Exploring Culture in Kids’ Comics

I recently had the opportunity to moderate a panel with three amazing graphic novel creators as part of San Diego Comic-Con’s Education Series. Each creator tells their story through the lens of their culture. Rumi Hara created  “Nori” which details the adventures of a mischievous, imaginative 4 year old living near Osaka, Japan. Jose Pimienta‘s “Suncatcher,” set in Mexicali, Mexico, is a  “devil at the crossroads” tale of a girl trying to pay a mystical debt and rescue her grandfather’s soul. In “Displacement” by Kiku Hughes a teen travels through time and memory to witness both her grandmother’s life as a Japanese American incarcerated during World War Two and the resulting intergenerational impact.

All three creators were fascinating and entertaining, as are each of their books!  Here’s the video of  our talk. I hope you enjoy it – then go read their books!

Find Nori, Suncatcher and Displacement at your local bookstore or comic shop.

2020 Cybils Awards

The Cybils Awards are given by book bloggers to children’s and young adult authors and illustrators whose work has both literary merit and popular appeal.  I was honored to be a finalist judge for the 2020 Awards for Young Adult Fiction and Young Adult Speculative Fiction. Big thanks to fellow finalist judges Helen Murdoch, Wendy Gassaway, Rachel Patton and Dana Foley for the enjoyable collaboration!

Here are our winners:

Young Adult Fiction

Furia    

Furia
by Yamile Saied Méndez
Algonquin Young Readers
Purchase through IndieBound

Quiet, 17-year-old Argentinian Camila Hassan, lives at home in the shadow of her brother’s soccer career always watching her step so as not to set off her father’s volatile temper. Once she is free of the traditional expectations, she is the star of her futbal team transforming into ‘Furia’ and pushing the boundaries on the field with the end goal to be an American professional futbolera. With her perfect English, killer kick, and a showcasing championship in her sights, what could stop her?

Author Yamile Saied Méndez has created a beautifully complex book. She skillfully wraps issues of sexism, colorism, and violence against women in a story of athletic aspiration, capped off with a touch of romance. Méndez’s own background as a futbolera shines through in her exciting depiction of soccer matches. The compelling narrative is brought to life with strong characters and inclusion of Spanish dialog, which makes the story richer and helps cement the Argentinian setting. Just like the Cybils judges, readers will find themselves rooting wholeheartedly for Furia.

 

Young Adult Speculative Fiction

Cemetery Boys    

Cemetery Boys
by Aiden Thomas
Swoon Reads
Purchase through IndieBound

Deeply steeped in Latinx culture and folklore, Cemetery Boys weaves magic, identity, and family birthright into a compelling coming of age story. Yadriel is gay, transgender, and struggling to be accepted as a brujo by his tight-knit family. Yadriel’s community is diverse and vibrant, peppered with loud and lovable characters like his cousin Maritza. His family is loving, supportive, and complicated. This #ownvoices novel is a tender romance, a ray of hope, and a testament to the power of all kinds of love. Aiden Thomas has written a timely story that readers, both queer and straight, can relate to and see themselves in. The judges strongly felt that readers will enjoy the masterful balance of humor, suspense, and magic achieved in Cemetery Boys.

 

The Cybils honors books for early readers through young adult, picture books and graphic novels, fiction and non-fiction. To see the entire list of 2020 winners,  visit the Cybils blog. Happy reading!

Amari and the Night Brothers

Amari

Amari and the Night Brothers chronicles a quest that literally relies on #blackgirlmagic.

Amari is one of the only Black girls at her private middle school. She’s bullied and gets in trouble for standing up for herself. Amari’s worried about her older brother Quinton who went missing after spending time away from home in a leadership program. After being visited by Quinton in a dream, she is whisked off to join the same program. Amari learns it’s actually the academy where young people train to join the Bureau of Supernatural Affairs.

Each trainee has a natural talent which gets enhanced into a special power; for example, a creative person becomes a mastermind inventor. The Bureau’s specialized departments work together to manage relationships between the known world and the unseen supernatural beings all around us. Amari is determined to become an Agent in the Department of Supernatural Investigations so she can find her brother.

Amari is unsure of her talent and is shocked to learn her power is wielding magic. Magic is illegal and magicians themselves are considered evil  due largely to the Night Brothers. These wicked magicians wreaked havoc on their world in their quest for power. They were also involved in Quinton’s disappearance. Despite having this forbidden skill, Amari is allowed to stay, but finds herself subject to the same shunning and othering she experienced in school. However, thanks to her roommate, an aura-reading weredragon, and some adults who believe in her, she grows in confidence – and supernatural ability – overcoming some big challenges in her quest.

