Review: New Kid by Jerry Craft

x800Jerry Craft’s new graphic novel, NEW KID, is honest, crammed with real moments, and it is an excellent commentary on you and you and me and the biases and vulnerabilities we all share. The main character, Jordan Banks, is a Black 12-year-old NYC kid about to start 7th grade at a prestigious academically-oriented private school that has little racial or economic diversity. He just wants to go to art school, but, despite misgivings, his parents aren’t about to pass up a golden opportunity. The book starts on Jordan’s first day of school, and as we follow Jordan, we are immersed in Jordan’s new but foreign world of high-end privilege and opportunity at Riverdale Academy.

Jordan’s feelings of being “the other” crop up as soon as he arrives. His happiness at seeing a Black father pull up to school is deflated when he realized the driver is actually a chauffeur. And his excitement at spotting another Black boy in the hallway becomes upsetting when Maury, who has attended the school since Kindergarten, is referred to by a nickname meant to insult him for not fitting in with racist expectations. Despite being paired with a helpful student, Liam, as his “guide,” a series of micro-aggressions ranging from abrupt questions to comments about liking a teacher — because he’s also Black — to consistently making comments about another student’s food choices disrupt any comfort to be had. Most of these comments come from Andy Peterson, the resident obtusely-mean kid. Craft skillfully fills in the school population with a wide range of personalities and social types, and each feels developed and real.

As an educator, I particularly appreciated the depiction of how the teachers reflected various styles and perceptions when working in a diverse environment. Jordan’s math teacher, Mr. Garner, who is Black, is in the middle of assuring Jordan that people are mixing him up with another Black student because he’s new when a colleague calls Mr. Garner “Coach” and wishes him luck in an upcoming game. Not only does Mr. Garner not coach a team, but he has taught at Riverdale Academy for 14 years. Another teacher is constantly asking his students if something he has said was offensive. And painfully, Jordan’s English teacher continually makes careless offenses with names and economic assumptions. She also applies standards of behavior unequally based on race which almost gets a student expelled when he speaks up in frustration. Sadly, when given an open-ended opportunity to grow, she resists and refuses.

NEW KID asks readers to relate to characters both similar to themselves and different from themselves. Biases are confronted on all sides, and assumptions are challenged. Characters are given avenues to change, and — as in real life — not all take the chance. All this is wrapped in a storyline that feels true to middle school life and almost-teenage drama. The author’s empathy for the discomforts and joys of each of the main characters brings them to life and nudges us to embrace each character fully — even when we may not immediately see ourselves in them.

I highly recommend this graphic novel for ages 10+.  Seriously, older teens and adults, too. And I deeply believe every teacher of middle school and high school students should read this book. Twice. New Kid comes out on February 5th, 2019 — so preorder yours today! An audiobook version of New Kid is also being released with a FULL CAST!

 

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Review: Unclaimed Baggage by Jen Doll

unclaimed baggageUNCLAIMED BAGGAGE is author Jen Doll’s first novel, although she’s also written extensively for various magazines and newspapers, and she also wrote a memoir before penning this young adult delight. Unclaimed Baggage centers on three flawed but very likable teens, all of whom work in the back room of Unclaimed Baggage, a store that sells the items inside lost and unclaimed luggage. The story is set in a small Alabama town, where not attending church is scandalous and everyone knows who did what. The baggage dealt with throughout the novel is in turns literal, emotional, and sometimes physical. During the novel, each teen must confront heavy challenges including sexual assault, alcoholism, and racial tension and attacks. What ties their responses together is their friendship and ability to support each other.

Doris is the focus of the novel, and she has been working at Unclaimed Baggage for a year or so. She hires both Nell, a recent transplant to Alabama from Chicago, and Grant, the local football star on a forced hiatus, and they become good friends over the summer. The teens spend their days unpacking and sorting the contents they find (just one dildo?), and deciding what to sell, throw out, or save for themselves or others. When they aren’t working, typical teenage outings and drama pop up. A trip to the waterpark and to the local balloon festival are highlights that develop both the teens’ personalities and deepen their friendships.

Doll’s choice to use alternating chapters for each character works to let the reader in on private thoughts and details that are revealed to the friends in later scenes. The first person narratives feel intimate and unassuming, as though we have stumbled upon a diary found in a piece of lost luggage. Occasionally there are chapters that focus on a purple suitcase, which later factors into a plot point that neatly (perhaps too neatly?) wraps up at least one of the storylines with karma.

