Swim Team

Black tween girl wearing blue and yellow swimsuit and goggles backed by blue water in a swimming pool.Bree Hanley is a seventh grader who faces a host of obstacles when she and her father move to Florida from New York. Her dad works two jobs so he isn’t around much to offer support as she struggles to make friends at her new middle school. Bree’s new home, Palmetto Shores, is obsessed with competitive swimming. Bree’s first choice elective, Math Puzzles, is full and the only activity with space is Swim 101. Bree struggles with anxiety, so having to participate in the spotlight sport – while navigating the challenges of being the new girl at school – proves to be overwhelming. Despite these hurdles she makes a bold move and agrees to join her friends on the swim team. Can new friends and a surprising connection to her town’s last championship swim team help her get through?

Vibrant colors bring the lively characters and settings to life. Issues of racism and classism are communicated well in both art and text, which is well-suited for the intended middle grade audience. Bree’s struggles with anxiety are powerfully illustrated with dark clouds spelling out her fears. They contrast with the colors of the world outside of her head, showing how oppressive those thoughts can be. Most of the characters are Black, which opens up the conversation about how a history of segregation prevented Black people from accessing public pools and beaches. The inclusion of resources to learn more about these issues is a bonus.

This comic is relatable to a wide audience, regardless of any connection to middle school or swimming. Many of us in new, uncomfortable situations have experienced anxiety. The narrative shows that finding support in friends and community can be the first steps on a path to healing.

Find Swim Team at your local bookstore or comic book shop.

Survive in the Outdoors!

Latinx boy and girl at a wooded campsite building a fire and holding a fish they caught surrounded by camping equipment.Just in time for summer fun, this graphic novel packs an incredible amount of practical, useful, clearly explained information about staying safe while enjoying the outdoors. Tweens Alonso and Sophia are spending the weekend with their Abuelo. Abuelo loves the outdoors and decides to take the children to his favorite remote fishing spot. Alonso and Sophia aren’t excited about this as they aren’t used to being disconnected from their online lives. Abuelo begins teaching them about what to expect as they make and pack the things they’ll need for their trip. As they hike deep into the woods Abuelo twists his ankle and can’t walk. It’s now up to Alonso and Sophia to care for Abuelo and keep themselves safe. 

The story of Alonso, Sophia and Abuelo is a great vehicle for teaching how to be prepared in the outdoors. Since this is a maker project book, it contains fun hands on activities as well as general information. The maker projects include making fishing lures, a compass, and a campfire, all of which are well illustrated and explained in detail. Outdoor safety concerns, e.g. avoiding ticks, administering first aid, making sure water is safe to drink, and creating an emergency shelter are presented in a way that informs rather than frightens. One unexpected and interesting element involves the children’s feelings about fishing for their dinner. Abuelo recognizes their sadness at having to kill a fish to eat it. He explains that feeling sad is normal, but if you’re going to eat meat you should know where it comes from.

The relationships in this Latinx family are sweet and warm. Sophia and Alonso manage through the crisis in a realistically age appropriate way. The art is colorful and engaging, expressing the characters’ emotions just as well as it diagrams project instructions. As someone whose first choice of activity is not spending time camping or fishing, I have to say this book made me feel like going outside might actually be fun.

Find Survive in the Outdoors!  at your local bookstore.

Personal note: Sorry to be absent from the blog for so long. COVID and other upheavals kept me away – I’m happy to be back!

Wingbearer

Dramatic image of young Black girl accompanied by a whimsical owl and an orc-like creature, running from a large, faceless robed being.Marjorie Liu, the writer behind the award winning adult graphic novel “Monstress,” and artist Teny Issakhanian, who has worked on Disney’s “Encanto” and “Raya and the Last Dragon,” bring their talents to a middle grade audience with this stunning story of adventure and discovery.

The Wings are sacred bird guardians who live in a mystical tree. There, they shelter the souls of birds that have died as they wait to be reborn. Zuli, a dark-skinned child who appears to be human, lives among them. Zuli came to the Wings as an infant but her true origins are unclear. There are no other beings like her in their world. The Wings raised her with love, taught her their ways, and now she helps them in their work. Listening to the stories the birds’ souls tell as they wait to begin their next lives makes Zuli curious about the world beyond the tree, and makes her wonder whether there are any others like her out there. Things change for Zuli when she realizes birds are dying, but their souls are not coming back to the tree. She’s worried and wants to find out what is happening. Joined by her bird companion Frowly, the Wings reluctantly allow her to leave the tree in search of answers. In her travels Zuli encounters mystical creatures and new lands, some beautiful some menacing. As Zuli begin to uncover what happened to the birds’ souls she makes some surprising discoveries about her own beginnings – and realizes that the closer she gets, the more dangerous her search becomes.

