Home Is Not a Country by Safia Elhillo

Cover image for Home Is Not a Country.

Home Is Not a Country by Safia Elhillo (9780593177051)

Nima has always wished that she was different somehow. Part of it is the loss of her father before she was born. Part of it is that she doesn’t feel like she fits into her suburban home in America. Part of it is that she isn’t connected enough to her Sudanese heritage. Haitham, a boy who lives nearby, is her only friend and when he is injured after they argue, Nima finds herself adrift and spending days without talking to anyone. She dreams about a fantasy life where her father wasn’t killed, she has a large extended family, and her mother is not overworked and exhausted. Soon those dreams lead to her taking risks, inviting a hungry spirit into her life, one who looks a lot like her and can show her the life of her dreams. But what is the cost of these dreams?

Told in exceptional poetry, this verse novel for teens is a deep look at racism, Islamophobia, and being part of a large diaspora. Elhillo’s poetry is some of the best I have read in a YA verse novel. She captures the dark emotions of loneliness, hate crimes, and lack of self-esteem with such clarity and empathy. Her poetry shows the importance of family, whether it is imagined or real. It shows the dangers of wanting to escape your life and of the potential of losing it all along the way.

Nima is the sort of protagonist that readers will want to shake and comfort. She is incredibly lonely, spending her evenings isolated and her days silent. Her relationship with her mother is complex and well drawn, creating both tension and connection in turns. Readers will see themselves in Nima, in dreaming of alternate lives and outcomes. They will get a close look at the experience of an immigrant family that keeps secrets in order to survive.

Incredible writing combines with a gorgeous story of loneliness and risk. Appropriate for ages 15-18.

Reviewed from library copy.

Simon and Chester: Super Detectives by Cale Atkinson

Cover image.

Simon and Chester: Super Detectives by Cale Atkinson (9780735267428)

First introduced in Sir Simon: Super Scarer, this new graphic novel continues the partnership of Simon and Chester. Chester is bored, there’s nothing to do and Simon refuses to play clowns with him. But when Chester is digging in the items in the attic, he discovers a hat that is just right for being a detective. Simon, the ghost, wants to be the lead and Chester happily acts as his assistant. They set up their detective agency in the attic, complete with the right sort of lighting. Now all they need is a mystery to solve. They search for one, and then hear a strange “snork” noise coming from the kitchen. They discover a pug dog there, and now must solve the mystery of who owns him. There are lots of false leads, some fake legs, and dreams of a rich reward before the mystery is ultimately solved.

Full of lots of humor, this graphic novel is ideal for new readers who will love the format and the engaging storyline. The two characters are marvelous together, each happily playing along as the other takes their ideas in a new direction. The results are a hilarious book with a good mystery at its center but lots of silliness along the way. The writing is strong and the two characters are great fun to spend time with.

The art in the book is immensely inviting. It is richly modern with plenty of humorous visual jokes. I particularly guffawed when Simon tries to have fake legs and then doesn’t quite understand how to use them successfully. The question of whether the pug is a real dog is also a hoot as is their searching the kitchen for clues. There’s so much to love visually here.

A funny mystery for new readers to solve. Appropriate for ages 5-8.

Reviewed from copy provided by Tundra Books.

The Memory Thief by Jodi Lynn Anderson

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The Memory Thief by Jodi Lynn Anderson (9781481480215)

The first in the Thirteen Witches trilogy, this fantasy novel tells the story of Rosie Oaks who survived a witch attack as a newborn baby. She was left though with a mother who cannot love her and can barely care for her at all. Rosie has always known her mother to be this way, so she doesn’t expect anything else. Rosie spends her time reading books and writing her own stories until one day she decides that she is too old for them and burns her stories. That triggers the sight, allowing her to see the ghosts that live all around her. Ebb, a ghost boy, shows her the Witch Hunter’s Guide to the Universe, a book her mother hid that contains all she knew about the thirteen witches that control the world. Rosie discovers that her mother has been cursed, her memories stolen by the Memory Thief, a witch who may be the weakest but is also unstoppable. As Rosie learns more about the witches, her mother’s curse, family secrets and friendship, she realizes that she is the one who must now hunt the witch but at what cost?

Anderson has written a unique fantasy novel where witches are profoundly powerful beings, able to steal memories, stop time, and inflict curses. The world building is skillfully crafted, offering a world parallel to our own where a ladder goes to the moon, where ghosts exist and strive to head to the Beyond, and where witch hunters have magical weapons they craft themselves. Through Rosie, readers get to experience the wonder of discovering that world as well as feel the tragedy of her mother’s curse deeply too.

