On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong

On Earth We're Briefly GorgeousON EARTH WE’RE BRIEFLY GORGEOUS by Ocean Vuong is a novel, but I had to remind myself that it was not autobiography or memoir again and again. The raw depth of Vuong’s honest language is gutting; I read it in small bites and with many breaks for my own emotional well being. It’s beautiful. It’s traumatic. It’s a sacrifice on the part of both the author and the reader. It is delicious in its love and hurt and connection. It’s a must read. And having read it, I’m tempted to also listen to the audiobook.

The novel is dense. It tangles trauma from war, beatings from a parent, racism, homophobia, drug abuse and death, perseverance, curiosity, sex and longing, first love, loss, poverty, the immigrant experience, survival, secrets, regret, and memory. So much memory across the generations. Through narration from the narrator, referred to fondly as “Little Dog,” the novel reads as though it’s meant only for the main character’s English-illiterate mother, although several times the narrator doubts she will ever do so. The descriptions, meant for a mother, are familiar and intimately detailed, and reader is not considered; all is as it should be.

Vuong’s poetic mastery comes through, and the narrative, which is not always linear, is all-encompassing. A substantial section of the novel is devoted to the narrator’s friendship, love, and intimate relationship with Trevor, and the joy and pain that relationship introduced. Juxtaposed with the relationships “Little Dog” has with his mother and grandmother, we realize the intensity of the narrator’s emotions. The language drags the reader into the emotional riptides flowing through it, and the result is exhausting in the very best way. Highly recommended.

I first learned of ON EARTH WE’RE BRIEFLY GORGEOUS via a Weekend Edition interview. It’s worth a listen.


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The Runaway Princess by Johan Troianowski

The-Runaway-Princess_cvr_cropTHE RUNAWAY PRINCESS by Johan Troianowski is whimsical, includes echoes of Tintin, consistently and beautifully employs vibrant colors, and has a fearless main character in Princess Robin, the titular princess. The book is made up of three separate tales featuring inventive characters and barreling storylines that highlight precociousness and optimism.

A particularly fun feature is the inclusion of interactive pages that ask the reader to complete puzzles to “help” Princess Robin with her adventures. The character illustrations boldly convey a wide range of emotions and reflect an impressive creativity and delight in their interactions. The tales are a skillful combination of joyful adventure and unabashed fantasy. Many readers will respond with curiosity and eagerness throughout the stories.

At times the plot seems to get jumbled, and some of the conversations between characters feel stilted. This could be a side effect of translation from the original French, or it could be an intended feeling to accompany the tempest held within the pages. Overall, however, THE RUNAWAY PRINCESS will come across as endearing and fun for the middle grade set.

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Review: All-American Muslim Girl by Nadine Jolie Courtney

All American Muslim GirlALL-AMERICAN MUSLIM GIRL by Nadine Jolie Courtney is a remarkable young adult novel that centers on a girl exploring her identity as a Muslim in the midst of family, peer, and religious influences. The first-person narrative allows us to follow Allie Abraham in her questions, hopes, vulnerabilities, doubts, frustrations, and joys regarding following Islam and being Muslim enough. Many readers will relate to the struggles depicted, regardless of their personal identities. However, young American Muslims will find particular solidarity in the events and personal journey of the main character.

Throughout the novel, Allie, a high school sophomore is confronted with both her privilege as a Muslim who can “pass” as a white American assumed to be non-Muslim, and the constant tension of modern-day Islamophobia and hiding – or not publicly acknowledging – her family’s background. The tenderness with which Allie’s internal ponderings are written shares the kind of implicit support and acceptance that every teenager deserves and needs. That empathy extends to other characters as they are given second chances, held in confidence, and listened to despite disagreements.

Readers unfamiliar with Muslim traditions will learn a lot, especially in the fantastic scenes that include the all girls Quran study group. The discussions and different points-of-view within the group are enlightening even as they highlight the different aspects and opinions of what makes up a “good Muslim.” Disagreements are talked through, and ultimately offering support is more important than winning an argument. Traditions including prayers, choice of dress, and honoring Ramadan are all described in a natural way within the story. In addition, scenes that show bigoted and condescending reactions to Muslims will hopefully open up empathy for all who endure micro-aggressions and hate-filled behavior based on their identity.