This story deals with real problems but wraps them in whimsy. There’s a lot of silliness which succeeds in making the book fun without side stepping the harder issues. The worldbuilding is solid and plot twists abound. Illustrated chapter headings enliven the story. Amari faces difficulties but also finds friendship and support in this delightful, mystical world. The ending is satisfying but leaves the door open for more adventure. Readers of this middle grade fantasy will be eagerly awaiting the next volume – I know I am!

Find Amari and the Night Brothers (in person or online), at your local bookstore.

 

Happy Holidays!

The holidays are upon us and and along with them, colder weather and for many, new shelter in place orders. Now more than ever books make good gifts. They have the ability to carry us away and help us cope with today’s realities. It’s also a good time to support independent bookstores. You can find your local bookstore here, or comic book shop here. Most stores can fulfill online orders, so don’t let not having a shop in your neighborhood stand in the way!

Here are a few suggestions. Click on the titles to find out more about the books and where to find them. In case you need a reminder, there’s nothing wrong with shopping for yourself!

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

For SciFi/Fantasy Fans

Suncatcher, by Jose Pimienta: Beatriz discovers the secret to her grandfather’s musical talent and realizes she must fulfill an unpaid debt. This graphic novel is a “devil at the crossroads” story with a Mexicali punk twist.

A Phoenix First Must Burn: Sixteen Stories of Black Girl Magic, Resistance and Hope, Patrice Caldwell, Editor – Sixteen top YA authors contribute to this anthology of thrilling scifi, fantasy and magical stories.

Seven Deadly Shadows, by Courtney Alameda and Valynne E. Maetani – Kira Fujikawa, keeper of her family shrine, must call upon ruthless shinigami (death gods), to save it from an attack by yokai demons.

Legendborn, by Tracy Deonn – Bree, trying to uncover the truth behind her mother’s death, finds a connection to a college secret society rooted in the centuries old legends of King Arthur. She soon realizes she’ll need to call on her own heritage of magic to find answers.

 

Looking For Romance?

This Is Kind of an Epic Love Story, by Kheryn (Kacen) Callender – Nate doesn’t believe in happy endings, especially after his best friend turned girlfriend breaks his heart. Things change when Nate’s childhood best friend Oliver moves back to town and – maybe – he can tell Oliver his true feelings towards him.

Opposite of Always, by Justin A. Reynolds – When Jack goes on a  college tour, he falls for his tour guide Kate. He learns she has a serious medical condition and tries to save her life. Somehow he finds himself reliving the moment they met and the subsequent weeks over and over. The circumstances are different every time as he tries again and again to save her.

This Is My Brain In Love, by I.W. Gregorio: Jocelyn Wu and Will Domenici are working together to save Jos’s family’s struggling restaurant. Will and Jos are attracted to each other but realize they have to manage their mental health issues before they can have a relationship. Both are children of immigrants; stigmas around dealing with mental health issues in communities  of color make it more complicated.

Bloom, by Kevin Panetta and Savanna Ganucheau – In this sweet graphic novel, it’s summer, and Ari is stuck in the city working in his family’s bakery. He’s tired of it and wishes he could get away. Hector, who loves baking, comes to town and takes a job at the bake shop. Ari begins to see things differently as he and Hector grow closer.

 

Revisiting The Past

Butterfly Yellow, by Thanhha Lai – Hang is separated from her little brother as they try to escape Vietnam during the last days of the war. When she makes it to Texas 6 years later, she finds him but struggles to reconnect when she realizes he doesn’t remember her.

Outrun The Moon, by Stacey Lee – In 1906 San Francisco, Mercy Wong is determined to be admitted to a private school that usually accepts only wealthy white girls. She manages to get in only to have everything upended when the 1906 earthquake wrecks the town. Now on her own, she must find a way forward for herself and other survivors.

Lies We Tell Ourselves, by Robin Talley – Set in 1959, Sarah Dunbar faces serious harassment as one of 10 Black students integrating an all-white high school. When she and white classmate Linda Hairston are forced to work together on a project they try to understand their attraction to each other when there are so many reasons they shouldn’t be together.

 

Realistic, Current Day Stories

Not So Pure and Simple, by Lamar Giles: Del finally gets close to his crush Kiera – by accidentally joining a church group pledging to stay pure until marriage. Barred from getting proper sex education, the teens grapple with conflicting messages about relationships and sexuality while recognizing the toxic behaviors even “good guys” are guilty of.

This Time Will Be Different, by Misa Sugiura – CJ Katsuyama loves working in her family’s flower shop. A developer swindled her grandparents out of the business when they were sent to the camps during World War Two. After years of work, the shop is back in the Katsuyama’s hands.The business is struggling but CJ is determined to fight back when the same developer’s family tries to buy the building out from under them.

