Look Both Ways

by Jason Reynolds
First sentence: “This story was going to begin like all the best stories.”
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Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There are some tough subjects, like bullying and parents with cancer. It’s in both the YA (grades 6-8) and the middle grade (grades 3-5) sections of the bookstore.

The format of this book is really the highlight: it’s a series of ten interconnected short stories, based out of a school, and following kids as they go home after school one day. One story for either one kid or a group of kids per block.

It’s a clever premise, and one that shuns the large (a school bus fell from the sky is the underlying “What?” of this story) in favor of the small stories. It’s the story of a girl writing in a notebook, observing things and collecting data on the way home (and a side note in another story about how she is “mysterious”). It’s about the troublemakers who are always stealing loose change, and where they go after school and what they do with the money. It’s about older siblings who have died, or kids getting beat up for defending a boy-on-boy not-quite kiss. It’s simple and deep and profound and lighthearted all at once. Which is why, I think, Reynolds is one of the brilliant writers out there.

Will kids read it? I don’t know. I hope so. It would be perfect for school book groups, and for parent-children discussions. And it’s a good reminder that everything — and everyone — isn’t always what it looks like.

Kiss Number 8

by Colleen AF Venable and Ellen T. Crenshaw
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Content: There’s swearing, including multiple f-bombs, plus depictions of teenage drinking and smoking. It’s in the graphic novel section of the bookstore.

Mandy has been best friends with Cat for forever; through all of Cat’s ups and downs, and dates, both good and bad. Though Cat hasn’t had much luck in the dating arena. Most of her kisses happened when she was younger, and most of them were really kind of lame. Though, as they are in their junior year at Catholic school, things are beginning to change. Not the least a mysterious phone call that makes her dad angry, and sets off a chain of events that reveals a deep family secret.

This was an interesting graphic novel. I don’t want to spoil everything (though the tag kind of gives things away), but it’s dealing with the LGBT community and religion, or at the very least, religious people. But the story was a bit of a mess. As were Mandy and Cat (and I felt really bad for the third wheel, Laura). I kind of get why Venable and Crenshaw were framing this story through kisses, but I’m not entirely sure it worked really well. I did enjoy it when Crenshaw’s art told more than the words, bringing more depth to the story, the way graphic novels should.

It wasn’t my favorite I’ve read, but it was an interesting story.

Guts

by Raina Telgemeier
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Content: There is a lot of talk about bodily functions — throw up, diarrhea, puberty, among others. It’s in the middle grade graphic novel section of the bookstore.

My first reaction to finishing this book? My gosh, Raina had a childhood. All of these books (Smile and Sisters as well) are loosely based on her childhood. And if that’s the case (and I don’t know why it wouldn’t be), then wow, Raina’s childhood was something.

This one deals with her issues with stomach aches and throwing up and anxiety and the reactions of her classmates and family surrounding it. In fourth grade, Raina developed a fear of throwing up, which made her want to throw up, and so she developed a phobia around food and being sick because of that. There’s anxiety wrapped up in there as well: when she was nervous, it manifested physically. And there’s a subplot with a girl in her class who made fun of Raina because of her issues. It all turns out happily in the end.

Telgemeier is a fantastic artist; there are a few spreads where I think she nails what anxiety feels like in images. And one where she depicted the passing of time in a single image that is just amazing. And I appreciate that she’s telling these sorts of stories. There has to be kids out there who experience the same feelings — or just the ones with anxieties! — who need this book to feel seen and understood.

It may not be my favorite graphic novel this year, but it’s another solid entry from Telgemeier.

Stargazing

by Jen Wang
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Content: There are some awkward moments, and a bit of violence by one of the characters. It’s in the middle grade graphic novel section at the bookstore.

Christine is an Asian-American girl, who lives a very stereotypical Asian-American life: she plays the violin, her parents expect her to get good grades, she takes Chinese class on Wednesday nights, and so on. And then she meets Moon, the daughter of a single mom who comes to live in the small house behind Christine’s. Moon is unlike everyone Christine knows: impulsive, loud, creative, outgoing, and most of all, seemingly unstoppable.

They become best friends, but when Moon seems to move on from Christine, she gets jealous, and then Moon ends up in the hospital. Is there any way Christine can salvage their relationship?

