Review: TRESPASSERS by Breena Bard

9781338264210TRESPASSERS by Breena Bard is a middle grade graphic novel that includes some mystery, some family drama, and some well-developed interaction between kids thrown together on vacation. As with many middle grade stories, Gabby, the main character, is thrown curveballs that threaten to upset the “known” in her life. The relationships within the family and between elders and peers all have ups-and-downs without feeling overly manufactured. And the hesitancy Gabby exhibits when pushed into uncomfortable situations will feel familiar to many readers.

Gabby loves to read and write; it is her refuge and it calms her. She loves it so much that it interferes with having fun with her family and with potential friends. At 13-years-old, she loves visiting her family’s summer cabin, but she also wants her space. The realization that a new family is next door with kids “just the right age” is unappetizing, but Gabby and her brother reluctantly oblige her parents’ urging to invite the neighbors along. Sometimes, like when the kids break into a neighboring home, readers watch as Gabby struggles with values and curiosity. Bard skillfully creates tense, peer-pressure fueled relationships that continue throughout the novel without the conflict feeling forced.

A standout aspect of this graphic novel is the detailed and nostalgic illustration that brings the area to life. The woods, the cabins, the boating, even the pregnant feral cat, all receive attention from Bard’s pen. Despite a simple overall look, the characters convey a wide range of emotions and have distinctive personalities that match the text.

Impressively, TRESPASSERS manages to create mysterious adventure and believable teen imaginations-gone-wild scenes that develop the characters and the relationships they share. There are also several instances where Gabby learns typical middle grade lessons in empathy and first impressions. Her relationships with her family, an elderly neighbor, and new companions next door flow naturally and weave together in the storyline. Overall, a fun summer read with a grown-up kid feel.

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Review: THE SECRET DEEP by Lindsay Galvin

JKT_9781338567397.pdfTHE SECRET DEEP by Lindsay Galvin is an eventful, emotional, wild, and entertaining tale that keeps readers guessing in the best possible way throughout the story. Aster and Poppy, sisters who have recently lost their mother to cancer, must travel from England to New Zealand to live with their Aunt Iona. Their extraordinary adventures are horror-story and fantasy-worthy even as they feel very typically middle grade. With a wide variety of characters in age, personality, and ethnicity, even reluctant readers will find someone to relate to.

Galvin’s debut novel is a fast read with fantastic descriptions of underwater scenery as well as detailed explanations about survival preparations and techniques. Readers follow the sisters, Aster most closely, as they are swept into scientific drama and intrigue. We get to know Aster as she struggles with anxiety, grief, and her newfound responsibility for her younger sister. The chapters toggle between Aster’s point-of-view and Sam, a boy the sisters met on their plane to New Zealand. Sam’s chapters center on solving the mystery of how the girls and his Granda’s doctor are connected. The details are at once outlandish and oddly believable, as often happens in middle grade stories.

As enjoyable and readable the novel is, at times the characters feel under-developed. Readers hear about some basic background (Aster was a star swimmer and has anxiety, Poppy is carefree and outgoing, Iona is a doctor who has worked extensively in refugee camps), but further details are sparse and sometimes feel artificially inserted. Despite this, readers will still find themselves deeply invested in Aster’s search for her sister and their survival. The twists and turns keep our attention, but they also allow readers to avoid a connection to Aunt Iona and even Sam. Even so, THE SECRET DEEP is worth a read, and many middle graders will go back for a second visit to make sure they caught all the hints and adventures throughout the story.


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Review: Ghost Squad by Claribel A. Ortega

Ghost SquadGHOST SQUAD by Claribel A. Ortega is a ghostly adventure book that centers girl-power, friendship, the power of family legacy and connection, and conquering fears – both large and small. Ortega has created main characters in Lucely and Syd who are at once loveable and impressive. Their development includes Dominican and Black American cultural references while leaning on the deep connection the girls share. The creative challenges and villains presented throughout this chapter book are fun, frenetic, and routed in real problems despite the fantastical elements. Aimed at ages 8-12, this middle grade novel will entertain readers for what is sure to be multiple readings.

Lucely Luna needs to save her family home from foreclosure for all the usual reasons, but also because the family tree that houses the spirits of her ancestors is there. Her father’s business of Ghost Tours is negatively affected by a flashy newcomer, and her family members, in the form of fireflies that become ghosts who can speak to her and support her, are weakening and becoming agitated. Her best friend Syd joins Lucely in trying to find out what evil force is causing the trouble, and they sneak into libraries and crypts and mayor’s offices to find the truth.