I was amazed and excited to see that Liu’s storytelling is just as powerful in this book for younger readers as it is in her adult titles. The engaging narrative is sometimes ethereal and dreamy, other times dramatic and chilling. Teny Issakhanian’s illustrations, which are lush and gorgeous, are a beautiful match for this story. The vibrant colors bring the sacred tree, the Wings and all the worlds and creatures Zuli visits to life. Together, the narrative and art draw the reader deeply into Zuli’s world. This graphic novel will appeal far beyond the intended middle grade audience.

Find Wingbearer at your local indie bookstore your local indie bookstore or comic book shop.

Love Radio

Love RadioCan a teen-aged relationship expert get his laser-focused-on-anything-but-romance crush to fall for him after three dates?

Prince Jones, aka DJ LoveJones, hosts a radio show where he plays music and gives relationship advice. He aspires to be a  professional DJ and branch out into other areas of the music industry. Prince is very talented but his obligation to care for his disabled mother and his seven year old brother make him doubt that he’ll ever reach his goal. Danielle Ford puts all her efforts into preparing for college. She wants to be a writer and is and doing everything she can to get to her dream school, New York University. She loves her hometown of Detroit but NYU is where she wants to be. Danielle is struggling to finish her application essay. She’s hiding something that gets in the way of both her writing and her friendships.  Prince has had a crush on Danielle since they were in sixth grade, but she barely knows who he is. They cross paths in a most awkward way, much to Danielle’s embarrassment. She has no interest in romance but does want to make things right, so she agrees to go out with Prince. As their relationship evolves they find themselves making unexpected choices.

Love Radio is a fun romance with plenty to swoon over, but the story is much deeper. Through the lens of Danielle and Prince’s struggles the narrative explores issues of healthy relationships, friendships, trauma and family responsibility.  Danielle and Prince’s characters have depth – we learn a lot about what writing means to her and what music means to him. Detroit specific references draw readers into the setting. Prince and Danielle’s friends add richness and additional perspectives to the story. Prince’s friends include a teen dad and guy who’s a not-so faithful boyfriend. Danielle’s friends are ambitious and really care for her, though Danielle can’t seem to shake the one who cares only about herself. Author Ebony LaDelle’s gift for writing teen language makes messages about the importance of men holding each other accountable, mutual respect, and trust sound less like lessons and more like advice from a good friend.

Love Radio comes out in May but you can pre-order it now. I try to stick with reviewing books you can get right away, but this was so moving I couldn’t wait. Find Love Radio at your local bookstore.

Mirror Girls

MirrorGirls_CVR_Sketch.inddMirror Girls deftly blends historical fiction with the supernatural in this story of twin girls and the powerful forces affecting their lives. Soon after Charlene (“Charlie”) and her twin Magnolia were born, their Black mother and white father were murdered. Daring to be an interracial family in Georgia in 1936 was unacceptable and met with extreme violence. Upon their parents’ deaths, fair-skinned Magnolia was spirited away by her paternal grandmother and raised in Georgia as a white Southern belle. Brown-skinned Charlie was taken to New York and raised by her maternal grandmother Jeannette.

The girls’ separation broke a powerful spiritual bond leaving them cursed. Before taking infant Charlie to New York, Jeannette visited a man who had the power to appease the spirits who could undo the curse. She makes a devastating sacrifice to set in place a way to heal the broken bond and save the girls.

In 1953, Jeannette is nearing the end of her life and takes Charlie back to Georgia to reunite with the sister she didn’t know existed. At virtually the same moment, Magnolia’s grandmother is on her deathbed and she tells her granddaughter the truth about her parentage  She demands that Magnolia keep this secret so she can marry well and preserve the family status.

Charlie, wanting nothing more than to get back to New York, and Magnolia, reeling from the news of her true identity, finally meet. As they try to set things right, they are forced to confront powerful spiritual and social forces both pushing them together and pulling them apart. Growing conflicts between the Black and white communities make it even more difficult. Grandma Jeannette paid a heavy price to heal Charlie and Magnolia’s bond; the cost of failing to heal it will be even higher.

Once I started Mirror Girls I could not put it down. This is a tightly wound story with no shortage of twists and turns. The horror rises as much from people’s actions as from anything otherworldly. The characters and situations feel so real, the fantastical elements are also believable. Though issues of racism, social strictures, family secrets and supernatural powers are at the forefront, other potent forces come into play. This compelling story will keep you on the edge of your seat – don’t sleep on this one.

