues here, including colorism (skewered here in ads and explained more fully in the afterward) and a call to judge people by their actions over their exteriors.  

I had first read this series in print on my own and then listened to it (on hoopla) with my daughter.  It’s read by the author, who used extra-animated expression and shorter phrasings that would probably work well reading aloud to a crowd but felt a little over-the-top as an audiobook.  Still, especially when reading for kids, over-expressions is much, much better than the flat reading more often given by authors I’ve heard reading their own work.  

This is a series that both my daughter and I are enjoying and that I’m happy to continue to readers looking for Rick Riordan read-alikes

Posted in Audiobook, Books, Fantasy, Middle Grade, Print | Tagged , , | Leave a comment