Middle Grade readers will love the back-and-forth and deep loyalty between Lucely and Syd. They will also be fascinated, and maybe a tad envious, with the presence of a nurturing, teasing, scolding, and always loving extended family of ghosts and a grandmother who is also an eccentric witch. The girls use both extraordinary and typically-tween methods to accomplish their goals. This combination of accessible and heroic adventures is part of the magic Ortega incorporates throughout the novel. There is some uneven development in supporting characters, but GHOST SQUAD is a delight. Highly recommended.

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Review: Witchlight by Jessi Zabarsky

9780593119990WITCHLIGHT written and illustrated by Jessi Zabarsky is a graphic novel for ages 12 and up that focuses on personal interactions and deepening values as much as heroic adventures. The author has described the novel as a “shojo- adventure,” a manga genre that features relationships as much as magic and fantasy. The main characters are likable and relatably flawed, making them perfect for middle grade readers. Advanced readers will find the episodic style that includes flashbacks and sudden changes in setting easy to navigate, but it may be a confusing challenge for reluctant readers. However, the heart-warming story is worth the work for those who persevere.

Sanja and Lelek, the main characters, have a stormy and magnetic relationship. What starts in fighting becomes a friendship and later a romance. They both have childhoods with difficult, even horrific, experiences. And both young women make mistakes and disappoint themselves and each other along the way. Themes of bigotry, falling in love, maintaining friendship, and confronting the past all factor into the storyline. The book began as a serialized comic, and that shows in some of the jagged transitions. The interesting approach to witchcraft and how it is incorporated into Sanja and Lelek’s worlds will smooth over much of the roughness, as will the irresistible main characters.

WITCHLIGHT is out April 14th, 2020. Preorder it from your independent bookstore.


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Review: BLOOM by Kevin Panetta

Bloom by Kevin PanettaBLOOM by Kevin Panetta and illustrated by Savanna Ganucheau is a lovely, light, realistic graphic novel about the unsettling in-between teenage time of figuring out the answer to “What do you want to do?” The main character, Ari (short for Aristotle), has graduated high school and dreams of moving to Baltimore and performing in a band with his friends. His family, however, is depending on him to work in their bakery. Ari’s begrudging loyalty to his family and his drive to “get out of here” is mixed with his admission of being directionless. We get the sense his choices depend more on other people’s approval than his own desires. Panetta’s portrayal of rifts in family, friendships, and potential romantic partners is authentic and sometimes uncomfortable. And Ganucheau’s simple but emotive images draw readers in and help move the story forward.

Ari’s uncertainty is juxtaposed with new-to-town Hector’s decisive passion in life, as is Ari’s desire to leave his family’s bakery and Hector’s love of baking. What begins as a co-working friendship, “blooms” into flirtation and eventual romance. The interactions and images show a gentle progression in their relationship, and it is both fun to watch and frustrating as we witness Ari’s more immature actions affect everyone around him. Supporting characters are varied and have clear personalities, although the two female friends of Ari and Hector seem almost interchangeable.

The graphic novel also gives readers a behind-the-scenes view of struggles in a family business and of full-time residents in a tourist shore town. The various situation Ari encounters give us a wide view of his life and the choices he has, and doesn’t have. Aimed at ages 13+, the flirtation and romance between characters is decidedly PG. The most intimate moments are the honest and vulnerable interactions between the main characters. Bonus: The novel comes with a recipe for sourdough rolls!

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Review: Aster and the Accidental Magic by Thom Pico

Aster and the Accidental MagicASTER AND THE ACCIDENTAL MAGIC by Thom Pico and illustrated by Karensac is a fanciful, plucky graphic novel. Aster, the main character, is a likable protagonist whose rambles through adventures ensures readers will pay attention. Laced with magical villains and compatriots, the story keeps Aster occupied despite being stranded in a mountain cottage with only her parents. With Buzz, her new dog, she encounters a trickster, flocks of deadly, migrating birds, a strange but helpful Granny, and much more. The book is accessible, thanks to casual and fun language and references to modern life, but it’s firmly rooted in fantastical elements and folklore themes about nature and the seasons. The illustrations are joyful and just as strong and bold, but also goofy and adorable as the story.