Find Mirror Girls at your local bookstore.

Allies: Real Talk About Showing Up, Screwing Up and Trying Again

allies

Allies: Real Talk About Showing Up, Screwing Up and Trying Again is the guide we all need to help us do better. Though written for preteen and teen readers, adults will also get a lot from this book. As we head into the new year, we continue to face social, political and medical challenges. While there are many things we can’t control one thing we can do is take better care of each other. Who doesn’t want to be an ally? A better question is, how do we do it right?

This collection contains essays and one comic from a diversity of authors telling their own true experiences with allyship, whether from the perspective of needing allies or being allies. They’re honest about their own mistakes, offering a non-judgmental look at how even with the best of intentions we can (and probably will at some point), get it wrong. It provides insights on what to do to get it right.

Brendon Kiely, who co-authored “All American Boys” with Jason Reynolds, admits that he was once the “@$&” and reveals how he learned to stand up for people – even when they aren’t in the room. Shakirah Bourne writes about “glitches in the Matrix.” These are times when we gaslight ourselves because facing the reality of what we’re experiencing is too painful. Adiba Jaigirdar tells about how people who believed themselves to be powerful allies didn’t even recognize how dismissive they were of her experiences. I.W Gregorio, a doctor and author, writes about her evolution from ally to co-conspirator with intersex people. Marietta B. Zacker writes from the other side by talking about what it means to have someone stand up for you. One of the most fascinating essays is from Kayla Whaley. As a child she was featured on Jerry Lewis’s telethon for muscular dystrophy. Even then she understood how important it was to be both charming and strategic in how she answered questions when being interviewed on TV. Looking back on that time she considers whether she was acting as an ally (raising funds for research), an exploiter (manipulating the audience) or the exploited (used as a visual aid to help generate cash.) As she thinks through these questions she raises issues we all should consider.

The book also contains practical advice and a wide variety of resources, including websites, books and podcasts, all recommended by the authors. I was surprised at how many different experiences and situations the book covered, all presented in a relatable and informative manner. Allies deserves a place on every bookshelf.

Find Allies at your local independent bookstore.

🎉🎉 Happy Holidays! 🎉🎉

I’m doing my holiday post early because, as you’ve probably heard, supply chain issues, paper shortages and general uncertainty mean it’s not too soon to shop for those book you’d like to give as gifts. It’s still important to support independent bookstores and comic shops. Even if there aren’t any in your community, most are doing mail order. You use these locators to find independent bookstores and comic book shops.

Here are a few recommendations for the readers in your life (or for yourself!!) Click on the titles to learn more about the books and where to buy them. Are there books you’ve loved this year? Let me know!

PS Sign up to follow my blog and get more in depth reviews of great books and graphic novels!

FANTASY

The Hazards of Love by Stan Stanley- Non-binary Amparo, often in trouble at school, has a crush on their classmate, the quiet and studious Iolanthe. Amparo’s wish to be a better person is granted with unexpected and dangerous consequences. This dramatic graphic novel centers Latinx characters and is enhanced by gorgeous, lush artwork.

Six Crimson Cranes by Elizabeth Lim  – Princess Shiori’anma’s stepmother has turned Shiori’s brothers into cranes and put Shiori under a curse; any time she speaks single word one of her brothers will die. Shiori, now banished from the kingdom, must find a way to save her brothers and make her way back home. Set in an Asian inspired fantasyland, the tale of Shiori’s quest is full of magical twists and turns.

Amari and the Night Brothers by B.B. Alston – Amari, a young Black girl, is worried about her brother Quinton who went missing after spending time away from home in a leadership program. She is recruited to the same program and learns it’s actually a training academy for agents who manage the supernatural world. With the help of her weredragon roommate and a few adults who believe in her, Amari finds the confidence to embrace her own supernatural skills and go on a quest to find Quinton. Read a longer review here.

NON-FICTION

Maker Comics: Survive in the Outdoors! by Mike Lawrence – Using a story about Sophia and Alonso going camping with their abuelo, this graphic novel gives lots of  practical, useful, clearly explained information for staying safe while enjoying the outdoors. The book is especially helpful because it gives information, including about handling emergencies, without being scary.

All Thirteen: The Incredible Cave Rescue of the Thai Boys’ Soccer Team by Christina Soontornvat  – This recounting of the 2018 rescue of the Thai boys’ soccer team trapped in a cave by rising waters is riveting. The dramatic, engaging narrative is enhanced with amazing photographs and maps. Together they detail how, over the seventeen day process, people worked on keeping the boys physically and mentally safe while overcome the challenges of getting them out.

