To Tell You the Truth by Beth Vrabel

Cover image for To Tell You the Truth.

To Tell You the Truth by Beth Vrabel (9781534478596)

Gran told Trixy stories from the time she was born. No one else believed Gran’s stories were true, but Trixy knew they were. After Gran’s death, Trixy holds on to her stories, particularly the one she promised to never tell. Gran told Trixy that stories weren’t meant for everyone, because sometimes they can’t be heard. When her teacher tells her that she needs to write down a true story, Trixy borrows one from Gran. It’s a story that is unbelievable, combining cake, theft and Liberace. Soon Trixy is telling lots of people Gran’s stories and submitting some for publication. Deep down she knows the stories are real, but can she prove it? It’s going to take telling some lies, doing some sneaking, and traveling across the state to meet people who knew Gran and can tell Trixy the real truth.

Vrabel has created a novel wrapped around a series of delightful short stories told in Gran’s voice. Through those stories and Trixy’s memories, readers gain a deep sense of who Gran was. The novel is an exploration of the power of stories that are shared, a question of what truth really is, and then an ending that will require a few tissues. The writing is marvelous with just the right amount of Southern charm. The play between the novel itself and the stories works amazingly well, combining richly together.

Trixy is a character who is holding not only stories but also secrets. Her relationships with others are difficult thanks to her prickly way with others. Trixy regularly believes that she is right, doesn’t listen to others, and in the process speaks hurtfully to them. At the same time, her pain over losing her beloved Gran is evident as is her need to connect with other people. She manages to transform those around her with her stories while at the same time also changing herself too.

A charming Southern novel about stories, loss, love and truth. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from copy provided by Atheneum.

The Accursed Vampire by Madeline McGrane

Cover of The Accursed Vampire.

The Accursed Vampire by Madeline McGrane (9780062954350)

Dragoslava is a kid and also a vampire. Born in 1460, Drago has seen a lot of Halloweens and history. They live with their two best friends Eztli and Quintus who are also vampires. Long ago, Drago made a witch angry and now has been cursed to be her servant. When she calls on them to retrieve her grimoire, Drago has to set off on the quest to Baneberry Falls. As the three little vampires reach the Midwest, it’s Halloween, a holiday that they excel at since they don’t need costumes. Plus they get to scare some of the older bullies who are out stealing candy. The three friends reach a creepy mansion, perfect for the local witch to live in. But it turns out that she lives with a vampire too. Now they just have to figure out who took the grimoire, who to trust, and who is out to get them.

This graphic novel is full of humor and just enough blood to be spooky but not frightening. The dynamic mix of witches and vampires adds to the fun with magical and undead powers on display. The characters are all interesting with full backstories, some of which is shared with the readers. The book offers a fully realized world where the characters feel like they have been living for some time and you have just popped into their lives. The characters are interesting and not stereotypical. There are lovely LGBT moments in the book too with lesbian couples and Drago themselves using they/them/their pronouns.

The illustrations are a marvelous mix of homey mundane and fang-filled spookiness. Drago pops on the page with their bald head and black cloak. The colors are rich, including poisonous greens, autumnal oranges, and dark blues and purples.

A spooky and funny graphic novel full of friendship and fiends. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by Quill Tree Books.

Ten Thousand Tries by Amy Makechnie

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Ten Thousand Tries by Amy Makechnie (9781534482296)

Golden knows that this is the year that he will become captain of his school soccer team. He’s been working toward a goal of practicing ten thousand times in order to master the sport. After all, his father was a pro soccer player, though now he is battling ALS, a progressive disease that is stealing his ability to use his muscles. Golden believes that as long as his father keeps on trying, he can prevent the disease from worsening. And sometimes it even seems like it is working. Golden tries to keep control of everything, making sure that his year is as perfect as possible, but there are so many things outside of his control. The soccer year doesn’t work quite as Golden planned, one of his best friends plans to move away, and his father continues to decline. Golden may need a different approach to all of these things if he is to look after his family and friends well.

Makechnie is the author of The Unforgettable Guinevere St. Clair. In this second book, she writes a heartfelt story about grief and denial. While the book has soccer as a major focus, she writes it in a way that allows the games to make sense for those of us who may not know the rules. Even in the games, the clear purpose is teamwork and supporting one another, things that Golden needs to figure out in the rest of his life too. She creates amazing moments throughout the book of deep connection with one another, wise choices and intangible joys that appear out of nowhere. It’s a book about loss but also about life.

Golden is a remarkable protagonist. He is so deeply in denial that at first his rationales make sense to both him and the reader. As the book and his father’s ALS progress though, the reader steadily realizes that Golden is struggling more profoundly. It’s beautifully done with grace and with a deep empathy for Golden and his family. The secondary characters in the book are all richly drawn, including Golden’s two best friends who have struggles of their own and his family members.

