Review: Deadendia: The Watcher’s Test by Hamish Steele

Deadendia The Watcher's Test by Hamish Steele

Deadendia: The Watcher’s Test by Hamish Steele (9781910620472)

Barney has just gotten a job as the janitor at the Dead End theme park in the haunted house. His best friend Norma works there too. But Dead End is not just a haunted house, it’s much more a portal to literal hell. There are visiting demons, some of them friendly like Courtney who serves as an ambassador and others terrifyingly evil and powerful like Temeluchus. Temeluchus is the demon that Barney and Norma defeat in the early part of the book, who ends up possessing Pugsley, Barney’s dog. Pugsley gains magical powers and the ability to speak. Soon the three of them discover the dangers of running a portal to hell but also manage to work on their love lives along the way.

Steele has created one of the zaniest, twistiest and most demonic graphic novels around. The novel is a collection of his web comics and sometimes starting a new chapter is rather like starting a new story. That’s not a complaint, because it suits the spirit of the book but those looking for a more linear tale will find themselves confused at times. Just go with it!

The diversity here is very strongly represented. Barney is a transgender character and the book deals with this in an upfront way and also allows readers to see glimpses of Barney’s past. Perhaps the best part is the love storyline for Barney and Logs, though I also appreciate his friendship with Norma who is equally enjoyable, strong and multidimensional, sometimes literally.

A graphic novel for teens that has enough demons, laughter and romance to entice anyone. Appropriate for ages 13-16.

Reviewed from library copy.

Review: All Summer Long by Hope Larson

All Summer Long by Hope Larson

All Summer Long by Hope Larson (9780374304850)

Bina’s summer has just started, but it’s already going wrong. Her best friend, Austin, is heading to a month-long soccer camp. He’s also acting strangely and has decided that they are too old for some of their regular summer activities. Once he’s left for camp, Bina finds herself watching too much TV and just hanging out alone. Then she bumps into Austin’s older sister who turns out to be into music just like Bina is. The two of them start hanging out but when Austin returns things stay just as strange. Bina has to navigate her way through new friendships and old ones as she also grapples with her love of music and what that means for her friendships too.

Larson is the author of several graphic novels for children and teens. Here she tackles middle-school summers with a focus on music and individuality. Bina’s summer will feel familiar to readers, a stretch of time that is meant to be the best but ends up being time that needs filling with more than binge-watching TV. The incorporation of a friendship between a boy and a girl that does not involve romance or attraction is great to see. Readers will fret that Austin’s strange attitude means he “likes” Bita, but the truth makes sense and fits the story well.

The art is friendly and approachable. Done in a limited orange and black palette, it speaks of summer heat and sun. Bita herself is lanky and tall, her angles oozing with middle-school gawkiness in an appealing way. Her parents are just involved enough but also absent in a way that shows trust too.

A graphic novel perfect for summer reading.  Appropriate for ages 12-14.

Reviewed from copy provided by Farrar Straus Giroux.

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.

Review: The Unforgettable Guinevere St. Clair by Amy Makechnie

The Unforgettable Guinevere St. Clair by Amy Makechnie

The Unforgettable Guinevere St. Clair by Amy Makechnie (9781534414464)

When Gwyn and her family move in with her Nana in rural Iowa, it’s a big change from living in New York City. It’s all to help her mother, Vienna, develop new memories. Vienna remembers nothing since she was thirteen, including Gwyn and her little sister Bitty. Gwyn and Bitty quickly befriend two boys from the neighborhood, Micah and Jimmy. They live with Micah’s mother, Gaysie Cutter, a woman who tries to bury Gwyn alive the first time they meet. So when a man goes missing, Gwyn knows that Gaysie had to have something to do with it. Now she just has to prove it and not damage her friendship with Jimmy and Micah along the way. But there are many secrets in their small town, ones that threaten to topple Gwyn’s theory of Gaysie’s guilt.