The Black Panther Party: A Graphic Novel History by David F. Walker and Marcus Kwame Anderson – This graphic novel goes beyond accepted knowledge (and myths) about the Black Panther Party to tell a complex, well researched history. The narrative highlights the Panthers’ accomplishments but doesn’t shy away from more difficult issues. The art’s realistic renderings bring the people and their experiences to life. An extensive bibliography with resources for further reading is included. Read a longer review here.

ROMANCE

A Pho Love Story by Loan Le – Linh Mai and Bao Nguyen’s families own competing Vietnamese restaurants. The families are so antagonistic teens are forbidden from talking to each other.  As they secretly connect, Linh and Bao slowly uncover the truth behind a decades old grudge that causes the hostility. This sweet romance involves sad family secrets, restaurant culture, and lots of food!

Instructions for Dancing by Nicola Yoon – After seeing many relationships end badly, Evie renounces love. Nothing will change that, not even training for a dance competition with kind, handsome Xavier. The author injects magical realism into the story and has a meta approach – she calls out romance tropes while having fun indulging in them.

Last Night At The Telegraph Club by Malinda Lo – Lily is a queer Chinese American teen living in San Francisco’s Chinatown in the 1950’s. Lily and white classmate Kathleen cautiously move toward facing, examining and understanding the feelings they have for each other. After visiting The Telegraph Club with Kathleen, Lily connects with women who aren’t afraid to express themselves and their queerness and is inspired to face the challenges of living her truth. Read a longer review here.

THRILLERS

Time Will Tell by Barry Lyga – Liam, Elayah, Jorja, and Marcie dig up a time capsule that was buried in 1986 and find evidence their parents may have committed a murder.  Going back and forth in time, the narrative unwinds the story as the parents lived it in 1986, while tracking the current-day the teens’ hunt for answers. Themes of racism, homophobia and privilege are central to this compelling, powerful thriller. 

White Smoke by Tiffany D. Jackson – The story revolves around Marigold, a teen with a troubled past who’s part of an interracial blended family that’s struggling to come together. The narrative takes the “family moves to a creepy house in new town” trope in a new direction. Frightening things are happening both in her house and in the community, and Mari feels targeted. The shocking resolution to this chilling story will stay with you long after you’re done reading.

This Poison Heart by Kalynn Bayron – Briseis and her adoptive mothers run a flower shop in Brooklyn where she demonstrates a special gift for growing and reviving plants. When she moves to the town where her late birth mother lived, she learns she inherited this trait. As she learns more about the true extent of her abilities she slowly discovers she’s in danger from those who seem to know more about her gifts than she does. Read a longer review here.

 

Artie and the Wolf Moon

ArtieGet ready for a horror story with a heart.

Eighth grader Artemis “Artie” Irvin is one of the few Black people at her school. She gets picked on but doesn’t care. Artie immerses herself in her favorite activity, old school film photography, a hobby she picked up from her late father. She wants to go out at night and take pictures under the full moon, but her mother Loretta says no, worried about Artie’s safety. Of course, Artie sneaks out any way. She sees a wolf and runs home, terrified. The wolf ends up at Artie’s door – and transforms into her mother! Artie demands answers. Loretta explains that yes, she’s a werewolf. Being a werewolf is an inherited trait, but since Artie’s late father was human (making her bi-mammalian), Loretta isn’t sure if Artie will become one. Artie is excited about the idea that she could become an apex predator, but her mom warns her – werewolves are not the scariest things out there.

When Artie’s abilities do emerge she and her mother go to a nearby community of werewolves where Artie learns more about her heritage and how to manage her powers. Finally, she’s in a place where she fits in and is accepted. She even finds romance with Maya, a werewolf she meets there. Things get complicated and scary when Artie learns secrets about her family’s past and how vampires threaten not just the werewolf community, but Artie’s family in particular.

The narrative weaves deftly through time – from the origins of werewolves during slavery, to Artie’s parents’ courtship, to Artie’s coming of age in the werewolf community. Artie and Maya’s queer romance is sweet. The conflicts between werewolves and vampires are dramatic and scary. The art integrates with the story beautifully; color is used skillfully to set time, place, and ominous moods. The werewolves are all Black and the vampires are light skinned.

I enjoyed this graphic novel so much! The narrative and art successfully blend heritage, horror and love into a compelling story.

Find Artie and the Wolf Moon at your local bookstore or comic book shop.