The two narratives included in ASTER AND THE ACCIDENTAL MAGIC are fast-paced, wild, and include several magical elements that are both friendly and dangerous. Aimed at 8-12, nothing is particularly gory or horrific, although danger and uncertain responsibility are a constant underlying theme. Aster must make huge decisions, and she sometimes chooses well, sometimes not, as the title of the first story “Aster Makes Some Poorly Thought-Through Wishes” implies. It’s all in enjoyable fun, however, and Aster’s growth makes this a delightful coming-of-age story. Balancing out the villains are darling but powerful Chestnut Knights and a good-natured mountain who also happens to be the King of Winter. Happily, it’s clear by the end that there will be a follow-up story coming to continue Aster’s adventures.


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Review: BLACK GIRL UNLIMITED by Echo Brown

Black Girl Unlimited by Echo BrownBLACK GIRL UNLIMITED by Echo Brown is a tremendous, transporting read. It’s difficult and poetic and immersive. Brown leans heavily on autobiographical content, but the magical realism gives permission to readers to lose themselves in the story without feeling sorry for the inspiration behind the characters. It also keeps us from judging or giving up on the characters, which the novel also never does. The subjects of child sexual abuse, rape, drug abuse and overdoses, neglect, racism and misogyny, class disparities, poverty all connect and overlap consciously and unsparingly. Surrounding the abrasive and unflinching storyline is a surreal acceptance of another reality that includes women who are wizards, an in-between, and veils that hover over and surround those with tragedy and self-doubt in their lives.

Echo’s first-person narrative is filled with painful and harsh experiences that follow her from childhood to her late teens. The earliest scene sets the tone as 6-year-old Echo realizes she’s trapped in her smoke-filled apartment with her infant brothers and her overdosed mother as her building burns. Sometimes, as in this case, a rescue occurs. Other times, as with a friend who is hit by a car or when she is raped, the repercussions of trauma become a part of her life and path.

Part of the magical realism used in this novel is a consistent jumping from one timeline to another during pivotal events. Brown connects different experiences throughout Echo’s life by intertwining the themes and milestones through juxtaposition.  By the time we reach the most effective example – combining a speech in a church with a speech at graduation – we, as readers and observers, are comfortable enough with the format that it makes all the sense in the world. It’s a structural tool that the author utilizes to powerful effect.

The novel’s sections that deal with forgiveness, especially self-forgiveness, are incredibly moving. (I may be tearing up even as I type this.) She accepts help and works to persevere, really works at it, as life continually slams doors in her face and throws rocks in her path. I don’t want to go too deeply into the specific incidents that shape and affect Echo’s life, but it is her loyalties to as well as her boundaries with family and friends that help create a character that becomes a relatable and admirable superhero. The novel shows us we can all become wizards if we “cultivate the dark and grow the light.” Highly recommended for ages 16+.

I’m really looking forward to following Echo Brown as a performer and an author in the future.

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#TimesUp: It’s all connected.

timesup tweet

Surprising reaction. At first, it was an emphatic GOOD. Then as I typed #TimesUp, I started tearing up. And by the time I’d hit “send,” tears were in attendance. Why? Was it simply the relief that it wasn’t the five years his defense attorneys had called for? Perhaps it was the matter-of-fact statement, without punctuation or detail to accentuate the fact?

Thinking about it, as Scorpios sometimes do, my response is both of those AND four years of hearing “But not that woman.” AND then the last year of realizing (but we already knew) that it’s wasn’t just that woman, it was simply woman. AND then the various challenges and judicial decisions that tell women that no, our bodies are not our own. AND. AND. AND.

So in that moment I had tears about 23 years for one predator. Because even though sexual predators very rarely receive punishment for their crimes, here is one. And it’s precedent. And it tells society that harming women’s bodies is unacceptable. And it tells women that #TimesUp, at least for this man. This time.

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Review: A Dream So Dark by L. L. McKinney

a dream so darkI put off starting L. L. McKinney’s follow-up to A BLADE SO BLACK for months because I was afraid the second in the series would be a disappointment. I should have been brave. A DREAM SO DARK continues Alice’s adventures without so much as a deep breath before jumping in, and it lives up to the previous adventurous thrills. Through this Young Adult fantasy we get a deeper world in Wonderland, more honest relationships for Alice and her family, and delicious complications of the heart and backgrounds between characters. This second novel in The Nightmare-Verse will leave readers both satisfied and yearning for more, which is coming in the next book, A Crown so Cursed.

