The Girl from the Sea by Molly Ostertag

Molly Ostertag’s THE GIRL FROM THE SEA brings together both fantastical and very real emotions and events in a graphic novel that addresses first love, hiding one’s true self from friends and family, and coming-of-age. The fantastical arrives in the form of Keltie, a selkie without inhibitions — but with a secret. The very real involves Morgan Kwon’s parents who are recently divorced, her friends who don’t “get” her, and her abrasive little brother. Morgan’s life brings this all together as she falls in love with Keltie, but refuses to share her new relationship with anyone around her. Heartstrings are pulled, and readers will root for the girls as their relationship develops and grows.

With Ostertag’s signature illustration style, we can’t miss when someone is distressed or annoyed or embarrassed. And most characters express themselves directly, or over texts that move the plot along. Morgan’s nervousness about letting her friends and family know she is gay is palpable, especially when it confuses Keltie and threatens to separate the girls. Even the seals (including baby seals!) are expressive throughout the story, and readers will also root for them and their home.

As Morgan becomes more comfortable with Keltie, readers will hope that she finds the courage to bring her relationship public. When an outside threat needs to be addressed, Morgan must gather the strength to face the judgment and lack of privacy she fears. The novel is poignant and deeply in touch with adolescent emotions throughout. THE GIRL FROM THE SEA is a graphic novel that will demand multiple readings.

Highly recommended.

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Review: GEORGE by Alex Gino

Reading Alex Gino’s GEORGE is such a complete and loving gift. George* is a 4th grade girl who struggles with figuring out how to let her family and friends know she’s not the boy they all think she is. From the first page, author Alex Gino introduces George as she/her, and it’s only when George’s brother refers to her as “bro,” that the reader realizes where the story is going. This middle grade novel is wholly appropriate and important for upper elementary readers as well as adults who want or need help understanding how a transgender child might feel.

Gino’s storyline centers on George (whom we find out sees herself as Melissa) and how she gathers the courage to live as her true self. Along the way, George contends with bullies, false starts on sharing her truth, and feeling alone at home and at school. Her best friend Kelly is a constant support system, but even Kelly doesn’t know that George is a girl. When Kelly talks her into auditioning for the role of Charlotte in Charlotte’s Web, but then gets the role, it feels like the story may take a very different turn. Instead, Kelly comes up with a solution both for George’s desire to play her favorite character and to let the whole world know who she really is.

Throughout the story, several scenes will bring tears to the eyes of many readers. The heartfelt explanations George has for her love of girls’ magazines and for why she just can’t quite find the courage to tell her mom and best friend the truth are poignant and ring deeply true. The responses her brother, mother, and best friend Kelly have to finding out George is a girl are also solid examples of part of the spectrum of reactions loved ones may have. One of the lines that brought tears to my eyes is, “Scott looked at George as if his sibling made sense to him for the first time. George had never been gladder to have an older brother.”

As a reader, it was also a welcome relief not to have every step towards George’s happy ending spelled out. For instance, when she is sent to the principal’s office, she notices the sign that reads “Support Safe Spaces for LGBT Youth,” and later the same principal models supportive response to George’s theatrical debut. In another scene, the simple gesture of George’s mother returning a denim bag filled with fashion magazines shows us the journey to acceptance is well on its way.

The writing style is easy enough for elementary readers to handle on their own, but GEORGE is a fantastic book for families to read together. Direct references to how George feels about her body are expressed clearly and at a level appropriate for older elementary readers. The examples and details within the storyline provide concrete responses George has to various societal norms that go against what she knows to be true about herself.

Don’t miss the Frequently Asked Questions with Alex Gino at the end of the story.

Highly recommended.

(* I’ve used the name George in this review because that’s the name used throughout the novel. By the end of the story, we discover it is Melissa about whom we’ve been reading.)

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Review: Sisters of the War by Rania Abouzeid

SISTERS OF THE WAR by Rania Abouzeid is a non-fiction narrative about the horrific tragedies in Syria. It focuses on two girls, Ruha and Hanin, and their families who experience deep loss and painful experiences over years of war and as refugees. Abouzeid’s detailed reporting is highly informative, and while the true stories are painful and upsetting, they are appropriate for ages 12+. The story-telling style is dense and told for sharing information, so it’s not necessarily engaging for the reader. Some may find the audiobook easier to listen to than to read from a hard copy.

