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School Library Journal reviews

I have been reviewing YA books and children’s graphic novels for the School Library Journal magazine for the last two years. 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 250-300 words for each review, and can only share once it has been published with their edits. I’ve now reviewed twelve books for them, I shared six on my previous post, and six now. I feel it helps me as a professional, for when I accepted my job as Head of Teen Services last year, my writing for this blog and for the magazine were pluses in my favor for the library director.

The Map From Here to There

Gr 7 Up: Endearing new couple Paige and Max from The Start of Me and You are back for their senior year in this sequel about friendship and finding life balance. Over the course of a school year, Paige struggles with what choices lay ahead for her after graduation. Despite being happy with Max, she wrestles with which colleges to apply to and saying goodbye to her close-knit group of friends. Her anxiety gets the best of her and her relationship with Max begins to disintegrate; she gets caught up in her head about choices to make in the future and loses sight of how to enjoy the moment she is in. An experienced YA author, Lord captures teenage struggles effectively and shows how senior year is a difficult time for many. Teens are almost at the end of their school career and thinking of the different paths they will soon be taking, yet they need to live in the here and now. Friendship is an important part of the narrative, and the author ably shows that one does not have to choose a relationship over friends, but that they can balance both. Paige’s and Max’s journey is realistic and readers will root for them to reconcile.

Verdict: An appealing romance, at times heavy on the angst, that can stand alone but should be a definite buy where the first book was popular.

Gr 7 Up: Four friends—Ava, CJ, Jordan, and Martha—who have been tight since kindergarten are entering their senior year and beginning to face the realization that they will all be going in different directions. The opening chapter establishes that one will become President of the United States, but readers don’t know which one. Is it Ava, an artist who is struggling with her future choices; CJ, an earnest do-gooder; Jordan, a budding ace journalist; or Martha, a strong young woman who is facing some hurdles in life? As the novel spans a year of their experiences, a red herring is thrown in to muddy the waters as to who the future president could be. Debut author Watson creates four appealing and diverse young women; however, the narrative can seem formulaic and strives hard to check all the boxes, thus feeling like a made-for-TV movie. But this coming-of-age drama has a twist that will throw off readers as to which young woman becomes president, as all are smart and capable, and worthy of the office. Plus, the message of enduring friendships is always important for young people to read.

Verdict: A fun and light read, this book will appeal to teens who like contemporary fiction. A solid purchase.

Aster and the Accidental Magic

Gr 4-7–A move to the mountains results in adventure beyond a young girl’s wildest dreams. A strange species of gigantic birds that reproduce on a 15-year cycle is gearing up for a migration—always a destructive event. To help guide the birds, Aster’s scientist mother is building a robot. Her work takes the family to the mountains, and young Aster is initially distraught when her life is uprooted. But as she explores the countryside, she finds magic and mischief, befriends a seasonal deity, acquires a pet dog, outwits a trickster, and has the adventure of a lifetime. Aster learns to cope with the unexpected and finds solidarity with her family and new friends. The conclusion hints that more fun awaits in future volumes. Featuring simple lines and appealingly bizarre creatures, the art will entice readers. The Alps-inspired landscapes and characters are colored with muted Photoshopped blocks of color, with panels that let the busy narrative flow. At times the style turns anime-like to convey extreme moments.

Verdict: Those who love Luke Pearson’s “Hilda” series will eagerly jump on board the Aster bandwagon.

InvestiGators

Gr 2-5–In the first installment of what promises to be a wildly successful graphic novel series, Green (“Kitten Construction Company”) once again shows off his knack for pun-filled animal tales. Alligators Mango and Brash are friends and secret agents for S.U.I.T. (Special Undercover Investigator Teams), tasked with solving their first case: finding Chef Mustachio, who went missing just before he was about to unveil his latest concoction. These masters of disguise are off and running. But when there’s an explosion at the Science Factory, the duo are asked to look into that mystery, too. No matter where they go, Mango and Brash blend in seamlessly with humans who somehow never notice that they are interacting with alligators who sport vests outfitted with gadgets. Jokes, especially visual puns (“Badges?” “We’re not badgers, we’re alligators!”) and toilet humor, come fast and furious, and the clean, simple cartoon art and paneled layout are easy to follow. Kids who are tickled by Green’s irreverent humor will appreciate the drawing tips that conclude the book.