The language used in the novel is authentic and individual to each character. Painful scenes involving the aftermath of assault and the depths of addiction are visceral without seeming overly-dramatic. In addition, while the inter-racial and long distance relationship between Nell and her boyfriend Ashton seems at first a bit devoid of conflict, it provides some of the scenes with the most impact. In a poignant scene after Ashton is attacked by a racist local while visiting Nell, she is forced to face her privilege and Ashton is straightforward in saying, “It’s not about you…You’re going to have to let me process this, and not make it your thing, you know?” Difficult enough for a teenager, and even more so for a teen who feels responsible for a boyfriend’s broken arm.

This same ability to go further than trite and rosy resolutions also provides strong scenes for Grant and the repercussions of his alcoholism and Doris’ grief at losing her aunt and dealing with being ignored by authority figures after a sexual assault. Each of these difficult topics is treated with a somber but lighthearted touch. Less serious developments like a lost little brother and a budding romance punctuate the events and keep the story moving.

Unclaimed Baggage is a fun read that touches on topics and concerns many teenagers will relate to . Highly recommended for ages 13+

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Review: ODDITY by Sarah Cannon

ODDITY Sarah CannonSarah Cannon’s debut novel ODDITY (November 2017) starts off with a burst of hauntingly familiar but life-threatening activity, and it never lets up. Set in the future, Oddity (named after the town in which the events take place) is a cross between sci-fi, horror, and fantasy. The main character, Ada Roundtree, is a spunky, sharp-as-a-tack, likeable 5th Grader with a self-possessed ability to find adventure and trouble. Her town, Oddity, is a bizarre, dangerous, and consumingly intense environment where children have survival drills against leopards and sometimes disappear, as happened with Ada’s twin, Pearl. Ada’s best friend, Raymond, and the new kid, Cayden, serve as supports to her energy even as they balance out her passion and daring.

The storyline is packed with imaginative adventures and quests, and the reader is introduced to new events as backstory details are leaked out. Interesting ideas, like missing children imprinted into (or is it onto?) rocks and town-wide competitions for children with terrifying dangers, are mixed in with supporting characters like Blurmonsters, zombie rabbits, and hard-to-spot puppeteers. As with all good middle-grade novels, the children’s adult family members are peripheral, but influential. In Oddity, overheard adult conversations and sympathetic and “cool” adult friends help move plot points along.

I enjoyed this novel, but I found it difficult to stay with the plot — mainly due to the many moving parts and disjointed activity. It felt frantic, much like the world in which the kids of the story live. I liked the supernatural and sometimes goofy elements, and my ten-year-old loved it. I think she understood the novel’s plot line more than I did!

ODDITY is definitely worth a read for kids who enjoy fantastical fiction and strong, fully realized characters. Recommended for ages 8 and up.

 

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My Highly Subjective 2018 Book Round-Up

2018 has been an incredibly, painfully long year. One thing that has made it bearable has been the wonderful array of books we have at our fingertips.

Here is a shortened (really! I tried to shorten it!) list of a few of my favorites. Lots of series included here.

Graphic Novels for Middle Grade Readers and the Adults Who Love Them

One of my favorite middle reader books this year was the final book in the Chronicles of Claudette series from Jorge Aguirre and Rafael Rosado, MONSTERS BEWARE. It has a true-to-personality hero’s arc for Claudette and her friends, and it’s just as much fun and adventurous as the first two books. Read my interview with author Jorge Aguirre here.

Another wonderful graphic novel for young and middle readers is The Creepy Case Files of Margo Maloo series from Drew Weing, and the second installment, THE MONSTER MALL, continues the themes of gentrification and bridging differences via humans and monsters. Everyone in my graphic novel reading family is looking forward to the third book! Read my review of The Monster Mall here.

Vera Brosgol’s BE PREPARED was a humorous and soothing balm for my kids this spring, who both went to overnight camp for the first time this summer. The graphic novel is told with humor, honesty, and very true-to-life observations about what it’s like to feel “too different” at times. Read my review of Be Prepared here.

CRUSH by Svetlana Chmakova is set in middle school and continues as the third installment of the Awkward series. Jorge Ruiz is a genuinely kind middle schooler who grapples with the push and pull of friendships and budding romantic feelings. Full review to come!

