New Kid

by Jerry Craft
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Release date: February 5, 2019
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There is some bullying, and it’s a bit on the longer side. It will be in the middle grade graphic novel section of the bookstore.

In the letter that accompanied the ARC, Craft wrote that he wanted to draw a graphic novel that featured kids who looked like him because he didn’t find any when he (or his sons) were growing up. He wanted to feature a kid of color, having some of the experiences — that were not just “gritty” — that kids of color have. And I think, with this graphic novel, he succeeded.

It’s the story of a kid — Jordan Banks — who wants to draw and go to an art school but whose parents have decided that a fancy (white and rich) prep school will give him better opportunities in life. Problem is Jordan doesn’t want to go to a fancy prep school, especially one where he’s in the minority.

The book follows the school year — my favorite thing was the chapter titles that referenced movies (Upper, Upper West Side Story; Straight Out of South Uptown were a couple that made me smile) — as Jordan learns the ins and outs of making friends, standing up for himself and others, and the ways in which well-meaning white people just Don’t Get It.

It’s funny, it’s sweet, it’s honest, and it’s eye-opening, and Craft is definitely a graphic novelist to keep an eye on.

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The Witch Boy and The Hidden Witch

The Witch Boy
by Molly Knox Ostertag
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there (Witch Boy and The Hidden Witch)!
Content: There are some intense images of violence. It’s in the middle grade graphic novel section of the bookstore.

I’d been seeing this one on a LOT of the best-of 2018 lists and I realized I knew NOTHING about it (I had gotten it in, but really paid no attention to it), so I realized I needed to get this one and read it. And since it looked up K’s ally, I decided to buy both it and the sequel as well.

Aster is part of this old magical family, where the girls are all witches and the boys are all shape-shifters. But Aster, at 13, has realized that his talents lie with being a witch rather than a shape-shifter. Except, because that’s what GIRLS do and he’s obviously not a girl, he’s forbidden. Like actively. Every time they find him sneaking around trying to learn witchcraft, the women shame him and shun him. Especially since the last time a boy tried to be a witch — Aster’s grandmother’s brother — he turned into a monster and was never seen again.

(Yes, I do think this is meant to be a feminist allegory for gender roles and toxic masculinity and how silly they are. If a boy wants to be a witch, then LET HIM BE A WITCH.)

Things get complicated when Aster’s cousins — all of whom embrace the traditional male role and become shape-shifters — start disappearing. And Aster — because he’s both male and a witch — is the only one who can save them.

The story continues in The Hidden Witch; Aster’s family has (kind of sort of) accepted him as a witch and is trying to teach him, when his non-magical friend, Charlie, gets attacked by a bit of dark magic called a “Fetch”. It turns out that there’s a rogue witch in town, and the family has to figure out how to take care of them.

This one, honestly, wasn’t as good as Witch Boy, which I adored. She did wrap up the story of the grandmother’s brother, which was left hanging in the first book, but I’m not sure how much I cared about that. I did like seeing Aster use his witchcraft to help Charlie figure out where the Fetch was coming from, but it just didn’t have the larger conflict that Witch Boy had. Even so, it’s delightful series, expertly drawn (Ostertag worked on Star vs. the Forces of Evil, and her art style fits that). I adore the friendship between Aster and Charlie, and I liked how Ostertag worked in diversity without making it a huge “look at me, I’m diverse” issue.

She’s a solid graphic novelist, and someone I’m excited to see more from.

The Boneless Mercies

by April Genevieve Tucholke
First sentence: “They say dying makes you thirsty, so we always gave our marks one last drink.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: There is a lot of death and some drinking. It’s in the Teen sectiong (grades 9+) but it’d be appropriate for younger kids as well.

Frey and her companions — Ovie, Runa, Juniper — are Boneless Mercies: women who roam the country performing mercy killings for payment, such as it is. They’re shunned by society, even while they’re treated with respect. But the girls — and they are all girls, ranging from 15 to 19(ish) — are tired of the death trade. Frey, especially, longs for something More out of life. So, when they here of a monster — a giant — who is terrorizing the Blue Vee area of Vorseland, they head out to perform that impossible task.

There’s more to it, of course. And it’s very much an Epic Tale in the tradition of the Odyssey, or (more accurately) one of the Norse myths. In fact, it’s deliberately Norse (without being explicitly so): the Boneless Mercies worship the goddess Valkree, and others follow Obin. It’s Vorse and Finnmark and Dennish. Warriors die and go to Holholla, and they believe in Hel. This bugged me, at first, because why be Norse without really being Norse? But, eventually, I settled in and it didn’t bother me as much.

It’s a very feminist book, without hitting the reader over her head: it’s female-centric (there are about five male characters in the whole book), it’s a world where while females don’t have power (there are references to the way women and girls are kept down), they search out the power they do have and wield it to the full extent, while working for change. But, mostly, it’s beautifully written. Tucholke has a gift for words in the same way Laini Taylor and Maggie Stiefvater do: she keeps the story going, while painting beautiful word pictures.

It’s a lovely epic story, and one I’m very glad I read.

Sanity & Tallulah

by Molly Brooks
First sentence: “Wow you’re so wrong right now that I don’t understand how we’re even friends.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Release date: October 23, 2018
Content:  There’s a couple of scary moments. It will be in the  Middle Grade Graphic Novel section of the bookstore.

