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.
Does A Glimmer of Death sound like your next cozy weekend read? I’m giving away a copy! Leave a comment by Sunday, April 18th, 2021, letting me know why you need a kinder, gentler read these days, and you’ll have a chance to receive a copy of the novel. Open to USA residents only due to mailing costs.
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.
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.
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.
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.
So I know I’m a few years late on this powerful novel, and it was just as riveting and clear and strong as I expected. It’s such a relief when a novel lives up to the hype. In many ways, THE HATE U GIVE by Angie Thomas is a typical Young Adult (13+) novel. It has friend drama, romantic drama, family drama, a main character who has to deal with high-end tension and danger and challenges to find her strength and her true self. It has teens dealing with deep and dangerous events and issues. What sets The Hate U Give apart is its introspection, direct commentary, and array of well-developed characters who bend and flex and grow in the midst of a whirlwind of traumatic events.
16-year-old Starr and her family are the center of this novel, and Starr drives the narrative via first person narrative rich in description and relatable, authentic emotional responses. By the end of chapter two, Starr has asserted herself as an individual with a strong backbone and a deeply empathetic heart. Also by the end of chapter two, Starr has witnessed her childhood friend Khalil shot by a police officer who points the same firearm at her as her friend bleeds to death. The scene is raw, painful, and all too real. The remainder of the novel deals with the emotional aftermath and the consequences of Starr being the only witness to Khalil’s death. However, the novel allows other issues between romantic partners, families, friends, and neighborhood alliances to develop. The effects of trauma and the process of grieving are especially effective.
The greatest strength in this novel comes down to Thomas’ skill in developing characters who can hold more than one truth at once. Starr’s description of being her private school self versus her neighborhood self is not new, but that dichotomy emerges in so many ways, both matter-of-factly and without condemning those who do or don’t choose that path. The struggle Starr’s brother, Seven, experiences as he is pulled between his mother’s family and his father’s is intense and deeply relatable for many children who live between households. The anger Starr’s friend Kenya experiences as she works through her feelings about Starr straddling two different worlds, and the perceived judgment she feels, reveal realistic conversations and arguments between the friends. The complicated balance of confronting racist behavior in Starr’s white friend Hailey versus maintaining the “nice Black girl” image Starr has cultivated over years is masterfully written. And the adults are not without their examples of growth either. In fact, Starr’s parents and uncle factor deeply in the development of the story for both plot and furthering the theme of maintaining identity and finding one’s voice amidst change.
The empathy for questionable actions is consistent throughout the novel, but not in a cloying way. Starr, as the reader’s guide, is faced with her own assumptions and prejudices, and is willing to admit — and attempt to repair! — her mistakes. The choices DeVonte, a local teen, makes regarding joining a local gang and selling drugs are explained without excusing the harm they cause. Starr’s assumptions about Khalil are challenged, if not completely dissipated. And Starr’s father’s time in prison is given space for explanation and examination of the continued ripple effects it has years later. Again and again, the compassionate descriptions of how characters respond to their environments and hardships demand that readers see the pain, desperation, conscious and knee-jerk choices, and deep frustration behind the actions.
As expected, in its written form, THE HATE U GIVE manages to provide much more nuance surrounding events and challenges to the reader. However, the film also does a great job boiling down some of the most potent issues while leaving space for humor, joy, and watching Starr navigate her values. The novel has more curse words (the film has two uses of “fuck,” which was a special allowance from the M.P.A.A.), but no sex or nudity. Khalil’s death scene is traumatic and heart-wrenching, but any tween or teen who has paid attention to Black Lives Matter news in the last few years will recognize it as related. Hopefully families will discuss the issues spotlighted together.
BRAVER: A Wombat’s Tale by Suzanne Selfors and Walker Ranson is a misfit hero adventure featuring wombats, swamp rats, and a baby penguin named Blue. Even the villainous Tasmanian devils include misfits who work for the side of good. The delightful observations and discoveries that emerge from main character Lola’s descriptions are bright and insightful. Lola, a wombat joey, is talkative and curious even though most wombats prefer peace and quiet routine. When her parents and her entire village are captured and stolen away by a “Tassie Devil,” she knows she must finally leave home to save them. Along the way she gathers companions and learns how to survive and face her fears.
Aimed at middle grade readers, there is enough danger and adventure to keep kids interested, but minimal gore (a cracked whip causes an animal’s hand to bleed) and no salty language keeps it age appropriate. The focus is on perseverance, friendship, and testing one’s courage all while facing new settings and experiencing confusing and challenging situations. Lola’s yearning to help her family, and her fears for their safety drives the plot, but it is the camaraderie that holds it together. The core group of travelers and the peripheral characters all seem to break away from stereotypes of “their kind.” Lola’s adventurous spirit is unlike most wombats, Melvin the swamp rate is fastidious and prefers “gourmet” food, not garbage, Blue the penguin loves to “fly,” Snarl the Tasmanian devil is kind not cruel, and even Bale the platypus makes a terrible messenger, unlike most other platypuses. What Lola discovers, along with her friends, is that maybe being different isn’t so unusual after all.
With likable characters that show both courage and vulnerability, middle grade readers will enjoy rooting for the characters and recognize the themes of the novel’s adventures in their own lives. BRAVER is a joy, and would make a great read-aloud for classrooms or bedtime as well as an independent read for ages 8 and up.