A heart-rending look at grief, this book embraces the joy of life too. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from ARC provided by Atheneum.

The Legend of Auntie Po by Shing Yin Khor

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The Legend of Auntie Po by Shing Yin Khor (9780525554882)

The Paul Bunyan myth gets transformed by a young Chinese-American girl growing up in the logging camps in this graphic novel. Mei shares her stories about Auntie Po just as freely as she shares her stellar pies. She is the daughter of the camp cook and helps out her father in the kitchen. The manager of the camp loves her pies and is friends with her father, but that only goes so far. The Chinese men logging are fed separately. When her father is fired, Mei is left behind at the camp with her best friend. Mei uses her stories of Po Pan Yin, Auntie Po, to give all of the children in the camp a heroine they can believe in. Mei must find a way through the politics of race and privilege to find a future for herself and her father in America.

Khor offers a mix of tall tale and riveting real life in this graphic novel. She weaves in LGBT elements as Mei has feelings for Bee, her best friend. The use of sharing tales to provide comfort combines seamlessly with also offering food. Mei is a girl with a future that seems out of reach much of the time, but comes into focus by the end of the book. The book looks directly at racism in the years after the Chinese Exclusion Act and offers a mixture of characters that are racist and allies for Mei to encounter and deal with.

The art focuses on the characters themselves, sometimes offering glimpses of the Sierra Nevada scenery too. Chapters begin with different logging tools being featured and described. The art is full of bold colors, the huge Auntie Po, and the busyness of a logging camp and its kitchen.

A fascinating look at logging from a Chinese-American point of view combined with some really tall tales. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from library copy.

Ophie’s Ghosts by Justina Ireland

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Ophie’s Ghosts by Justina Ireland (9780062915894)

When Ophie’s father is killed in a racist attack on their home in Georgia, Ophie discovers that she can see and communicate with ghosts. Her father’s ghost encourages her to flee with her mother. They make their way to Pittsburgh to stay with relatives. Ophie’s mother finds them both jobs with a wealthy family in their old manor that happens to be filled with ghosts and secrets. In post World War I America, work is hard to find and they can’t afford for Ophie to continue to attend school. As Ophie learns the tasks to be a maid for the elderly woman who owns the house, she realizes how dull her future looks, caught in endless domestic work. Ophie must also learn the tricks of dealing with all of the ghosts who surround her both at work and outside. Some are far more demanding than others. One spirit in the house though is friendly to Ophie, teaching her the small elements of being a maid that will make Ophie’s life easier. But even that spirit has secrets, ones that may not stay hidden once she has a voice.

The author of Dread Nation has turned to middle-grade novels with historical fiction that wrestles with racism and prejudice while offering an enticing mystery to unravel. The fantasy elements of the ghosts around Ophie add to the mystery and effectively isolate Ophie from those around her as she figures out how to handle both ghosts and her wealthy employers. Ireland doesn’t shy away from the blatant racism of the time, but also effectively demonstrates how those same racist forces are in our modern world.

Ophie is such a great protagonist. She is dynamic and smart, hurting from the loss of her father and trying to help her mother find a way forward for them both. As she has to stop going to school, she finds ways to keep learning, including romance magazines that she finds around the big manor. Ireland cleverly ties all of the elements of the book together with her reveal at the end, keeping Ophie and her powers fully central.

A marvelous mystery full of fantasy elements and Black history. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from library copy.

Long Distance by Whitney Gardner

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Long Distance by Whitney Gardner (9781534455665)

The author of Fake Blood returns with another fantastical graphic novel. Vega’s parents have moved her from Portland to Seattle, leaving behind her best friend. Vega loves astronomy, something she shared with her best friend. She still has her telescope, but no one to watch the stars with. To help her transition to her new home, Vega’s parents send her off to a summer camp designed to help her make new friends. Vega isn’t interested in making new friends, so she is stand offish to the other kids. As things around camp get stranger, including a camper who changes his appearance regularly to try to make friends, rocks that are speakers, no cellphone service, and really strange food, Vega must join forces with the other campers to figure out what is actually going on.

Gardner’s middle-grade graphic novel is a genuine look at moving away from friends and the struggle to regain your footing and make new ones. Gardner though takes it much farther explaining the weirdness of all summer camp experiences in a fresh way. When all is revealed at the end of the book, readers will have the satisfaction of having figured it out along with Vega and the other characters. The pacing of the different elements is nicely done as is the consistent look at loneliness and friendship throughout.

Gardner’s art style is bold and clear. She offers readers a diverse cast of characters, including Vega herself who is a character of color and also has two fathers for parents. The format feels larger than most with some of the images taking up the entire page with great impact. The entire book feels effortlessly modern.

A perfect summer read, particularly for those who have done summer camps. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from copy provided by Simon & Schuster.