I suggest starting Sisters of the War at the end by reading the short Author’s Note. Abouzeid explains her technique and methodology, and the dangers she faced. Starting with the Author’s Note also allows readers to delve into the stories with some basic background for what to expect since, sadly, much of what the book shares will be new to American and most western readers. The writing tells the story of Ruha, Hanin, and their families, but it also gets into the harsh grittiness and danger of living in a war zone for years. At times, the amount of information makes it difficult to wade through the detail with any complete understanding.

While there are descriptions of injury and death, the many heart-wrending instances of mental anguish and shattering loss are what will likely make the most impact. In addition, Abouzeid’s work in sharing the perspectives of doctors and refugee workers are deeply affecting. SISTERS OF THE WAR is highly recommended for its important perspective, but ideally, it should be read together with the audiobook for greatest understanding.

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A Place to Rest on The Walk Home

Soon after moving to Montclair, I vowed to continue the “walking culture” that I had leaned on in Brooklyn. Walking to errands, walking to say hello to neighbors, walking to pick up a slice of pizza, walking to get fresh air and exercise. With two small children at home, ages three and just over a year, the walking was also a way to break up the long days and get to know our new neighborhood and town. 

I enrolled my oldest child at Children’s Studio, and true to my vow, we walked the mile or so to “school,” and always chose Watchung Avenue as our path because of the child-centric delights. “Hello, Bunny!” we’d call to the seasonally costumed rabbit-scarecrow on the corner. “Hello, pink house!” we’d wave as we passed a delightfully bright pink house farther along. A decade later, I’ll embarrass my children to admit that we still acknowledge both of these markers on occasion, although not with the same childlike enthusiasm. 

In the afternoons, on our way home to settle into toddler life, we’d often stop halfway at a little bench in front of a home and have a snack. A well-loved scarecrow guarded the gate, and the many butterfly-friendly plants kept their promise to offer some bud or flower to admire. There was a note welcoming passers-by to rest, and there was even a small basket for trash (please no dog poop, thank you very much!). 

We have many memories taking a rest stop on sunny days, during drizzly moments, and even making chilly stops with the promise of snow in the air. The children surely looked forward to the crunchy snacks, but for me, a newcomer to town, the open invitation of welcome and to take a moment to rest and watch the world go by was restorative and necessary. 

Now, with the addition of a Little Free Library next to the bench and the scarecrow long gone, passing by the little bench on a walk or even in the car (because I’ve become more suburban than I’d like to admit), still brings me right back to those early days when I was still discovering the joys and drama and beauty of Montclair. There were long and lonely, sometimes dark, days of adjustment and change and figuring out who I was in this new place and who I was going to be, but the efforts of as yet unknown neighbors to create community and offer a place to belong made it so much easier to keep walking towards home. 

Thank you to the residents of 149 Watchung Avenue for the welcome seat. And may we all remember that whether we know each other or not, we have the ability to be good neighbors to each other. Always.

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The Do-Over by Jennifer Honeybourn

I’ll admit that my first impression was that THE DO-OVER by Jennifer Honeybourn was a Young Adult retread of Sliding Doors or Freaky Friday or Big or 13 Going on 30…but I’m really glad I didn’t pass it over in an eye-rolling huff. This novel delves into realistic regrets that many teens have survived over the generations, and it details the kind of drama that feels life-changing at 15, and based on how many of us dwell on it — perhaps it is! This engaging novel about a high school girl who regrets how she treated her friends and gets a chance to “do-over” one night, is a breezy, but not shallow, read.

Emelia, or Em, has two close friends: Alistair and Marisol. She knows she has possible romantic feelings for Alistair, but is afraid of ruining their friendship. When the most popular boy in school, Ben, sets his sights on Em, she jumps into the world of popularity and boyfriends feet first, neglecting her long-time friends. As the novel jumps ahead six months, Em realizes that she is miserable and regrets ever getting involved with Ben and his popular crowd. At a summer carnival, she finds a “magical” yellow gem in a fortune teller’s tent and gets the chance to fix her regretful actions — or so she thinks.