Anderson populates her book with characters who are fascinating and worthy of their own novels. There is Ebb, the ghost boy who has his pet ghost spider and who befriends Rosie when she needs it most. There is Germ, Rosie’s only friend, who loves Rosie and can see ghosts suddenly just like Rosie can. There is the Murderer, an angry ghost with his own tragic story who Rosie discovers holds the secret to her own survival as an infant. The Memory Thief herself is a fascinating mix of tragedy, danger and horror.

A great start to a new fantasy trilogy, this book mixes ghosts, magic and witches into something spectacularly new. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from copy provided by Aladdin.

Watch Over Me by Nina LaCour

Cover image for Watch Over Me

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.

Review: Joe Quinn’s Poltergeist by David Almond

Joe Quinn's Poltergeist by David Almond

Joe Quinn’s Poltergeist by David Almond, illustrated by Dave McKean (9781536201604)

At first Davie doesn’t believe that Joe Quinn has a poltergeist in his home. After all, Joe has told lies before about his family. But when Davie and his best friend head over to Joe’s house to witness it themselves, they see bread and butter fly through the air, chips hit the wall, and dishes break. Davie himself lost a sister when she was very little, and he longs to know if ghosts are real because if so, she might still be there. But could it just be Joe playing a prank? Perhaps bringing the village priest in will help make things more clear and perhaps it will cloud things even more.

Almond and McKean have created several of the most inventive and incredible graphic novels in the last few years, including The Savage, Slog’s Dad, and Mouse Bird Snake Wolf. It is great to see another of their weird collaborations. This book is not about answering questions about whether ghosts exist. It’s about grief and loss, violence and families, and being willing to live with questions unanswered. It is a book that takes a short story by Almond and turns it into something visceral and pointed, a book for Halloween yes, but also for everyday darkness and wonder as well.

The illustrations by McKean are filled with sharp edges, fractured panes. They have characters who writhe on the page, almost beyond human and filled with amazing flaws. There are times of amazing green grass and sunshine, others of the sun breaking through blood-red clouds, others of filled with shadows of prison bars. The images are stunning in their stretched-out haunting nature.

A graphic novel that is not for everyone, but fans of dark corners will love what they find here. Appropriate for ages 12-15.

Reviewed from library copy.

Review: Ghost Cat by Kevan Atteberry

Ghost Cat by Kevan Atteberry

Ghost Cat by Kevan Atteberry (9780823442836)

A little boy thinks that he sees a ghost cat out of the corner of his eye. It reminds him of the cat he used to have but the boy can never get a good look at this ghost cat. The ghost cat seems to sleep on his bed at night, curled up and purring. It plays with cat toys on the stairs. It meows outside of the boy’s door and knocks things off of shelves. But the boy is always too late to see anything more than a blur moving quickly. Then one day, the boy really sees the ghost cat clearly. He chases after it and the cat leads him to something new and very special right outside.

Atteberry tells a wonderfully gentle story here about the loss of a pet and the gap that it leaves. It is also a great ghost story with no scariness at all, just a playful cat ghost doing cat-like things all over the house. The tone is delightfully breathless and wondering, just right for a ghost story. The dashing nature of the bulk of the book slows at the end to allow readers to bask in the new discovery.

The illustrations, done digitally, are filled with warm tones that allow the ghostly form of the cat to really pop. Readers will enjoy seeing the cat fleetingly on the page, moving just away from the boy and the reader.

Comforting and understanding, this book takes ghosts and grief and turns them into something very special. Appropriate for ages 3-5.

Reviewed from copy provided by Neal Porter Books.

Review: The Things She’s Seen by Ambelin and Ezekiel Kwaymullina

The Things She's Seen by Ambelin and Ezekiel Kwaymullina

The Things She’s Seen by Ambelin and Ezekiel Kwaymullina (9781984848789)

Beth died in a car accident and now her father is the only one who can see and hear her. He is struggling with his grief, and Beth knows that the best thing for him is to get back to work as a police detective and solve a mystery. Luckily, he is sent on what should be a simple case in a small Australian town. A dead body was found in the aftermath of a fire at a foster care home. But the mystery isn’t that simple as a witness comes forward and speaks to Beth and her father. The witness, Catching, tells an unbelievable tale of almost dying in a flood, her mother sacrificing herself, and then being taken by unusual beings to be fed upon. Still, Beth and her father realize that Catching is telling the truth if they can just figure out what that is and how it ties into the mystery itself.