The Perfect Escape, by Suzanne Park – Scholarship student Nate Kim meets wealthy Kate Anderson when they both work at the Zombie Laboratory escape room. Nate’s family struggles financially and although Kate’s does not, her father uses money to keep Kate on a leash. Kate asks Nate to be her partner in the Zombiegeddon weekend-long survival challenge; the big cash prize could change both their lives. 

Turning Point, by Paula Chase – Best friends Rashida and Monique are both straining under imposed structures – Monique in a predominantly white, traditional classical ballet program, Rashida in her very rigid, conservative church. Both girls must figure out how to fit into the world around them without being completely stifled by the constraints.

 

HAPPY HOLIDAYS!!

Cinderella Is Dead

cinderellaForget everything you think you know about Cinderella and prepare to learn the truth. Cinderella is Dead takes place generations after Cinderella’s “happily ever after” with Prince Charming.  Now the monarchy rules the kingdom based on their approved version of the Cinderella story.    The kingdom’s rules require that girls attend a ball when they turn 16 so wealthy men of the kingdom can choose mates.  The young women essentially become their property. All the girls in the kingdom are forced to comply, many unwillingly. If they refuse, they and their families will be punished, so they see no other way. Sophia resists at first, because she wants to spend her life with her girlfriend Erin.

Sophia ultimately attends the ball to protect her family.  She witnesses the leering men and the open abuse of a friend and decides to escape. She finds herself at Cinderella’s tomb, where she meets Constance, a descendant of one of  Cinderella’s stepsisters. Sophia learns how the royal patriarchy falsified the original Cinderella story to enable the oppression of women and queer erasure. Sophia and Constance plot to expose the truth and smash the patriarchy.

This re-imagined fairy tale centers queer Black women. Rather than remixing a few elements, author Kalynn Bayron dismantles the entire legend and creates a completely new story. She skillfully describes how different people throughout the society respond to the rules and regimentation. The characters are well crafted and have clear motivation. The plot moves at a good pace and serves up a few twists. The story is both political and magical, effectively showing how oppression of women negatively affects all people.

Find Cinderella Is Dead at your local bookstore.

Haphaven

“If fortune plays you a bad hand, you can still win if you play the game right.”

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Alex Mills grew up learning about superstitions and how to keep herself safe. She always kept her lucky baseball bat at her side. Her father claimed that avoiding bad luck was their heritage because her great-great grandfather Zane Mills, a professional gambler, married Lady Luck. Together they watch over the Mills descendants.  Alex’s mother is more of a skeptic but doesn’t interfere with Alex and her dad bonding over these beliefs.

Alex’s father is killed in an accident when she’s still a young girl. Years later her mother asks her to let go of superstitions and not be afraid to celebrate her 13th birthday.  Alex agrees to do so and tempts fate by stepping on a crack. Suddenly her mother is paralyzed as if her back were broken. Alex is left to figure out what to do. She’s shocked by the sudden appearance of a leprechaun warrior who whisks her away to Haphaven, the land from which all superstitions draw their power. She must complete a quest to retrieve the one thing that will cure her mother.

This graphic novel is full of colorful characters, deception, hidden agendas and shout outs to familiar superstitions, elevating it from a simple fairy tale to a genuine adventure. The narrative benefits from dialog that is funny, snarky and engaging. The art conveys the creepy world of Haphaven but still shows the warmth of interactions among the characters.  Although Alex is the child of white father and black mother the story doesn’t focus on her identity. Rather, it centers her love of baseball, her relationship with her parents and her dangerous quest.

Once you’ve seen the world of Haphaven, I think you’ll join me in being more conscientious about throwing salt over your shoulder!

Click here to find Haphaven at your local independent bookstore or local comic shop.

When Hearts Collide…

…and fictional relationships get real.

36204669Claire Strupke is a devoted fan of Demon Heart, a television show about Smokey, a demon hunter, and Heart, his prey. They’re on opposite sides but are somehow obsessed with each other, and Claire believes the looks they give each other whenever they meet mean something. She has lots of followers on her Tumblr where she writes SmokeHeart slash fan fic* shipping** the two. When she learns the actors who play Smokey and Heart, Forest Reed and Rico Quiroz, and showrunner Jamie Davies are coming to a local comic convention she decides a) she must go, and b) she will find a way to convince Jamie to make SmokeHeart canon, meaning, make the relationship part of the story. At the Demon Heart panel Q&A, Claire asks when Smokey and Heart will realize they’re in love, and if they’ll kiss. Forest ridicules Claire much to the dismay of Rico, Jamie, the crowd of fans – and social media. In an effort to clean up the PR nightmare Forest caused, Claire is invited to join them on the rest of their convention tour. They want her to use her social media platform to make things right with the fandom, but she is more concerned with making SmokeHeart canon. That’s not the only thing Claire has on her mind. She connects with Tess, another Demon Heart fan, in line for the panel and is confused by her attraction to her. While Tess knows she is queer, Claire is not so sure. It turns out Tess is also going to be following the DemonHeart tour, so Claire has one more thing to figure out.

