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Book Review: Kiki Kallira Breaks a Kingdom by Sangu Mandanna

Publisher’s description

For fans of the Aru Shah and Serpent’s Secret series, this action-packed fantasy-adventure sees a girl’s drawings of Indian mythology spring to vivid life—including the evil god who seeks to enter the real world and destroy it.

Kiki Kallira has always been a worrier. Did she lock the front door? Is there a terrible reason her mom is late? Recently her anxiety has been getting out of control, but one thing that has always soothed her is drawing. Kiki’s sketchbook is full of fanciful doodles of the rich Indian myths and legends her mother has told her over the years. 

One day, her sketchbook’s calming effect is broken when her mythological characters begin springing to life right out of its pages. Kiki ends up falling into the mystical world she drew, which includes a lot of wonderful discoveries like the band of rebel kids who protect the kingdom, as well as not-so-great ones like the ancient deity bent on total destruction. As the one responsible for creating the evil god, Kiki must overcome her fear and anxiety to save both worlds—the real and the imagined—from his wrath. But how can a girl armed with only a pencil defeat something so powerful?

Amanda’s thoughts

If you know anything about this book, and have been reading my recent reviews, you’re probably like, “Let me guess—she read this book for the SLJ article on mental health in middle grade fiction that she keeps yammering on about.” And you’re right! I did! And like all the others I’ve read for this article, I’m so glad I had a reason to pick this book up (I mean, beyond the reason of, “I’m trying to read every book ever published!” which is a project that is futile, thus sometimes I need a real concrete reason to move a book from “maybe someday” to “right now!”).

When the pocket world Kiki has created in her sketchbooks turns out to be real, and Kiki is now in it, her anxiety has to morph from “oh no, if I left the door unlocked a goose may eat my mom!” (which, honestly, was such a relatable bit of anxiety brain—I mean, maybe minus the specific of the goose) to “can I get out of my own way far enough to save everyone in this world?!” That’s a big ask for anyone, but especially for Kiki, whose anxiety likes to make her worry about everything and doubt herself all the time. And in the real world, she tries to downplay how bad she sometimes feels. Her mom certainly seems loving and receptive and would certainly work to get her help, but Kiki doesn’t want to worry her. But it turns out if you end up somehow living inside a world you drew, you start to have more forthcoming conversations about mental health. This feels right, because Kiki threw herself so thoroughly into books and art as a way to distract from her anxiety, so I love that this very art literally helps her work out what’s going on with her.

The entire quest in Mysore is full of adventure, vibrant characters, and great details. Fantasy fans, whether they are familiar with Hindu mythology or not, will love Kiki’s journey. And while there is plenty of good stuff to say about that entire journey, I want to talk a little more about the mental health rep. I love that we are seeing not only more compassionate and accurate representation in middle grade books, period, but that it’s starting to show up beyond just realistic fiction stories. Because even brave (if somewhat reluctant) warriors can have anxiety! And even people with anxiety can become brave warriors! Kiki goes from feeling like her anxiety is her fault, like if she were stronger or braver this wouldn’t be happening to her, to understanding she has an illness that is just a part of her but not all of her.

Kiki learns important lessons on her quest. It’s okay to be messy and anxious and scared. You can still fight the monster, even if it’s in your brain. You can still be in control, be master of your fate, bear your teeth at the wolf. The monsters won’t always be there. You can take back your world. You just might need a little help along the way. And that’s okay. There’s nothing wrong with that. Asking for help makes you an even braver warrior.

A fantastic and empowering read.

ISBN-13: 9780593206973
Publisher: Penguin Young Readers Group
Publication date: 07/06/2021
Series: Kiki Kallira #1
Age Range: 8 – 12 Years

Book Review: Finding Junie Kim by Ellen Oh

Publisher’s description

For fans of Inside Out and Back Again and Amina’s Voice, We Need Diverse Books cofounder Ellen Oh creates a breathtaking story of family, hope, and survival, inspired by her mother’s real-life experiences during the Korean War. Faced with middle school racism, Junie Kim learns of her grandparents’ extraordinary strength and finds her voice.

“Filled with unforgettable characters, this profoundly moving story about a girl’s search for self is at once both unique and universal, timely and timeless. A book that should be on every shelf.” —Padma Venkatraman, Walter Award-winning author of The Bridge Home

Junie Kim just wants to fit in. So she keeps her head down and tries not to draw attention to herself. But when racist graffiti appears at her middle school, Junie must decide between staying silent or speaking out.

Then Junie’s history teacher assigns a project and Junie decides to interview her grandparents, learning about their unbelievable experiences as kids during the Korean War. Junie comes to admire her grandma’s fierce determination to overcome impossible odds, and her grandpa’s unwavering compassion during wartime. And as racism becomes more pervasive at school, Junie taps into the strength of her ancestors and finds the courage to do what is right.

Finding Junie Kim is a reminder that within all of us lies the power to overcome hardship and emerge triumphant.

Amanda’s thoughts

This is another book I picked up to read in preparation for my upcoming SLJ article on mental health in middle grade fiction. I have the luxury of reading at work when the kids do their cuddle up and read time, and I got so into this story that it was really difficult for me to not keep sneaking in a few pages here and there throughout the day.

Junie Kim is not feeling like herself. She’s cranky, cynical, sleeping all the time, moody, and just feels down. Those feelings eventually escalate to suicidal ideation, which lands her, thankfully, with a doctor and a therapist helping her through her major depressive disorder diagnosis. She gets good help, has supportive and loving parents, and is on medication. Readers see her move from one therapist to a second because the first was not a good fit. We see what therapy looks like for her and learn about mindfulness and emotion regulation. She has rough times, she gets help, she shares what’s going on with her to complete acceptance and understanding from people in her life, and we can rest assured that Junie is being well taken care of.

