Planet Omar: Accidental Trouble Magnet by Zanib Mian, illustrated by Nasaya Mafaridik (9780593109212)
Omar and his family have moved, which means that Omar has to start at a new school. He lives with his mother, father, older sister and younger brother. One of their new neighbors doesn’t seem happy to have Muslim neighbors, glaring at them through her fence and not being friendly when approached. Omar is also facing a bully at school. Daniel has even told him that because Omar is a Muslim he could be kicked out of the country! Luckily, Omar also has a new best friend and a family who can support him as he learns the ins and outs of being Muslim in America.
Mian’s #ownvoices novel for elementary readers is wildly funny and really approachable. Omar himself seems the world through a silly and engaging lens, where teachers may be aliens and he is a magnet for trouble. That trouble includes spitting on his little brother in bed, getting lost during a field trip, and asking Allah to bring him a Ferrari. The book has lots of illustrations, making it just right for elementary-aged readers who need some breaks in their text. They will find that the humor and format make for an engaging read.
A winner of a children’s book that is about prejudice, friendship and community. Appropriate for ages 7-10.
Reviewed from library copy.
Not So Pure and Simple by Lamar Giles (9780062349217)
When Del’s mother starts going to church, she drags him along with her. The only thing that gets Del through those dull sermons is watching Kiera Westing, a girl he’s had a crush on since kindergarten. Even better, for the first time ever, Kiera is single! Now it’s up to Del to figure out a way to get close to her. When he sees Kiera joining a group of other students up at the front of the church, Del joins them, not realizing that he’s agreed to be part of the Purity Pledge, not to have sex until marriage. But maybe this is the key to get Kiera’s attention. He knows that his reputation makes him an unlikely participant, since everyone’s heard about the orgy that happened Freshman year. Del, with the help of a new friend, decides to play the long game and prove his pure intent. Along the way, he becomes friends with the other kids doing the Pledge and finds himself taking their sex-related questions to the sex-ed teacher at school, a class none of the other Pledge kids are allowed to attend. Del is sure he has Kiera just where he wants her, but he has yet to realize that Kiera has to be just where she wants to be too.
I am so pleased to see a book about toxic masculinity with a male protagonist who wakes up to the flaws in his intricate plans just a bit too late. Del is a marvelous hero of the book, filled with personal flaws, intelligent but also conniving. He sees himself as a good guy, but others don’t see him that way and readers will recognize that he’s not being honest with anyone, not even himself. Readers will root for Del even as he is manipulating Kiera and others around him. That is one of the best twists of the book, as readers nod along with Del, they too will realize the way they are seeing women and girls, and the changes they need to make to not be toxic themselves.
The clear writing and varied characters make this a great choice. It is the nuanced way that Giles writes about the church and being a male African-American teenager that adds a rich depth to the book. He offers readers opportunities to learn, to grow and to realize things about themselves without ever being preachy about it.
A frank look at sex, lies and toxic masculinity with a main character to cheer for, despite it all. Appropriate for ages 14-18.
Reviewed from e-galley provided by HarperTeen.
Serpent & Dove by Shelby Mahurin (9780062878021)
Lou lives in the city as a thief, stealing what she needs to survive, feasting when possible on sweets, and dressing herself in costumes from the theater attic where she lives. Because her life depends on it, she tries to never use her witch magic, lest her mother discover where she is. Reid is a witchhunter, raised from an orphaned baby into one of the leaders of the Church Chasseurs. He not only hunts witches but kills them, usually ultimately burning them at the stake if they live that long. When Lou tries to escape Reid by publicly shaming him, they end up being forced to marry one another. As the war between the witches and the church escalates, Reid and Lou find themselves at the center of it just as they discover their increasing feelings for one another.
If you are looking for one amazing teen fantasy novel, you have found it here. Mahurin builds a great world for her characters, one with extensive history that impacts the action in the novel in an understandable and fascinating way. As more of the details of the history are revealed, the cunning nature of the witches’ plans become more clears as well as the motivations of the church. It’s a book that untangles itself in front of the reader and yet leaves plenty of questions to be answered in a future volume.