Verdict: Like the heroes of Dav Pilkey’s “Dog Man” or “Captain Underpants,” the Investigators are bound to resonate with kids.

Gr 9 Up–Cariani transforms his popular play into a fully realized YA novel of interconnected vignettes. The third-person narration opens on Ginette and Pete going to look at the stars in their hometown of Almost. Although they are beginning to fall in love, a verbal spat leads to Ginette’s leaving. Every subsequent chapter is a two-person vignette, a short story informed by her walk home past various locations. The couples experience the joys and struggles of love, with a magical realism bent, and not all the stories end happily. Of the ten couples featured–one more than found in the play, and including LGBTQ+ representation–only two characters are teenagers, so this may require some handselling to get YAs to fully connect with the stories. It will be worth it.

Verdict: For New Adult sections, theater enthusiasts, and born romantics, a charming and whimsical collection.

Gr 7-10–Recent valedictorian Rachel has been laser-focused on her goals of obtaining high grades and getting into Northwestern University. Now that summer has arrived, she can finally relax. Reflecting that she had refused to participate in many high school rites of passage, and after finding a self-help book that encourages saying “yes” to new life experiences, Rachel decides to try this approach. She’s quickly out of her comfort zone as she inadvertently becomes involved in a love triangle, reconnects with an old friend, and learns new truths about her classmates. While the John Hughes–esque narrative is rom-com in nature, Culli has crafted a more substantial book than readers might initially guess. She captures teen life and thoughts authentically and shows that the way people present their lives to the public is not always what is truly happening behind the scenes. A strong supporting cast of characters also adds depth.

Verdict: A definite purchase for YA collections, this winning book will have readers considering how a few key decisions could alter their entire lives. Lessons in taking risks, being true to yourself, and not buying into stereotypes create a truly compelling read.

It is a pleasure reviewing for this librarian’s magazine, and I hope to continue doing so in the future!

-Nancy

Teen Titans: Raven

The day before Raven’s foster mom was to sign her adoption papers, they are hit by a drunk driver. Vivaine is killed, and Raven is sent to Vivaine’s sister Natalia and her daughter Max in New Orleans. Raven remembers the accident, and her foster mom vaguely, but nothing further than that. The doctors have assured her that her memory loss is only temporary With the help of Natalia, Max, and a mysterious boy named Tommy, Raven slowly feels like she’s getting back to normal. However, Raven can’t help feeling like she doesn’t want to remember something that happened before the accident. She’s also somehow able to hear what others are thinking… making high school more of a drag than it already is. Are these thoughts and feelings – maybe powers – a side effect of the accident, or are they something more?

This DC Ink’s reimagining of Raven’s origin story is compelling. Raven feels real. She’s scared, confused, and vulnerable: emotions that no teenager wants to admit that they feel. We see Raven struggle to accept help dealing with these big emotions, and cheer for her when she does. We learn along with Raven that the bonds of chosen family and sisterhood can be just as strong as the bonds of blood family – maybe even stronger. Kami Garcia sure knows how to play to her audience.

Gabriel Picolo’s art is lovely. The colors are for the most part black, white, and purple, with other colors as an accent or to draw your attention to an important detail. Raven is mostly rendered in full-color, as she’s the narrator and main character. Sometimes other characters are rendered in full-color instead of or along with Raven, if that character is talking or to illustrate their importance to the scene.

