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Book Review: My Ex-Imaginary Friend by Jimmy Matejek-Morris

Publisher’s description

Eleven-year-old Jack thought he had outgrown his imaginary friend, George—until his dad also disappears from his life. His mom’s bipolar disorder isn’t being properly treated, so while in the throes of a manic episode, she ditches Jack with his aunt, uncle, and cousins. Jack decides that only George can help him figure out where people go when others stop believing in them—and how Jack can put his family back together.

Meanwhile, the imaginary George—half-walrus, half-human, all magic—has a problem of his own: with nobody to believe in him, he is slowly disappearing. Rejoining Jack is his only hope for survival. Or is it?

Amanda’s thoughts

Well, my heart broke for both Jack (real) and George (imaginary) as I read. Lots of us have had imaginary friends in life (mine were Boopsy, Bopsy, Beepsy, Goopsy, Gina, and Deena) and maybe have thought about how they affected our lives, but what about how we affect the life of that imaginary friend? How we create it, shape it, and, eventually, end it. Jack needs George in his life, but George needs Jack, too. Without him, he might just fade away.

Jack is dumped on a lawn near his aunt and uncle’s when his mother, in a manic episode, tells him she will be back in a week (saying that Jack is too much, that it’s all too much). Jack has been sheltered from what is going on with his mom, though he certainly has observed very dark periods for her as well as pretty unstable highs. He’s still reeling from his absent father having found “someone special,” which makes Jack feels extra unspecial, abandoned, and replaced. Bad timing for mom to leave, too. But maybe, with old imaginary friend George, they could find his parents. Maybe George can help fix everything. Working together makes sense, despite having been estranged for some time. Both Jack and George feel alone, abandoned. Both Jack and George need to be seen, be believed in. But Jack is just a young kid. And George is just an imaginary walrus-person. Can they make things okay for Jack, or do the living humans in his life need to step up and do what an imaginary friend and a child cannot do (and should not have to do)?

Narrated by both Jack and George, this complex story of family, care, belonging, and mental illness deftly illustrates how important it is to address the truth and the reality of mental illness. Jack’s mother has bipolar disorder and keeping this truth from him, keeping him in the dark about what that means for her and for him, has terrible consequences (again, see the whole heart breaking for Jack thing). Sheltering children is not protecting them. In fact, in this case, it’s actively harming Jack. His aunt and uncle reveal that his mother has had episodes like this, that she’s probably not on her meds, that whenever she comes back she won’t be the same, that she’ll need time to get help. That’s a lot for a kid to have been navigating alone with his single parent and yet be kept in the dark about.

This sophisticated and painful look at loving someone with a mental illness and the many missteps a family can make shows the challenges of loving someone during difficult times and the dangers of mental illness not being properly treated or properly addressed. I hope both George and Jack get the family and attention they deserve.

Review copy (ARC) courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9781541596993
Publisher: Lerner Publishing Group
Publication date: 02/02/2021
Age Range: 9 – 10 Years

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

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

How I Got Through My Dark Night of the Soul: When Night Breaks, a guest post by Janella Angeles

In any story, something always has to go wrong.

In the mechanics of story structure as seen from Snyder’s Save the Cat method (I read Jessica Brody’s take on it for novel writing), the end of Act 2 brings an emotional beat known as the All is Lost point where what happens is exactly what it sounds like: the bad guys close in and all is lost for the hero, leading to the rock bottom of their tale. To add insult to injury, the next step is something called the Dark Night of the Soul—the rock bottom of the rock bottom. The part of the story where your character is truly at their lowest, and we as the reader don’t know if or how they can rally after such a devastating blow or loss. Can the hero rise and continue their story, or is this where it all ends?

Image from Save the Cat! Writes a Novel by Jessica Brody

I never used to reference beat sheets or craft books before; the chaotic, pantsing writer in me never thought she needed them. But after obsessively studying story development and beat sheets for the past two years to fix a book I thought was beyond repair, it was inevitable I would start trying to make sense of my life in the terms of the hero’s journey.

Getting the deal and book buzz for Where Dreams Descend felt like the promising call to action to the first half of Act 2, in which the hero familiarizes themselves with the new world they’ve fallen in, encounter new characters, enjoy the fun and games portion, and add B plots to further texture their story. Despite the tests in between, all seems to be going as well as can be, until you hit the midpoint reversal—the point of the story where everything turns on its head, either for a false sense of the better or a downward spiral toward the worst.