I picked this book up for its mental health rep, but was delighted to find so much else going on in Junie’s story (because, after all, a mental illness is always just one part of your story—it’s never your whole definition). Junie and her friends are dealing with racist vandalism at school and Junie hears a near infinite stream of racist garbage from certain peers. She and her friends brainstorm ways to be activists and to inspire their classmates to recognize racism and stand up against it. The other biggest piece of Junie’s current life is learning the stories of her grandparents’ younger years during the Korean War. Through their storytelling, we are put right back there with them, learning what they endured and dreamed of. Their own stories are riveting and their effect on Junie inspires action in her daily life as well as a deeper understanding of what her family has been through. An important read about standing up for yourself and others, about getting help, and about enduring. I’m so glad I didn’t miss this book.

ISBN-13: 9780062987983
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 05/04/2021
Age Range: 8 – 12 Years

Post-It Note Reviews: Gary Paulsen’s memoir, Huda F Are You?, Other Boys, and more

Post-it Note Reviews are a great way to display books in your library or classroom, a way to let kids recommend their favorite titles without having to get up in front of everyone and do a book talk, and an easy way to offer a more personal recommendation than just the flap copy offers.

Frequent blog readers may have noticed I’m doing a lot more post-it-style reviews and less longer, individual review posts. Partially this is because my way of coping with the many upsetting pieces of the past year has been to drown myself in reading, so I’m burning through so many more books and want to share them, in some form, here. It’s been so hard for authors to be able to promote their books, through things like release parties or festivals or other events, and I want to share as many books as I can particularly these days to help them get the exposure they deserve.

All descriptions from the publishers. Transcriptions of the Post-It notes are below each description.

Gone to the Woods: Surviving a Lost Childhood by Gary Paulsen (ISBN-13: 9780374314156 Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux Publication date: 01/12/2021, Ages 12+)

“A riveting, hopeful survival story.” —Publishers Weekly, starred review

A mesmerizing memoir from a living literary legend, giving readers a new perspective on the origins of Gary Paulsen’s famed survival stories.

His name is synonymous with high-stakes wilderness survival stories. Now, beloved author Gary Paulsen portrays a series of life-altering moments from his turbulent childhood as his own original survival story. If not for his summer escape from a shockingly neglectful Chicago upbringing to a North Woods homestead at age five, there never would have been a Hatchet. Without the encouragement of the librarian who handed him his first book at age thirteen, he may never have become a reader. And without his desperate teenage enlistment in the Army, he would not have discovered his true calling as a storyteller.

An entrancing account of grit and growing up, perfect for newcomers and lifelong fans alike, this is the famed author at his rawest and most real.

(POST-IT SAYS: What a book! What a life! Deeply moving memoir of neglect, trauma, and survival. A complex and emotional read that’s just as engaging as his fiction–maybe even more so. One of my favorite reads of 2021.)

J.D. and the Hair Show Showdown by J. Dillard, Akeem S. Roberts (Illustrator) (ISBN-13: 9780593111604 Publisher: Penguin Young Readers Group Publication date: 11/16/2021 Series: J.D. the Kid Barber #3, Ages 7-10)

Eight-year-old kid barber J.D. takes his talent to an Atlanta hair show in this illustrated chapter-book series.

At only eight years old, J.D. the Kid Barber has already won a barber battle and appeared on local TV. Now he’s the youngest barber to be invited to the Beauty Brothers Hair Expo in Atlanta! J.D. gets the VIP treatment—he takes his first flight, rides in a limo for the first time, and gets gifts from the show’s sponsors. At the show, there are hair classes to take, product samples to try, and some of J.D.’s favorite hair influencers to meet. And, of course, there’s his own demo alongside kid hairstylist, Isabel Is Incredible. But what J.D. is most excited about is snapping a pic with eleven-year-old rap sensation Li’l Eazy Breezy, which is harder than it sounds! The world of hair and beauty is so much bigger than J.D. could’ve imagined, and he’s ready to step up his game.

Check out the other chapter books in the J.D. the Kid Barber series:
J.D. and the Great Barber Battle
J.D. and the Family Business

(POST-IT SAYS: Loved this! J.D. is living his best life and so full of joy and enthusiasm. Large illustrations convey those feelings and give readers a look at J.D.’s amazing time at the hair expo. Quick, go order this series!)

Bad Sister by Charise Mericle Harper, Rory Lucey (Illustrator) (ISBN-13: 9781250219053 Publisher: First Second Publication date: 09/14/2021, Ages 8-12)

This middle grade graphic memoir by Charise Mericle Harper, featuring illustrations by Rory Lucey, follows a young girl who undergoes a crisis of conscience, realizing that she is a “bad sister.”

Meet Charise.

She’s energetic, helpful, a model pet owner and full of inventions.

But she’s also a bad sister. When she goes too far and breaks little brother Daniel’s tooth, can she redeem herself? Is an accident really an accident if you could have stopped it? 

But most importantly… What does it mean to be a good sister?

(POST-IT SAYS: Reckless and often mean Charise doesn’t want to be a bad sister, but just can’t help herself. Her badness is the usual stuff of growing up, but leaves lasting impressions and creates real change. Perfect for fans of Hale, Holm, and Telgemeier.)

The 1619 Project: Born on the Water by Nikole Hannah-Jones, Renée Watson, Nikkolas Smith (Illustrator) (ISBN-13: 9780593307359 Publisher: Penguin Young Readers Group Publication date: 11/16/2021, Ages 7-10)

The 1619 Project’s lyrical picture book in verse chronicles the consequences of slavery and the history of Black resistance in the United States, thoughtfully rendered by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones and Newbery honor-winning author Renée Watson. 

A young student receives a family tree assignment in school, but she can only trace back three generations. Grandma gathers the whole family, and the student learns that 400 years ago, in 1619, their ancestors were stolen and brought to America by white slave traders. 
But before that, they had a home, a land, a language. She learns how the people said to be born on the water survived.

And the people planted dreams and hope,
willed themselves to keep
living, living.

And the people learned new words
for love
for friend
for family

for joy
for grow
for home.

With powerful verse and striking illustrations by Nikkolas Smith, Born on the Water provides a pathway for readers of all ages to reflect on the origins of American identity.

(POST-IT SAYS: Profoundly moving. A beautiful book that’s a lyrical ode to strength, origins, ancestry, dreams, and pride. Stunning and full of emotion. This is not to be missed.)

