The Okay Witch by Emma Steinkellner (9781534431454)
Moth has always loved everything to do with magic and witches. So when Halloween comes, she dresses up as a witch. That does nothing but encourage some school bullies who tease her in the hall in front of the new kid in town. But something strange happens and Moth’s hands start to glow. It turns out that Moth comes from a family of witches, something her mother had never shared with her. Now it all makes sense why Moth has felt so different from everyone else and struggled to make friends. As Moth learns more about her family and the secret separate magic land her grandmother helped create and still lives in, Moth’s powers grow. She meets a talking cat, makes her first real friend, and then discovers that while witches are real so are those who hunt them!
Steinkellner’s debut graphic novel for youth is a delightful mix of diversity and magic. While comparisons can be made with other teen witches, this book stands entirely on its own. Part of that distinction comes from the unique world that the town’s witch elders created for safety. It is a world of floating islands, crystalline colors and flowing robes. It contrasts dynamically with the world of middle school. Moth is the one who brings both worlds together as her magic begins to take form.
The characters in this graphic novel really make the book special. Moth moves far beyond middle-school misfit and is a friendly, funny protagonist with a talking cat who is brave and conflicted. Her mother too is complicated in all the best ways.
A great middle-grade graphic novel that is full of magic. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from copy provided by Aladdin.
Look Both Ways by Jason Reynolds (9781481438285)
In ten separate but linked stories, award-winning author Reynolds creates an entire neighborhood of ten blocks. The book begins, and refers throughout, with a school bus falling from the sky. There is one story per block, different kids on each block living their lives, going to school, facing various things in their futures, pasts and presents. There are best-friend boogers, petty theft for a good cause, complicated but important handshakes, stand-up comedy, body odor and body spray, and fake dogs. It’s a book about what happens after school, whether it is friendship or bullying, loneliness or comfort.
This one deserves a medal. Period. It’s one of those books that reads so easily, since it’s written with such skill. The voices of the characters are varied but all intensely realistic and vibrantly human. Reynolds plays with the reader but invites them into the joy of the joke, showing the layers of what children are and what they feel and do. He demonstrates that ten times here, always deeply exploring each character before moving on to the next and celebrating them.
The stories arc together moving from humor to pain to loss to fear to freedom and everywhere in between. The characters form a community on the page, streets unfold before the reader and they get to journey them with friends they just met opening the book. The final chapters are masterful, the text moving from narrative to spoken word to rap. The rhythm of the book throughout is a dance, here it becomes a heartbeat of life.
Look for this incredible read to win some big awards this spring. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from copy provided by Simon & Schuster.
Stargazing by Jen Wang (9781250183880)
Moon and Christine could not be more different even though they both have grown up in the same Chinese-American neighborhood. Christine has strict parents who don’t let her wear nail polish, much less makeup. Moon’s single-parent mother is accepting and gentle. Christine tends to be more concerned with fitting in than Moon who is rather dreamy and loves dancing and music. The two girls decide to enter the school’s talent contest as a dance team, bringing out Christine’s performing side that she never knew existed. Just as the girls start to gel as friends though, Moon reveals that she has visions sometimes. When the true cause of the visions turns out to be seizures, Christine must figure out what sort of friend she really is.
Award-winning graphic novelist Wang invites readers into a personal story about growing up Chinese-American. She draws from her own medical past with seizures and brain surgery to create a graphic novel that is wrenching and real. She entirely leaves her heart on the pages, giving us two girls who are different from one another but clearly meant to be friends. The books’ premise may be personal, but the result is a book that is universal. Wang’s art is accessible and friendly, inviting readers to explore and learn along the way. There are wonderful moments that are distinctly Chinese-American that resonate across cultures.
A warm and rich graphic novel about friendship and so much more. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from library copy.
Why? by Laura Vaccaro Seeger (9780823441730)
A little white rabbit is full of questions for a bear who valiantly tries to answer them all. After each “why?” comes a wise answer about wind, gravity, honey, stars, plants and much more. Finally though, the bear has had enough and heads off home. The little rabbit asks him not to go and now it is Bear’s turn to ask “why” of the rabbit. Rabbit rises to the question and answers it with the same wisdom and patience that Bear has shown all along.
Seeger takes the questions of a toddler and turns it into an engaging picture book. Parents and children alike will recognize the endless questions and the patience it takes to answer them. The turn around at the end of the book adds exactly the right ending to the story. Throughout the book has a pitch perfect tone that makes rabbit’s questions interesting rather than bothersome.
Seeger’s art is lush and lovely. One can almost sink into her greens and blues, they are so deeply colored. She manages to create a friendship from two animals without anthropomorphizing them along the way.
Simple and just right for toddlers and their questions. Appropriate for ages 2-4.
Reviewed from copy provided by Holiday House.
Stormy by Guojing (9781524771768)
The author of the award-winning The Only Child returns with another lovely picture book. In this wordless picture book done in graphic-novel format, a woman discovers a puppy sleeping under a bench at the top of a hill. When she tries to approach the dog, he runs away, returning to hide under the bench after she leaves. On her next visit, the woman brings a ball for the dog, then pretends to ignore him. He slowly moves out from behind the nearby tree and sniffs at the ball, picking it up but not returning to the woman. The third visit has the two of them beginning to play fetch together. This time, the dog follows the woman home, but she doesn’t see him. When a huge storm appears, she heads into the deluge to save him but he isn’t where she thinks he will be.
If you look at the lighting and beauty of that cover, you will have a sense of the incredible illustrations throughout this book. Guojing beautifully paces her story, showing the patience and time it takes to create a sense of safety and trust between the woman and the stray dog. There are achingly lonely moments at night, the dog alone, the dog with just his ball, the dog outside her window. Guojing gives those moments space in the book to just be there, haunting and lovely.
