Darius the Great Deserves Better by Adib Khorram

Cover for Darius the Great Deserves Better

Darius the Great Deserves Better by Adib Khorram (9780593108239)

This second book about Darius takes place after he returns home from his family’s visit to Iran. A lot has changed since he made his first real friend in Iran, someone he still talks with often and considers his best friend. Now Darius is on the school soccer team and has a boyfriend. He works at a tea store that his boyfriend’s father owns, immersing himself in something he loves. But his family is struggling with money and with his father taking more jobs where he has to travel, his grandmothers move in to help. Darius can’t help but notice how different his grandmothers are than his mother’s family in Iran. He works to connect with them, but doesn’t make much headway. His relationship may not be as great as he though either, since Landon wants to move a lot faster than Darius is ready for. Plus a boy on his soccer team is becoming a closer friend, though he did used to bully Darius. Nothing is simple or easy in this second book, as Darius continues to learn about himself.

Returning to the world of Darius was amazing. Khorram’s writing is marvelous, exuding a natural warmth in his storytelling. His empathy for Darius is clear, as Darius struggles with what he is ready for, what family means to him, and who he wants to have in his life. Even his relationship with tea becomes problematic, as he may lose something he loves because he fears failure so much. And beware how much you will want to try some of the teas mentioned here, because Darius is passionate about them!

Darius is hero material. Thoughtful and sometimes depressed, he is complex and marvelous. From his best friend in Iran to his boyfriend to his new friendships on the soccer team, Darius is brave and manages to continue coming out through this new novel. He faces fear in ways that preserve what he loves, sets real boundaries to keep true to himself, and manages to be hilariously funny too.

Another great Darius book. Can there please be a third? Appropriate for ages 14-18.

Reviewed from library copy.

Flamer by Mike Curato

Cover image for Flamer

Flamer by Mike Curato (9781250756145)

Aiden Navarro is fourteen and attending summer camp with his Boy Scout troop. He is leaving his Catholic Middle School and has decided to go to public high school, though he’s starting to dread what that means in terms of the bullying escalating even farther. After all, he doesn’t know how to dress himself since he’s been wearing a uniform to school for years. He also worries about how his sister is coping with his often abusive father now that Aiden is gone to camp. To make it all more complicated, Aiden is also gay and closeted. When he finds himself becoming attracted to one of his friends, Aiden has to decide whether to let him know or not. When things don’t go well, Aiden reaches a dark place that has him questioning how to go on.

Curato has created a graphic novel that really speaks to self discovery and learning how to survive. The setting of the summer camp really creates an atmosphere of freedom mixed with closely living with other boys his age. This can be a mix of exhilarating but also being unable to escape from bullying that targets Aiden’s sexuality. I applaud Curato for incorporating exactly the sorts of dirty jokes that boys in a group make together, all of them teasing about sexuality in a way that is damaging and hurtful.

The art in the book is done in black and white until the flames enter the pages. Those flames can be from bullying, from shame, from attraction, from rage. They all color Aiden’s life and therefore the pages. It’s highly effective, particularly as Aiden makes a decision about suicide.

A compelling look at a gay teen learning about himself and finding his core of fire. Appropriate for ages 12-15.

Reviewed from library copy.

Get a Grip, Vivy Cohen! by Sarah Kapit

Get a Grip, Vivy Cohen by Sarah Kapit

Get a Grip, Vivy Cohen! by Sarah Kapit (9780525554189)

Vivy first learned about the knuckleball pitch from VJ Capello, a major-league pitcher. Now she can throw it consistently and has caught the eye of a local coach for a youth baseball league. Vivy desperately wants to play, but she has a mother who is worried that Vivy is the only girl on the team and that her autism may be an issue. Vivy reaches out via letters to VJ again, seeking his advice. He doesn’t answer her, but she keeps on writing until suddenly he replies! The two begin to correspond together about pitching, baseball, and Vivy’s life in general. When an accident happens on the mound, Vivy may be permanently benched, especially if her mother gets her way.

Kapit is active in the neurodiversity movement and writes from a place of experience about Vivy’s struggles with autism. This debut novel has a sense of confidence with strong writing and a great main character. The entire book is written in letters between VJ and Vivy. A particularly strong part of the book is when their relationship has become strained and then they stop communicating. It’s tense and sorrowful, and very skillfully done.

The character of Vivy is particularly strong. Her struggles with autism show how it impacts her life but doesn’t prevent her from doing things. The overprotective mother figure is also well done, not seen as an enemy but as simply a person trying to keep Vivy safe. The family dynamics, dynamics on the baseball team and Vivy’s relationship via letter with VJ are all beautifully done with lots of empathy but also expectations.

A great book that hits a home run! Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from library copy.