I adore Jen Wang’s books, and this is no exception. She’s tackling immigrant issues, but they’re not at the forefront. Christine and Moon’s friendship is, and the conflict between their families. It could be because Moon’s family is a single mom or Buddhist, or because Christine’s parents are strict. I liked that they were both part of the Asian community, but the story is universal. There are some absolutely perfect art spreads — I liked it, especially, when the girls went to the planetarium on a field trip — and I think Wang tackled the issue of friendship, especially new friendship, perfectly.

Oh, and bonus points for including K-Pop as part of this! A really good graphic novel.

Dear Sweet Pea

by Julie Murphy
First sentence: “I’ve counted my birthday savings three times, and at this rate, I don’t think I’ll ever have enough money to clone myself.”
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Release date: October 1, 2019
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: Most of the problems are with parents and friendships, and so while it may not be interesting to the younger end of the middle grade (grades 3-5) it’s not inappropriate.

As she finishes up seventh grade, Sweet Pea is trying to figure things out. Her parents are getting a divorce, which is hard. But she’s fighting with her best friend, Oscar, while making up with her ex-best friend, Kiera. It’s all super confusing. It doesn’t help that Miss Fannie Mae, who writes the local advice column, has asked Sweet Pea to watch her house while she’s gone, but asks her not to tell anyone, which just puts a huge wrench in the whole situation.

I haven’t read any other of Murphy’s work (why not?) but this one truly tickled me. I loved that she got the middle grade voice down: the real problems are friendships and trying to figure out how to navigate those, as well as trying to understand her family’s new dynamic. They stakes aren’t terribly high, but they’re still meaningful. I appreciated that her parents weren’t awful, but honest and open about their differences and reasons they were splitting. And I loved Sweet Pea. She was charmingly not perfect, but she tried her best and that’s really all that counted.

It’s really a delightful middle grade book.

Best Friends

by Shannon Hale and LeUyen Pham
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Others in the series: Real Friends
Content: There’s some uncomfortable parts with anxiety, and a bit of “romance” with boys and girls. It’s in the middle grade graphic graphic novel section of the bookstore.

Picking up where Real Friends left off, with the summer before Shannon’s sixth grade year. She’s convinced that she’s going to have a great year: they’re the oldest kids in school, she’s best friends with the most popular girl in school, and maybe she’s got it all figured out. Except, she doesn’t, not really. Friendship — especially in sixth grade in the 1980s — is a minefield. And being popular has costs.

Much like Real Friends, this one is full of heart and humor and insight. My poor sixth grade self, awkward and not knowing how on earth to fit in, completely empathized with Shannon’s plight. And it was nice that she used excerpts (polished up, of course) from a novel she wrote in sixth grade. It made for a nice balance to the drama of the contemporary story. Pham’s art, of course, was perfect for the story, especially when dealing with Shannon’s anxiety. It’s a perfect compliment for Real Friends, and a wonderful exploration of what real friendship means.

This Was Our Pact

by Ryan Andrews
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Content: It’s a bit on the longish side, which might intimidate readers. There’s nothing objectionable, content-wise. It’s in the Middle Grade Graphic Novel section of the bookstore.

Every year, on the Autumn Equinox, Ben’s town lights lanterns and set them floating on the river. There are stories about what happens to the lanterns, but no one really knows. Most times, the kids who follow the lanterns, turn back at the bend. But this year, Ben and his friends — the Cool Kids — have made a pact to follow the lanterns all the way to the end.

Except there’s Nathaniel. Ben’s dad wants him to be friends with Nathaniel, but he’s a dork, and awkward, and Ben’s friends don’t like him. So, when Nathaniel starts following Ben and his friends, Ben does his best to ignore him. But, Ben’s friends pull off one by one, abandoning the Quest, and soon it’s just down to Ben and Nathaniel. And that’s when the adventure REALLY starts.

Oh my goodness, this graphic novel is so gorgeous. It’s whimsical and fun and beautiful and so very magical. I liked the evolution of Ben and Nathaniel’s friendship, and the way the whole adventure went. I adored Andrews’ use of color — its mostly in blue tones, because the book takes place at night, but with pops of yellow and pink and red. The whole book is just a gorgeous, fantastic adventure.

Absolutely recommended.