A great wordless picture book about building trust and finding a home. Appropriate for ages 3-5.
Reviewed from e-galley provided by Schwartz & Wade Books.
Dig by A. S. King (9781101994917)
Meet five teenagers who either barely know one another or don’t know each other at all, but all are from the same broken family. It’s a family where the roots run deep into potato farming and racism. It’s a family broken by high expectations, greed, and an inability to connect. Each of the teens carries their own moniker other than their first name. There is the Freak, a girl who can flicker from one place in the world to another. The Shoveler is a boy with big secrets to tell. CanIHelpYou? works at a drive through, selling more than burgers and fries to her customers. Loretta the Flea-Circus Ring Mistress lives in a family of violence and hunger, but has her own flea circus at least. First-Class Malcolm lives with his father who is dying of cancer and jets back and forth to Jamaica. Each teen carries so much weight, so much dirt with them, and yet there is hope if they can just dig deep.
I won’t lie, this is one tough book. King wrestles with the issues, choices and lives faced by teens in the modern world. They are lives embittered by racism, poverty, drugs, violence, and lies. Still, as the reader gets to know each teen, there is grace beneath all of these layers of family crap and expectations. There is responsibility too, responsibility to be different than the previous generation and make better choices for themselves and their families.
I also won’t lie about the fact that this is a very important book. It looks at racism with an eye towards white people taking responsibility for their history, for their current state, for making assumptions, relying on friends of color for cover, and for not being allies in a real way. It lays all of that bare, insisting that the characters and readers take action in their lives to remedy things, to speak of the unspoken, to insist on change happening. So this tough read is filled just enough light through the muck of life.
A great teen novel full of depth with a strong voice and a definitely point of view. Appropriate for ages 15-18.
Reviewed from library copy.
Ultrabot’s First Playdate by Josh Schneider (9781328490131)
When Ultrabot’s professor invites their neighbor Becky to come over for a playdate at their secret lab, Ultrabot is very nervous. He wonders if Becky will share or break his toys. He pictures her as an enormous furry dog-person with barrettes all over. But Becky turns out to be a little human girl. She brings a ball along with her and after some initial shyness, Ultrabot sees that they can share. The two played ball together, drew cats, and had sandwiches for lunch (with the crusts cut off.) They shared all of Ultrabot’s toys too, though afterwards the professor thought it best if they met at Becky’s house next time.
Schneider tells a very touching and funny story of a shy giant robot and his first playdate. Ultrabot’s emotions mirror those of a young child going to their first playdate or meeting a new person. The questions he thinks about, the worries he has and the resolution are all very human.
However, the illustrations show that this is still one giant robot who has toys like real airplanes, eats sandwiches made of girders and diesel tanks, and is able to do wild math calculations. The illustrations are wildly funny and set a perfect tone. I particularly love that the secret lab is ever-so-obvious and out-of-place in their residential neighborhood.
Funny and friendly, this is just right for any reluctant robot in your house. Appropriate for ages 2-4.
Reviewed from library copy.
Jasper & Ollie by Alex Willan (9780525645214)
Jasper and Ollie are best friends. At breakfast, Jasper wants to go to the pool and Ollie agrees. Jasper, the fox, wants to race to get there and runs out of the house. Along the way, he pull on his swimsuit, blows past the mailman who dumps his letters, jumps over a turtle painting a fence, and hustles past the ice cream truck. Now Jasper has to wait for Ollie though. And Ollie, the sloth, has a very different approach. He watches butterflies, smells the flowers, picks up the spilled mail, gets a drink, helps paint the fence, and gets an ice cream cone. Meanwhile Jasper is rushing around trying to see if Ollie is somewhere at the pool and manages to get himself thrown out. Luckily, that is just when Ollie arrives with ice cream cones for both of them.
Willan tells this story solely in speech bubbles. He uses framing techniques from comic books to great effect here. On the larger upper frame, he shows Jasper in his speedy desperation to find Ollie. Below, Ollie moves along quietly enjoying his walk to the pool. Jasper is often accompanied by a dashed line showing his movement over and under and around people and obstacles and usually accompanied by chaos in his wake.
The illustrations are brilliantly done with plenty of humor too. It has a wonderful aesthetic to it where the pattern of Ollie’s swimsuit is repeated on various things at the pool that Jasper searches. The illustrations are worth looking closely at to catch all of the funny moments and small touches along the way.
A combination of speed and sloth that makes for a great friendship and plenty of laughs. Appropriate for ages 3-5.
Reviewed from e-galley provided by Doubleday Books for Young Readers.
Bruce’s Big Fun Day by Ryan T. Higgins (9781368022811)
Nibbs, the mouse, wants Bruce to have a fun day, but Bruce doesn’t seem to be having any fun at all. Breakfast in bed turns into a messy disaster. The long walk is exhausting. A picnic turns into a feast for the ants. The boat ride is wet, particularly when Nibbs uses Bruce himself as the boat. They do make it back home in time for supper, but supper is too dainty and fancy for Bruce and dessert is even worse. By the time they are in bed, Bruce is very, very grumpy. Which is really nice, since Bruce loves to be grumpy. It might have been the perfect day out after all.
Higgins cleverly turns his picture book series about Mother Bruce into an easy reader format. His use of limited vocabulary is done seamlessly with the story. It helps that there is zany action on many of the pages that can be explained in Higgins’ rather dry tone in just a few words. The illustrations help too. Done in full color and with Higgins’ signature style, they show the story playing out on the page with great clarity and additional moments of silliness.
A great addition to easy reader shelves, this one is big fun. Appropriate for ages 4-7.
Reviewed from library copy.