 

Robert Smalls: Tales of the Talented Tenth #3

RSmallsOnce again Joel Christian Gill brings us the story of an important figure in Black history whose achievements are not well known. This graphic novel chronicles the life of Robert Smalls, an enslaved man from South Carolina who pulled off a most daring flight to freedom.

Despite growing up on a plantation Smalls’ early life was not as harsh as it was for most enslaved children. He didn’t understand the rules were different for him than for the white children from the ”big house” he was allowed to spend most of his time playing with. Eventually Smalls’ owner sent him from the big house out to the fields, believing once Smalls experienced the brutal reality of enslavement he would become he would become more submissive. However, Smalls never forgot those early feelings of freedom; instead of making him more compliant, experiencing the cruelty of enslavement made him more defiant.

Smalls’ owner realized he was smart but, since he couldn’t have a fearless slave on the plantation, he sent him away to Charleston. There he was given work piloting boats and became masterful at maneuvering through South Carolina’s waterways. He and the other enslaved men on the crew of the CSS Planter handled everything on the boats. They covered for the white captain and crew when they were drunk or off carousing on shore. Their recklessness inspired Smalls to plan the daring heist. By impersonating the captain – which he’d had to do before – he stole the boat, made it past confederate checkpoints and successfully took several enslaved people and their families north to freedom.

His accomplishments didn’t end there. He had successful careers in business and politics, including holding elected statewide and national offices.

Instead of a straightforward panel-by-panel telling of Smalls’ life story, Gill sets it as a conversation between two friends discussing great Black men. As one recounts the story of Robert Smalls’ life, the other asks questions that uncover more fascinating details about him. Gill’s images are powerful when expressing a range of emotions – readers will feel fear, anger and joy just as the characters do. The somber color palette evokes feelings of oppression and limited possibility. The bibliography contains sources for more information about Robert Smalls’ life. All told, this volume deserves a place in classroom, school and public libraries.

Find Robert Smalls: Tales of the Talented Tenth #3 in your local bookstore or comic book shop.

To learn about the accomplishments of other overlooked Black people, find Gill’s Strange Fruit: Uncelebrated Narratives From Black History, Volumes I and II.

Don’t Hate The Player

dont hate the playerDon’t Hate the Player is a fantastic read that explores the challenges a young woman of color faces when she enters the world of competitive videogaming while trying to keep the rest of her life on track.

Emilia Romero has her post-high school future planned with laser precision. She earns top grades, plays the right sports and participates in the right extracurriculars. She even dates the right boy, just to make the package complete. But all this serves as cover for her real passion – Emilia is an elite videogamer who plays for a championship e-sports team. In her game, Guardians League Online, she serves as the team’s DPS, responsible for damaging and killing the enemy. Going against the stereotype that female players should be healers, Emilia takes pride in being the destroyer. She has to keep this hidden; her family would see it as a distraction from her college goals and her friends would never understand. Things get dicey when Jake Hooper transfers to her high school. Emilia and Jake met as 4th graders at a videogame arcade at a mutual friend’s birthday party. They’d meet up at other parties over the years and game together but they never stayed in contact. Jake is the only person who knows both sides of Emilia’s life but he swears to keep her secret. That becomes tricky when Emilia’s team earns a space in a public, high stakes e-sports championship competition. Jake is now both her confidant and competitor, making things even more complicated.

This book is so much fun to read.

Emilia’s struggle to keep the demands of both parts of her life afloat is intriguing. Her relationship with Jake evolves into romance slowly and realistically. All of the teen characters are interesting and do more than just prop up Jake and Emilia’s storyline. Emilia and Jake’s parents are well fleshed out and bring more depth to the story. Overall, it’s a compelling (and funny!) exploration of relationships between friends, complicated romance, and complex family dynamics.

Jake is white, Emilia is Puerto Rican, and their teammates and friends are a mix of BIPOC, queer and trans folks. I appreciated the narrative’s direct confrontation of the harassment players with the latter identities face in the real world of online gaming. They are often the target of sexual and racial harassment, rape threats, and other forms of abuse. The abuse sometimes even comes from their own teammates. Sadly Emilia finds this situation similar to what she experiences at her elite private school, where she has to be “unassailably great” just to be in the same room with mediocre males.

The videogame sequences are fun and exciting. The outstanding descriptions of the in-game action are detailed, cinematic and engaging; they’re enjoyable regardless of your own level of involvement with videogames. Don’t be surprised if you become inspired to pick up a game controller yourself!

Find Don’t Hate the Player at your local independent bookstore.