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!

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.

 

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.

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.

They Called Us Enemy

42527866Good stories always stand on their own, but some stories resonate even more if they are particularly timely.  Actor and activist George Takei’s graphic memoir of his experience during World War 2 is one of those stories, given the disgraceful events happening in America right now at our Southern border.

They Called Us Enemy tells the story of Takei’s childhood as one of 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry who were taken from their homes and forced into concentration camps. He was 5 years old when his family was first relocated. His parents tried to protect him from the reality of what was going on, so in his young mind this started out as an adventure.

Through his experience, we see what life was like in the camps and the different ways it affected people. Among many disturbing things, he reveals how children internalized what was going on around them, no matter how hard adults tried to shield them. They acted out “Japs vs. Americans,” shouted “die Japanese cowards” and fought for a turn to play the Americans. What damage did this do to the young people in these camps?  What does this say about the damage being done today to children being held at our nation’s borders?

Obviously, it was no better for the adults. The harsh living conditions, constant questioning of their loyalties and repeatedly being set against one another made for a bleak existence.

Takei’s story covers that time through current day, reflecting back on the grave injustice done, the generational impact and how some of the same things are occurring again.  Harmony Becker’s black and white, manga influenced art does a masterful job of communicating Takei’s innocence without downplaying the horrors around him. Unlike many families, Takei’s was willing to talk about it when he was older, helping him fully understand the bigger picture of what he and Japanese Americans suffered through. This led to Takei’s vocal social justice activism, which continues to this day.

This difficult, inspiring story is a good reminder that if we aren’t vigilant, the worst of history will repeat itself.

Find They Called Us Enemy at your local bookstore or comic book shop.

Dough Boys

Two people starting on the same path can end up in very different places.

43131603This follow up to So Done revisits the world of Pirates Cove public housing. 8th graders Roland “Rollie” Matthews and Deontae “Simp” Wright are best friends. Rollie is a talented drummer enrolled in a special program for young performing artists. He has a stable life, while Simp’s life is much more complicated. As the oldest of 5 boys living with their single mother, Simp is saddled with adult responsibilities.

Both boys play for the champion Marauders basketball team – which involves more than just basketball. When Coach Tez recruits players he’s also recruiting “dough boys” – lookouts for his drug dealing operation. Rollie got caught up in Tez’s gang only because he wanted to play basketball. For Simp it’s a clear path to respect and success. Rollie keeps it secret from his family but Simp doesn’t. His mother happily looks the other way, glad he can provide for the family. Rollie and Simp both come to a crossroads. They find themselves having to make very different but equally difficult decisions. Will they be able to handle the consequences?

This story explores how people can live in the same world but have very different experiences. Though Rollie and Simp both envision futures for themselves, even as middle schoolers they see the challenges. One sees a way out, the other finds a path that keeps him in. The chapters alternate between Rollie and Simp’s voices, giving a clear picture of their situations and struggles. The decisions they have to make are framed within the normal life of their 8th grade existence, including maintaining  loyalty to friends, having crushes, and managing the influence of peers.

One important thing about this story is that it doesn’t embrace the Black pain narrative that so many books include these days. Instead, it thoughtfully explores the realities of these young men’s lives without centering violence and suffering. This a relatable and engaging story for a wide variety of young readers.

Find Dough Boys at your local bookstore.

Hot Comb

For Black women, hair can be a political issue.

41940338Hot Comb contains a collection of comics centered on the ways hair choices impact how Black women are seen by themselves and by society. The comics also show how, between mothers and daughters or among friends, hair can be both a way to bond or a source of conflict. Black women’s hair is a complicated issue. In the dominant culture, natural hairstyles have been criticized, and in Black culture straightened hair can be judged. Is it wrong to want to wear your hair the way it grows out of your head? Is choosing to straighten hair problematic? Although it’s good to see these experiences represented, being reminded of the conflicts is also a bit painful. Regardless, many Black women will recognize the scenarios: spending long days in the salon, the “can I touch your hair” issue, keeping your head above water while swimming, or pondering having hair that’s natural, straight, or something else entirely.

The narrative successfully weaves hair issues into a variety of “just another day” vignettes. The black and white art is realistic, but stylized in a way that supports the stories well. It’s at its best in pages replicating ads for wigs and hair products that used to be found in Black magazines. They add depth to the stories and will no doubt bring back memories for many readers. This book is geared to adults but since hair questions for Black women begin in childhood, the stories will also resonate with teens. In the end, it’s a reminder for Black women to get through the hair journey and embrace wherever we land.

Find Hot Comb at your local independent bookstore or comic book shop.