Huda F Are You? by Huda Fahmy (ISBN-13: 9780593324318 Publisher: Penguin Young Readers Group Publication date: 11/23/2021, Ages 12-17)

From the creator of Yes, I’m Hot In This, this cheeky, hilarious, and honest graphic novel asks the question everyone has to figure out for themselves: Who are you?

Huda and her family just moved to Dearborn, Michigan, a small town with a big Muslim population. In her old town, Huda knew exactly who she was: She was the hijabi girl. But in Dearborn, everyone is the hijabi girl.

Huda is lost in a sea of hijabis, and she can’t rely on her hijab to define her anymore. She has to define herself. So she tries on a bunch of cliques, but she isn’t a hijabi fashionista or a hijabi athlete or a hijabi gamer. She’s not the one who knows everything about her religion or the one all the guys like. She’s miscellaneous, which makes her feel like no one at all. Until she realizes that it’ll take finding out who she isn’t to figure out who she is.

(POST-IT SAYS: One million more books about Huda and her family—especially that “invisible” sister—please! Great look at identity, personality, and acceptance. Heavy issues are addressed and balanced out by bright, cartoonish art and plenty of humor.)

Born Behind Bars by Padma Venkatraman (ISBN-13: 9780593112472 Publisher: Penguin Young Readers Group Publication date: 09/07/2021, Ages 10-14)

“Venkatraman has never met a heavy theme she did not like….Borrowing elements of fable, it’s told with a recurring sense of awe by a boy whom the world, for most of his life, has existed only in stories.”—New York Times Book Review 

The author of the award-winning The Bridge Home brings readers another gripping novel set in Chennai, India, featuring a boy who’s unexpectedly released into the world after spending his whole life in jail with his mom.

Kabir has been in jail since the day he was born, because his mom is serving time for a crime she didn’t commit. He’s never met his dad, so the only family he’s got are their cellmates, and the only place he feels the least bit free is in the classroom, where his kind teacher regales him with stories of the wonders of the outside world. Then one day a new warden arrives and announces Kabir is too old to stay. He gets handed over to a long-lost “uncle” who unfortunately turns out to be a fraud, and intends to sell Kabir. So Kabir does the only thing he can–run away as fast as his legs will take him. How does a boy with nowhere to go and no connections make his way? Fortunately, he befriends Rani, another street kid, and she takes him under her wing. But plotting their next move is hard–and fraught with danger–in a world that cares little for homeless, low caste children. This is not the world Kabir dreamed of–but he’s discovered he’s not the type to give up. Kabir is ready to show the world that he–and his mother–deserve a place in it.

(POST-IT SAYS: Pretty dark subject matter and perilous situations, but the fast-pace and can-do attitude keep it from feeling too heavy. Examines poverty, caste, religion, and incarceration. A complex story full of adventure and of hope.)

Katie the Catsitter by Colleen AF Venable, Stephanie Yue (Illustrator) (ISBN-13: 9781984895639 Publisher: Random House Children’s Books Publication date: 01/05/2021 Series: Katie the Catsitter #1, Ages 8-12)

Calling all Raina Telgemeier fans! Introducing an irresistible new middle-grade graphic novel series about growing up, friendship, heroes, and cats (lots of cats!)–perfect for fans of GutsAwkward and Real Friends (not to mention anyone who loves cats!)

Katie is dreading the boring summer ahead while her best friends are all away at camp–something that’s way out of Katie and her mom’s budget, UNLESS Katie can figure out a way to earn the money for camp herself. But when Katie gets a job catsitting for her mysterious upstairs neighbor, life get interesting. First, Madeline has 217 cats (!) and they’re not exactly . . . normal cats. Also, why is Madeline always out EXACTLY when the city’s most notorious villain commits crimes?! Is it possible that Katie’s upstairs neighbor is really a super villain? Can Katie wrangle a whole lot of wayward cats, save a best friendship (why is Beth barely writing back? And who’s this boy she keeps talking about?!), AND crack the biggest story in the city’s history? Some heroes have capes . . . Katie has cats!

(POST-IT SAYS: I’m obsessed! 217 cats! Superheroes! Activism! A diverse cast of characters! I loved all the details in the art, especially with those busy cats. Full of whimsy, humor, justice, and CATS!)

The Daily Bark: The Puppy Problem by Laura James (ISBN-13: 9781547608812 Publisher: Bloomsbury USA Publication date: 01/11/2022, Ages 7-10)

The first book in a charming new chapter book series about enterprising young pups who start a neighborhood newspaper, for fans of The Secret Life of Pets.

Gizmo is a city dog, so when he moves to the village of Puddle with his journalist human, he doesn’t know WHAT to expect. Certainly not FLOWERS. Or BEES. And he couldn’t have even imagined MUD. Luckily he’s got Jilly, the wolfhound next door, to show him around. 

But Jilly has a problem. Her puppies are going to be adopted by new owners who live far away — she’ll never see them again! Gizmo has got a nose for a story, and a great idea to help Jilly. What if the dogs of Puddle started a newspaper to get the word out and keep these pups closer to home? Stop the presses!

Perfect for fans of The Secret Life of Pets, this is the first book in a charming and humorous new chapter book series — featuring full-color illustrations — about the things dogs get up to when their humans aren’t looking.

(POST-IT SAYS: So cute I can hardly stand it! Sweet doxie Gizmo and his new friends live busy lives of jobs, caretaking, and adventure. I look forward to more Daily Bark stories!)

Other Boys by Damian Alexander (ISBN-13: 9781250222817 Publisher: First Second Publication date: 09/28/2021, Ages 10-14)

In Other Boys, debut author Damian Alexander delivers a moving middle grade graphic memoir about his struggles with bullying, the death of his mother, and coming out.

Damian is the new kid at school, and he has a foolproof plan to avoid the bullying that’s plagued him his whole childhood: he’s going to stop talking. Starting on the first day seventh grade, he won’t utter a word. If he keeps his mouth shut, the bullies will have nothing to tease him about—right?