GO WITH THE FLOW by Lily Williams & Karen Schneemann is aimed at ages 9-14, but parents and caregivers would do well to read too. This straightfoward and totally-comfortable-with-menstruation graphic novel manages to bundle many high school and societal issues into one story. When a group of friends “rescues” a new girl from public period leakage, a movement is born that demands access to period products and awareness about all the side-effects surrounding menstruation. It’s all presented in such a casual and matter-of-fact way that readers can’t help but get more comfortable with the subject despite themselves.
Friends Abby, Brit, and Christine take new girl Sasha under their collective wing when they see her being teased about bleeding through her white pants. When the sanitary product dispenser is empty (like always!), Abby takes on the cause which includes angry blog entries, fuming about the “pink tax,” a meeting with an apathetic principal, letters to district leaders, and a go big or go home display that crosses a bit too far for her friends. Along the way, we hear about Brit’s painful periods that cause her to miss school, Christine’s budding sexual awareness, and Sasha’s dipping a toe into dating as she’s dealing with bullying. The authors also bring up varying issues surrounding menstruation including heavy and light flows, trans men, early and late menstruation, length of periods, and more via Abby’s blog posts and comments left there.
The friends are diverse in their attitudes, backgrounds, body types, family backgrounds, and menstrual cycles. Somehow the authors manage to make it all feel familiar but aspirational as opposed to forced or contrived. Typical middle grade topics are broached with conflicts and support between friends, love interests, self-awareness, bullying, feeling alone, and more. However, period equity is centered throughout GO WITH THE FLOW, and all readers will be the better for it.
NOW THAT I’VE FOUND YOU is Kristina Forest’s second YA novel, and it is a lively and enjoyable read appropriate for ages 12 and up. The novel follows Evie, an 18-year-old budding actor on the verge of stardom when a leaked video brings her down and she goes into mortified seclusion. Evie’s character is self-centered and privileged, but being the granddaughter of an ultra-famous Hollywood star and the only child of an award-winning documentary team will do that to anyone. Young Adult audiences will appreciate the novel’s central message about shaking off public opinion and learning to trust oneself and others.
Burned by her best — and only — friend, Evie emerges from a months-long hibernation hopeful that an appearance with Gigi, her famous grandmother, will re-start her career. She travels from California to NYC to present an award and convince Gigi to give her blessing to a new project. However, the appearance of Milo, a live-in friend and helper to her grandmother and sudden (but voluntary) disappearance of Gigi interrupts the plans. What follows is a fun, delightfully adventurous week during which Evie learns more about herself and her grandmother she ever thought possible.
Milo is an endearing character, and readers root for him throughout the novel. His calm and bemused responses to Evie’s scattered, sometimes snobbish manner also help us have more patience with her. The slowly emerging but resisted romance is told from Evie’s point of view, but Milo’s character is well-developed, and he is an effective foil and support to Evie.
Peripheral characters serve as a fabulous, active, backdrop to the events in NOW THAT I’VE FOUND YOU. Milo’s bandmates are a collection of goofy but believable personalities who grow into solid characters. Evie’s former best friend Simone begins the story’s action, but she also gets a few appearances later in the novel that round out her character. Evie’s agent, Kerri, is a likable and reliable support throughout the novel.
Kristina Forest’s sophomore YA novel is a breath of fresh air with minor use of harsh language, light romantic kissing, and no violence. It reminded me of IF IT MAKES YOU HAPPY in its ability to delve into interpersonal drama without passing canceling judgment on any characters. The point comes across as self-affirmation and deserved joy in a firmly Black-centered world of drama, family, and growth. It is a joy to read.
This lovely novel mixes fantasy with science lessons and friendship with quests to create a story that middle grade readers will find both comforting and inspiring. QUINTESSENCE, by Jess Redman, centers on Alma, a recently transplanted 12-year-old, as she navigates her anxiety and works on “growing her light.” The balance of the STEM-based quest Alma finds herself on and the hardships of middle school and changing family relationships works to keep the novel fresh and relatable.
Alma’s family has recently moved to the town of Four Points due to her parents’ careers, and her older brother is now away at college. The changes have brought on panic attacks that Alma soon learns to hide from her parents to avoid disappointing them. Redman’s sympathetic portrayal of Alma’s anxiety is center to the novel, and it reminded me of how Alyson Gerber described ADHD in FOCUSED. Alma’s ability to keep trying, despite emotional and social setbacks, is a testament to how middle school entangles the hope and brightness of pre-adolescence with the conflict and challenges of impending adulthood.
Even though the premise of the novel is fantasy (saving a fallen starling!), the quests and adventures (midnight mountain climbing and spelunking!) are a throwback to Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys tales, plus a dash of modern social drama. Readers are allowed to get ahead of the characters when it comes to recognizing connections and anticipating story developments. The developing friendships between an unlikely foursome provide much of the novel’s authenticity. Alma, Shirin, Hugo, and eventually Dustin all have their perceived weaknesses, but they all discover “elements” that bring them together. The developing relationships feel familiar, and the awkward and sometimes aggressive interactions ring true to middle school. Readers will eventually feel sympathy with each character even when they create hurt feelings or harm. The heartwarming growth in each of the adventurers feels honest, with room to continue.
The short chapters ensure that both voracious and reluctant readers will be able to pace themselves for binge-reading or short dips into the story. At times the storyline can feel slow, but there are enough details to maintain interest in the plot and the characters. Not to be pushed aside, the Shopkeeper will definitely pull at some heartstrings as the novel concludes. QUINTESSENCE is a delight.