The novel opens focused on family and friendship connections. We witness Alice’s mother berating her, grounding her, but then allowing her to leave with Courtney under emergency circumstances. We also meet Alice’s Nana Kingston, who gives her a box with a necklace. Any fantasy reader worth their salt pricks up their ears at that, obviously. The Alice/Addison love connection is continued, but there are also hints at other continuations in the romance department. And through unavoidable circumstances, Alice’s mother is finally let in on the heroic deeds of her daughter. What a relief! All this happens in the first 100 pages, and it flies by.

The world-building of Wonderland continues with the Eastern Gate, Dragons, an in-between the worlds space, and deepened character development of the villains. The hinted at love of Manga is included with Japanese elements and continued references to Sailor Moon. I appreciated that many aspects from the first book remained consistent even as details expanded and strengthened to include whole new worlds.

McKinney continues to display her skill at inner monologues and fight scenes. However, while the story begins with immediacy, the pacing for the first third feels sluggish at times. Thankfully, the new details about the characters and the reader’s affinity for Alice, not to mention her companions, keep interest. Towards the middle of the novel, a variety of staccato scenes reflect the urgent fighting and sudden flashes of memory in pivotal characters, and the pacing seems to settle into a smoother style. The diversity in characters doesn’t come off as forced, and the pansexuality represented rings true, especially for a teenage voice.

Overall, A DREAM SO DARK is a worthy continuation in The Nightmare-Verse trilogy. Questions from the first book are answered…some of them. Details about character backgrounds are revealed…some of them. And the ending feels satisfying without feeling finished. I, for one, am looking forward to the final book!

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Review: Open Borders – the Science and Ethics of Immigration

9781250316967In OPEN BORDERS: The Science and Ethics of Immigration, Bryan Caplan, a Professor of Economics at George Mason University, and Zach Weinersmith, a prolific cartoonist, have created an accessible and relatively simple argument for Open Borders in the USA (and around the world). Throughout this graphic non-fiction work, Caplan presents proactive arguments and addresses criticisms and fears surrounding the concept of Open Borders with both respect for the audience and even some humor. It’s worth a read if, like me, you understand the basics but aren’t sure about the nitty-gritty of what gets thrown around in political discourse.

There are some pretty in-depth reviews of OPEN BORDERS out there, including one by Caplan’s co-blogger and also a professor of economics, David Henderson. This review on reddit includes both praise and concerns about a few claims including in the book. For me, a non-economics-degree-having child of immigrants immersed in the daily grind of my family and the current national (and local) horror show, the concept of open borders has been a bit of a see-saw where my sympathy lies. While I scoff at the conservative and IMO reactionary “my great-grandparents did it legally!” attitude, I’ve also often wondered what actual “open borders” would look like. Floodgates or turnstile? Target on Black Friday or waiting for cars to leave an at-capacity parking garage so you can get in? This book, sometimes in seemingly over-simplified terms, helps clarify many issues for mystified folks like me.

The USA-specific economics of open borders made a lot of sense to me; the global economics less so. The moral arguments were mainly in-line with why I have centered much of my activism on migrant and refugee issues. And while I think Caplan has an overly optimistic expectation about culture clashes and grievance politics, the USA, with its heterogeneous society, is likely to fare better than some homogeneous countries along those lines. Admittedly, I skimmed over the IQ section because, as an educator, I just don’t believe in using it as a reliable measure for, well, anything. I was surprised at Caplan’s seeming approval of some “keyhole” measures, and I’ll probably go back and re-read some sections and any footnotes to clarify the assertions for myself.

One of the most interesting chapters was “All Roads Lead to Open Borders.” Caplan succinctly runs through one-pagers on how various philosophies would approach open borders. Everything from Utilitarianism to Cost-Benefit Analysis to Christianity to Meritocracy gets a turn. It is a little like being Eleanor in Chidi’s ethics class. And it is effective. It’s also painfully optimistic at times. Appealing to Christianity’s reason for welcoming immigrants is pretty hopeful at a time that separating migrant children from their families and farming them out to “Christian” organizations for adoption is a shrug on the national conscience. But I digress.

I highly recommend reading Bryan Caplan’s OPEN BORDERS no matter into which opinion about immigration you fall. The illustrations and text work together to organize the information clearly with enough simplicity for we non-philosophers with a dearth of economics education, and it presents well-rounded arguments from all sides.



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