The book mixes romance and fantasy. It has one of the hottest sex scenes I have read in a teen novel too where details are not skimped on and the woman takes the lead. As with that scene, Lou is not ever one to shrink away from saying what she thinks and needs. She is prickly and jaded, falling for Reid despite all of the guards she has in place. Reid could have simply been the bemused soldier in all of this, but Mahurin has made him Lou’s equal in the book, so that readers understand the damage done by both the witches and the church to society and individuals.
An amazing and gripping fantasy romance. Appropriate for ages 16-18.
Reviewed from library copy.
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.
Saints and Misfits by S.K. Ali (9781481499248, Amazon)
At 15, Janna is a Muslim teen who is still trying to figure out who she is and how to deal with things happening in her life. She wears a hijab, like her mother, though her father doesn’t approve. Her brother has moved back in with Janna and her mother since his father pulled his funding for her brother’s college education when he switched majors. Janna is attracted to a white boy at her school and finds herself being cyber-bullied by some of his friends. Worst of all though is that another boy who is considered to be an upstanding young man tried to rape Janna. She can’t find a way to tell people about what happened to her and the boy continues to stalk her. This modern look at the life of a teen Muslim girl is an important read that shows the strength of young women as they grapple with today’s issues.
Ali’s writing is fresh and fabulous. She invites readers into the day-to-day life of a Muslim family. The question of hijabs and niqabs are discussed and in many ways demystified for the non-Muslim reader. While the sexual assault is central to the book and vital to the story, there are also other moments that are critical in Janna’s growth. Some of these are small details of caring for an elderly neighbor or figuring out that saint-like girls may have other aspects to them as well. All of these smaller details add up to the strength that Janna needs to face her larger monster.
Janna is a great heroine. She is clearly written as a younger teen, something that we often don’t see in teen novels. Since she is younger, her growth is dynamic and entirely believable. Her relationship with her mother and brother are complicated and filled with teen reality. The same is true of her tumultuous relationship with the boy she likes and her friends. Just having friends who are non-Muslim is complicated, particularly when it exposes Janna far more than she is comfortable with.
A vitally important book that serves as a window and a mirror for people in every community, this book belongs in every public and high school library. Appropriate for ages 14-18.
Reviewed from copy received from Salaam Reads.
Preaching to the Chickens by Jabari Asim, illustrated by E. B. Lewis (InfoSoup)
John Lewis, renowned Civil Rights leader and Congressman, dreamed of becoming a preacher as a child. When he was put in charge of the family’s flock of chickens on their farm, he knew it was a great responsibility. John loved going to church on Sunday and took what he learned in church back to his flock. He would sermonize to them, the chickens mesmerized by his voice. He would also baptize them, speak up for them when they needed a voice and rescue them when they needed help. As he preached the words he learned in church, he put those words into action while tending his flock.
Asim beautifully ties together the lessons in church to actions in caring for others. There is a richness to the writing in this picture book biography, capturing both scripture and the beauty of life on a small farm filled with hard work. This is not a fantasy farm, but one where toil is what makes for a successful harvest. Still, it is a place that grew an activist like John Lewis, who learned about using his voice for a cause right there on the farm with his chickens.
The illustrations by Lewis are done in watercolor, capturing the chicken coop and John himself with just enough detail to convey their simplicity but also their stature. Lewis uses the play of light spectacularly in the book, deftly incorporating shadow and light into John’s childhood sermons.
A beautifully crafted picture book biography that speaks of the power of childhood dreams to create activism and a man with a voice to change generations. Appropriate for ages 6-8.
Reviewed from library copy.
The Passion of Dolssa by Julie Berry (InfoSoup)
The author of All the Truth That’s in Me returns with another historical novel that once again speaks to the role of women in history. Here we follow the story of two very different young women in medieval France. There is Dolssa, born to wealth who speaks directly with Jesus and who gains the attention of the Church who brands her as a heretic and sentences her to death. There is Botille, who is a matchmaker and who owns a tavern along with her two sisters in a small seaside town. When their two stories collide, Botille discovers a person who both brings miracles and doom along with her.