Above all, I adored the atmosphere of this book and the African-American women power that came along with it. The New Orleans magical mystique was palpable on every page. The magical elements are glittering with not a little dash of malice, as if to allure but also to scare. Natalia and Max are both African-American, and are both powerful witches in their own right. And that’s awesome!!! Max is a new character introduced in this book from what I understand. I do hope we see more of all of these characters in a future installment.

Kathleen

Garcia, Kami, and Gabriel Picolo. Teen Titans: Raven. 2019.

Guest Post on 2020 YASF Tournament of Books

As the Head of Teen Services at my library, I attend a networking group with other librarians who work with teens in the Chicagoland suburb area. For several years the YASF (Young Adult Services Forum) group has had a yearly Tournament of Books for YA novels, and this is my fourth year participating by writing reviews for their blog So like YA know

This year I was assigned graphic novels Bloom by Kevin Panetta and Savanna Ganucheau and Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up WIth Me by Mariko Tamaki and Rosemary Valero-O’Connell. Both books have gained impressive followings, rave reviews, and book awards due to their positive and true-to-life representation of LGBTQ+ life. You can see in the graphic what book I choose to move on in the tournament, but click here and find out WHY!

-Nancy

My School Library Journal reviews

I have been reviewing YA books (plus one graphic novel!) for the magazine School Library Journal for a year now, but haven’t really advertised that I was doing so, as this blog mostly revolves around graphic novels, but I thought why not share these great books since I’m (half) boss of this blog! Reviewing has been interesting, as I am limited to 250-300 words for each review, and can only share once it has been published with their edits. All the books have been worthwhile, so afterward I’ve purchased them for my library collections once they are available for purchase.

Better You Than Me by Jessica Brody

Two 12-year old girls, Disney-esque star Ruby Rivera and her biggest fan Skyler Welshman, meet on the set of Ruby’s hit television show and improbably switch bodies by accident. At first, thrilled with the situation, each tween believes the other has the better life in this Freaky Friday-like storyline. Due to various scheduling constraints, the girls plan to meet in several days to switch back. Meanwhile, each girl’s assumptions about one another are put to the test as they struggle to cope with scenarios they never expected and to make the best of their new lives. Brodt takes a common trope and freshens it up with realistic details. Whats starts out as a formulaic plot device evolves into a strong story about appreciating friends and family and making good choices. The alternating chapters with each girl’s perspectives gave each chapter a distinctive voice.

* Review published in the September 2018 issue of School Library Journal on page 102.

Second Star by JM Sullivan

Peter Pan is reconceptualized in this futuristic space fantasy with rogue Captain Hooke crash landing on the mysterious planet Neverland as his crew was mutinying. Ace mechanic Peter and his motley group of deserters take refuge away from the main ship and settle into life away from the devious captain. One hundred years in the future, the Londonierre Brigade receives a transmission from Hooke, and newly appointed Captain Wendy Darling leads her own crew across space to rescue the survivors of the Jolly Rodger. Once they arrive, loyalties are tested and the two crews fight an evil that could consume the universe.

Alternating chapters between Peter and Wendy’s point-of-view establish the character’s backstories, however, the world-building is slow before the story begins to gain momentum in the last half of the book.  Author JM Sullivan works mightily to stay within the classic story’s framework, but sometimes to the detriment of the story. A cliff-hanger sets up the narrative for a sequel, which might allow the series to evolve as it won’t need to hew so closely to the original fairytale.

*The review can be found online here.

All The Walls of Belfast by Sarah Carlson

American teen Fiona travels to Belfast, Northern Ireland, to reunite with her father whom she has not seen since she was a toddler. Having no memories of her older half brothers or her birthplace, Fiona tentatively begins to get to know her family and explores her culture and community. She discovers her Catholic father was formally a key member of the IRA and his bombs killed many people during The Troubles, a time when ethnonationalism led to violence between Catholics and Protestants. Fiona meets Danny, a Protestant who is studying for his school finals and wishes to join the British Army as a nurse against his gangster father’s wishes. The two begin to see one another, but their parents’ pasts threaten their relationship.

