The Crossroads at Midnight by Abby Howard

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The Crossroads at Midnight by Abby Howard (9781945820687)

This graphic novel offers a series of strange and tantalizing short stories sure to give readers the shivers. Set in ordinary places like the beach, on a farm, and near a lake, these stories take the mundane and make it strange and horrifying. From a lonely girl who discovers the terrifying truth of what happened on the farm next door to a young girl who meets a boy on the beach who becomes her best friend but who only comes out at night, these stories invite readers to look under the surface to the darkness and weirdness that lurks there. The stories also ask whether monsters are kind or cruel, and how we know what a monster actually is. Some people trust too much, others too little and some find a new path.

I’m a huge fan of Howard’s 2020 graphic novel The Last Halloween: Children. She uses the same gorgeous pen and ink illustrations here, once again creating a world adjacent to our own that is bewildering and yet familiar. Her skill with storytelling is clear as she creates one tale after the other, stringing them together into a beautiful yet horrifying collection that can’t be put down.

She manages to quickly bring us into each story with both her text and her illustrations, showing us at first how normal each scene is and then swiftly ripping that away. It’s a pleasure to experience each reveal, timed just right for maximum impact and then to have the story play out in unexpected and surprising ways.

A great graphic novel for teen horror fans. Best read after dark. Appropriate for ages 13-18.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by Iron Circus Comics.

One Jar of Magic by Corey Ann Haydu

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One Jar of Magic by Corey Ann Haydu (9780062689856)

The author of Eventown returns with another book showing how children can see beyond the social façade to what is actually happening. Rose is the daughter of the most famous and successful magic capturer in her town, which is the most magical in the world. She has grown up as “Little Luck” knowing that she is the one who will be the one to carry on her father’s legacy, unlike her older brother. She spends her days going barefoot despite the cold, practicing by catching fireflies, and wearing her father’s sweaters and scarves. But all is not quite right in her family, and deep down Rose knows it. The entire family tiptoes around her father’s expectations, making sure they are perfect and happy all of the time. So when New Year’s Day finally comes, Rose just knows she will be the best at finding the magic, but she isn’t. In fact, she just gets one little jar of magic. Now Rose’s father won’t speak to her, her previous friends mock her and ignore her, and everything has changed. Rose has a strange new freedom, accompanied by a new friend who doesn’t use magic, where she can start to see what is really going on not just with magic and her town, but in her family as well.

Haydu moves smoothly into full fantasy with this latest novel for middle grades. She laces magic throughout a world that looks much like our own, adding glitter, rainbows and wonder. She manages to take readers through the same process that Rose goes through, dazzled at first by the magic around them, then questioning it, and finally seeing beyond it to the marvels of the real world beneath.

Haydu’s depiction of Rose’s father is particularly haunting: a man who himself is all glitter with real issues not quite hidden by the magic that surrounds him. His anger, insistence and control are all revealed steadily through the book, alarm bells that grow louder and steadier as it progresses. Rose is a great protagonist, raised to believe herself the most special of all, fallen from that pedestal and able to lift herself to a new place based on reality and her own resilience.

A great fantasy read that asks deep questions about magic, control and freedom. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by Katherine Tegen Books.

Where Is the Dragon? by Leo Timmers

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Where Is the Dragon? by Leo Timmers (9781776573110)

When the king is too scared to sleep, he sends his three brave knights out to save the kingdom from the dragon in his nightmare. Armed with a sword, a polearm and a candle, the three make their way through the deep darkness of the pages, illuminated only when their candle gets close enough to chase away the shadows. The knights have never seen a dragon, so they talk about what a dragon looks like as they walk. Readers will see dragons in the shadows on each page, which after the page turn are revealed to be things like piles of fluffy sleeping bunnies or large plants with birds roosting on them or even bears and foxes curled up snoring. After falling into the water, two of the knights are ready to turn back. Just as the candle finally goes out, the knights head home, and that’s when a shadow starts to move…

Timmers has a marvelous sense of humor in all of his picture books. This book glows with that humor, as each shadow is cleverly revealed to be nothing at all. The dialogue between the knights is delightful, talking about the dangers of dragons from their flaming breath to spiky tails to sharp teeth. As each is discussed, the knights firmly declare that they are not scared or bothered. Just the page turns alone in this picture book are a joy, each reveal is great fun to guess at before turning the page.