Sanity and Tallulah are best friends living in a space station at the edge of space. They go to school — where Tallulah excels at science and Sanity is basically comic relief — they hang out — a lot, since Tallulah’s dad is the station director and her mom is off doing border patrol — and sometimes get into trouble. But nothing major. That is until Tallulah’s illegal science experiment — a three-headed cat named Princess Sparkle Destroyer of Worlds — gets out and starts wreaking havoc on the station.

Or so they think. As Sanity & Talullah investigate further, in search of their pet, they discover that there may be something more wrong than just an escaped cat.

A super-fun adventure/mystery in which girls take the lead, this one is great for fans of Zita the Spacegirl and Amulet. It’s got an action-packed and science-filled (well, futuristic science-filled) storyline, and it’s funny as well! Brooks is definitely a graphic novelist I’d like to see more work from.

Louisiana’s Way Home

by Kate DiCamillo
First sentence: “I am going to write it all down, so that what happened to me will be known, so that if someone were to stand at their window at night and look up at the stars and think, My goodness, whatever happened to Louisiana Elefante? Where did she go? they will have an answer.
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: It’s a follow-up to Raymie Nightingale, and it deals with some tough subjects. It’s in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

We first met the inimitable Louisiana Elefante in Raymie Nightengale; she was one of the Rancheros who was basically defined by her slightly off-kilter granny, her dead circus performing parents, and her pluck and spirit. Now, two years later, we’re back with Louisiana and her granny, as they take off from Florida in the middle of the night, uprooting Louisiana from her friends and a place she’s grown to love.

When Granny’s tooth begins to ache, it derails their running away, and they land in a small Georgia town. All of Granny’s teeth get pulled, and they take up shop in a motel, while she recovers. Louisiana is left not only to her own devices, but eventually, just left, as Granny takes off to take care of the curse that is hanging over her head.

It’s Louisiana’s voice and spirit that comes through most in this book. It’s written in the first person — DiCamilo’s first since Winn Dixie — and Louisiana comes out loud and clear. She’s angry and insecure and yet hopeful at the same time. She’s angry at her Granny for uprooting her, she’s insecure about her future, but she’s hopeful that maybe she can find a place for herself. There are some pretty shocking revelations made throughout the book, and Louisiana takes everything in stride, which is both remarkably resilient and gives the book a hopeful and uplifting feel to it.

It’s classic DiCamillo, and definitely a delight to visit with this character again.

The Darkdeep

by Ally Condie and Brendan Reichs
First sentence: “The ground lept up to smack Nico in the face.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Release date: October 2, 2018
Content: There are some intense and possibly scary parts. It will be in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

Nico’s father is a park ranger in their small town in the Pacific northwest and made a decision which cost people jobs and made Nico a target at school. And so, when he and his friends are off at Still Cove — a cliff over a cove that “everyone” says is haunted — and the son of the mill owner comes along, Nico is not surprised that he’s targeted. The result of that target, though, is that Nico slips off the cliffside and discovers an island in the cove and an abandoned houseboat on the island. And when his friends Emma and Tyler, and one of the bully’s cronies, Olivia, join him, they decide to explore the houseboat.

What they find is a weird portal that brings all their subconscious manifestations alive. At first, it’s fun: BB8, a centaur… silly stuff like that. But everyone’s subconscious contains a little darkness, and as the darkdeep (as they start to call it) gains in strength, the manifestations begin acting on their own accord. And soon, the town’s in trouble, and Nico, Olivia, and their friends are the only ones who know why.

This was so much fun! I suppose I shouldn’t say that about an adventure/mystery/horror-light book, but it really was. I loved the creation that Condie and Reichs came up with, and the voice they found together (they worked for a single voice rather than alternating chapters, and it really works well) is just spot on middle grade. I loved the friendships they had between the four, though the focus was more on Nico and Olivia and their struggle to become friends (I mean: who wants to be friends with one of the people who was formerly bullying you?) and to trust each other. I liked the way it was plotted, letting suspense build and giving the kids the keys to the next part of the mystery as they went along. It definitely has everything it needs for kids to really enjoy this one.

I sure did.

Merci Suarez Changes Gears

by Meg Medina
First sentence: “To think, only yesterday I was in chanletas, sipping lemonade, and watching my twin cousins run through the sprinkler in the yard.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There are some difficult situations with Merci’s grandfather and some intense moments and older themes. It’s in the middle grade section (grades 3-5), but it would probably be better for the older end of the spectrum.

Merci Suarez likes her life: she lives with her parents and her older brother next door to her aunt and her twin sons on one side and her grandparents on the other. They’re happy as a family, with their traditions and squabbles, and she doesn’t want things to change. But, she’s started 6th grade, with all the pressure that brings, and her brother is a senior in high school and is going to be leaving for college. And, then her beloved grandpa starts forgetting things and acting strangely. And then there’s that girl (THAT girl) at school who Merci thought she was friends with, but turns out to be nothing but a thorn in Merci’s side.

The question is: how is Merci going to deal with everything being different?

This is a perfect little book about friendship and family and figuring out how to manage change. Merci isn’t perfect, which I appreciated, and I enjoyed the fact that the conflict came from something other than bad parents. Merci’s parents are supportive of her, and encourage her in her education. I felt for her at times, especially because she had to make sacrifices with friends and school because of her family. It’s a very realistic portrait, and one I appreciated. I liked how Medina captured the Latinx family experience; it’s a good example why Own Voices is so important. I liked Merci’s story, and felt for her experiences, and I loved how Media wove in culture and heritage as well.

It’s an excellent book.