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.

Dungeon Critters by Natalie Reiss and Sara Goetter

Dungeon Critters by Natalie Reiss and Sara Goetter (9781250195463)

Join a band of brave heroes who adventure through dungeons and then take on more sinister threats above ground. There is Rose, the pun-flinging pink cat mage. June is the quieter dog healer who keeps the entire group alive. Goro is the big green creature who serves as the muscle. Finally, Jeremy is the frog with a sharp sword and a vendetta against The Baron. After finding a strange plant, our heroes must figure out how it is being used by The Baron to potentially take over the world. As they work through the threats and puzzles, the group steadily reveal themselves to the reader. Goro misses his boyfriend Horse Boy and Jeremy seems to be far more royal than he first appeared. Meanwhile, there is some romantic heat between Rose and June that plays out throughout the book.

Perfect for anyone who has spent time with Dungeons and Dragons or crawled through video game dungeons like World of Warcraft, this book is captivating. There is plenty of action for those who love that aspect of gaming, but really where this book shines is in the character development, just like any great D&D campaign. The inclusion of LGBT elements and full-on romance is marvelous. It’s a book sure to make everyone feel included in gaming, dungeons and even fancy dances.

The art is bright and dashing while the writing adds the joy of puns as well as moments that will have you laughing out loud. The two together make for a book that is a fast read because the action gallops along and readers will want to know what happens to these characters that they love.

Full of action, romance and humor, this is a dungeon worth crawling for. Appropriate for ages 10-14.

Reviewed from library copy.

Just Like That by Gary D. Schmidt

Cover image for Just Like That

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.

What Lane? by Torrey Maldonado

What Lane? (cover image)

What Lane? by Torrey Maldonado (9780525518433)

Stephen loves his Brooklyn neighborhood and spending time with his best friend Dan. Most of the time he doesn’t even notice that he’s Black and Dan is white. But when Dan’s cousin Chad moves nearby, he starts taunting Stephen for being a coward. As Chad dares him to enter an abandoned building, Stephen realizes that he’s the only Black kid in the group. Lately people have been reacting differently to him, now that he’s in sixth grade. People in the neighborhood suspect him first, assume he’s doing something wrong, and watch him in ways that they don’t Dan and Chad. Stephen begins to learn more about being Black in America, the Black Lives Matter movement, and the fact that there are different rules for Black children and teens. But Stephen doesn’t want to be assigned to a lane and stuck there. Is there a way for him to make his own lane with all of his friends, Black and white, included?

Maldonado has written a powerful story that unflinchingly shows the racism inherent in our society, the differences between the ways that white children and Black children are treated, and the dangers faced by Black teens in particular. The inclusion of Black Lives Matter and the focus on the many Black young people who have been killed by police is powerful, strongly tying this fictional story to reality. The realization of Stephen as becomes treated differently by others is shone with empathy and a call for social justice.

The characters here are well drawn. Maldonado shows how being a white ally looks in practice through Dan, how being a non-ally looks in Chad, and the power of friendship across races. But this is not shown as a solution for the systemic racism that he also shows with clarity. It’s a book that will inspire conversation that is necessary.

Powerful and thought-provoking, this look at identity and race belongs in all libraries. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from library copy.

Shirley & Jamila Save Their Summer by Gillian Goerz

Shirley & Jamila Save Their Summer (cover image)

Shirley & Jamila Save Their Summer by Gillian Goerz (9780525552857)

Jamila is living in a new neighborhood where she doesn’t have any friends. She wants to spend her summer playing basketball in a park nearby, but her mother doesn’t want her out alone. So when Jamila meets Shirley, they come up with a new plan for their summer. Shirley will come with Jamila to the basketball courts and then Shirley will do her thing too. But Shirley is more than a little strange and a lot secretive. Jamila figures out that Shirley helps children in the neighborhood solve small mysteries that arise. Soon the two of them are on a case together, helping Oliver figure out where his gecko went. It’s a case with many possible suspects. Jamila discovers she has detective skills herself and becomes a full partner. But does Shirley really see her that way? When their friendship and detective service falls apart, can they sleuth out how to get it back on track?

Goerz has created an engaging graphic novel that centers on solving a mystery. Readers will love the characters in particular, Shirley and Jamila are very different from one another, but find ways to connect. After all, Shirley’s work is fascinating and the way her mind works is impressively different and more like a young Sherlock Holmes. Goerz creates a mystery where all of the elements snap into place by the end and it also becomes about more than punishing a culprit, ending with new friendships and greater understanding.

The art is engaging and the story is full of diverse characters. The pages are filled with people from different races and cultures. Readers will love the look at a vibrant urban neighborhood where mysteries abound.

Ideal reading for fans of Raina Telgemeier who are looking for a diverse and mysterious read done right. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from library copy.

Fly on the Wall by Remy Lai

Cover image of Fly on the Wall

Fly on the Wall by Remy Lai (9781250314116)

The author of Pie in the Sky returns with the story of a twelve-year-old who wants to prove his maturity to his helicopter family. Henry’s family monitors what he is doing all the time, packing his backpack for him, making sure he has eaten, and hovering all the time. But Henry knows he can do a lot more than they think. That’s how he came up with a very exact plan to prove his independence: he will fly from where he lives in Australia to Singapore where his father lives. He’s also running from being exposed as the author of a nasty gossip comic at his school, something he is both proud of and terrified by. He just needs his ex-best friend to follow through on the plan, or he will definitely get caught!