The art is fabulous, from the big details of the shadowy dragon shapes to the small detail of the candle steadily shrinking as the pages turn. While the short knight has quite an uneventful hike through the forest, the other two knights find themselves in a lot more trouble along the way. The final dragon reveal is marvelously satisfying, particularly the final page.

Perfect for any knights and dragon fans you might have, this book is a great read aloud. Appropriate for ages 3-5.

Reviewed from copy provided by Gecko Press.

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.

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.

Julia’s House Moves On by Ben Hatke

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Julia’s House Moves On by Ben Hatke (9781250191373)

This sequel to Julia’s House for Lost Creatures carries readers back to the marvels of the Julia’s unusual house and the creatures she shares it with. Julia’s house was getting restless and all of the different creatures who lived there could feel it and started to act out too. Luckily, Julia had a plan for moving them, she even knew just the spot in the mountains for them. But then, the turtle whose back carried the house decided to move right then, down into the ocean. Now the house was tattered and barely afloat. Julia though had a plan filled with paddling and pushing but the house sunk faster and sharks were circling. She went to her other plan, and blew on Triton’s Horn but that didn’t work out either. With her house sinking, the creatures floated off away from Julia. All was lost. Or perhaps they had their own plan!

Written just for compulsive planners like myself, this picture book is funny and full of dynamic moments. Hatke, the creator of graphic novels like Zita the Spacegirl, is just as at home in the picture book format. His pacing is brisk, never letting poor Julia linger for long in her new spot of trouble. Julia’s plans are feats in themselves, constantly figuring out what to do, and show real resilience in dire situations.

As with all of Hatke’s art, he creates characters who are fascinating, friendly and full of life. Here he gets to delve into all sorts of strange creatures too who liven up the story. His illustrations are worth lingering over, with small touches that make Julia’s house come alive (literally).

Perhaps the perfect COVID fantasy read that shows how communities can work to save one another. Appropriate for ages 4-6.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by First Second.

The Last Halloween: Children by Abby Howard

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The Last Halloween: Children by Abby Howard (9781945820663)

This marvelously creepy horror graphic novel starts with a man’s death by fire where a strange dog-like demon stays to witness and then reports back to a woman. That same woman has a teenager in the back of her car, hooded and kidnapped. Later at the hospital, it is clear that the man survived after all, but is terribly burned. The doctor helping him is surprised by a strange figure with two heads and a body sewn together who demands her help. With such strange things afoot, the story moves to Mona, a 10-year-old girl who gets caught up as the world turns to chaos around her. After being left home alone on Halloween, Mona discovers a huge horned creature on her couch. Running away, she tries to reach the police station and takes a short cut through the cemetery. It is there that she meets the others who will join her in her Halloween quest: a vampire, a ghoul, and a living doll. Halloween is just getting started!

A warning first of all, this is not a graphic novel for 10-year-olds, even though the protagonist is that young. Save this one for teenagers who will revel in its grotesque creatures and gore. The panels include maiming, death and dismemberment vividly shown, and often done with a sly sense of humor. This book offers a demon horde determined to take over the world with only a handful of teens and children to try to stop them and one rather inept mummy. The plot offers a satisfying adventure and hero’s journey through a landscape of horrors with pacing that adds to the humor as well as the fright.

Drawn in black and white, the illustrations are captivatingly macabre. Even the human characters like Mona have over-large heads, tiny bodies and eyes that look right at readers. Howard leans into the gross factor, creating gore in black ink that you swear is actually blood red. With a diverse cast of characters, including Mona’s parent who uses the pronouns they/them.