Alternating chapters between Fiona and Danny establish their family dynamics, and then allows the reader to root for them as their believable romance blossoms. Author Carlson creates an atmospheric narrative, explaining just enough of the current political and cultural landscape to understand how the walls running through Belfast still affect both communities on either side of it.  The story doesn’t shy away from showing gritty reality and dysfunctional families that are partly due to the conflicts that ended only fairly recently. This contemporary drama has an appealing romance and the nuanced story may push teens to think critically about religious and cultural differences, and ultimately about forgiveness.

 

Cheshire Crossing by Andy Weir and Sarah Andersen

Dorothy from The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, Alice of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and Peter Pan’s Wendy are now teens and very misunderstood- no one else believed their wild stories, and they were diagnosed as delusional. However, the teachers at the boarding school Cheshire Crossing believe them and know that each one possesses amazing powers. When the girls’ fantasy worlds collide and Captain Hook and the Wicked Witch of the West band together, the three teens must harness their talents to save humanity. Weir, author of the sci-fi book The Martian, and Andersen known for her funny webcomic Sarah’s Scribbles, may seem an unlikely pair, but they pull it off admirably if not perfectly. The world-hopping is at times confusing and the character of Nanny is unnecessary. Several swear words and references to sex make the tale more appropriate for a YA audience, although the charming illustrations might attract younger readers. The art is appealing, with eye-catching details. A lovely red poppy motif appears throughout the narrative and Anderson uses bold colors to depict the fantasy realms. The epilogue hints that the girls’ adventures are not done, with another familiar villain ready to take center stage.

*Review published in the June 2019 issue of School Library Journal on page 86.

The Last True Poets of the Sea by Julia Drake

Violet is an out-of-control NYC teen who is shipped off to her mother’s hometown in coastal Maine after her younger brother attempts suicide and her parents try to get a handle on both of their children’s problems. While living with her uncle, Violet is forced to volunteer at the aquarium in town. While there, she makes friends with some of the local teens and begins to research her family’s origins, with help from her new friends Orion and Liv. Supposedly her great-great-grandmother survived a shipwreck and was a founder of the community. Violet’s search for answers about her mysterious ancestor mirrors some of the journey she and her brother Sam are on.

Debut author Drake has created an authentic and romantic tale, loosely based on Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, that shows that life can be embraced again even after enduring a tragedy. Teen sexuality is respectfully addressed with a frankness that is welcomed. The realities of questioning yourself and the deep emotions that go with falling in love are ably displayed with the burgeoning relationship between Violet and Liv. Sibling bonds and the importance of family also balance out this narrative about battling grief and building bridges to a better tomorrow.

* The on-line review can be found here.

Scars Like Wings by Erin Stewart

Ava has endured soul-crushing tragedy- her parents and cousin perished in a house fire, leaving Ava the sole survivor but with terrible burns all over her body. One year late she is released from the hospital after enduring skin grafts and surgeries. Moving in with her aunt and uncle who are grieving the loss of their daughter, Ava is encouraged to go back to high school, but she resists knowing her considerable scars will make it hard to make friends. In a support group, she meets Piper, another burn survivor from her new school, and the two girls bond together while trying to navigate their new realities. Ava is encouraged to get involved with the school play, as she had loved singing and the drama department at her old school. But Ava has to endure the cruelties of some, while also discovering new allies and a resolve she never knew she had.

The research that debut author Stewart did to write such an insightful book about burn recovery is evident. She also capably showed how Ava and her aunt and uncle come together to form a new family unit despite crushing grief. Stewart also captures the highs and lows of teen friendship. An interesting facet of the friendship between Ava and Piper was the often unhealthy dynamic between the two and could push teens to explore where they would draw the line regarding boundaries between friends. Ava’s journey toward healing, both physically and mentally, is thought-provoking. Not all scars are evident to the eye, and this narrative will push readers to think deeply about empathy, hope, and resilience in the face of heartbreak.

*The online review can be found here.