When Em wakes up the next morning, everything has changed. Her parents are in the midst of getting a divorce and selling the family home, her friends are her friends again — although something is different, and Em has cut her hair, painted her room, started learning to drive, and gotten a job at the local hardware store. A major problem is that she only has memories of the six months she’s already lived, not the six months as they’ve apparently changed. Following Em as she navigates figuring out how she fits into her own life when everything seems upended is a whirlwind, as teen years often are. Author Jennifer Honeybourn manages to keep the various characters and events consistent and authentic. And Emelia’s realization that even though the last six months have changed in many ways, perhaps she is the one who needs to change, is told with both empathy and directness. Allowing the character to blossom into a person less self-involved and more full of hope and confidence tells us that perhaps we all should be allowed a do-over on occasion.

The Do-Over reminded me a bit of If It Makes You Happy, which is a very good thing. This makes a great read for 8th grade and up.

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Perfect Weekend Read: A Glimmer of Death by Valerie Wilson Wesley

The world is A LOT these days. Always? Sometimes when the world is rough, we want books that are more gentle, but not too fluffy. Prolific author Valerie Wilson Wesley’s new novel is exactly that. Her first book in the “cozy” genre, A GLIMMER OF DEATH, doesn’t shy away from stark issues, but it does so with a softer hand. It’s a detective murder mystery, without the harshness or machismo of the genre. Wilson’s explanation of the genre is “cozy mysteries are just that—cozy. Character and setting are paramount. Hard cursing and graphic violence are off-stage. They’re more of a puzzle, more delving into character and the why of how bad things happen.” To emphasize the style, cozies usually feature appearances of cats and tea – both of which are included in A Glimmer of Death

A GLIMMER OF DEATH, centers on Odessa (Dessa) Jones, a former caterer who works at a local real estate agency. Dessa is still in mourning for her husband, who passed away a year before the action takes place. Her loneliness, money troubles, and reluctant longing to find connection and purpose slowly develop throughout the novel. Dessa also has a “gift” that helps her sense danger and gauge people’s moods. It is this gift, and her empathetic nature, that entangles the main character in a murder mystery that becomes more and more complicated as the plot thickens. Supported with her quirky Aunt Phoenix, a warm and friendly restaurant owner, and a wide array of work acquaintances, Dessa’s world has something for everyone to enjoy. Wesley drops in a recipe for Dessa’s 7-Up Cake as a bonus, making A GLIMMER OF DEATH the perfect cozy read to accompany a cup of jasmine tea and a slice of cake. 

Read my interview with Valerie Wilson Wesley on Baristanet.com.

Does A Glimmer of Death sound like your next cozy weekend read? You can purchase it at Indiebound or your local bookstore! It’s also available on Amazon.

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Wishes by Mượn Thị Văn

The picture book WISHES by Mượn Thị Văn is one of those books that I want to give to every family and teacher I know. Built on the author’s deeply personal memories, its themes of loss, perseverance, and hope will resonate with every reader. Each page has just one line that shares a wish as a family of refugees prepares for and experiences a dangerous journey to a safer shore. The wishes come from various objects and natural elements during the journey, thus providing emotional safety for the little girl at the center of the story. Be forewarned: the heavy sense of longing for home and safety will ensure a few tears are shed by anyone with a heart. 

The beautiful illustrations by Victo Ngai are essential to understanding the full story. The first line, “The night wished it was quieter” is paired with a picture of a little girl peering out the window at her grandfather as he digs up what looks like a gasoline canister. As the different wishes of a bag, the light, the clock, a boat, the sea, and so on are added to the story, the perplexing initial image becomes clear, and heartbreaking. The text is gentle and general, and it is the rich, detailed imagery that conveys the danger and fear. The clearest example is on the page of the tiny refugee boat in a rough, uneasy sea. The text tells us, “The sea wished it was calmer.” The illustration shows sheets of rain, rough waves, and a bird’s eye view of the passengers huddled together, some with coverings and some without, exposed to the whims of the weather’s effect on the sea. 