I proudly admit I love comics, fandoms and all geeky things. Ship It did not disappoint. The intensity of fandoms, how they help people connect, and the overwhelming fun of comic conventions are all captured here. The inclusion of weaponized social media adds reality. Claire is white and Tess is African American, but I wish the narrative did a little more to illustrate the diversity of fandoms. Incorporating Claire’s fan fic into the book gives a full picture of her vision of SmokeHeart while at the same time showing how her writing may be part of her questioning her own sexuality. I appreciated how the story stayed complicated, especially in this regard. This is a fun read and will appeal to anyone who enjoys fandoms, seeing people pursue a goal, and sometimes sweet, sometimes difficult early relationships.

* Stories based on existing works which create different plots and relationships between the characters. Slash fan fic contains gay relationships

**Wishing for a romantic relationship between 2 characters not currently together

Freedom Fighting Kids – and Dinos

Never underestimate the power of a child on a dinosaur.

38276982This historical fantasy is set during the Civil War and draws on actual events: the New York City draft riots and the burning of the Colored Orphan Asylum in July of 1863. In this version of that time, dinosaurs are still around, having been domesticated and put into use for various tasks. The story revolves around Magdalys Roca and her friends who live at the Colored Orphan Asylum. During a field trip to a theater they get caught up in the draft riots and find their orphanage has been burned to the ground. Even scarier, they are almost captured by the Kidnapping Club, a group of men who abduct colored people and sell them south into slavery. Magdalys, (who discovers she can somehow psychically communicate, understand and control dinosaurs), and the other orphans along with a few performers from the theater fight their way to safety aboard a brachiosaur. They find a safe house on Dactyl Hill, named for the pterodactyls who nest there. The crew learns that the Kidnapping Club has captured most of the colored orphans and is planning to sell them into slavery. With the help of a few adults and some powerful dinos, the children lead the battle against the kidnappers to free their friends.

Older successfully tells a story of brave children set inside the brutal reality of abuse of people of color by pro-slavery profiteers, riots, lynchings and the Civil War. The inclusion of dinosaurs ratchets up the excitement in the most dramatic scenes. The narrative doesn’t sugar coat the threats to the characters of color present during that time, but still makes the issues accessible to younger readers, say 10 and up. I admit to giving a side eye to the idea of dinosaurs + civil war, but I have to say, it really works.

Daniel José Older, Dactyl Hill Squad, Arthur A. Levine

Note: You can find this book at your local bookstore on September 11th.

 

The magic inside

When our magic is destroyed, can we do what it takes to bring it back?

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Generations ago, Sky Mother blessed her children, all deities, with mastery over life and death, dreams, the elements, health and disease, time, and animals. In turn, the deities created maji, their human children of blood and bone who could wield the powers. A king who hated magic ordered a raid; all the maji were killed and only divîners, young people capable of magic but whose powers have not yet awoken, were allowed to live. He also made sure to dispose of the sacred objects which awaken their ashê and connect the maji to Sky Mother. Many years after the raid one of the magical objects, a scroll, has resurfaced and is in the king’s possession. After witnessing a brutal act which reveals the scroll’s power, the king’s daughter Princess Amari steals the scroll and runs away from the castle. She meets Zélie, a divîner, and Zélie’s brother Tzain. They learn that the three of them are destined to take the scroll and make a way to reconnect divîners to their gods, bringing magic back. To do this they must stay ahead of Prince Inan – Amari’s brother who is charged with finding her and the scroll. He is committed to proving himself to his father the king, but struggles with a secret of his own – somehow, he too is a divîner.

This is an incredible book. The narrative, rooted in West African culture,  is dramatic and action packed, filled with uneasy alliances, ever present danger, and magic.  The world building is stellar, so rich, detailed and cinematic you become fully immersed. Complex characters make the story even more engaging. One especially nice element is the maji and divîners’ appearance. All of them have white hair; it’s straight when they are divorced from their magic, and as the connection gets stronger, their hair grows more coiled (think Angela Bassett in Black Panther.) Each chapter is voiced by either Amari, Inan, and Zélie, so we are always party to the internal conflicts each face when thrown into difficult, confusing situations. Kudos to the cover designer – the visual truly communicates the drama inside the book.

I love this book so much it’s causing me to reverse a firmly held opinion – I am no longer tired of trilogies! I am thrilled that this story will continue in two more books, the next, Children of Virtue and Vengeance, due out in early 2019. Is it too soon to stand outside of the bookstore and wait for it to be delivered?

Children of Blood and Bone, Tomi Adeyemi, Henry Holt