Perfect for teens who enjoy blood, gore and demons mixed with lots of humor. Appropriate for ages 13-17.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by Iron Circus Comics.

Spindlefish and Stars by Christiane M. Andrews

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Spindlefish and Stars by Christiane M. Andrews (9780316496018)

Clo has grown up on the road with her father. They move from village to village, taking small things every time but also repairing and fixing paintings too. When her father doesn’t return one morning, Clo puts their regular leaving plan in action, waiting for him in the woods. But her father doesn’t come, instead sending a boy with a strange ticket and a garbled written message to head to the harbor. There Clo finds she has a half passage aboard a strange ship. They take her to a strange gray island where there are no seasons, no day or night. Clo must wait there for her father to join her. She makes one friend, Cary, on the island where she can’t understand what anyone else is saying except for him. Her grandmother has taken her in, trying to force her to eat a strangely cold and fishy stew that Clo refuses to even try. Her grandmother wants Clo to work, but Clo is busy trying to watch for her father and to figure out the mysteries of the island itself. Clo steadily figures out the mysteries of the island, but it may not be enough to save herself and her father.

Based on Greek mythology, this children’s novel is a marvel of a book. It steadily reveals itself, a puzzle started by an ink-blotched note, a strange transport via ship, and then an even more odd island. One knows there is more going on, but the book holds it back, revealing it to the reader just before Clo herself begins to figure things out. The ties to mythology are dazzling, offering the Fates and Icarus as major characters, though not obvious at first. The pacing here is just right, never losing itself in the grayness of the island nor moving too quickly to resolution.

Clo is a great heroine, braver than many would be in her situation. She is opinionated and stubborn, two qualities that serve her well as she figures out the mysteries of the island and does not bow down to the pressure to conform. Her connection with others serves as a beacon for her to find a way forward, even as it threatens her own existence.

Tantalizing, puzzling and very satisfying, this Greek myth fantasy dazzles. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers.

The Sisters of Straygarden Place by Hayley Chewins

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The Sisters of Straygarden Place by Hayley Chewins (9781536212273)

Mayhap lives with her two sisters in Straygarden Place, a magical mansion that caters to all of their needs. The house feeds them, tucks them into bed at night, and gives them anything they wish for. But the house can’t bring back their parents, who disappeared into the tall silver grass that surrounds the house seven years ago. Now Winnow, the oldest of the sisters, has entered the grass herself. When she returns, she is different: her eyes are turning silver and she is unable to speak. Mayhap in particular seems to upset Winnow, so Pavonine, the youngest cares for her. Meanwhile, Mayhap is determined to figure out how to save her sister. She encounters a mysterious other girl in the house, one who claims to have been there a long time and who is connected with the house. As Mayhap begins to unravel the mystery of the house, she must face the truth about herself and her sisters and what has been stolen from them all.

Chewins has created a delicious mystery here. It’s a marvelously constricted mystery, set in a house that no one dares leave, surrounded by sentient grass, and filled with strange contraptions, rules and delights. It’s the ideal book for a pandemic lockdown, sharing much of the qualities of our lives over the past few months. Chewins has created a truly eerie setting, the grass whispering at the windows and the house revealing spaces that the girls never knew existed. The clues are glimpses into their own past as well as that of the house itself.

The entire book is filled with marvelous details. There are the dogs who climb into the girls’ heads so that they can sleep. There are the carpets that thicken to provide padding or move to carry Mayhap to a new part of the house. There are delightful meals provided by the house, that can be clues as well. And a coffee-scented library that makes one want to linger with the living card catalog. Mayhap herself is a grand heroine, willing to sacrifice herself for her sisters and determined to understand what is actually happening to them all.

A genre-breaking book that is a fantasy-mystery with Victorian delights and horrors that will enter your dreams. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by Candlewick.