Long Way Down: The Graphic Novel by Jason Reynolds

Long Way Down: The Graphic Novel by Jason Reynolds, art by Danica Novgorodoff (9781534444959)

The original verse novel by Reynolds won many awards, including a Newbery Honor, Printz Honor and Coretta Scott King Honor. I was hesitant to take a look at the graphic novel version of the book, wondering how it could work. While the graphic novel does not improve the book (because how could it), instead it is like a new jazz version of the original, taking the story and transforming it into something similar but altogether different. This new graphic version is incredible, just as moving, tense and personal as the original.

Readers who may hesitate at picking up a verse novel will find this new version more approachable. Beautifully, Reynold’s wring is intact here, so many of his important lines and statements left to speak directly to the reader. Novgorodoff manages to transform the work with her art. She sweeps the pages with watercolor blues, fills violent parts with blood spattering red, highlights Will on his elevator journey through death and hope using color and light.

Amazing, transformative and fully in honor of the original work. Appropriate for ages 12-16.

Reviewed from copy provided by Atheneum.

Amari and the Night Brothers by B. B. Alston

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Amari and the Night Brothers by B. B. Alston (9780062975164)

Amari still believes her brother is alive, even though everyone else thinks he is dead, including the bullies at her private prep school that she attends through a scholarship. When she gets a strange delivery, sending her to her brother’s closet where she finds a briefcase, she is introduced to the Bureau of Supernatural Affairs, where her brother works. Offered a spot in their competitive summer program, Amari finds herself learning about the hidden supernatural world that surrounds us all. It also turns out that her brother is part of a very famous two-person team who brought down the evil magicians. He has disappeared, and Amari is determined to find him, even though the Bureau doesn’t want to share any of the information they have. Helped by her roommate, who happens to be part dragon and a classmate connected to a famous family, Amari starts to unravel the mystery of her brother’s disappearance, but not before discovering that she has powers of her own that mark her as evil in everyone’s eyes.

A perfect new title for fans of Harry Potter, Artemis Fowl, and Percy Jackson, it is great to see a Black author create a Black protagonist who enters a fantasy world. Brilliantly, Alston layers the prejudice of the real world with that found in the supernatural, showing how profound racism is by combining it with hatred of magicians, who are labeled as illegal. The writing is strong and the pace is fast, quickly bringing readers and the characters into the world of the supernatural.

The world building is delightful, with nods to Harry Potter and classic myths but also staying connected to an urban landscape and modern issues. Amari is a great character, who sees little potential in herself while revealing throughout the book how unusual she actually is in more than her powers. Her loneliness, courage, loyalty and desire to figure out what happened all make for a book that has real depth but also offers a wild and fun ride through the supernatural.

Sure to be a popular read, this book has plenty of substance too. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by Balzer + Bray.

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.

Just Like That by Gary D. Schmidt

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Just Like That by Gary D. Schmidt (9780544084773)

In the summer of 1968, Meryl Lee’s best friend died. Her parents decided to give her a fresh start at St. Elene’s Preparatory Academy for girls, a boarding school in Maine. Meryl Lee doesn’t fit in with the wealthy girls around her, finding all of the rules and expectations stifling. Meanwhile, Matt Coffin is also on the Maine coast, except he is living in a decrepit shanty trying to survive. He is on the run from a criminal gang whose leader murdered his best friend. Matt works on the fishing boats, earning just enough to feed himself and heat his small shanty. After Matt is attacked and nearly killed, the headmistress of St. Elene’s takes him in. They start to form a family along with one of the fishermen who takes Matt out on the water. Meryl Lee is also finding that she can make friends in different ways, though the blank of grief is often waiting to overtake her. Soon the two will meet, discover one another and find that they are drawn together in grief and hope.

Every new book by Schmidt is a delight. This one is a heart stealer of a book where readers will adore both Meryl Lee and Matt as well as the adults who care for them both. As Meryl learns again and again, friendship starts in a variety of different ways, as long as you are open to it. Readers will leave this book more open to discovering amazing people in their lives who were there all along.