Another graphic novel in a series that entranced my family was Mike Lawrence’s THE LEAGUE OF LASERS, the second book in Star Scouts. I loved this continuation of Avani’s adventures in other worlds for its colorful illustrations and the development of the characters and complications they encounter. Read my review of The League of Lasers here.

THE DIVIDED EARTH, the third and final graphic novel in The Nameless City trilogy by Faith Erin Hicks, is more mature, deeply detailed, and ultimately satisfying for readers who have been following Rat and Kaidu’s friendship and adventures. The Divided Earth is more graphic in its violence and more complicated in its intrigue and relationships, but it avoids gratuitous gore. Read my review of The Divided Earth here.

ONE TO WATCH: Coming in February of 2019 is Jerry Craft’s NEW KID. I’ll have a formal review in January, but believe me — you’re going to want to pre-order this graphic novel!

Books for Young Adult and Older Adult Readers

Jen Doll’s UNCLAIMED BAGGAGE has received lots of accolades since its release, all well-deserved. I’m not even done reading it yet (but I almost always read the ending of novels early on, so I feel confident in this rec), and I can whole-heartedly tell you to go pick this up. The heartfelt honesty in the descriptions of the see-saw of teenage confidence and vulnerability in the characters is spot on, and the concerns are at once adult and totally teenaged. Sexual assault, alcoholism, peer pressure, mourning death, and family dynamics all play a role. (Full review to come!)

A BLADE SO BLACK by L. L. McKinney is a fantasy novel that combines Alice in Wonderland allusions and a main character who kicks ass while still maintaining a very-much-a-teen presence, a la Buffy the Vampire Slayer. One of the most effective aspects of A Blade So Black is the connection between the monsters the main character Alice must fight and kill, which are created and fueled by human fears and nightmares, and real life tragedies and anxieties. The death of Alice’s father and her heart-wrenching response is the earliest example, but the senseless gunning down of a young woman in Alice’s neighborhood continues the thread both realistically and painfully. Read my full review here.

IS THIS GUY FOR REAL? by Box Brown was an unexpected delight early on in 2018. It provides a behind-the-scenes feel for fans of Kaufman and gives enough background that those new to his antics can appreciate the graphic novel as well. Written with compassion, straightforward description, and a tender lens aimed at the eccentric, lovable Andy Kaufman, Box Brown creates a story that makes readers feel like they’re getting the inside scoop on this entertainer. Read my full review here.

THIS IS KIND OF AN EPIC LOVE STORY by Kheryn Callender is full of characters readers will immediately recognize, and the main character, Nathan Bird, is conflicted and vulnerable and hopeful and afraid – so much so that it almost makes him lose his friends and a chance at love. The novel is recommended for 14+, mainly for occasional coarse language and sexual activities in one or two scenes. A full review is included in this round-up.

NOWHERE BOY by Katherine Marsh is both timely and classic. When Max is forced to move to Belgium from Washington D.C. for his father’s job, he is miserable and lonely and he feels out of place. Little does he know that Ahmed, a boy who escaped Syria after losing his entire family, feels much the same way – and he is hiding out in Max’s family’s basement. Upon discovering Ahmed, Max must confront his own selfishness and willingness to help someone even if it means risking his own comfort and safety. A full review is included in this round-up.

One to WatchTHE NIGHTMARE DETECTIVE: THE SKELETON KING by Monk Inyang is a fantastical adventure mystery that promises to be the first in a Nightmare Detective trilogy. I’m in the middle of reading it, and already I really enjoy the characters, and I look forward to finding out how the story unfolds. Full review to come! This novel is independently published, and you can read about the author here.

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Glad I Saw It: Elf on the Sidewalk

It would have been fun enough to simply happen upon a larger-than-life-sized Elf being hoisted up to the roof of a downtown building. But when a life-sized Elf gets out of an SUV and is just as excited as you are (maybe a tad more excited) to see an Elf head on the sidewalk, it’s Super Fun.

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A friend happened to capture me capturing the live Elf posing with the giant Elf head. I really love this photo. (Thanks, Jen!)

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And for your viewing pleasure, here is the Elf’s head being hoisted up to join his body.

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The live Elf was trying to figure out how she could get to the top of the building to get a photo with the reassembled Elf, but I don’t know if she was successful. I hope so!