But Damian’s vow of silence doesn’t work—his classmates can tell there’s something different about him. His family doesn’t look like the kind on TV: his mother is dead, his father is gone, and he’s being raised by his grandparents in a low-income household. And Damian does things that boys aren’t supposed do, like play with Barbies instead of GI Joe. Kids have teased him about this his whole life, especially other boys. But if boys can be so cruel, why does Damian have a crush on one?

(POST-IT SAYS: What an empathetic and tender story. All about gender, sexuality, family, bullies, and trauma. A really lovely look at how difficult childhood can be for so many reasons.)

Besties: Work It Out by Kayla Miller, Jeffrey Canino, Kristina Luu (Illustrator) (ISBN-13: 9780358521150 Publisher: HMH Books Publication date: 10/19/2021 Series: World of Click Series, Ages 8-12)

A fun and fresh graphic-novel series spin-off of the New York Times best-selling Click books, featuring aspiring entrepreneurs Beth and Chanda! When the girls land a lucrative dogsitting gig, they’re sure that fame, fortune, and popularity can’t be far behind, but nothing can prepare them for the mishap that throws their business plan—and friendship—into chaos!
 
Meet Beth and Chanda, two stylish best friends on their way to building their fashion empire! An unexpected business opportunity presents itself when the girls are asked to dogsit at Ms. Langford’s luxurious house while she’s away, but it quickly turns into a disaster after an accident leaves one of Ms. Langford’s prized possessions in pieces! Now Beth and Chanda have to take on as many odd jobs as they can in order to afford a replacement. Car washing, book sales, interior decorating—you name it, Beth and Chanda are there! Will they be able to patch up their mistake in time?
 
New York Times best-selling author Kayla Miller and co-author Jeffrey Canino deliver a vibrant and honest story about middle school friendships and personal responsibility. Accompanied by Kristina Luu’s fizzy, expressive art style, this graphic novel is the perfect companion to Olive’s existing stories.

(POST-IT SAYS: Great to see two kids working odd jobs to make money and learning lessons about responsibility along the way. I hope we see more stories about the characters from the Click series.)

Book Review: Living with Viola by Rosena Fung

Publisher’s description

Heartbreakingly honest and quietly funny, this #ownvoices graphic novel from a debut creator is a refreshingly real exploration of mental health, cultural differences, and the trials of middle school.

Livy is already having trouble fitting in as the new girl at school—and then there’s Viola. Viola is Livy’s anxiety brought to life, a shadowy twin that only Livy can see or hear. Livy tries to push back against Viola’s relentless judgment, but nothing seems to work until she strikes up new friendships at school. Livy hopes that Viola’s days are numbered. But when tensions arise both at home and at school, Viola rears her head stronger than ever. Only when Livy learns how to ask for help and face her anxiety does she finally figure out living with Viola.

Rosena Fung draws on her own early experiences with anxiety and the pressures of growing up as the child of Chinese immigrant parents to craft a charming, deeply personal story that combines the poignancy of Raina Telgemeier’s Guts with the wacky humor of Lumberjanes. Exuberant, colorful art brings Livy’s rich imaginative world—filled with everything from sentient dumplings to flying unicorns—to life on the page.

Amanda’s thoughts

Hard to do better than this book. Rosena Fung makes it clear just how cruel, smothering, and omnipresent mental illness can be as Viola, Livy’s anxieties, tags along behind her all day, shouting a constant stream of lies and worst-case scenarios at her. Livy is trying to navigate her 6th grade life, but it’s hard when there is just so much to worry about. She finds solace in books and art, but it’s hard to keep Viola quiet, even if Livy is otherwise occupied. She’s at a new school and figuring out new friendships. She’s self-conscious about her parents’ jobs and what her home is like. She’s made to feel inferior to how her cousins are doing and what their goals are. Even her lunches aren’t “right”—other kids make fun of how they smell, making her even more self-conscious about everything. She doesn’t feel like she fits anywhere, and a lot of that is just typical middle school stuff that will probably get worked out as time goes on, but a lot of it is specifically Viola, or her anxiety. It has a special knack for trying to ruin absolutely everything and gripping onto the smallest thing and making Livy feel terrible as she fixates on it.

Hard as all that is, there is so much good that happens over the course of the story. Friend things get figured out, though there are some rocky moments, Livy learns to share pieces of her home life and her culture with her new friends, and, most importantly, Livy finally confesses all of her fears and stresses to her parents, who get her help. When she tells new friend Charlotte what’s been going on, she shrugs it off as perfectly normal—her sister is in therapy too—it’s no big deal. Livy learns coping mechanisms that will begin to keep the worst of her anxiety at bay and will ground her in hard moments. An author’s note explains how Livy’s experiences mirror so many of Fung’s while growing up.

I am so glad that not only are we seeing so many more middle grade stories that address mental health concerns, but that we’re seeing these stories presented in a variety of ways. The graphic novel format is well-suited for this story as readers will see the impact of what it’s like to have a mental illness tagging along beside your every move. Smart, empathetic, and hopeful. I loved this.

Review copy (finished) courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9781773215488
Publisher: Annick Press, Limited
Publication date: 11/30/2021
Age Range: 9 – 12 Years

Book Review: Home Home by Lisa Allen-Agostini

Publisher’s description

Fans of Monday’s Not Coming and Girl in Pieces will love this award-winning novel about a girl on the verge of losing herself and her unlikely journey to recovery after she is removed from anything and everyone she knows to be home.

Moving from Trinidad to Canada wasn’t her idea. But after being hospitalized for depression, her mother sees it as the only option. Now, living with an estranged aunt she barely remembers and dealing with her “troubles” in a foreign country, she feels more lost than ever.

Everything in Canada is cold and confusing. No one says hello, no one walks anywhere, and bus trips are never-ending and loud. She just wants to be home home, in Trinidad, where her only friend is going to school and Sunday church service like she used to do.

But this new home also brings unexpected surprises: the chance at a family that loves unconditionally, the possibility of new friends, and the promise of a hopeful future. Though she doesn’t see it yet, Canada is a place where she can feel at home–if she can only find the courage to be honest with herself.