If you see where I’m going, then it should come as no surprise that the period when I was writing When Night Breaks became my own personal Dark Night of the Soul. And it went on for a lot longer than I wished it to, for many reasons. And many rock bottoms.

Everyone always told me that the second book in your author career would be the hardest. Whether it’s the next in a series or a new standalone, there’s the pressure of contractual deadlines colliding with life hurdles, the newness of writing for readers now waiting with expectations, and that feeling of responsibility hanging over your head when an entire team of people depends on your words to move forward on the ever-moving gameboard of publishing and publicity schedules.

During normal times, Book 2 Syndrome hits hard. Add a worldwide pandemic, massive industry shifts, crumbling mental health, and escalating uncertainty to all structure and stability outside of writing—all of that can make Book 2 Syndrome feel more like a full-blown house fire in the middle of nowhere. Despite extra amounts of time and padding you may get to try putting the fire out, as a contracted author, you still have to work through it as though the fire isn’t happening.

Enter, the Dark Night of the Soul.

It helped to call it that, because with so much uncertainty surrounding me, at least I was familiar with storytelling terms and phrases. Even when I’d quite literally forgotten how to write a book, just from all the challenges thrown at me during my All is Lost section. In between debuting and promo and my mental health declining, I was still trying to piece together the broken drafts of When Night Breaks. I was exhausted, burnt out, and wildly unwell—all of which could be seen in my writing process and inability to finish.

And that was when the Dark Night of the Soul truly took form. Not for the loss of a normal debut experience or pandemic sales or dream marketing plans disappearing. My strong gut for storytelling and love of reading I could always lean on—that prompted my hero’s journey in the first place—was gone in the aftermath of a midpoint reversal that left me reeling.

I kept telling myself the Dark Night of the Soul, logistically, would be over in the near future. It’s the end of Act 2, and soon, I would find my way to rally and break into Act 3 where some triumphant comeback/lesson learned takes place. That’s how story works, right?

From Jessica Brody’s blog post “How To Write Your Novel Using the Save the Cat! Beat Sheet”

Imagine my horror when the Dark Night of the Soul went on for months. Over a year.

Sounds strange to call it a name, but it brought me a lot of comfort to look at life in terms of story that gave me some illusion of control where I felt all control was lost. But it took me an embarrassingly long time to remember that the most important thing about storytelling is not how well it adheres to structure or lines up with the predetermined beats. Those are elements that can make a story good.

For a story to be great, it all comes down to the hero. The story doesn’t push things forward, the hero does. The hero needs to act, to make the moves necessary for those dominoes to fall into place.

From Jessica Brody’s blog post “How To Write Your Novel Using the Save the Cat! Beat Sheet”

The idea of character agency is so absurdly simple, probably the first lesson we learn as writers, but those are often the realizations we lose sight of first. The ones staring at us right in the face.

So let’s look at character development of a hero’s journey now: at the core, the hero goes on said journey to achieve what they desperately want, not necessarily what they need. The first half of a story usually covers the hero hitting plot points and beats all to reach what they want, while sometimes falling farther from that need (or purposely denying it). However, while the dark shift of the midpoint reversal thrusts the hero into a storm of loss and hardship that challenges them, it’s also the point where character development shifts just as drastically. All of a sudden, the hero’s journey toward what they want is over, because now they have a sense of what they truly need and can no longer ignore it. A hard way of learning a lesson, but a lesson learned no less.

In no way do I fault myself or anyone for how long their own Dark Night of the Soul goes on. Given the circumstances, I’d say it’s pretty understandable to feel like we’re all drowning and overwhelmed, that deep down we’re waiting for some deus ex machina to come out of nowhere in the form of a good news email that will magically turn everything around.

But waiting for something to happen is the trait of a passive character. And for a hero’s journey to remain propulsive, the hero must act.

So when I felt ready to act, I reached out for help. I received a proper diagnosis and entered therapy. I became more unapologetically honest and transparent about my situation, not just with my publishing team and day job, but with my readers. I channeled my energy into reader engagement I found personally fulfilling and meaningful instead of what could sell the most books. And rather than trying to use When Night Breaks as an escape from my reality, I let my reality bleed into the pages and the hearts of my characters. 

