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.

🎉🎉 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.

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.

The Black Panther Party: A Graphic Novel History

Black Panthers

This graphic novel goes beyond accepted knowledge and myths about the Black Panther Party to tell a complex, well researched history. The Black Panther Party for Self-Defense was created in 1966 in Oakland, CA, but is actually rooted in the oppression of Black people in America, going back to the time of enslavement. The narrative draws a line from that time, through the Civil War to the civil rights movement, showing how the Panthers were inevitable.

In chronicling the history, author David F. Walker often breaks from the narrative panels and uses full pages to take a closer look at people and events. In addition to in depth information about pivotal figures Bobby Seale and Huey P. Newton, we learn more about less well known men and women who were essential to the Panthers’ founding. The narrative documents many of the Panthers’ successes, including launching free nutrition, clothing, education, and medical care programs. The book is equally clear about the Party’s violent acts and internal conflicts. Shifts in leadership and disagreements about priorities and tactics lead to power struggles. We also get an informative deep dive into J. Edgar Hoover’s Counter Intelligence Program. COINTELPRO, as it was known, was the covert, illegal domestic surveillance of political groups. Walker includes a memo outlining the secretive group’s goal of eliminating all organizations advocating for Black power or civil rights. He details how the FBI’s tactics – planting informants, inflaming rivalries between the Panthers and rival organizations and colluding with local law enforcement – significantly weakened the Party.

Marcus Kwame Anderson’s art supports the story beautifully. The realistic renderings bring the people and their experiences to life. The colors are muted but work well to depict both the successes and the struggles of the Party. Overall this graphic novel does a stellar job of conveying the complicated legacy of the Black Panther Party’s people and programs. An extensive bibliography with resources for further reading is included.

Find this compelling graphic novel at your local independent bookstore or comic book shop.

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!!

Fights: One Boy’s Triumph Over Violence

47493017Joel Christian Gill is the creator of the graphic novels Strange Fruit Volumes I & II, which tell the stories of unsung African Americans. He turns the focus on himself in his powerful graphic memoir Fights: One Boy’s Triumph Over Violence. His recounting of his young life is both brave and heartbreaking. He does not hold back in exposing the abuse and neglect he suffered and shows how it impacted the way he moved through the world. He admits how painful it was to recall these childhood memories – I can only imagine what it was like to live them, given how painful it was to read about them.

His father died when he was young, and his mother struggled to take care of him. He often had to stay with his mother’s friends or relatives, where he was sexually abused and neglected. School provided no refuge as he was also bullied by other children and mistreated by teachers. He was drowning but there was no one to throw him a life-line.  He had to swim his way out on his own. He shows how children subjected to violence in words and actions absorb it all; then, like sponges, they get filled up and start to “leak” that same behavior. Eventually he became like the children around him, a full vessel leaking abuse onto others.

He was kept afloat by the library, art and a few key friendships. Once he discovered how much he enjoyed drawing, he could lose himself in it. He struggled but made his way through middle school and high school. A decision he made at age 18 was surprising, but turned out to be life-saving.

Gill’s dramatic art, with saturated colors and expressive characterizations, brings you deep into his story and doesn’t let go. The scenes where he depicts his mistreatment manage to be simultaneously subtle, infuriating and devastating. Photographs from his early life through present day bring the story even closer. The language is as evocative as the visuals. In addition to imagining children as sponges, he uses fire to represent harm. Some people are arsonists, deliberately causing pain, while others are accidental fire starters.  There are also those who do controlled burns — looking for the best place to start the fire. Although this book is difficult, it shows how young people, living under dire circumstances, can still find their way out to a healthy life. He leaves us with hope.

I don’t know what it took to create this memoir, but I admire Joel Christian Gill for doing it. I appreciate his note saying he didn’t do this as a catharsis.  Instead, he is speaking to young people who are experiencing trauma, sending the message that they can think for themselves and can choose a different path. He is also speaking to adults who witness young people acting as he did; he hopes they can recognize the roots of this behavior and seek to learn that child’s story.

Find Fights at your local bookstore or comic book shop.