Amanda’s thoughts

This is another book I picked up as I worked on my article on mental health in middle grade fiction for SLJ. The main character here is 14 and in 9th grade, but I think this could comfortably be called upper middle grade. I don’t know how I missed this when it first came out (because I really do try to Read All The Books), but I’m so glad I got to read this now.

After Kayla attempts suicide, her mother ships her from Trinidad to her aunts in Canada. Here, Kayla receives the support, understanding, love, and, most importantly, treatment she was not getting at home. While her mother loves her, she does not understand what Kayla is going through, nor does she even really believes mental illness is real, and is ashamed and embarrassed by Kayla. As Kayla tells a new friend, at home (home home, Trinidad), people would view her illness as demon possession or just bad behavior. While it’s for the best that Kayla is now in an environment that’s positive for her, it’s still hard (obviously) to move countries and be away from everything you know. But things start to feel more like home and, through diary entry exercises from her therapist, we see Kayla start to work through her feelings about her mother. This short book is a hopeful look at moving forward through mental illness and the importance of mental health concerns being taken seriously.

ISBN-13: 9781984893581
Publisher: Random House Children’s Books
Publication date: 05/26/2020
Age Range: 14 – 17 Years

Book Review: Stuntboy, in the Meantime by Jason Reynolds, illustrated by Raúl the Third

Publisher’s description

From Newbery Medal honoree and #1 New York Times bestselling author Jason Reynolds comes a hilarious, hopeful, and action-packed middle grade novel about the greatest young superhero you’ve never heard of, filled with illustrations by Raúl the Third!

Portico Reeves’s superpower is making sure all the other superheroes—like his parents and two best friends—stay super. And safe. Super safe. And he does this all in secret. No one in his civilian life knows he’s actually…Stuntboy!

But his regular Portico identity is pretty cool, too. He lives in the biggest house on the block, maybe in the whole city, which basically makes it a castle. His mom calls where they live an apartment building. But a building with fifty doors just in the hallways is definitely a castle. And behind those fifty doors live a bunch of different people who Stuntboy saves all the time. In fact, he’s the only reason the cat, New Name Every Day, has nine lives.

All this is swell except for Portico’s other secret, his not-so-super secret. His parents are fighting allthe time. They’re trying to hide it by repeatedly telling Portico to go check on a neighbor “in the meantime.” But Portico knows “meantime” means his parents are heading into the Mean Time which means they’re about to get into it, and well, Portico’s superhero responsibility is to save them, too—as soon as he figures out how.

Only, all these secrets give Portico the worry wiggles, the frets, which his mom calls anxiety. Plus, like all superheroes, Portico has an arch-nemesis who is determined to prove that there is nothing super about Portico at all.

Amanda’s thoughts

This was another book I sought out as I worked on my article for School Library Journal on mental health rep in middle grade books (look for that March 2022!). As far as I can tell, there are not really a whole lot of middle grade books that address the mental health of boys, period, so when I saw this title, about a Black boy dealing with anxiety, I tracked it down right away. Given it’s written by Jason Reynolds and illustrated by Raul the Third, I figured it would be great. And it was.

Portico has “the frets,” as he calls them. The rest of us would probably call them an anxiety disorder. As someone who has an anxiety disorder with panic attacks, I sure recognized how quickly Portico’s mind would leap from “this thing might not be okay” to “AUGH! QUICK! MOVE! ACT! PANIC!” Portico’s parents are splitting up, something he doesn’t particularly understand until quite far into the book. But all of their constant arguing is taking its toll on him, causing those frets to crop up more and more frequently. He keeps busy and distracted by running around his apartment complex with his best friend, Zola, having little adventures while acting like Stuntboy, a kind of superhero who exists to keep others protected (again, hey there, recognizable anxiety). His building is full of larger-than-life characters who keep things interesting, but underlying everything are those blasted frets, just waiting to get in Portico’s way.

Not only is the story a total hit (and such a necessary depiction of a young Black boy navigating anxiety), but the format itself and all of the art make this exceedingly appealing. This fully illustrated novel includes comic book panels as a story within the story, little commercial break asides, double page spreads, and LOTS of dynamic action. A fantastic read with wide appeal. I look forward to more adventures of Stuntboy!

Review copy (finished) courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9781534418165
Publisher: Atheneum/Caitlyn Dlouhy Books
Publication date: 11/30/2021
Age Range: 7 – 12 Years

Book Review: The Golden Hour by Niki Smith

Publisher’s description

From the author of The Deep & Dark Blue comes a tender graphic novel, perfect for our time, that gently explores themes of self-discovery, friendship, healing from tragedy, and hope for a better tomorrow.

Struggling with anxiety after witnessing a harrowing instance of gun violence, Manuel Soto copes through photography, using his cell-phone camera to find anchors that keep him grounded. His days are a lonely, latchkey monotony until he’s teamed with his classmates, Sebastian and Caysha, for a group project.

Sebastian lives on a grass-fed cattle farm outside of town, and Manuel finds solace in the open fields and in the antics of the newborn calf Sebastian is hand-raising. As Manuel aides his new friends in their preparations for the local county fair, he learns to open up, confronts his deepest fears, and even finds first love.

This title will be simultaneously available in hardcover.

Amanda’s thoughts

I’m working on an article for School Library Journal on mental health depictions in middle grade fiction. It was not all that long ago that I would have struggled to build a large list of books that accurately and compassionately address mental health. But as I worked, I found myself having to limit my book list to the past couple of years as a way to begin to pare down the long list of books I was interested in considering. What a great problem to have. I was fortunate enough to get a copy of this book for that article and wanted to talk a little about it here, too.

To say that I was moved by this beautiful and tender look at trauma, healing, and hope is an understatement. I was reading it at my desk at school and at one point looked around at all the kids sitting around reading and, knowing how much stuff has to be going on in so many of their lives, thought, I wish you these supportive and loving relationships. I wish you this kind of healing.

Manuel, who was present when his art teacher was attacked at school, is, understandably, having a really hard time clearing his mind of what he saw. Thankfully, he is in therapy and has some pretty great grounding techniques to help when he has derealization episodes. But it’s really difficult, even with help, to not feel afraid so much of the time, to not be triggered. When he makes two new friends, he finds further comfort in their steady, understanding presence. Together, they all work on projects and their friendship grows (and with Sebastian, it’s clear that there may be more than just friendship there). They help Manuel find grounding moments and make sure he knows they are there to listen whenever he may want to talk about it and are there to be supportive and steadying no matter what.