This is Makechnie’s first novel, and it is very impressive. Gwyn is a stellar character, who doesn’t shy away from being entirely herself and different from everyone else. She is a girl who will learn how to lift fingerprints, share her theories directly with the police, stand up to a group of bullies, and dare to speak up around Gaysie Cutter. All of the characters are well drawn and interesting, including Gwyn’s mother who is struggling with the limits of her memory, her father who could be a suspect too, and the two boys who are as different as possible but also brothers through and through.

This story has many layers, making it a very rich read for middle graders. One piece that really works well is the layering of the previous generation growing up in the same small Iowa town. As Gwyn learns of the connection between her mother, father and Gaysie during their childhood, she also finds out about a terrible accident that changed them all forever. That element is then echoed through to the present day with the new generation of children getting into trouble themselves.

A great read, a grand mystery, and a strong protagonist. Appropriate for ages 9-12. (Reviewed from copy provided by Atheneum.)

3 New Picture Books Featuring Friends

A House That Once Was by Julie Fogliano

A House That Once Was by Julie Fogliano, illustrated by Lane Smith (9781626723146)

Two children head into the woods and discover an old house that is no longer a home. Once painted blue with an overgrown path, the house has a door that is stuck partly open. So the children enter through a broken window. Inside they find clues about the people who used to live there. There are art supplies, photographs, things in the kitchen for cooking, and beds that are still made. Could the owner have been a sea captain? Or perhaps a woman who painted in the garden? A girl or a boy? A king or a queen? And why did they leave this house waiting for them, never to return?

Such a gorgeous picture book. The writing is exceptional, the poetry invites readers to head forward slowly as if exploring an old house themselves. The writing looks at things from different angles, puts words together carefully and asks readers to think a bit before moving on. The pacing is delicious and just right, echoing the activities described on the page. Smith’s illustrations are layered and loose, the color on the page almost lifted by the breeze like pollen. It settles and lifts again.

Seriously one of the best picture books of the year. This is treat by two master artists must be shared with children!

Jerome by Heart by Thomas Scotto

Jerome by Heart by Thomas Scotto, illustrated by Olivier Tallec (9781592702503)

This beautiful, heartfelt picture book shows the incredible joy of having a true childhood friend. In this book, Raphael loves his best friend Jerome. He’s a friend who isn’t afraid to hold hands, picks Raphael as his partner at school, shares his snacks, and defends Raphael if anyone picks on him. When Raphael’s parents react rather rudely when he expresses his admiration and adoration of Jerome, Raphael heads to his room. There he looks for a great gift for Jerome, until he is distracted thinking about adventures that he and Jerome can have together. Because they will!

A French import, this picture book is childhood captured on the page. There is a merriment to the boys’ time together and an innocence inherent in the way they treat one another. And yet Raphael has beautifully concrete reasons that he loves Jerome and it’s all about how well he is treated and how Jerome makes him feel inside. The parents’ reaction may echo some of the reactions of adult readers who may wonder if there is more connection between the boys than just friends. That is neatly put in its place as Raphael heads off to be with his friend regardless of what that friendship may eventually mean for them.

Tallec’s illustrations are as masterful as ever. The pairing of the two boys is depicted with solid connections between the two of them. They have a lovely playfulness about them that capture the friendship of the boys and mimics the merriment that the boys feel when together. A delicate and touching story of friendship. Appropriate for ages 3-5. (Reviewed from copy provided by Enchanted Lion Books.)

Rescue & Jessica A Life-Changing Friendship by Jessica Kensky

Rescue & Jessica: A Life-Changing Friendship by Jessica Kensky and Patrick Downes, illustrated by Scott Magoon (9780763696047)

Written by two of the survivors of the Boston Marathon bombing, this picture book is the true story of one of them and their service dog, Rescue. It is the story of a dog learning to serve and a girl learning to survive after losing a leg. Both of them train long and hard separately until they are paired together. The two of them spend their days together and Rescue helps Jessica heal after she loses her remaining leg. After that, the training starts all over again, but this time they do it together. This picture book captures a story of resilience and survival after a tragedy and the difference a service dog makes in that recovery and life afterwards.