Unlike many YA novels involving family traditions and rules, All-American Muslim Girl involves a teenager looking for more religious instruction, not fewer restrictions, within a secular Muslim family. In fact, fear of her father’s anger that she has a Quran and has begun to pray keep Allie from sharing her curiosity and desire to connect with Islam with her family. Surrounding her personal journey is new love with a non-Muslim boy, an ailing Grandmother with whom Allie can’t fully communicate because she doesn’t fluently know Arabic, current events that affect Muslims, and various peers that both support and challenge Allie’s identity. The on-going narrative filtered through Allie feels authentic, honest, and utterly powerful.

All-American Muslim Girl is readable, challenging, moving, and informative. Nadine Jolie Courtney has done us all a service in her ability to share such a profoundly affecting story with finesse and a direct vision of being able to define oneself on one’s own terms. Highly recommended.

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Review: GIRLS LIKE US by Randi Pink

9781250155856These days, despite the very real threats to women’s bodily autonomy throughout the USA, both current, as depicted in Dawn Porter’s TRAPPED, and anticipated, as a multitude of court cases approach the newly conservative-leaning SCOTUS, many women don’t truly believe their right to end or carry a pregnancy will be lost. Randi Pink isn’t one of those women. GIRLS LIKE US is her frustrated manifesto in favor of reproductive rights. The novel details how unplanned pregnancies affect four different girls’ lives, and many other stories float in the sidelines as well.

This Young Adult novel won’t provide easy answers to anyone living on polarized political sides of reproductive rights. The stories of the girls are heartbreaking for sure, and uncomfortable at times, but each situation has nuance and respect for the characters. The novel also brings up clear and urgent issues that encourage anyone who reads the novel to explore various perspectives and experiences.

GIRLS LIKE US opens in 1972, pre-Roe, with sisters Izella and Ola, and it’s quickly clear that older sister Ola, whom Izella often calls stupid, is pregnant with her boyfriend’s baby. Izella immediately knows that “baby needed to become no baby.” A local seer gives Ola the means to end the pregnancy, but things go awry when her expectations are dashed by reality. The magical elements introduced by the seer, Mrs. Mac, feel natural and ominous.

Another girl in their town, Missippi, is an innocent, simple 14-year-old who has been repeatedly raped by her uncle. She is pregnant, and Ola and Izella’s mother, aptly named Evangelist, is helping to take care of her since Missippi’s mother died years ago. Her loving father ends up sending her to Chicago to Ms. Pearline, a woman who helps “girls like us” deliver their babies away from prying eyes and judgmental communities — and, in Missippi’s case, abusive uncles.

Sue is a wealthy, white, 17-year-old pregnant girl who also ends up in the Chicago apartment with Ms. Pearline. Despite having advantages the other girls could hardly dream of, one night of lapsed prophylactic use became an unwanted pregnancy. Sue and Missippi connect immediately, and issues of class and race are addressed lightly via her character. Sue’s mother has been helping and supporting Ms. Pearline for many years, and Sue’s father is a powerful, unsympathetic, anti-choice U.S. Senator.

The lives of three of these characters become tightly connected, and a final section of the book, set in the present, emphasizes underlying anxieties about the autonomy women enjoy being precarious and fragile via a girl all three characters deeply care for. GIRLS LIKE US is readable, compelling, and tender despite some clunky sections and oddly included details, especially about Sue’s mother.

Readers should know that child sexual abuse, a botched abortion, and a scene that could or could not be suicide are all included. This is in addition to light use of salty language and birth scenes, neither of which will be shocking to the targeted audience of 14+.  My recommendation is to read the Author’s Note first. Randi Pink’s voice and motivation are clear and inspiring, and it provides strong context for the perspectives in the novel.



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Review: The Midwinter Witch by Molly Knox Ostertag

FC_BC_9781338540550.inddTHE MIDWINTER WITCH is the third and final book of the adventures that includes The Witch Boy and The Hidden Witch.  A wonderful twist on traditional middle grade themes of identity, conflicts with family and friends, and solidifying values and a path forward, Ostertag wraps up the story of Aster and his family and friends by staying true to her focus of gender non-conformity and belonging.

While Aster and his nervousness about competing publicly as a witch is one major thread in the story, Ariel’s story moves into the spotlight as well. Her search for where she came from and the push and pull of the choice between traditional and dark magic create both conflict and temptations that threaten to drive the friends apart. Ostertag skillfully intertwines individual character challenges and the overall story arc to create a tense, heartwarming tale that feels relatable despite the fantastical world in which the events transpire.

As with the first two books, Ostertag’s illustrations are both bold and vibrant. Character’s emotions and actions are clear and visceral throughout the events. And, as with the first two books, Ostertag’s ability to be inclusive to LGBTQ+ and racial and ethnic diversity is smooth and direct. Indeed, there are multiple representations, which avoids a feeling of tokenism.