Manuel shows that healing from trauma is not quick or linear, and that’s okay. He shows the complexity of living day-to-day life riddled with moments of extreme distress. And more than anything, Manuel shows that vulnerability doesn’t have to be scary and that there is hope and joy even in the darkest and most unsettling of times. A deeply affecting read.

Review copy (finished) courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9780316540339
Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
Publication date: 11/23/2021
Age Range: 8 – 12 Years

Book Review: A Man Called Horse: John Horse and the Black Seminole Underground Railroad by Glennette Tilley Turner

When I’m reviewing books for professional publications, I stay quiet about them on social media. I’m always really excited once a review comes out to be able to talk about the book, finally! Here’s one of my most recent reviews, which originally appeared in an issue of School Library Journal.

Abrams. Sept. 2021. 112p. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9781419749339.

Gr 6-9–This fascinating look at the complex life of Black Seminole leader John Horse, a warrior, diplomat, and champion for his people, follows his tireless search for freedom, safety, and home. Foundational background is given about Seminole Indians and Black Seminoles (descendants of Seminoles and free Blacks and escaped slaves) as well as the First Seminole War, the Indian Removal Act, and the Second Seminole War. It was during the Second Seminole War that John Horse, a skilled negotiator, interpreter, guide, and advisor, began to rise to leadership. Horses’s life and travels are detailed as he sought peace and security for his people through the southern United States, and eventually Mexico. Escapes, deportations, challenges, promises, possibilities, and perilous situations marked Horse’s quest. He worked determinedly to find a new home for Black Seminoles, who had unresolved and changing statuses during this time of the mid-to-late 1800s. Horse was constantly negotiating to encourage protection, treaties, land grants, and autonomy for his people.

Engravings, photographs, illustrations, and painting adorn most of the full-color pages, with chapters providing just enough information to feel thorough without feeling overwhelming. Well laid-out and engaging, this biography shows the significant impact John Horse had on the rights, recognition, freedom, and protection of Black Seminoles, who were considered slaves by Americans and Seminoles. The volume wraps up with additional information on battles, places of refuge, rescues, and expeditions. A time line, author’s note, chapter notes, bibliography, and index round out the book.

VERDICT An important examination of a historical figure who hasn’t been featured that often in books for young readers.

Post-It Note Reviews: Flying pigs, witches, chronic illness, money management, and more!

Post-it Note Reviews are a great way to display books in your library or classroom, a way to let kids recommend their favorite titles without having to get up in front of everyone and do a book talk, and an easy way to offer a more personal recommendation than just the flap copy offers.

Frequent blog readers may have noticed I’m doing a lot more post-it-style reviews and less longer, individual review posts. Partially this is because my way of coping with the many upsetting pieces of the past year has been to drown myself in reading, so I’m burning through so many more books and want to share them, in some form, here. It’s been so hard for authors to be able to promote their books, through things like release parties or festivals or other events, and I want to share as many books as I can particularly these days to help them get the exposure they deserve.

All descriptions from the publishers. Transcriptions of the Post-It notes are below each description.

Batpig: When Pigs Fly by Rob Harrell (ISBN-13: 9780593354155 Publisher: Penguin Young Readers Group Publication date: 11/09/2021, Ages 7-10)

Introducing a supremely hilarious graphic novel featuring an unstoppable, super-swine hero who boldly fights for justice . . . in between taking mud baths and eating tasty sandwiches.

Gary Yorkshire was your perfectly average, fuzzy pink pig who loved tasty sandwiches, video games, mud baths, and hanging out with his friends Carl the fish and Brooklyn the bat. Until one day . . . a radioactive bat bite gives him powers he never would have dreamed of! Inspired by his old Crimson Swine comics, Gary decides that he’ll use his powers for good and becomes (drumroll) Batpig! Now he just needs a good zinger of a Batpig slogan, a spandex costume that flatters his rear end . . . and maybe a little advice about how in the world to defeat supervillains?

(POST-IT SAYS: Hand this to kids endlessly rereading the Dog Man series. Lots of wacky hijinks, silly characters, and humor. The big, bright panels of art add a lot of detail and action to an already fast-paced series.)

The Sleepover by Michael Regina (ISBN-13: 9780593117361 Publisher: Penguin Young Readers Group Publication date: 11/09/2021, Ages 8-12)

Perfect for fans of Stranger Things, this middle grade graphic novel follows a group of kids trying to cheer up their friend after a recent loss with a fun-filled sleepover, but their plans soon take a dark turn when they discover his new nanny may literally be a monster.

When the Russo family returns home from vacation to discover their nanny, Ruby, has unexpectedly passed away, Matthew takes the news the hardest. After weeks of reeling, his three best friends decide to cheer him up with a night of junk food, prank calls, and scary movies. But their plans for a sleepover are jeopardized when Matt’s single mother—unable to take any more time off of work—is forced to hire a new nanny on the fly to watch over Matt and his younger sister, Judy.

Miss Swan, however, is all too happy to have the boys over. And although she seems like the perfect babysitter, letting the kids eat whatever they want and mostly leaving them alone, there’s something about her that Matt doesn’t trust. He thinks she may actually be the witch from local legend—the one who torments children into the night and then eats them. Is he just having a hard time dealing with Ruby’s replacement, as his friends suspect? Has he watched one too many scary movies, as his mom fears? Or are he and his horror-buff friends in for the fright of their lives as they come face-to-face with a real monster?

(POST-IT SAYS: Set in 1993, this is a creepy, horror-inspired graphic novel that actually is all about grief and loss. A satisfyingly lengthy read full of atmospheric art and plenty of action.)