The writing here is told with a light tone where possible. It helps tremendously that readers can see Rescue training to be Jessica’s dog even as her story is deep in shadows and pain. The mirroring of their hard work is also very successful, showing the dedication they both had to have even before they meet one another. The illustrations are very effective, using white and black backgrounds to show hope and challenging times. Throughout though, there is hope, in the form on one black dog who stands strong against dark and light. A winning picture book that is inspiring and courageous. Appropriate for ages 4-6. (Reviewed from library copy.)

 

 

Review: Rosetown by Cynthia Rylant

Rosetown by Cynthia Rylant

Rosetown by Cynthia Rylant (9781534412774)

Flora is a quiet child, who loves the purple chair in the window of the used book store more than any other place. That’s particularly true now that her parents are separated and living in different houses from one another. Flora has also lost her dog recently, so things feel very off kilter. Even fourth grade seems very different from other school years. Still, as Flora navigates the changes in her life, she also has some happy surprises. She meets Yury, a boy from the Ukraine, who enjoys animals and survival stories too. The two become close friends and soon each of them have new pets in their lives too. Flora’s other friend Nessy is steadily discovering her own talents. And though Flora hasn’t discovered her own yet, she soon will.

Set in Indiana in 1972, Rylant has created a book that captures being a worried and anxious child just right. Flora is quiet and a tad shy, unless she knows something. She worries about different things and her family is gentle and understanding with her. Even as she grows in this short novel, that aspect of her personality is embraced and not being fixed by others. The book itself is gentle in tone, slow paced and lovingly written.

A book that will have a specific audience who will adore it, this one may not be for everyone but will be just right for some children. Appropriate for ages 7-10.

Peter & Ernesto by Graham Annable

Peter & Ernesto by Graham Annable

Peter & Ernesto: A Tale of Two Sloths by Graham Annable (9781626725614

Peter and Ernesto are two sloths who are best friends and live together in the same tree. They spend their days looking at clouds, eating snacks and singing songs. Then one day, Ernesto realizes that he wants to see more of the sky than that above their tree. So he sets off on an adventure. He has to cross a shaky bridge and a river, then find a way across the ocean. Ernesto makes friends along the way, discovering oceans, mountains, deserts and arctic places each with different skies. But Peter is worried, and he sets off too, making his own friends along the way. He doesn’t journey as far as Ernesto, but is there waiting when Ernesto returns to the beach. Two very different friends who support one another in their own ways.

Annable’s graphic novel is simple and friendly. The cells of the story are edged in black, sometimes distinct from each other and other times playfully running together to form a single picture broken by the frame. The sloths are nicely distinct from one another visually and also in attitude, each brave in their own way. The adventures they have are distinct from one another but also alike enough to contrast effectively.

A great early graphic novel for elementary-aged readers. Appropriate for ages 6-9. (Reviewed from copy provided by First Second.)

 

Emergency Contact by Mary H.K. Choi

Emergency Contact by Mary Choi

Emergency Contact by Mary H. K. Choi (9781534408968)

Penny heads to college in Austin, Texas, eager to leave behind her uneventful high school years, her dull boyfriend and her over-the-top mother. Her roommate Jude takes her to a coffee place where her uncle works, and Penny finds a connection with Sam immediately. Their friendship steadily grows as they communicate exclusively through texts with one another. But Sam’s life is not a simple one. His ex-girlfriend has announced she is pregnant, he is sleeping in a small room above the coffee shop he works in, and he is trying to break is alcohol habit. As Penny and Sam continue to text one another, their connection grows more serious and soon they are sharing things that they have never told anyone else. But can their friendship survive meeting in real life again?

I fell completely head-over-heels for this teen romance. Penny is a character who is rather neurotic with her bags of supplies and her need for cleanliness. Yet she is also artistic and has a thought process that is just as unique and wonderful as she is. Choi doesn’t try to fix Penny and how idiosyncratic she is, which is a wonder and a relief. Sam too is incredibly written, grappling with so many things at once. One of my favorite scenes happens early in the book when Penny rescues Sam from a panic attack, which demonstrates the amount of anxiety both of these characters have and how they live and love with it.