I have another book review that I just submitted, so perhaps down the line, I’ll share again once I have several to post.

-Nancy

Under the Moon: A Catwoman Tale

Fifteen-year-old Selina Kyle has been through a lot in life already. Her mom, a waitress, has had a string of boyfriends, each crueler than the last. Dernell, the latest, tops them all. Selina reaches her breaking point and leaves home, striking out on her own and living on the streets. Her street smarts and quick, sticky fingers ensure she doesn’t go hungry or get hurt, even by the so-called Gotham Growler that’s been prowling the streets at night. When she meets Ojo, a parkour expert and fellow street kid like her, he offers her a place in his found family, and the next heist they’re planning. Selina refuses, believing she doesn’t need anyone. But maybe even lone cats need a family, every once in a while.

There was a lot going on in this one. At the forefront is Selina herself: her struggles with her home life, her feelings of hopelessness and despair, and her determination to never rely on anyone again. This is a Selina perfect for a young adult audience. Perhaps teens who read this will also be grappling their own broken homes and horrible feelings associated with it. As Selina shows us, it’s okay to open up and accept help every once in a while from those loved ones who offer it.

The review I read before it was published made it sound like the Gotham Growler was going to be a prominent part of the story, but it was very minimal. We don’t even find out who he is or why he’s attacking people in the end, which was pretty disappointing. And even though there is a thieving element, it is played down as well, to allow Selina and the tentative relationships she forges with the other street kids (and renews with one Bruce Wayne) to come forward.

Author Lauren Myracle is no stranger to teenage feelings and situations in her work (she’s written the ttyl books), but I was very surprised artist Isaac Goodhart is a relatively new face. His CV consists of a bare half-dozen titles, and this is his first DC title. Given his short career, I was amazed at the quality of his work. The whole book is in hues of deep, moody blues and purples, with pale yellow accents. His linework is precise, yet expressive. The audience will appreciate that writer nor artist held back with the deep and hurtful stuff.

As an adult, I found some plot points to be too convenient, but overall this DC Ink title will satisfy the intended YA audience. This dynamic duo pull no punches in this imagining of Selina Kyle’s teenage years. Though the story is hard, Selina’s inner strength and determination will be what stays with readers. I will be watching for more of Goodhart’s work, and I sure hope he and Myracle team up again in the future!

– Kathleen

Myracle, Lauren, and Isaac Goodhart. Under the Moon: A Catwoman Tale. 2019.

Comics Will Break Your Heart

I am a huge fan of Faith Erin Hicks- as I love her graphic novel Friends with Boys and her Nameless City trilogy, so when I saw that she had written her first YA chapter book, I jumped to read it.

Set in Canada (FEH’s home country) this sweet novel tackles first love, with a Romeo and Juliet framework for teens Miriam and Weldon. Years ago Miriam’s grandfather illustrated the comic book Tomorrow Men, but sold his rights to the author before it hit big, as happened IRL to too many artists back in the early days of DC and Marvel (as such the title is based off a quote from artist Jack Kirby who never made it as big as his sometimes writing partner Stan Lee). Now Weldon’s family is reaping the profits as the comic is poised to be the next big movie series, while Miriam’s family lives modestly even after a settlement was made in court. There has been bad blood between the families for decades when the teens meet and begin to fall for one another. I really appreciated there was no instant love, as far too many books use that trope, instead it was gradual and realistic steps towards romance with Weldon showing his interest first. While there was the obligatory misunderstanding that almost derails the relationship, the story ended on a good note at a big comic con which was apropos to the theme of the narrative. This novel gets a definite recommendation from me for it was a lovely ode to nerd culture and love.

The website AV Club had a great article and a FEH graphic to describe the book and the origin of Kirby’s supposed quote. Despite the publicity picture below, the only art is found on the front and back cover of the book. While I missed FEH’s illustrations, her story stood on it’s own!