Still, hope is the overarching feeling throughout the book. The author’s genius in giving the wishes to elements along the journey is that it feels like everything, from the bag to the boat to the sun itself is rooting for the refugees. “The sun wished it was cooler” allows the sun to be empathetic, along with the reader, as opposed to the little girl complaining or sharing discomfort directly. It is only when rescue is imminent that we hear the little girl’s implied wish, although it’s never spoken. A final act of textual restraint. 

It feels wrong to comment on the content of this exquisite picture book. WISHES is perfection from cover to cover. See the author and illustrator discuss the book here. My wish for readers of the book is along the lines of the wish shared in Mượn Thị Văn’s must-read author’s note at the end. I wish that bearing witness to the family’s refugee journey, brought into sharp relief when paired with what Văn shares of her personal experience as a refugee, will help us all become more empathetic and more kind to one another. 

Most highly recommended. 

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Meow or Never by Jazz Taylor

MEOW OR NEVER by Jazz Taylor is much more hefty on the issues than the cover makes it seem. What looks like a simple middle grade novel about a secret pet and a secret crush rustles up topics centered on anxiety, sexual orientation, emotional parental abuse, and the uncertainty of blossoming friendships. A smooth, easy read, this book is simple enough to attract emerging readers and detailed enough to hold the attention of more experienced readers.

The main character Avery is a Black, gay, new-girl-in-town who suffers from panic attacks and a lack of friends. Jazz Taylor creates situations that feel authentic and unforced. Middle grade readers will recognize typical family situations including annoying siblings and too busy parents. They’ll also delight in discovering a secret cat in a theater closet and following as Avery tries to overcome deep anxiety and self-doubt. The school scenes are balanced with the interactions at home, and we get to know the parents and siblings of the main characters just enough to get a sense of their backgrounds.

The main conflict for Avery is grappling with her anxiety about singing and acting in the school play. Her two new friends, Nic and Harper, are both involved with the play, and to complicate matters, Avery has a long-time crush on Nic. Harper is reeling from her mother’s emotional and physical neglect, and Avery’s assessment of the situation allows her to help Harper indirectly, for a time. Treatment of LGBTQ issues and race issues are given indirect treatment with side discussions between friend groups as well. With after school visits to the theater cat and surprisingly mature insight and support from her friends, her school counselor, and even her annoying older brother, Avery is able to navigate a solution that works for her.

Particularly impressive is Taylor’s treatment of panic attacks, including strategies for helping to minimize the effects. She is also skilled at creating believable and age appropriate situations for the characters to experience. The friendships manage to feel organic, even though Avery’s self-doubt threatens to end them. The crush Avery has for Nic also develops realistically, as does her work towards performing on stage. A bonus is that the resolution to the main conflict doesn’t have a fairy tale ending, although it’s satisfying. I hesitate to describe this book as “sweet” or “adorable” because together with the cover and title (signature style of the WISH series) that would give the impression it’s more sugary than substantial. And MEOW OR NEVER is definitely accessible and substantial.

Highly recommended.

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A Thousand White Butterflies by Jessica Bentancourt-Perez and Karen Lynn Williams

A THOUSAND WHITE BUTTERFLIES by Jessica Betancourt-Perez and Karen Lynn Williams is a first day of school story with a twist. Isabella has recently immigrated to the USA from Colombia with her mother and grandmother; her father is still in Colombia, awaiting permission to travel. Isabella’s friends are also all in Colombia. She’s lonely, and she feels as cold and grey as the leafless trees. That’s why she’s looking forward to her first day at her new school. She thinks of it as her make-new-friends day. Her excitement is deflated when her first day is cancelled because “Hay mucha nieve.” The snow day that most children would celebrate makes Isabella cry.