Saving Sorya: Chang and the Sun Bear by Trang Nguyen, Jeet Zdung (ISBN-13: 9780593353622 Publisher: Penguin Young Readers Group Publication date: 09/14/2021, Ages 8-12)

* “Nguyen’s heartfelt tale is perfect for animal-loving fans of Katherine Applegate’s The One and Only Ivan and Rosanne Parry’s A Wolf Called Wander.”—School Library Journal, starred review

A middle grade graphic novel adventure based on a true story, in which a young conservationist overcomes the odds to save and return a sun bear to its natural habitat. 

When endlessly curious and tenacious Chang discovers a bear bile farm near her home in Vietnam, she decides to do everything she can to save wild animals—by becoming a conservationist! After teaching herself survival skills, documenting each rainforest plant and animal she sees in her field notebook, and disproving the critics who think she isn’t old enough or strong enough, Chang is finally accepted as a rescue center volunteer. But her toughest challenge yet comes when she’s tasked with returning Soryathe sun bear she raised from infancyback into the wild. Because despite being a different species, Sorya is Chang’s bestfriend. And letting a friend go is neve reasy . . . even when it’s the right thing to do.

With breathtaking art and STEM facts galore, Chang’s daring story is for any young reader, animal lover, and intrepid explorer!

(POST-IT SAYS: A fascinating and heart-warming story that’s visually unlike most recent graphic novels. Animal fans will love Chang and Sorya’s unique relationship. Beautiful illustrations with so much detail to enjoy, too!)

With Great Power: The Marvelous Stan Lee by Annie Hunter Eriksen, Lee Gatlin (Illustrator) (ISBN-13: 9781645672852 Publisher: Page Street Publishing Publication date: 10/19/2021, Ages 4-8)

Every superhero has their origin story: a radioactive spider bite turns ordinary teen Peter Parker into Spider-Man, wealthy Tony Stark escapes captivity by building his Iron Man suit, scientist Bruce Banner survives gamma rays only to transform into the Hulk. 

For Stan Lee, it was books of adventure, monsters, and magic that helped him transform from an ordinary boy to a superstar superhero creator. At first, reading these stories was a pathway to a world bigger than his family’s tiny apartment in New York City, but it wasn’t long until Stan was crafting his own stories, creating comics professionally when he was still just a teenager! Still, writing wasn’t exciting when the heroes were always the same: strong, perfect, and boring. Stan had a revolutionary idea. What if anyone—even an ordinary kid—could be a superhero?

Discover more about the life of the Cameo King, known to many for his appearances in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and how he revolutionized comics with this vibrant introduction bustling with action, humor, and references for fans new and old. ‘Nuff said!

(POST-IT SAYS: I absolutely love the art in this book that’s perfect for young Marvel fans and aspiring comic book creators. A cute, lively love letter to a comics icon and to creativity itself.)

Some Days: A Tale of Love, Ice Cream, and My Mom’s Chronic Illness by Julie A. Stamm, Chamisa Kellogg (Illustrator) (ISBN-13: 9781615198108 Publisher: The Experiment Publication date: 10/26/2021, Ages 2-5)

Wyatt’s mom Rosie has MS, but nothing can stop their adventures, big and small!

Even when Wyatt’s mom isn’t feeling her best, he still thinks she’s a superhero! Rosie and Wyatt go on adventures every day: On sleepy days, they build a cozy pillow fort just for two. On wobbly days, Wyatt gets out Rosie’s magical walking stick and they cast spells on his toys. And on one super-special day, the whole family heads to town for the big “funraiser”!

Warm and uplifting, Some Days is the perfect story to share with your child about life with multiple sclerosis—or any chronic illness. Although some days are fast and some are slow, Rosie and Wyatt fill each one with love, excitement, and fun . . . not to mention ice cream!

(POST-IT SAYS: A valuable look at what it’s like to live with a chronic illness—specifically MS. A loving, factual look at how it affects day-to-day life.)

Make Your Own Money: How Kids Can Earn It, Save It, Spend It, and Dream Big, with Danny Dollar, the King of Cha-Ching by Ty Allan Jackson, Nicole Miles (Illustrator) (ISBN-13: 9781635863710 Publisher: Storey Books Publication date: 10/26/2021, Ages 8-12)

Saving money for something? Then this is the book for you! Danny Dollar, the “King of Cha-Ching,” will teach you to make money, save money, and spend money wisely—and to dream big! Maybe you get an allowance (clean the bathroom anyone?) or have been gifted money (birthday present?) but did you know that you can actually start a business and make your own money? Even as a kid! It’s called being an entrepreneur.

Danny shares tips for starting your own business, like how to write a business plan and raise start-up money (the money you need to get your business going).


Plus, you’ll learn how to open a bank account, create a budget, invest, and donate money. Danny will even introduce you to real life kids who are making their own money—and lots of it. Free yourself from having to ask your parents for money, and start making your own today!

(POST-IT SAYS: With abundant full-color illustrations and a conversational tone, a semi-boring subject jumps to life. A great resource! Filled with facts, tips, and ways to brainstorm. Worksheets encourage business planning and budgeting.)

Lifetime Passes by Terry Blas, Claudia Aguirre (Illustrator) (ISBN-13: 9781419746673 Publisher: Abrams ComicArts – Surely Publication date: 11/23/2021, Ages 12-18)

In this darkly comedic YA graphic novel, a group of teens starts a program to bring senior citizens to a local theme park to take advantage of the unofficial park policy: If someone dies on the property, the rest of their party is given lifetime passes!

Sixteen-year-old Jackie Chavez loves her local amusement park, Kingdom Adventure, maybe more than anything else in the world. The park is all she and her friends Nikki, Daniel, and Berke—although they aren’t always the greatest friends—talk about. Kingdom Adventure is where all Jackie’s best memories are, and it’s where she feels safe and happy. This carries even more weight now that Jackie’s parents have been deported and forced to go back to Mexico, leaving Jackie in the United States with her Tía Gina, who she works with at the Valley Care Living seniors’ home. When Gina tells Jackie that they can’t afford a season pass for next summer, Jackie is crushed. But on her next trip to Kingdom Adventure, she discovers a strictly protectedsecret: If a member of their party dies at the park, the rest of their group gets free lifetime passes.