Planet Omar: Accidental Trouble Magnet by Zanib Mian

Planet Omar Accidental Trouble Magnet by Zanib Mian

Planet Omar: Accidental Trouble Magnet by Zanib Mian, illustrated by Nasaya Mafaridik (9780593109212)

Omar and his family have moved, which means that Omar has to start at a new school. He lives with his mother, father, older sister and younger brother. One of their new neighbors doesn’t seem happy to have Muslim neighbors, glaring at them through her fence and not being friendly when approached. Omar is also facing a bully at school. Daniel has even told him that because Omar is a Muslim he could be kicked out of the country! Luckily, Omar also has a new best friend and a family who can support him as he learns the ins and outs of being Muslim in America.

Mian’s #ownvoices novel for elementary readers is wildly funny and really approachable. Omar himself seems the world through a silly and engaging lens, where teachers may be aliens and he is a magnet for trouble. That trouble includes spitting on his little brother in bed, getting lost during a field trip, and asking Allah to bring him a Ferrari. The book has lots of illustrations, making it just right for elementary-aged readers who need some breaks in their text. They will find that the humor and format make for an engaging read.

A winner of a children’s book that is about prejudice, friendship and community. Appropriate for ages 7-10.

Reviewed from library copy.

Review: The Best at It by Maulik Pancholy

The Best at It by Maulik Pancholy

The Best at It by Maulik Pancholy (9780062866417)

Rahul just wants to be the best at something, anything. But he’s skinny and the target of Brent, one of the biggest bullies at school. He’s also carrying the secret that he’s gay. Brent taunts Rahul into trying out for the football team, which ends up with Rahul not making the team and nursing a hurt ankle. Meanwhile, Brent has figured out Rahul’s secret when Rahul looks a bit too long at Justine in class. Rahul’s best friend Chelsea tries to get Rahul to understand how amazing he is, even if he’s not the best at something. As Rahul searches for his niche, he finds himself getting more anxious and his nightly rituals are less soothing. Whatever Rahul discovers about himself he also realizes that his Indian-American family and his friends will be there to cheer him on, no matter who he is.

Pancholy, an Indian-American actor, has written a compelling and heart-wrenching middle grade novel that deserves applause. He captures the angst of a kid who is different from the straight white kids in his school and who is trying desperately to fit in with them. Pancholy grapples in this book with many large themes, all of which fit with Rahul’s story. There is the bullying of LGBTQIA+ children at school. He addresses racism in casting and racism towards anyone brown-skinned or non-white. He takes these issues on directly, showing how standing up to bullies and racism is the best course of action.

Rahul is a great protagonist. He has support from an extended family as well as a best friend. It is a joy to see a middle grade book with a gay protagonist who is supported and loved by his family and friends. In fact, the book shows that sometimes it is the child who is torn up about coming out while their family and friends may have known for some time.

A great read from a multi-talented debut middle-grade author. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by Knopf Books for Young Readers.

Review: A Normal Pig by K-Fai Steele

A Normal Pig by K-Fai Steele

A Normal Pig by K-Fai Steele (9780062748577)

Pip is a pig who loves to make art, cook with her family and dream about what she is going to be when she grows up. But then one day, a new kid at school teases her about the lunch she brought saying that it stinks. The new pig also doesn’t like Pip’s art projects either. They even ask if her mother is her babysitter, since they aren’t the same color. Pip is furious when she goes home and she demands that they make her a normal lunch. Instead, they travel as a family into the city to explore a bit. In the city, Pip hears all sorts of different languages being spoken. The pigs are all different colors and patterns. When Pip asks for normal food, she is told that the food isn’t weird at all. Pip feels a lot better when they get home. Her parents offer a normal lunch, but Pip decides to take her same one. At school, she is teased again but this time offers tastes to everyone and they like it!

Steele explores what it means to be different in a sea of pink pigs. She also looks at what being targeted by a bully feels like when you are a small child and how it can shake your confidence in yourself and your family. Pip’s desire to be more normal is something that children will be able to relate to. The look at an urban setting as a place where people with differences are celebrated is done with a clarity that is very welcome.

Steel’s art is crisp and colorful. She has created pigs of all different stripes and patterns as well as colors. Pip is the only polka-dotted pig in her class and her mother is the only black pig in the neighborhood. The strong patterns and clear differences will help young readers understand that everyone is unique and that differences are worth celebrating.

Just right for kids who aren’t normal, this book celebrates diversity. Appropriate for ages 4-6.

Reviewed from library copy.