Cece Rios and the Desert of Souls by Kaela Rivera

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Cece Rios and the Desert of Souls by Kaela Rivera (9780062947550)

Cece lives in Tierra del Sol, a town at the edge of the desert where criatura, powerful legendary beings, roam. Devoted to the Sun, the town stands against the influx of these beings. Cece though is unique in her town. She has a water spirit, given to her when she was young, that is considered a curse by the rest of the residents, including her own family. When her older sister is stolen away by a criatura to become his bride, Cece blames herself for bringing her sister into the desert. Now Cece must figure out how to rescue her sister. She decides that the only way is to become a bruja herself and control the soul of a criatura. The first criatura she meets is the legendary Coyote, who agrees to join her in her quest. As Cece joins the brutal contests of the bruja, she must find her own way, a way that may just change the relationships between criatura, bruja and humans.

Rivera’s novel is entirely immersive and engaging. She invites readers into the world of Mexican folklore, highlighting several legendary figures both kind and cruel. Still, the world she creates is also entirely her own with the small community of humans standing in the way of the powerful criatura and the disdain that those people have for Cece and what she becomes. The world of criatura, bruja and humans is a delicate balance where power if vied for and battles are commonplace. Just knowing who to trust is difficult and may lead to ruin.

The characters placed in this world are beautifully written. From Cece herself, who is courageous, caring and unwilling to lose herself in order to gain power. To Coyote, who is funny, wild and true. The soft spot that Coyote has for humans is one that will be shared by readers towards him. His character is complex and so much a heart of this book.

A great middle-grade fantasy full of magic, legend and individuality. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from library copy.

Sunshine by Marion Dane Bauer

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Sunshine by Marion Dane Bauer (9781536214116)

Ben lives with his father and his faithful imaginary dog, Sunshine. This summer, he’s going to spend an entire week with his mother, whom he hasn’t seem since he was three. She lives alone on an island in northern Minnesota. As he and his father journey to meet her, Ben struggles to ignore Sunshine, since his father thinks Ben is too old to have an imaginary friend. After journeying to his mother’s island home by canoe, Ben finds himself struggling with his anxiety and often unable to speak. He has so many questions he wants to ask her and has imagined many conversations together, but nothing comes out. He desperately wants to figure out how to get her to return to living with them. Instead of asking, Ben spends his days on the island, giving his mother time to read. After a disastrous expedition to see some bears and another harrowing solo journey in a canoe, a disaster hits the island and a path to forgiveness is formed.

Bauer is such a remarkable writer. Her books are invitingly brief for young readers and also offer real depth of emotion. In this novel, she shows the struggles of someone with anxiety who is often asking “what if” rather than diving in. She doesn’t allow it to be superficial, instead really exploring what it feels like. At the same time, readers will realize that Ben is incredibly brave and fueled by anger that he won’t acknowledge. His connection to Sunshine is fully realized, from the way they curl up to sleep together to her position in the canoe to their ongoing friendship in a new place.

Ben is a complex character and so are his parents. His father is fastidious, clearly anxious himself in ways that Ben can’t articulate. His mother is a remarkable character in children’s literature. A mother who left her child behind for reasons that are hinted at but not fully revealed until later in the novel. Yet she is given the space to be warm, kind and caring while also being rather distant and reserved. She is many things, and also far more than she realizes.

A book full of dangers, adventure and heart. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from ARC provided by Candlewick.

The Power of Style by Christian Allaire

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The Power of Style by Christian Allaire (9781773214900)

This nonfiction book explores the importance of fashion as a way to pay homage to heritage, culture and identity. The book looks at the work of designers who are incorporating their own Indigenous heritage into their work, such as ribbon work. The book moves on to hair styles and the importance of embracing natural hair, keeping long hair as a connection to culture, and the art of braiding. Cosplay comes next focusing on size acceptance within the cosplay community and the people who are forcing more inclusivity. Modest fashion and hijabs and head scarves are explored next with a focus on style and individuality. Then the book moves on to talk about high heels for men and the importance of standing tall for LGBTQIA+ rights. The final section is about makeup, both as a way to express yourself and as a way to see yourself included as modern makeup embraces more skin tones.

Each turn of the page in this book shows people of color, different cultures and religions, various gender and sexual identities, a wide range of sizes, and it embraces all of them as valid and beautiful. Written by an Ojibwe author who is the Fashion and Style Writer for Vogue, this book represents so many movements in the fashion world to be seen and accepted. Allaire’s writing is friendly and fresh, inviting readers to explore the pages, showing what allyship looks like, and giving real space to these new ideas and designs.

The book is full of photographs, making it a visual delight to read. Allaire has clearly carefully selected the photographs to show the fashion and also the figures who make the fashion come alive. They are bright, beautiful and truly speak to the diversity he is highlighting.

A gorgeous and enticing book about fashion that will broaden definitions and embraces inclusion. Appropriate for ages 12-16.

Reviewed from ARC provided by Annick Press.