Berry has created a novel that shows how power worked in the Middle Ages with two young women who are both products of their society and also find themselves outside of it some of the time. The two young women are as different as can be, both in their backgrounds and in their beliefs, but still between them there is a sisterhood that cannot be denied and a love that is transcendent.
Each of the women is fully formed on the page, shown in all of their questioning, their doubts and their beliefs. While Dolssa is certainly a different creature than Botille, it is the two of them together that is so brilliant it can be painful to read, particularly because there is no doubt that they are risking everything to support one another. Berry makes sure that readers understand the way that the Crusades and then the Inquisition worked, the holy people left to starve due to their heresy and the flames and torture that accompanied their work in France. It is a world of cruelty, particularly for two young women who have the audacity to think for themselves.
Brilliantly crafted, well researched and filled with the darkness of impending doom yet lit brightly with faith and miracles, this is a wrenching historical read. Appropriate for ages 14-18.
Reviewed from ARC received from Viking.
The Patchwork Torah by Allison Ofanansky, illustrated by Elsa Oriol
David’s grandfather was a scribe. He had been asked by the rabbi to write a new Torah for their synagogue because the old one was fading. David watched his grandfather work for a year on the new Torah and then store it away, explaining that a Torah is not something to be thrown out. Years later, as David was learning to be a scribe from his grandfather, a couple came to them bringing a Torah that they had hidden from the Nazis. It was badly water damaged and his grandfather tucked that Torah away too in the hopes of working on it someday. David grew up to be a scribe and inherited his grandfather’s cabinet with the two scrolls inside. One day, the rabbi called and told him that there had been a fire in the synagogue and the Torah was damaged. That scroll too was put away. Finally, Katrina hit New Orleans and a Torah was rescued but damaged too. David suddenly had an idea and worked for months to take the four scrolls and patch them together into one complete Torah that would be unlike any other.
Ofanansky builds this story slowly and steadily. Each Torah comes into the book with a full story and history. Each is unique and ruined in some way, but worthy of being rescued and reused. It is the ultimate in recycling. The book also pays homage to the long history of scribes who care for and create Torah, showing the dedication that it takes to learn the art and skill.
The art by Oriol has a quiet nature too. The paintings are suffused in yellow light and warmth. Even the days of the tragedies that happen to the people and the Torah are light-filled and hope filled.
A quiet and powerful story about renewal and reuse, this book speaks across religions to the importance of hard work and resilience. Appropriate for ages 6-9.
Reviewed from library copy.
Engines of the Broken World by Jason Vanhee
Merciful’s mother has finally died. After years of growing more and more confused and cruel, she died as the weather grew colder and colder. Merciful and her brother Gospel had wanted to bury her properly but the bitter weather had worsened and prevented them from digging a hole. The snow came too, lashing the windows and keeping them from even venturing out to the barn to check on the animals. So they put their mother under the table and went to bed. The Minister, in an animal form, said prayers over her but was also firm in saying that she needed a proper burial. Merciful is starting breakfast the next morning when she hears it, a voice she thought she would never hear again, singing her childhood song.
This novel is completely unique. It is the story not of a post-apocalyptic world but of the days leading directly into an apocalypse. Yet it is also a book that explores religion in a way that will certainly bother many people. This is a religion beyond decay, heading into the final days, one that is flagging but still powerful. Even better, it is one that is familiar to many of us. Now add zombies to this complex world, and you are starting to understand why this book is so difficult to explain.
Against this dire setting, we have two young characters Merciful and Gospel. The two do not get along, both approaching the world from different places. Yet given the claustrophobic setting, the two are forced to see the truth about each other and their strengths. It is this setting of a blizzard at the end of the world that makes this book so haunting. Vanhee writes in a voice that we haven’t heard before either, he tinkers with perception of the characters, and he has created a book where you can’t trust much at all. It is a wonderfully slippery book, that changes underneath you and turns into something unexpected. Yet it is also filled with moments of great beauty and character.
A horror book for teens, this is also something much more. It is a beautifully written apocalypse that is harrowing, striking and powerful. Appropriate for ages 13-15.
Reviewed from copy received from Henry Holt and Co.