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Review: Duke Ellington’s Nutcracker Suite

DukeEllington_JKT.inddThe backstory of Duke Ellington’s Nutcracker Suite is an adventure in music and friendship and holiday drama. The picture book, written by musicologist Anna Harwell Celenza and joyfully illustrated by Don Tate, is the fun and frantic story of how Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn took Tchaikovsky’s classic ballet and made it swing and toot and jump.

With dialogue and interactions based on published biographies, recordings, photographs and memoirs, the story feels both realistic and fantastic. Readers are brought in to eavesdrop on Ellington and Strayhorn as they work through creating a Nutcracker Suite that feels familiar to both the ear and the heart.

Don Tate’s illustrations look like they could dance off the pages of the book. Bright colors and inspired shapes and scenes are accessible for children and invigorating to adults. The text and imagery move the story along seamlessly and with energy.  Duke Ellington’s Nutcracker Suite is fun to read, and everyone who enjoys it will be sure to listen to the music over and over again.

Highly recommended for ages 4-8 and beyond.

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Glad I Saw It: Before Passing Time

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Often, when I go into high schools to observe student teachers, staff members try to steer me away, to protect me, from the treacherous and winding pathways of hallways filled with teens. And I get it. Teens rarely move out of the way, in fact they will sometimes intentionally get in the way of adults — especially adults they don’t recognize — to stretch their influence, and hallways during passing time are crowded and smelly and jostling and unpredictable ecosystems. They are also vibrant, energetic, tunnels of up-to-date slang and fashion and all things youthful. I love it; dodging my way through the hallways is a challenge that I sometimes regret, but usually enjoy.

That said, an empty hallway has a lovely calm as well.

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Book Review: A Blade So Black by L. L. McKinney

9781250153906_JKT.inddL.L. McKinney’s A BLADE SO BLACK doesn’t waste time before running headlong into action in this exciting and inventive take on Alice in Wonderland. With an Alice who resembles Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Dark Angel’s Max Guevera more than any of the Alices we’ve gotten to know over the years, the opportunities for a wide array of emotions and character driven plot twists present themselves and are taken advantage of throughout the novel. The characters are nuanced and diverse in ethnicity, class, and personality. Alice is a Black teenager struggling to mourn her father and find common ground with her mother. Her friends, mentors, and the various Wonderland personalities surround her with moral support, friendship and romantic challenges, and role models of all kinds.

The first few chapters of the novel feel abrupt at times due to months and years-long jumps which seem intended to avoid the monotony as Alice hones her fighting skills.  After Alice is first rescued from a monster and introduced to “the other side of town” by her mentor, Addison Hatta, we only get a brief taste of her new life before skipping to further action. At times the dialogue can also feel a little forced and uneven, but most of the time it rings true and helps move the plot forward effortlessly. Once Alice has been established in Wonderland, and events occur in more of a day-to-day pattern, readers will find the adventures engrossing, both in Wonderland and in Alice’s hometown of Atlanta. The second half of the novel flew by for me thanks to the dizzying array of characters and events.

One of the most effective aspects of A Blade So Black is the connection between the monsters Alice must fight and kill, which are created and fueled by human fears and nightmares, and real life tragedies and anxieties. The death of Alice’s father and her heart-wrenching response is the earliest example, but the senseless gunning down of a young woman in Alice’s neighborhood continues the thread both realistically and painfully. The underlying fears held by Alice, her mother, and the fumbling but well-meaning response of Alice’s best friend, who is white, to that tragic incident show Ms. McKinney’s ability to not just acknowledge real-life issues, but also draw them meaningfully into her fantasy novel.

I found the storyline entertaining and moving. Several high school scenes were relatable, as were some of the discussions between Alice and her mother. However, I was frustrated with some choices, like Alice’s repetitive cycle in her dealings with her mother. And why does she start calling Addison just Hatta? How did Chess become a best friend after a lifelong friendship between Alice and Courtney? I’d also have loved additional description of Wonderland itself and more detail about Alice’s cosplay hobby. Still, while some areas are left without satisfying development, there were lovely nuggets embedded in the story for readers to discover. My mind is racing with suspicions of why The Black Knight calls Alice “princess,” and how romantic interests will develop – or not.