The book gives Isabella a few pages to be sad, but then she sees a girl outside playing in the snow, and Isabella’s perspective turns around completely. The language barrier is no competition for making snow angels, building a snowman, and excited plans to go to school together tomorrow. And I swear that if adult readers don’t tear up when Isabella and her new friend put Papa’s traditional ruana and vueltiao on the snowman, their hearts must be as cold as the snow balls the girls throw.

This immigrant story is both hopeful and beautiful without shying away from some of the hardships families face. Experiencing a wholly different culture away from loved ones and friends while facing language barriers and unfamiliar experiences all surface. The grey world of January in Isabella’s new surroundings are contrasted to the warm and green home she misses. However, as evidenced by describing the snowfall as “a thousand white butterflies,” Isabella’s optimism is infectious and the reader rides the rollercoaster of emotions alongside her. The overall reassurance of the book will appeal to all readers, no matter what kinds of firsts they’ve experienced.

Unlike some picture books with two or more languages, A Thousand White Butterflies doesn’t provide direct translations of Spanish lines, and all out loud lines within the family are in Spanish. As both Isabella and her new friend must figure out general meanings from language context in order to communicate, so does the reader. Those of us who grew up in multi-lingual homes will recognize the dual-language back and forth. The beautiful and bright collage-like illustrations are charming and just as hopeful as the main character.

Highly recommended.

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Hunted by the Sky by Tanaz Bhathena

HUNTED BY THE SKY by Tanaz Bhathena grabs hold of its audience and refuses to let go. This extremely action-packed Young Adult (YA) novel begins with violence and turmoil, and the events cascade with abandon from there. Gul, one of the main characters, gives us her first-person account in painful and direct detail that opens her fantastical world to readers through food, geography, customs, and the undercurrents of prejudice and fear in her world — as well as the hopes to change them. Her counterpart, Cavas, has alternating first-person chapters that similarly reveal a whole other side to the world of the novel. With scores of names and places, varieties of magic, as well as dozens of titles and honorifics to learn, readers will both appreciate the fast pace of the novel and feel immersed in the highly developed world Bhathena has created in HUNTED BY THE SKY.

Based on traditions and mythology from medieval India and Persia, the characters and events feel both historical and modern. The plot and relationships follow the YA story arc as well as detail themes of self-discovery, overcoming fear and self-doubt, and learning humility. However, Hunted By The Sky doubles the development with two main characters who each have secret backgrounds and abilities. Gul is believed by key characters (other than herself) to be the Star Warrior, who will reunite the land and bring peace between magus and non-magus. Cavas, who works in the royal stables and cares for his ill father, becomes entwined in Gul’s destiny and soon discovers more about himself than he ever believed possible. The alternating chapters from each point-of-view help the audience to absorb their worlds as we get to know each on their own terms.

The adventures and characters tumble out of the novel briskly, and readers need to pay attention to avoid missing key details. The travel between locations happens suddenly, and seemingly minor interactions end up having significant consequences later in the novel. Strong readers will enjoy being challenged, and emerging readers can take their time as the chapters are not cumbersome, and they include natural pauses.

The novel includes a diverse set of cultures within the world. Various religions, backgrounds, classes, skin tones, and sexual identities are all described. And the characters show a wide range of responses to the differences, from deep prejudice to total acceptance. Female characters are shown as everything from fierce warriors to loyal servants. The vivid details afforded the myriad characters and situations in which they find themselves bring the interactions to life.

Some caveats: There are several mentions of past or threatened sexual violence, indentured servitude and enslavement, and torture. While there are sparse details included, the long-term effects of rape and emotional abuse on magical ability and personality are described. One race of part animal-part human beings, the Pashu, have their wings cut off to control their abilities. In addition, there is a “flesh market” with rules about who can be put up for auction, but it’s clear that the required free will is heavily influenced by desperation and a tyrannical regime. Abuse of animals also occurs for sport. This violence embedded in the novel is rarely described in detail, giving readers the option to dwell on the violence or turn the page.

Overall, HUNTED BY THE SKY is a well-developed novel that will entice readers who want adventure and fantasy in addition to the interpersonal drama and identity journeys of young adult stories. What it adds is a rich world of characters and culture that will feel at once familiar and extraordinarily fresh.

Strongly recommended.

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