The historical setting works particularly well to keep Matt able to stay hidden as long as he does. It also plays a role in events at St. Elene’s with staff getting into trouble for publicly expressing their political beliefs and the Vietnam War taking the brother of one of the girls who works at the school. Schmidt explores grief with a deep empathy and kindness but also with a cracking sense of humor at times.

Deeply sad, often lonely but also full of hope and friendship. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by Clarion Books.

All Because You Matter by Tami Charles

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All Because You Matter by Tami Charles, illustrated by Bryan Collier (9781338574852)

This picture book tells Black and brown children that they matter. They were dreamed of by their ancestors. Stars sprayed the sky on the day they were born. Their first steps matter, their first words, and the first time a book opened as a mirror for them to see themselves. The book speaks to how at times you may question your place in the world, like when people laugh at your name or when you see the news about racial injustice and Black people being killed. But that does not change the power and beauty within you that comes from the sun, oceans, mountains and stars. Because not only do Black Lives Matter, but each Black and brown child does too.

This one is on lots of Best of the Year lists for 2020, and yet it somehow snuck right past me. The words by Charles are incredibly powerful, tying children of color directly to their ancestors, to the stars in the sky, to the social justice movements happening right now. Charles doesn’t dip into history, instead staying current and calling out the existing injustices and how they impact children. This book grounds children, showing they matter and that Black people matter, period.

Collier’s illustrations are phenomenal. He mixes paintings with collage to create images that are alight with hope and possibility. He weaves Black hands, Black faces together into one image after another that is arresting and visually stunning. These are powerful images to match the text, insisting on being seen.

One of the best of the year. Appropriate for ages 5-7.

Reviewed from library copy.

These Violent Delights by Chloe Gong

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These Violent Delights by Chloe Gong (9781534457690)

This whirlwind of a novel is a grand retelling of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Juliette Cai is in line to inherit the Scarlet Gang, one of the two gangs who rule 1920’s Shanghai. Juliette has spent the last few years in New York City, making her both a native of Shanghai but also partly an outsider. Upon her return to Shanghai, strange things start happening. A contagion is sweeping the city, causing those who catch it to tear out their own throats. Juliette is determined to figure out what is actually happening, a desire that causes her to have to work with her former lover, Roma, who is the heir to the White Flowers, the rival gang. After being brutally dumped by him, Juliette is wary of whether Roma is telling the truth. But when his own sister succumbs to the contagion, the two begin working together in earnest, encountering murder, death, monsters and much more.

This book is full of so much depth and such brilliant world building that it is nearly impossible to believe it’s a debut novel. Gong writes with real skill here, managing the pacing of the book beautifully, slowing it at appropriate times and allowing it to dash madly at others. The result is a book that sweeps up readers, offering them a glimpse of a fictional Shanghai that dazzles. Gong also riffs on the original very cleverly, not tying herself too tightly to Shakespeare but close enough that there are glimpses of that tale throughout the book.

The two main characters are marvelously driven and willing to kill people along the way. Gong does not soften the ongoing blood feud or what it has cost both Juliette and Roma. She also makes Juliette the one more likely to resort to direct violence, which is dynamite. The puzzle at the heart of the book is complicated and strange, leading directly to the next book in the series.

A dynamite first book in a dazzling fantasy series. Appropriate for ages 14-18.

Reviewed from copy provided by Margaret K. McElderry Books.

Watch Over Me by Nina LaCour

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Watch Over Me by Nina LaCour (9780593108970)

Mila has aged out of the foster care system and has found a job teaching at a remote farm in Northern California. The farm is owned by a couple who have taken in over 40 foster children over the years as well as offering internships, like the one Mila has gotten. Mila finds herself on a beautiful farm and warmly welcomed by the owners. She only has one pupil, 9-year-old Lee, who comes from a traumatized background just as Mila does. But no one told Mila about the ghosts on the farm, about how they would fill dance across the fields and play games together at night. As Mila gets more involved with helping on the farm, learning about the flowers and crops, and helping Lee face his trauma, she finds that her own memories are threatening to overwhelm her as her past continues to haunt her.