This #ownvoices tale shares the dark truth of residential schools for Aboriginal children in Australia and the aftermath of entire lost generations. The authors create an amazing story by mixing modern police procedural with a ghost story that vividly shows Aboriginal storytelling and beliefs. The resulting book is one unlike anything you have read before.

From Catching’s poetic and disturbing tale of losing her colors and then finding a way back using the women in her family as points of strength to Beth’s own process of helping her father and then finding a way to let go to Crow’s story of truth and revenge, this is a book that celebrates the power of Aboriginal women to find their voices on the way to getting justice. The three Aboriginal young women at the heart of the book are studies in various kinds of strength, shining on the page and not allowing their light or colors to dim.

Unusual and incredibly powerful and moving, this genre-bending novel is one of a kind. Appropriate for ages 14-18.

Reviewed from copy provided by Knopf Books for Young Readers.

 

Review: Small Spaces by Katherine Arden

Small Spaces by Katherine Arden

Small Spaces by Katherine Arden (9780525515029)

This shivery novel for middle-grade readers will give just the right amount of creepiness for kids reading Goosebumps. Ollie’s mother died in an accident last year, and Ollie found solace in her books, withdrawing from the kids who were her friends and not talking in class. Her father continues to create a warm home for her filled with fresh-baked bread and other treats. When Ollie meets a strange woman about to throw a book into the lake, Ollie rescues the book and runs away. She reads the book, learning about the “smiling man” and the deal that a local man made with him. When she heads out on a field trip with her class, Ollie is surprised to find herself on the farm in the book that has graves for the people in the story. On their way back home, the school bus breaks down and Ollie escapes with two other students from the clutches of the scarecrows and the smiling man himself. Can they avoid capture and find a way back home before nightfall?

There is so much to love about this book. It is so readable for kids, a story that is well-paced and actually frightening, but at just the right level for young readers. The scarecrows are particularly effective as they pivot to watch the children go by and come to life at night. The ghosts are eerie as is the hungry gray bus driver. Young readers will also appreciate Ollie’s growing connection to her mother through her mother’s broken watch, something that tells her what to do and by when. It’s a clever addition to the story, offering a sign of hope and a way out of grief.

Throughout the book, there are characters who will surprise readers by going directly against stereotype. First, there are Ollie’s parents with her domestic father and adventurous mother. Then the two children who accompany Ollie through her adventure are a jock who reads and quotes literature at just the right time and a girl who looks tiny and frail but can climb almost anything and is actually brave and strong. These unexpected little touches add up to a team that is unbeatable as they face real demons.

Written with rich prose that is a delight to read, this eerie tale will be enjoyed by any young reader looking for some spine tingles. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from ARC provided by G. P. Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers.

Review: The House with Chicken Legs by Sophie Anderson

The House with Chicken Legs by Sophie Anderson

The House with Chicken Legs by Sophie Anderson (9781338209969)

Marinka never asked to be a Yaga, but since she is the granddaughter of a Baba Yaga, she has been learning to speak with the dead and guide them through the Gate and into the stars. All Marinka really wants is to make a real human friend and do things that other twelve-year-olds do. Making friends is nearly impossible though when you live in a house with chicken legs that can move you all over the world overnight. So when Marinka gets another chance to make friends with someone, she takes it, even if it breaks all of the rules that she has been taught. As her decision changes her entire life, Marinka is left to figure out who she really is and what she wants to be.

Anderson has a clear love of Russian folktales, taking a beautiful view of Baba Yaga and giving her a larger community, more chicken-footed houses and a longing for family. The folktales at the center of the book continue to reverberate throughout the story, offering Marinka distinct choices. Marinka makes her own decisions though, ones that readers will not agree with though they might understand. As her situation grows direr, Marinka becomes almost unlikeable, and yet Anderson is able to bring us back to loving her by the end.

Anderson surrounds Marinka with a beautiful and rich world. There is her own Baba Yaga, filling the house with good cooking, lots of love and ghosts every evening. Then there is Jack, Marinka’s pet jackdaw, who sits on her shoulder and puts pieces of food in people’s ears and socks. A baby lamb soon joins them as well. Yet by far, the most compelling member of Marinka’s home is the house itself. Filled with personality and opinions, the house is intelligent and ever-changing.

A dynamic retelling of the Baby Yaga folktale, this picture book offers a big world of magic and ghosts to explore. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from ARC provided by Scholastic.