I have been reviewing YA books and graphic novels for the School Library Journal magazine since 2018. I enjoy getting a sneak peek at some titles that will be coming out, as I order both genres for my library. Reviewing is different than writing for my personal blog, as I am limited to 200-300 words for each review, and can only share once it has been published with their edits. The magazine wishes to be transparent with descriptions regarding race, so people don’t default to thinking characters are white, so any physical descriptions of characters are now required in the review. I’ve now reviewed twenty-five books for them- here are my first six, my second set of six and my third.
Secrets of Camp Whatever
Willow, a Latinx biracial tween with purple hair, is not pleased to be moving with her family to the town of “Nowhere.” To make matters worse, she is being dropped off at the same weeklong summer camp her dad used to attend. Willow also has to deal with an odd camp director who patronizes her once he finds out she is deaf and wears hearing aids. But all those troubles fade when she and her cabinmates discover that the foggy island is inhabited by supernatural creatures. Friendship, humor, and teamwork help them grapple with Bigfoot, a witch, gnomes, and a vampire. Grine’s clean and appealing illustrations flow well. The art suits this whimsical mystery. Backgrounds are minimal, with more detail paid to the strange creatures and eerie woods than to the campers, and the palette is subdued, dominated by grays, lavenders, and blues.
Verdict: Sure to be a hit with young readers, especially fans of the Lumberjanes books and the TV series Gravity Falls. The conclusion hints that more magical adventures await Willow and her friends, which makes this new series one to invest in.
Gayle and her single mother recently moved to Martha’s Vineyard from Boston to open a boutique ice cream store. Gayle, a star pitcher for a local softball team, breaks her arm during the championship and loses the game. Reeling with guilt at losing the game and inadvertently forcing her mom to take an additional job to pay hospital bills, Gayle joins budding cinematographer Elijah and bullied teen Maddie to film a movie for a contest with a $3,000 prize. They meet the production crew on a big-budget shark movie that is filming on the island and discover a gruesome local legend based on a past tragedy. While this graphic novel is aimed at middle schoolers, it has a mature sensibility and an eerie “Goosebumps” vibe. Gayle, Maddie, and their families are white, and Elijah and his father are Black; characters are from various socioeconomic groups. Family ties are strong, and a queer romance is hinted at. Marcks has a distinctive art style, capturing characters in a cartoony, almost caricature-like manner and conveying emotion well. His panels are small but easy to follow, with a soft purple hue that has narrative significance.
Verdict: A bridge between simpler narratives and more mature content, this is a strong addition to graphic novel shelves, with appealing art and a strong story about friendship.
The Summer of Lost Letters
Seventeen-year-old Abby Schoenberg has recently lost her grandmother O’ma and discovers a stash of old love letters among her belongings. The letters tell of a romance on Nantucket during the 1950s that was passionate but ended badly. Her grandmother never spoke of that time of her life and Abby’s curiosity is piqued, so with her parent’s permission she obtains a summer job on the island and begins to sleuth out what happened in O’ma’s past. Abby soon befriends Noah, the grandson of the man who wrote the letters, and the two confront some hard truths and prejudices that O’ma endured as a Jewish refugee, who lost her biological family in Auschwitz and then lost her secondary family in America. This is a blend of romance, history, and a coming-of-age narrative that all ties together well. Abby and Noah’s Jewish faith and background are respectfully represented and showcase the reality that some Jews have to downplay their religion and culture to fit in. Abby and Noah are cued as white and secondary characters have various ethnicities.
Verdict: This contemporary romance with a healthy mix of historical fiction, that also incorporates some deeper truths, will be a fun summer read. A solid YA purchase.
Treasure in the Lake
Childhood friends Iris’s and Sam’s interests have diverged now that they have reached middle school: Iris dreams of leaving their quaint town for archaeological adventures, while Sam is content with his life as is. When the local river suddenly goes dry, the kids happen upon a formerly submerged town downstream that had been abandoned years ago when a nearby dam threatened the villagers and was revealed only because of low waters. Adventures await these two friends, but soon an argument and rising waters put them in danger. Relying upon a Chibi style for the characters, debut author and illustrator Pamment has created an appealing town that seems inspired by the French countryside. Sharp-eyed readers will pick up on clues in various panels about the fantasy element in the second half of the story. Not everything is spelled out, but readers will gain a greater understanding through the illustrations. The palette is soft, with blues and purples dominating.
Verdict: A strong story about friendship that incorporates fantasy and whimsy; fans of Hilda and Adventure Time will be charmed. A great addition to any middle school library collection.
Glorious Wrestling Alliance
Glorious Wrestling Alliance is a tongue-in-cheek homage to pro wrestling that will have readers rooting for a scrappy crew of misfit athletes. Great Carp, who has a fish for a head, is the current champion, but he’s having an existential crisis. Other team members are grappling with identity issues: Miranda Fury resents being seen as a lesser wrestler because of her gender; Gravy Train, who has a gravy boat for a body, wants a different persona; and tortured poet Death Machine wants his writings to be taken seriously. A traveling tour results in comedy and mayhem as they all struggle to move into new roles. Cult classics in some circles, Hicks’s comics have been collected and colorized for the first time. His straightforward six-panel format, with occasional breaks for amusing maps or sidebars, capably brings the characters to life. The story has a Scott Pilgrim vibe, with witty dialogue and spot-on satire poking fun at the world of pro wrestling.
Verdict: This campy graphic novel is a knockout; sure to be popular with older youth and adults, who will enjoy the quirky illustrations and humor.
Cardboardia: The Other Side of the Box
Pokey, Mac, Masie, and Bird are four youth who discover mysterious tokens and find themselves pulled into a parallel world made out of cardboard. They only can enter this world through a cardboard box such as a paper recycling bin, and discover a creative mecca. But this world is threatened by the Grey Queen, and soon it is revealed that these youth were selected because of the magical gifts that they can harness together to save the kingdom of Cardboardia. The youth and their corresponding families are diverse racially and economically, with different family dynamics. The art is sketchy with faces that have overly large eyes. There is a nice array of different types of panels, with a colorful palette that changes between the worlds. Told in shifting perspectives, the story has an overly complicated beginning and ends in a cliffhanger.
Verdict: This start to a new series will resonate with readers seeking fanciful stories that incorporate friendship, creativity, and problem-solving.
Just Roll With It
Maggie is a new sixth grader, who is anxious about starting middle school and following in the footsteps of her accomplished older siblings. A fan of role-playing games, she carries around a 20-sided dice that she uses to help her make decisions in regards to friends and school. But when OCD tendencies begin to overwhelm her by letting the dice make her choices for her, fantasy begins to merge with reality. Maggie and her loved ones recognize she needs help and then take the steps in doing so. Maggie and her family are cued as South Asian and the story showcases a welcome diversity in her friends. Author Lee Durfey-Lavoie has written a compassionate story that puts mental health issues and getting the appropriate help in a positive light. With anxiety and depression rising in teens, this book shows youth that they are not alone. Artist Veronica Agarwal has crafted winsome characters that are inspired by anime and chibi animation that will appeal to a young audience.
Verdict: For fans of Raina Telgemeier’s Guts, this charming graphic novel about anxiety and learning not to let fear overwhelm you is a recommended purchase for all middle school library shelves.
It is a pleasure reviewing for this librarian’s magazine, and I hope to continue doing so in the future!