This new book from the Printz-award winner is another dynamite read. It’s a novel with such an unusual setting, haunting and remote. It echoes with elements of Jane Eyre and Rebecca while standing completely modern and unique. It may not be classically gothic with its warm and sunny rooms, merry meals together, and companionship, but other moments are pure gothic with the sea, the cliffs, and the ghosts. It’s a tantalizing mixture of sun and shadow.

Mila is a character to fall hard for. She is clearly traumatized by what happened to her before she entered the foster care system, setting herself apart from others even as she longs to be closer to people. She is careful, conscientious, and amazingly kind, everything that her past has her thinking she is not. She is a marvel of layers that the novel reveals with gothic precision at just the right times.

Gorgeously written and filled with icy darkness and glowing warmth, this novel is a triumph. Appropriate for ages 13-17.

Reviewed from library copy.

Ten Ways to Hear Snow by Cathy Camper

Ten Ways to Hear Snow by Cathy Camper, illustrated by Kenard Pak (9780399186332)

When Lina woke up in the morning, snow had fallen and the street was quiet and hushed. Despite the snow, Lina headed out to visit her grandmother. She loved helping her grandmother cook and today was grape leaf day, when they would make warak enab. As Lina walked to her grandma’s, she heard all sorts of noises. There was her neighbor scraping her shovel on the sidewalk. There was the crunch of her own boots in the snow. A blue jay knocked a soft ploompf of snow down from a branch, a quiet sound. People swept off their cars, others scritched past on skis. Mittens patted newly-built snowmen. Lina reached her Sitti’s apartment and the two worked together filling grape leaves with lamb and rice. Lina could hear the snow melting off her mittens and coat. Her grandmother showed her the tenth way to hear snow, one you had to slow down to notice.

This picture book is beautifully cozy and warm despite being mostly set in the outdoors on a snowy day. The sense of discovery as Lina hears the snow in various ways is great fun. The marriage of a weather event and the use of one specific sense adds to the fun and the curiosity as Lina walks to see her grandmother. The Lebanese family and food is front and center here too, warming the beginning and end of the book with a glow.

Pak’s art moves from the cozy home setting out into the cold and then back into a different warm home. His characters are diverse with their neighborhood filled with people of different races. The outdoor light, filled with blues and whites, contrasts with the yellows, reds and golds of the interior settings. It’s a celebration of the beauty and sounds of winter.

This book encourages us all to slow down and listen. Appropriate for ages 3-5.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by Kokila.

Music for Tigers by Michelle Kadarusman

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Music for Tigers by Michelle Kadarusman (9781772780543)

A musician in a family of conservationists and scientists, Louisa finds herself sent away from her home in Canada for the summer to spend time in Australia with her mother’s family. In the remote Tasmanian rainforest, the family has a camp run by her Uncle Ruff. She has brought along her violin, determined to spend time practicing so that she can successfully compete, something her nerves when she plays publicly haven’t allowed her to do. A local resort owner’s son quickly becomes friends with Louisa, who is one of the first teens not to mock his autism and his quirky behaviors. Louisa also learns more about the camp, which is actually a sanctuary created by her great-grandmother to protect the Tasmanian tigers, thought to be extinct. At least one of these large dog-like marsupials may still live on Convict Rock, an island nearby. With a mining operation soon to destroy the sanctuary and the island, they have to work quickly to save this last tiger. By reading her great-grandmother’s journals, Louisa realizes she may be the key to its survival.

This book transports readers into the Tasmanian rainforest. Written with a focus that keeps its length nicely manageable, the novel doesn’t ever feel rushed. Instead it is a journey personally for Louisa through her own fears of performing to a desire to save a creature from true extinction. Her steadily building connection to the Australian wildlife and environment allows readers to explore it as well, falling just as hard as Louisa has for its unique habitat.

This is an environmentalist book that takes a different path. It doesn’t lecture at all, instead allowing immersion within a singular place to really speak to its importance, the vitality of threatened species, and the need to take action. All of the characters are well drawn and complete, filled with multiple dimensions that make them interesting to spend time with in this beautifully described natural wonder.

Amazing writing, vivid characters and lost species come together into a marvelous read. Appropriate for ages 10-13.

Reviewed from library copy.