Jackie and her friends hatch a plot to bring seniors from Valley Care Living to the park using a fake volunteer program, with the hopes that one of the residents will croak during their visit. The ruse quickly gets its first volunteer—a feisty resident named Phyllis.

What starts off as a macabre plan turns into a revelation for Jackie as Phyllis and the other seniors reveal their own complex histories and connections to Kingdom Adventure, as well as some tough-to-swallow truths about Jackie, her friends, and their future.

With artist Claudia Aguirre, Terry Blas has crafted a graphic novel that is dark and deeply moving. This book is Cocoon meets Heathers—a twisted satire about a magical land and the people who love it, even to the point of obsession. Jackie’s summer is about to turn into a wild ride filled with gallows humor, friendship, and fun—or is it?

(POST-IT SAYS: “Darkly comedic” is right! Love the depth and connection that comes from the eventual intergenerational friendships. Also love that Jackie and Danny realize how awful their other friends are! Dynamic artwork conveys lots of emotions and enhances the story.)

The Art of Running Away by Sabrina Kleckner (ISBN-13: 9781631635779 Publisher: North Star Editions Publication date: 11/16/2021, Ages 8-14)

Twelve-year-old Maisie is an artist. When she’s in front of her sketchbook or apprenticing at Glenna’s Portraits, the family-run art shop her grandmother started, the world makes sense. She doesn’t think about Calum, her brother who mysteriously left home and cut ties with her family six years ago, or her parents’ insistence that she “broaden her horizons” and try something new—something that isn’t art.

But when Glenna’s Portraits falls on hard times, Maisie’s plan to take over the shop when she’s older and become a lifelong artist starts to crumble. In desperation to make things right, Maisie runs away to London to reconnect with her adult brother, hoping he might be the key to saving the shop. But as Maisie learns about her family’s past from Calum, she starts to rethink everything she’s ever known. Maisie must decide not only if saving her family’s art shop is worth it, but if she can forgive her parents for the mistakes they’ve made.

(POST-IT SAYS: A great read. Deep family issues are explored in a way that feels realistic, complicated, and ultimately loving. Lots of LGBTQIA+ rep. Maisie really wrestles with her feelings toward her parents as she grows closer to her estranged brother.)

Book Review: The Troubled Girls of Dragomir Academy by Anne Ursu

Publisher’s description

From the acclaimed author of The Real Boy and The Lost Girl comes a wondrous and provocative fantasy about a kingdom beset by monsters, a mysterious school, and a girl caught in between them.

If no one notices Marya Lupu, is likely because of her brother, Luka. And that’s because of what everyone knows: that Luka is destined to become a sorcerer.

The Lupus might be from a small village far from the capital city of Illyria, but that doesn’t matter. Every young boy born in in the kingdom holds the potential for the rare ability to wield magic, to protect the country from the terrifying force known only as the Dread. 

For all the hopes the family has for Luka, no one has any for Marya, who can never seem to do anything right. But even so, no one is prepared for the day that the sorcerers finally arrive to test Luka for magical ability, and Marya makes a terrible mistake. Nor the day after, when the Lupus receive a letter from a place called Dragomir Academy—a mysterious school for wayward young girls. Girls like Marya.

Soon she is a hundred miles from home, in a strange and unfamiliar place, surrounded by girls she’s never met. Dragomir Academy promises Marya and her classmates a chance to make something of themselves in service to one of the country’s powerful sorcerers. But as they learn how to fit into a world with no place for them, they begin to discover things about the magic the men of their country wield, as well as the Dread itself—things that threaten the precarious balance upon which Illyria is built.

Amanda’s thoughts

Listen. That tweet up there should tell you everything you need. Also, 100% of the book was interesting, and yet as I read I repeatedly shouted in my head, “IT JUST GOT INTERESTING!” Because it kept getting MORE and MORE interesting. Go order this book. Now.

Marya knows her place in life. As a girl, she’s seen as a helper, a caretaker, a disappointment, and a background character in her own life. Her golden boy brother, Luka, is potentially gifted as a sorcerer and Marya is just this annoyance, this threat to perfection, this problem. Thank goodness she has Madame Bandu, a neighbor who has her watch her boys. Marya can be a “wild girl” with them, and, bonus, Madame Bandu is teaching her how to read. She’s also teaching her to question everything. From Madame Bandu, Marya learns to question the stories you’re told, question who’s telling them, who they benefit. She teaches her to see coded secrets and truths in the tapestries that record history. Marya learns that reading and learning is the best way to keep away the monsters that plague their land.

But all that learning comes to a halt when Marya is sent to a reform school, where she will get a fresh start and learn how to be a lady. And maybe, if she’s really good, she will be allowed to go work on a sorcerer’s estate in some kind of helping role! At Dragomir, Marya meets other girls who were also exiled to this school and it’s clear that the way they are “troubled” has little to do with anything serious. The girls there are sullen, awkward, haughty, inquisitive, and smart. They are too much, they are inappropriate, they are girls that no one knows what to do with. So they will learn how to behave at Dragomir. They will be cast off, isolated, broken down. After all, girls are obviously either evil or weak, and they must be reformed. They can’t be running around, thinking thoughts and being willing to run headlong into monsters!

Meanwhile, the Dread is looming, but the sorcerer assigned to their school says it’s all under control. But Marya doesn’t believe him. She starts to wonder if he’s there to protect them or to monitor them. Also, how, exactly, do these “troubled” girls pose a threat? Are they in danger or are they the danger? Why does it seem like all of the men Marya meets are lying? What’s this school really about?

By the end of the story, we see the myriad ways men fail women, the way they are cowards and liars and manipulators. We see the truth, we see the lies, we see the control, the power, and the bravery. We also see that Anne Ursu is a master storyteller (which, of course, we already know) who knows just how to skewer the patriarchy and leave readers feeling inspired by the brave actions of her characters. I could not put this book down and when I did, I felt hopeful, which is an amazing feeling to experience for even two minutes these days. A smart story about control, rebellion, story itself, and the fearsome power of girls allowed to be themselves. A great book for girls who can’t follow the rules and, better yet, don’t want to.


Review copy (ARC) courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9780062275127
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 10/12/2021
Age Range: 8 – 12 Years