Stepping Stones by Lucy Knisley (9780593125243)
Jen didn’t want to move out of the city and onto a farm with her mother, leaving her father behind. She particularly doesn’t enjoy her mom’s new boyfriend, Walter, who is always telling her how she should act. On the farm, Jen does love the hayloft with its privacy and kittens. She’s not quite sure about the chickens at first until she meets the fuzzy chicks, but even then taking care of them is a pain! When Walter’s two daughters come to visit on weekends, it’s particularly hard. The girls work at the farm’s stall at the market, selling berries, granola and flowers. But Andy, the oldest daughter, is bossy and constantly putting Jen down. Jen would much rather be drawing in her notebook than doing math at the market. Being a new family is hard, but small steps make big connections.
Knisley is one of my favorite graphic novelists. It is great to see her returning to graphic novels for children. She captures the emotions of being young with such empathy, valuing the perspective of her characters. She also allows her young characters to find their own way forward, the adults around and causing problems at times. Here it is figuring out how to be potential step-siblings while wrestling with a new life in the country, and a frog too.
Knisley fills her book with small moments of life on a farm and in the country. Every person who lives, loves or tolerates the country will enjoy her depiction. As always, her illustrations are clear, funny and full of great moments.
Full of fresh air, chickens, garden-rampaging deer, and a complicated family, this graphic novel is a great summer read. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from e-galley provided by Random House Graphic.
Cat Dog Dog by Nelly Buchet, illustrated by Andrea Zuill (9781984848994)
Dog lives all alone with his owner. He has his own toys, his own elaborate bed, his own food and his owner all to himself. A different Dog lives with Cat and their owner. The two of them may not always get along, but they are a family. So when the independent first Dog moves in with Cat and Dog, things don’t go smoothly. Cat hisses, dogs growl over food, and no one sleeps well at first. Then an open window accident leads to the three animals spending some healing time together. After that, the three are Cat Dog Dog, all the time. But another surprise in on the way!
This picture book is told entirely in two words: Dog and Cat. It is the illustrations that tell the story of the relationships between all of the characters. The illustrations are filled with small touches like the moving boxes steadily getting more dominant and the various sleeping places that no one is pleased with. They also show the emotional state of each of the pets, from exasperation to surprise to tolerance.
Funny and honest, this picture book looks at blended families in a way that speaks to both pets and people. Appropriate for ages 3-5.
Reviewed from e-galley provided by Schwartz & Wade.
Snow White by Matt Phelan (InfoSoup)
The Snow White tale is redone with a new setting and great villains in this graphic novel. Snow White’s mother dies in 1918 and she is left with her father who is the King of Wall Street. Soon after her mother’s death, her father falls for the Queen of the Follies, a performer who immediately sends Snow White away to school. When the stock market crashes, her father survives only to die suddenly. Snow White returns home to find that there is no place for her there, only to be rescued by seven small urchins on the street. Meanwhile, her stepmother takes her dire instructions from a ticker tape machine that orders her to KILL.
With all of the magnificence of the roaring 20s that then tumble into the Great Depression, this graphic novel version of the beloved tale truly rethinks the story and recreates it in a new and vivid way. Keeping true to core parts of the original story, this version has the wicked queen, a new version of the seven dwarves, the huntsman ordered to kill Snow White, and apples. Throughout there is darkness, violence and murder. Exactly what any great noir mystery needs.
If you have enjoyed Phelan’s previous graphic novels, he continues his use of watercolor in this book. Done in grays, blacks, blues and shot with touches of red, the art has a painterly feel to it that is unusual in graphic novels. There is a lovely roughness to the framing of the panels, giving the entire book a natural and organic feel.
A brilliant retelling of a classic tale, this dark story is a striking and brilliant departure. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
The Land of Forgotten Girls by Erin Entrada Kelly (InfoSoup)
When Sol and her little sister Ming moved from the Philippines to the United States, they knew their lives were going to change. But they didn’t realize that they would be abandoned by their father and stuck living with Vea, their mean stepmother in a tiny apartment in Louisiana. Now five years later, Sol manages to escape her stepmother’s cruelty by escaping into stories, particularly when she is sent to the closet when she has done something wrong. She shares the stories with her little sister and Ming has now started to believe in their mythical Aunt Jove and expects her to arrive to rescue them. As Ming’s hope grows, Sol despairs of their lives ever improving at all, but friendship comes from unexpected places and may be the answer to their hopes and dreams.
Kelly, author of Blackbird Fly, has created another great novel for children. In this book, she beautifully captures the complexity of the lives of some children where their families have been turned upside down through death and abandonment and they are left with those who don’t love them at all. It is a book about hope as well, about the power of stories to create new realities and the radiance of hope even in the bleakest of times.
Particularly notable in this novel is Kelly’s willingness to tell a very sad story, one filled with loss and betrayal and still one that is very appropriate for children. Sol herself reflects on the sadness of her story and her new friend:
What gloomy tales we had, I thought. I wondered what we’d look like to someone passing by. Two twelve-year-old girls – one so white she looked like a ghost and the other so dark she looked like the fields – sitting on milk crates and telling sad, sad stories in the hot, hot sun.
These are stories of poverty, of spending time on the streets to get out of the misery of your home. The novel dazzles with its truth and honesty of children who shine despite the darkness in their lives.
A powerful novel of stories and hope and how they can be used to overcome the darkness that life contains. Appropriate for ages 10-12.
Reviewed from copy received from HarperCollins.
We Are All Made of Molecules by Susin Nielsen
Stewart and Ashley don’t fit together like the kids on TV, their blended family is not entirely happy. Stewart is 13-years-old and went to a school for academically-gifted students until he and his father moved in with Ashley and her mother. Stewart doesn’t fit into his new public high school easily. Ashley on the other hand is the most popular girl at the high school. She loves her social status, makes sure everyone knows that she is on top, and loves to put together cute outfits and rework her clothes. Stewart lost his mother two years ago and isn’t ready to have a new mother while Ashley’s father announced he was gay and now lives in the little house in the backyard. Ashley hasn’t forgiven him at all and worries what will happen if news of his being gay gets out at school. Now these two very different teens have to figure out how to live together and how to survive one another at school too.
Nielsen takes two very different teen characters and tells their story of living together in both of their voices. Stewart is a great character, very bright and quite awkward, but also willing to try new things and put himself out there because his mother would have wanted him to. He quickly moves from potential stereotype into a unique character with quirks and interests all his own. While he may not make friends easily, he has a distinct charm about him, a gentleness and a sensibility that is lovely to see in a teen male character. Ashley takes more time to embrace the changes happening in her family and more time for the reader to see who she really is. The juxtaposition of the differences of the two of them plus this delay in understanding her more fully offer the book exactly the tension it needs to move forward and be compelling to read.
Ashley is a difficult character to enjoy. She is hugely self-centered and focused on social climbing more than being herself. Nielsen doesn’t shrink away from making a prickly teen girl a central character, something that is just as welcome as a gentle boy in middle school literature. The two of them together have a dynamic relationship, filled with moments where they collide but also gorgeous moments where you can see them grow together as siblings. The end of the book is immensely satisfying, particularly because it shows Ashley as a deeply thoughtful girl who has a creative flair in fashion and solutions and Stewart as a brave hero.
This is a very successful novel for middle school readers who will see themselves in either Ashley or Stewart. The book explores deep subjects but keeps a light tone, making it a great read.
Appropriate for ages 12-14.
Reviewed from copy received from Random House Children’s Books.