Review: I Love My Colorful Nails by Alicia Acosta and Luis Amavisca

I Love My Colorful Nails by Alicia Acosta and Luis Amavisca

I Love My Colorful Nails by Alicia Acosta and Luis Amavisca, illustrated by Gusti (9788417123598)

Ben loves to paint his nails in cheery colors. He loves looking at the bright colors on his hands. His mother shares her nail polish and so does his friend Margarita, they both have large collections of colors. One morning, as Ben headed to school with red nails, two boys started teasing him, telling him that nail polish is for girls. Ben felt very sad and a few days later, he told his parents about it. His father immediately asked for orange nail polish for his own nails. At school though, more boys started to tease him. Soon Ben was only wearing nail polish on the weekends, removing it for school. His dad though, wore bright nail polish every day, even when he picked Ben up from school. As Ben’s birthday arrives, he gets the best present ever! What could it be?

This picture book offers a very approachable way to talk about gender expectations and how even small expressions of difference are important. The parents in the book are both tremendously warm and encouraging of their son, but the book accurately shows how school can be very different for children who are not conforming to societal norms. The use of nail polish is clever, adding a colorful element to the tale as well as something that Ben’s father can embrace himself.

Gusti’s illustrations are marvelous. Filled with warmth and humor, they celebrate the bright colors of nail polish on each page. Ben’s emotions are shown through the set of his shoulders and his entire posture. When he is sad, he droops over and when he’s happy he bounces on the page.

A great book about gender nonconforming behavior in children and how a school can be a place of safety. Appropriate for ages 4-6.

Reviewed from copy provided by Nubeocho.

Review: Merci Suarez Changes Gears by Meg Medina

Merci Suarez Changes Gears by Meg Medina

Merci Suarez Changes Gears by Meg Medina (9780763690496)

Merci’s life starts to really change during sixth grade. She doesn’t fit in at her private school with the other kids, mostly because she is a scholarship student. Her brother Roli seems to be able to fit in naturally thanks to his love of science. As part of her community service for the school, Merci is a Sunshine Buddy. When she is paired with a boy to guide around school, Merci is shocked but opinionated Edna is bothered by how much time and contact Merci now has with the new cute and popular boy. Meanwhile, Merci’s grandfather is struggling. He has started to forget things, calls people by the wrong name, can’t ride a bike anymore and get angry over small things. Other times, he is just as he has always been, immensely patient and loving. Middle school is always a confusing time, but Merci has a lot more to deal with than other kids. Can she navigate family and school without losing who she is?

Medina has created an engaging middle-grade novel that grapples with several big topics. There is a theme of bullying at school, particularly because of differences in social status and culture. At the same time, readers will notice long before Merci does that she is deeply liked by many of her classmates and forms connections with ease as long as she is herself. There is her grandfather’s Alzheimer symptoms, something that Merci tries to figure out but is not told directly about until late in the novel. Her confusion and concerns turn to anger when she discovers that she is being treated like a child and not included in knowing about the diagnosis.

Throughout the novel, Merci is a strong character who has a lot more going for her than she realizes. Bringing people into her life and allowing her family and school life to become one is a skillful way to show that being ashamed of one’s family is actually not the solution. Merci takes the novel to figure things out, a steady and organic evolution for her character, a character that young readers will relate to easily.

A winning middle-grade novel that is part of #ownvoices, this is a must-read. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from ARC provided by Candlewick Press.

Review: All of This Is True by Lygia Day Peñaflor

All of This Is True by Lygia Day Peñaflor

All of This Is True by Lygia Day Peñaflor (9780062673671)

When Miri, Soleil and Penny make a plan to get close to their favorite author, Fatima Ro, at one of her signings, they couldn’t predict what would eventually happen. The girls meet Fatima, make a connection with her and suddenly are walking out with her and are invited to an exclusive gathering at a local coffee shop. Soon they are friends with Fatima, invited over to her house and spending time with her. They bring along Jonah, a boy who has just started at their private school and who seems to have a secret. As their friendship with Fatima deepens, their lives begin to revolve around her book, her ideas of human connection, and each of them having their own sort of connection to the famous author. But is everything what it seems?

This is one delicious read, even if readers figure out the twist ahead of time watching it play out and the reverberations it has for the characters is great fun. Penaflor writes the book in a series of texts, conversations, interviews and notes. Added in are excerpts from the new book that Fatima Ro has written, inspired by the teens themselves. Throughout, there is a wonderful creepiness as the novel written by Fatima mirrors the lives of the teens so closely. Readers will not trust any of the characters because they are all immensely flawed and biased in their recounting of what happened.

The novel explores privilege and power. It looks deeply at whether someone who has done something atrocious can be redeemed, can recover themselves and can regain their life. I’m someone who loves ambiguous endings to books and this one is particularly well done, working well with the layered quality of the novel as a whole.

A perfect summer novel that is a thrilling, compulsive read. Appropriate for ages 14-17.

Reviewed from library copy.