THE MIDWINTER WITCH is a worthy final book of this series. Highly Recommended.


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Review: FRY BREAD by Kevin Noble Maillard

9781626727465.jpgAuthor Kevin Noble Maillard approaches this celebration of FRY BREAD with a focus on the senses and the history behind the favorite staple. Born of necessity when native tribes were forcibly moved, able to take little with them, fry bread was created with the items given by the U.S. government: flour, yeast, sugar, salt, and sometimes cornmeal. This picture book, however, celebrates the process and family-tradition of making and eating fry bread. The joyful and stunningly detailed illustrations Caldecott Honor winner Juana Martinez-Neal has created ensure that all readers come away from the book knowing that Fry Bread is most definitely US.

The picture book is divided into sections headed with a simple statement about fry bread: Fry Bread is Food, Fry Bread is Sound, Fry Bread is Shape, Fry Bread is Time, and so on. Each section details ingredients and techniques and family time spent making and eating fry bread. The descriptions are vibrant and sensory, and the vocabulary is appropriate without being too simple. Each page is a nugget of information about fry bread that ties together culture and history and family traditions for many Native Americans.

The illustrations connect beautifully with the text, and Martinez-Neal drew inspiration from Maillard’s personal photos and multicultural history. Centered on a Native American grandmother, the picture book shows her leading a group of children through mini and molding and frying the bread. The images of celebrating the making and eating of the bread moves into learning about history and culture and values, all connected to the tradition of process of the fry bread. The multicultural depiction of the children and adults celebrates a rich heritage and the vast connections across nations.

Fry Bread Everything.jpg

The book ends with a recipe for fry bread and an expanded explanation of each earlier page in Fry Bread. The sections are fabulously informative, and while they are aimed at caregivers, not the preschool readers, they can definitely be shared with all ages. Mentions of particular details in the illustrations will also have readers going back to search for names and items discussed throughout the book.

Highly Recommended.

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Review: Mr. Nogginbody Gets a Hammer by David Shannon

mr nogginbody gets a hammerDavid Shannon, the author of the beloved “David” books, has created an odd little book about an egg-shaped man who thinks he has discovered a way to fix every problem – a hammer. MR. NOGGINBODY GETS A HAMMER follows our naïve hero as he finds early success that becomes destructive enthusiasm. Mr. Nogginbody briefly lives out the proverb, “If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” Once again, Shannon’s talent at channeling toddler behavior onto the page is both disconcerting and loveable.

Mr. Nogginbody, and the other characters in the book, are literally egg-shaped bodies with clothes worn on their body-faces. The drawing style, which is raw compared to some of the polished and realistic computer graphic illustrations of many new picture books, reflects the open emotions of the main character. Preschoolers will love recognizing the “face” on Dan the hardware store owner’s body, and Mr. Nogginbody’s expressions are wonderfully innocent and full of wonder even as he hammers a crooked picture, a flower (it’s shaped like a nail!), a mailbox, a stop sign, and chess pieces. It’s finally his attempt to hammer a fly on his own head that makes him realize that not everything that resembles a nail needs to be hammered.

The adventures and illustrations in this strangely appealing picture book are a lot of fun. The repeated refrain, “Fixed it!” when the (non-existent) problem was definitely not fixed, mirrors the meme and Netflix show “Nailed it!” with similar results. And the book is just as much fun. Caregivers may briefly worry that those same children will get ideas about hammering things around the house with glee. However, the delight with which Mr. Nogginbody hammers things will likely be met with “Oh no!” and giggles from readers, hearkening back to David Shannon’s earlier books. MR. NOGGINBODY GETS A HAMMER is an adorably quirky picture book recommended for ages 4-7.


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Review: Invasion of the Scuttlebots by Mike Lawrence

Invasion of the Scuttlebots by Mike Lawrence.jpgFor this third and final installment of the Star Scouts series, author Mike Lawrence takes on integration, disinformation, and pop music in a funny and adventurous tale of friendship’s ups & downs. INVASION OF THE SCUTTLEBOTS picks up as new BFFs Pam and Avani have convinced Star Scouts to combine the oxygen and methane breathers into one troop. Mabel, who in League of Lasers had issues with Jen, Avani’s best Earth friend, now is jealous of Avani and Pam’s bond. Her frustration at feeling left out, which is partly fueled by puberty, is directed towards a “scuttlebot” that immediately sets out to destroy Avani and Pam’s friendship. Let the invasion begin!