The entire adventure that Henry experiences is a delight to experience by his side. His sense of humor both in his gossip comics and on the page is broad and very funny. Throughout the book, he is a disciple hoping to find a shifu to teach him what to do next in his quest. When he meets a girl on the plane, he soon discovers that she might just be the shifu he is looking for, if he can keep from making her so mad that she stops talking to him.

With the text broken up with illustrations done in neon green washes and black ink, this book will appeal to readers of Wimpy Kid. The illustrations range from single illustrations to panels in series to examples from Henry’s own blog done in a completely different style.

Funny, insightful and proof that everyone worth knowing is a little strange. Appropriate for ages 8-12.

Reviewed from copy provided by Henry Holt and Co.

Tune It Out by Jamie Sumner

Tune It Out by Jamie Sumner

Tune It Out by Jamie Sumner (9781534457003)

Lou loves to sing, but she hates to perform. Truly hates it, complete with panic attacks. A large part of it is that she doesn’t deal well with loud noises, so applause causes her real distress. But Lou’s mother insists that Lou is their way out of the financial problems they are in. Currently living in their truck, Lou and her mother look for her big break when Lou performs at a local coffee shop. Just as things seem to be going their way though, an accident leads to social services discovering how Lou and her mother have been living. Soon Lou is being sent across the country to stay with an aunt and uncle she hasn’t seen since she was a young child. Enrolled in a fancy school, Lou misses her mother horribly even though she now has her own room, plenty to eat and adults who love her. With a new friend who insists she joins theater, Lou starts to see a new future for herself, though she’s not sure where her mother fits in.

The author of Roll with It returns with another story about a child with special needs. Lou’s sensory processing disorder plays a large role in the story and in the way that she feels about herself, too. From riding on planes to appearing on stage to letting her voice be heard, it is all more difficult for Lou. Lou’s special need is portrayed with empathy as is the homelessness that Lou and her mother experience and the other struggles that her mother faces.

Throughout the book there is a sense of hope, a feeling that there are adults around to help. Whether it is social workers, school counselors, teachers or relatives, Lou is surrounded by adults willing and able to help her move forward and make big decisions about her life. Still, while they lend a supportive hand, it is Lou who makes her own decisions, challenges herself, and finds her own unique path.

A deep look at a child with a disability, poverty and community. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

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

Skunk and Badger by Amy Timberlake

Skunk and Badger by Amy Timberlake

Skunk and Badger by Amy Timberlake, illustrated by Jon Klassen (9781643750057)

Badger loves living alone in the big house where Aunt Lula lets him stay. He has turned the living room into a rock room for his Important Rock Work. There he spends many hours quietly absorbed in his work, identifying rocks and minerals. Then one day, Skunk arrives. Skunk refuses to stay more than one night in the guest closet and instead takes over Badger’s box room, making it into his bedroom. He too has been invited to stay by Aunt Lula. Skunk makes large breakfasts that make Badger full and happy until Badger is asked to do the washing up. But then things really go wrong when Skunk invites the chickens over. Soon a stoat is after the chickens, Badger is accidentally sprayed with skunk spray, and Badger says some horrible things to Skunk that cause him to leave. Now Badger is alone again, but not quite so happily as before.

Cracking this book open and reading the first page will have even the most jaded readers of children’s books realizing that they are reading a new classic. The book reads aloud beautifully, the pacing just right for sharing. The humor throughout is just the right mix of broad comedy and quieter silly moments. Add in the touching realizations that Badger has throughout the book as he becomes a much better roommate and friend, and you have a book with merriment, silliness and heart.

Klassen’s illustrations are marvelous, conveying differences between the two characters clearly. From the glowering Badger to the beaming Skunk, you could not have two small furry animals more different than these two. Add in a rocket potato, lots of chickens and exploring a new/old neighborhood, and there is plenty of humor and charm in these illustrations.

Funny, friendly and furry. Exactly what you want in a new classic to share aloud. Appropriate for ages 7-10.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by Algonquin Young Readers.

All Together Now by Hope Larson

All Together Now by Hope Larson

All Together Now by Hope Larson (9780374311629)

This sequel to All Summer Long continues the story of Bina and her band. This new graphic novel shows the drama of middle school friendships and how that can be made even worse by adding in band dynamics. At first, Bina loves being in a band with her best friend, Darcy. But when Enzo joins them, she starts to feel like she’s being pushed out of her own band! It gets even worse when Darcy and Enzo become romantically involved. As they try to change Darcy’s music, Darcy decides to leave the band. Meanwhile, she is realizing that her next-door neighbor and friend, Austin, has a crush on her. Bina though doesn’t feel the same way. It’s a lot to navigate as a middle schooler and it leads to one epic punk reaction that results in Bina starting to speak out for herself.

So often sequels are not as good as the first. Here, the story gets even stronger as we get to see Bina grow into her own voice and her own musical stance. The addition of band drama into the huge changes already happening in middle school makes for true drama that is not overplayed here, but creates moments for growth and self-reflection with some rock and roll thrown in.

Larson’s art is as great and approachable as ever. Done in a limited color palette of black, white and a dusky purple. The art invites readers right into Darcy’s private world, her music and the band.

A rocking sequel that will have fans of the first happily dancing along. Appropriate for ages 10-13.

Reviewed from copy provided by Farrar Straus Giroux.