-Nancy

The Sleeper and The Spindle

A reimagined fairytale combining parts of Snow White and Sleeping Beauty into one story, that because of the author Neil Gaiman, you know will be a dark and whimsical tale.

Snow White is about to have her wedding and her happily ever after, but she’s really not into her Prince and would rather have an adventure without him. She kisses him goodbye and heads off with three dwarfs to look into a sleeping sickness she heard about in the kingdom over. You are already off-kilter from that start, and the rest of the story follows suit. When she arrives at the castle you assume you are about to meet Sleeping Beauty, and are half expecting a romance to develop between the two women. But that’s not where Gaiman goes, and the surprise ending elevates this short story.

The book is more a novella with lots of illustrations, too long and mature in theme to be a children or even a junior book, but not quite a teen book or a graphic novel either. I enjoyed the twist ending but it is really Chris Riddell’s illustrations in black and white with gold leaf that pushes the book beyond a simple fractured fairytale. His illustrations are lush and detailed, with the gold touches used to great affect. This story is worth a read, especially if your like your fairy tales a bit on the creepy side.

-Nancy

Gaiman, Neil & Chris Riddell. The Sleeper and the Spindle. 2014.

Drama

Last Friday, I skipped writing a book review and instead wrote the definitive answer to who is the best cinematic Chris (Chris Pine of course), so this week my reading public has the pleasure of two book reviews from me!

As a teen librarian, I am in charge of leading two graphic novel book clubs- one for middle school youth, and the other for high school and early college teens. This month we read Drama by Raina Telgemeier, who is a favorite of the middle school set, and this particular story was requested after we read Ghosts a few months back. As coincidence would have it, the 2017 Top 10 Challenged Book list came out the week before we read it, and Drama is on it again! Continue reading “Drama”

Speak: The Graphic Novel

The 1999 YA novel Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson was a poignant, uncomfortable but terribly necessary novel about a teen-aged girl surviving rape.  It is on many school reading lists, but also has been banned by some school districts for it’s mature content. In fact I had a long conversation with a conservative friend about the book, when our children read it during middle school for an English class, and whether parents and students should have the choice to opt out of reading it.

This graphic novel adaptation recently came out and was penned by the author and illustrated by Emily Carroll, best known for her eerie graphic short story collection Through the Woods. Carroll was an excellent choice, as her inky black, white and gray panels perfectly captures Melinda’s depression and internal struggle. Her depiction of realistic looking teens gives it a timelessness, so that you don’t even notice that no one has a cell phone, as it is based in the time frame it was originally written in.

As Melinda begins high school she knows she is an outcast, as most of the school knows she is the one who called the police to bust a drinking party a few weeks prior. Her former best friend Rachel won’t  associate with her and other students jeer at and bully her. Her only friend is Heather, a new student, who doesn’t know her past. Melinda’s depression is quickly established and the ongoing closeups of her bitten bloody lips that signify her anxiety establish Melinda’s descent. Her parents’s marriage struggles blind them to their daughter’s muteness and retreat from society. It is only much later in the book that we discover the real reason for Melinda’s struggles- her rape by a popular senior at the summer party. I do not feel I am spoiling anything by saying Melinda was assaulted, for I feel most readers picking this book up are aware of the novel’s subject matter.

The narrative covers a school year, and in the end Melinda grows stronger and has some hard-won redemption. This adaptation, at 372 pages long, compared to the 198 pages of the chapter book, still had me at the edge of my seat during the scary confrontation between her and her rapist at the conclusion. I truly was impressed that this version is as strong as Anderson’s first book, and perhaps even more so, as Carroll’s illustrations aptly depict this difficult subject matter and Melinda’s journey towards recovery.

As to my earlier conversation with my friend about the subject matter, I voiced that I felt it was too important a topic to ignore, and students should read it. I stand by that opinion and would recommend it to teen readers who all should be educated as to the horrors and fall-out of sexual assault.

-Nancy

Anderson, Laurie Halse & Emily Carroll. Speak. Text 1999 & Pictures 2018.

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