Staying on top of current events, Lawrence has made the main weapon of the scuttlebots disinformation. They spread rumors about Pam in order to create division, fear, and hate by using public figures, popular Flower Scout cookies, and basic human traits. Avani’s journey to forgiveness of Mabel and all the characters learning to work together to halt the invasion provide wonderful lessons in being grown-up and open-hearted without sounding preachy.

The story flips back and forth between different Star Scout troops working on various community service tasks like cleaning up space debris and keeping senior citizens company. The development of the characters and their relationships continues, and the creativity of the illustrations heightens. Middle grade readers will enjoy the frenetic action and the interaction between friends and frenemies, both new and old. Mabel’s growth, which is the source of several PU-party jokes, and some funny interactions with senior citizens will appeal to adolescents as well.

INVASION OF THE SCUTTLEBOTS rounds out the series arc with creativity and an obvious love for the characters. The emphasis on working together under pressure, apologizing authentically, forgiving mistakes, and compromising to include everyone is especially timely and appreciated.

The entire Star Scouts trilogy is highly recommended.

See my review of STAR SCOUTS here.   See my review of LEAGUE OF LASERS here.

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Review: HEY, KIDDO by Jarrett J. Krosoczka

hey kiddoHEY, KIDDO by Jarrett J. Krosoczka is a graphic memoir that brings together the conflicting realities of what family can mean. Krosoczka details his childhood and adolescence with brutal honesty, including the neglect, love, disappointment and hope that make life so complicated. Jarrett, called “Ja” through much of the memoir, grows up with his maternal grandparents after his mother’s unstable lifestyle puts him in danger too many times. We, and Jarrett, later find out his mother is addicted to heroin. While far from perfect, growing up with his grandparents affords Jarrett the stability, love, and opportunities that help him survive turbulent relationships and misadventures.

While infused with love, Jarrett’s childhood is also filled with his grandmother’s sometimes abusive tirades, terrifying nightmares, and the palpable absence of his mother, who spends time both in jail and rehabilitation homes. A consistent and strong friendship, finding the joy of art, and the support of his extended family ensured Jarrett was surrounded by support and acceptance. However, the absence and sporadic appearances of his mother is threaded through his entire life.

The void of not knowing his father doesn’t become an issue until Jarrett’s teens, and it takes several years to become curious enough to make contact. However, it is the longing to reunite with his mother, and the eventual disappointment, that overwhelms the narrative. The arc of Jarrett’s relationships with his biological parents, intertwined with the gratitude and connection he has with his grandparents, is moving and bittersweet.

In the tradition of SHOUT, by Laurie Halse Anderson, Hey, Kiddo offers a realistic look at a complicated childhood with few punches pulled. In addition, it offers an optimistic message with unexpected opportunities and art as an outlet and safe space for young people plagued by hardships, abuse, and self-doubt.

Aimed at readers aged 13 and up, the language in this graphic memoir is authentic. It includes mid-range curses and some abusive language. It also depicts drug use, violence, and frightening nightmares. However, I believe most teens, and even strong tween readers, will connect to the narrative and find the story both authentic and inspiring.

Don’t skip the author’s note at the end of Hey, Kiddo. The entire book, every page, is highly recommended. The author also has a website dedicated to the graphic memoir.

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Review: Legends of the Sky by Liz Flanagan

9781338349665LEGENDS OF THE SKY by Liz Flanagan brings us a character who defines “small but fierce” throughout the novel. Titled Dragon Daughter in last year’s British release, readers follow Milla, an 12-year-old orphaned servant girl as she first secretly witnesses a murder and then finds and hides dragon eggs. As the story develops, we learn that the island of Arcosi has rifts and history that echo many places around the world. The island’s original inhabitants have disappeared and been replaced by new residents. They, in turn, feel the land belongs more to them than newer arrivals. The harmful effects of prejudice against those who look and speak differently becomes a main theme. The concepts of identity, home, and belonging are threaded throughout the story.

But don’t forget the dragons! Hearkening back to tales from McCaffrey’s Pern series, we watch dragons bond with their chosen people, gobble up food, and eventually fly and flame. The four main characters are interesting in their interactions and traits, although Milla is far and away the most developed personality. Adventure, tense fighting scenes, touching connections between both people and dragons, and a strong sense of right and wrong help create a story that pulls readers in to both enjoy and learn from the events. I found this a wonderful, uplifting novel. Legends of the Sky is aimed at readers 9-12, but slightly younger and older readers will enjoy it as well.

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