As the background of both characters is revealed to the reader, their reactions begin to make more and more sense. It’s as if the reader too is meeting a stranger, building a relationship and falling for both of these characters at the same time. A large part of both of the characters are their mothers from Penny’s sexy Asian mother who acts far younger than she is and is constantly getting into trouble to Sam’s mother who ran up credit card debt in Sam’s name, they are influential and painful for both characters.

Beautifully written, awkward in the best way and entirely empowering and accepting, this novel is a warm hug for readers struggling with anxiety. Appropriate for ages 13-17.

Reviewed from ARC provided by Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers.

3 Very Friendly New Picture Books

Can I Be Your Dog By Troy Cummings

Can I Be Your Dog? By Troy Cummings (9780399554520)

Arfy is a dog looking for a home, so he writes to each house and business on Butternut Street. One by one though, they each say no. The Honeywells have a cat that’s allergic to dogs. The butcher thinks Arfy might steal too many meatballs. The fire station already has a dog. The junkyard just sends a nasty note back. And no one is living in the abandoned house. But as she delivered each of Arfy’s notes, the letter carrier made her own decision. The book ends with tips on how children can help animals who need a home. The use of letters adds a real appeal to this book as Arfy so politely asks for space and then is turned down with a variety of responses, some friendly, some rude and others businesslike. The book will work well for children learning to write letters who need a great model like Arfy to follow. The appealing artwork adds a playful feel and readers will recognize that Arfy has a friend in the letter carrier from the start. Appropriate for ages 3-5. (Reviewed from e-galley provided by Random House and Edelweiss.)

Get on Your Bike by Joukje Akveld

Get on Your Bike by Joukje Akveld and Philip Hopman (9780802854896)

When Bobbi and William have an argument, William shouts that Bobbi should just get on his bike and leave. So that’s exactly what Bobbi does. Bobbi’s head is filled with anger at first and he doesn’t notice what is around him. But as he rides through town and out into the country, he begins to notice things around him. At each stoplight, Bobbi makes a choice of where to head. Sometimes traffic is loud and busy and other times Bobbi is alone in nature. As he rides, his thoughts move from the fight to his surroundings and he notices more and more. His ride brings him full circle back home, where William is waiting for him with dinner already made, cold but not ruined.

This picture book was originally published in the Netherlands and one can see their cycling culture strongly in the images. In most of the images, the roads are crowded with bikes which share the road with the cars and trucks. The story subtly moves through anger and shows a way of coping that allows a natural  move from frustration and anger to returning to oneself. The illustrations show a world populated with animals rather than people. Bobbi himself is a panda and William is a bulldog. There are birds, alligators, mice and more riding bikes, driving trucks and walking the towns. Refreshing and friendly, this picture book takes a look at anger and cooling down. Appropriate for ages 4-6. (Reviewed from copy provided by Eerdmans Books for Young Readers.)

Hi, Jack By Mac Barnett

Hi, Jack! By Mac Barnett, illustrated by Greg Pizzoli (9780425289075)

Two masters take on the easy-reader format in this first in a new series. Jack is a monkey who gets into all sorts of trouble, most of it of his own making. Accompanied by two other characters, Rex the dog and The Lady, Jack steals the lady’s purse in the first chapter. He returns the purse, but soon Jack and Rex are sporting the lipstick that Jack took! When he returns the red lipstick to The Lady, Jack still has one more trick up his sleeve. Young readers will enjoy the naughtiness of Jack and how he manages to make friends and feel sorry and yet still be entirely himself in the end. The writing is simple and friendly for the earliest readers who will also appreciate the chapter book format. Pizzoli’s art is simple and bright. At the end of the book he offers a tutorial of how to draw each of the characters, inviting children to create their own pictures and stories. A great pick for early readers and early reader collections. Appropriate for ages 4-6. (Reviewed from ARC provided by Viking.)