The allusions to the original Alice in Wonderland are subtle, but recognizable. The Queens, Tweedledee and Tweedledum, and even the Vorpal Sword all make appearances. The creativity with which McKinney massages and stretches the original tale is impressive, and it works. I also appreciate the matter-of-fact appearance of same-sex relationships and interracial (and inter-dimensional) relationships.

With a combination of salty language and topics highly relevant to teens, A Blade So Black will feel grown-up but accessible to its targeted age group (14-18). Highly recommended for anyone who loves adventure and fantasy. And good news! A second novel is already in the works with the title A Dream So Dark. We can only hope that a film adaptation is already being discussed because it would be amazing!

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Book Review: The Divided Earth by Faith Erin Hicks

The Divided CityTHE DIVIDED EARTH, the third and final graphic novel in The Nameless City trilogy by Faith Erin Hicks, is more mature, deeply detailed, and ultimately satisfying for readers who have been following Rat and Kaidu’s friendship and adventures. The Divided Earth is more graphic in its violence and more complicated in its intrigue and relationships.

Continuing from the cliffhanger that concluded The Stone Heart, readers discover that the conquering Erzi, who killed his father to become the General of All Blades in The Nameless City, has the formula for a dangerous and ancient weapon, napatha, but he is already feeling insecure and paranoid towards those around him. Mura, the brains and brawn behind Erzi’s power, is given the spotlight several times, allowing for more character development and insight to her psyche. She also gives Rat a heck of a beating in the story’s major battle.

The introduction of Kata, Kaidu’s mother, provides the catalyst for a new beginning in The Nameless City. Kata dominates this narrative anytime she is present. A leader’s leader, she is always calm, in control, fierce and firm, even while being compassionate. Whether she is rounding up an army or showing affection for her husband, she commands each panel in which she appears. For the conflicts in the plot, as both a member of the ruling tribe and an outsider, Kata is able to kickstart the transition from a divided city of class and caste to a home for all who come to its borders “with an open heart.”

Rat (whose true name is revealed within the text!) and Kaidu’s friendship continues to stand in for overcoming differences and finding strength in others. And while the wider circle of friends doesn’t get much development, there are instances that help tie-in peripheral characters, particularly with humor. In addition, the themes of home, belonging, friendship, and the journey of overcoming trauma all factor in to the story’s end. Most readers will find the justice doled out satisfying on a more human level than they might expect.

Hicks’ attention to detail in her illustrations continues to amaze. With several major battle and fight scenes, she manages to portray motion and pain and power without gratuitous gore and violence. The settings in this third book move quickly from rooftops to forests to tunnels to underwater caverns. Hicks switches between light and dark, rough sketches and detailed facial expressions with ease.

This third graphic novel in The Nameless City series, THE DIVIDED EARTH is recommended for ages 9-14. While there is fighting violence throughout, it is not gory and it is attached to a build-up of both character and plot. The Divided Earth is a very fine conclusion to this trilogy. Highly Recommended.

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Review: Lost in the Library

Lost in the Library

I need to admit something. The cover of the lovely new picture book, LOST IN THE LIBRARY, is so endearing that I was almost – almost – disappointed in the actual story. Thankfully, the in-depth adventures of Fortitude, one of the two lions guarding the main entrance to the New York Public Library, as he searches for his companion, Patience, in the halls of the famous building are as delightful as the cover promises.

The story begins when Fortitude wakes up from a nap and notices that Patience has left his post at the front of the library. As he wanders the halls, which Patience has visited often, but Fortitude has never seen, we join the searching lion in meeting statues and paintings and even a water fountain decoration. The hundreds of rooms are not featured in detail, but the taste readers get will encourage a visit to the New York Public Library’s halls.

Lost in the Library is a love story not just to the New York Public Library’s structure, but to the books that house the myriad adventures, travels, characters that we share with each other. Why does Patience leave his post at night? To read stories which he later shares with his good friend Fortitude!

The casual, sometimes jaunty rhymes through the story by Josh Funk work well with the chunky, humorous illustrations by Stevie Lewis. Fortitude and Patience, as well as the supporting characters, all have definite personalities conveyed not just through their words, but in the rich and detailed illustrations. The back page of the book includes explanations about some of the people and places Fortitude discovers during his pre-dawn adventure in the New York Public Library.

Highly recommended for ages 4-8 and beyond.

Thank you to Henry Holt Publishers for a review copy of this book.
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