My dedication in When Night Breaks

While things didn’t dramatically change overnight with these changes, I never expected them to. We’re still in the midst of the pandemic, When Night Breaks still released under the same shadow that fell over Where Dreams Descend, and the dreams I always held onto of being an author still hurts to think back on given the current reality that’s here to stay for a while. I’m not sure if I even want to keep writing and publishing books after finally starting to heal from it all.

But for the first time, I no longer feel stuck in the Dark Night of the Soul.

Right now, I’m finally the hero who wakes up to a new morning in the next chapter.

Meet the author

Photo credit: Mei Lin Barral

Janella Angeles is a Filipino-American writer and bestselling author of WHERE DREAMS DESCEND. Her writing journey began with many trips to the library and a whole lot of fanfiction. Since then, she’s never stopped looking for magic, and enjoys getting lost in any form of great storytelling.

Website – www.janellaangeles.com

Twitter – www.twitter.com/janella_angeles

IG – www.instagram.com/janella_angeles

TikTok – www.tiktok.com/@janella_angeles

About When Night Breaks

In Janella Angeles’s When Night Breaks, the dramatic last act of the Kingdom of Cards duology, the stage is set, the spectacle awaits… and the show must finally come to an end.

The competition has come to a disastrous end, and Daron Demarco’s fall from grace is front-page news. But little matters to him beyond Kallia, the contestant he fell for who is now missing and in the hands of a dangerous magician. Daron is willing to do whatever it takes to find her. Even if it means unearthing secrets that lead him on a treacherous journey, risking more than his life and with no promise of return.

After falling through the mirror, Kallia has never felt more lost, mourning everything she left behind and the boy she can’t seem to forget. Only Jack, the magician who has all the answers but can’t be trusted, remains at her side. Together, they must navigate a dazzling world where mirrors show memories and illusions shadow every corner, ruled by a powerful showman who’s been waiting for Kallia to finally cross his stage. But beneath the glamour of dueling headliners and never-ending revelry, a sinister force falls like night over everyone, with the dark promise of more—more power beyond Kallia’s wildest imagination, and at a devastating cost.

The truth will come out, a kingdom must fall, hearts will collide.

And the show must finally come to an end.

ISBN-13: 9781250204325
Publisher: St. Martin’s Publishing Group
Publication date: 10/05/2021
Series: Kingdom of Cards #2
Age Range: 14 – 18 Years

My Brain Doesn’t Believe in Getting Things Done, a guest post by Sangu Mandanna

My brain is, frankly, a menace. You know that friend, the one who turns up with an irresistible party invitation right when you need to finish that important piece of work? That’s my brain. It has Opinions about how I should spend my time. It doesn’t believe in Getting Things Done. It thinks I should just drop what I’m doing, no matter how important, because “ooh! Remember that book we wanted to look up? Let’s do that now!” and “oops, it’s been three hours because we fell down a rabbit hole of Random Stuff.”

To a lot of people, that sounds absurd. When they want to look that book up, they can put the thought aside until a better time. And if they do look it up, it takes them a few minutes and they go back to what they were doing. When I try to explain what my brain does, they’re confused.

“But why don’t you just ignore it?”

I only wish.

The thing about my brain is that I can’t ignore it. The part of me that controls how I make my decisions and how I act on a thought is, of course, in my brain. There’s plenty of science to explain it, but in short, my brain calls the shots and it likes its power a little too much. It’s pigheaded. It spends its time and energy on what it considers worthwhile, and nothing I or anyone else says will make a difference. It will, for example, put me at my laptop writing words for ten hours without so much as a break, but it can’t bring itself to walk down a flight of stairs and make a slice of toast.

And then there’s the other stuff. The stuff I don’t particularly like to talk about. Like when I lie awake for seven hours straight thinking of a horrific event I read in the news three years ago and, no matter what I do, I can’t make my brain switch off. Or when my friend’s cat has a cuddle on my lap and it’s lovely, but the moment I notice the cat hair on my clothes, suddenly, it’s like I can’t see or think about anything else until every single hair is gone. Or when I have to get up in the middle of the night to check that the front door is locked, even though I checked it an hour before that, and there’s no point telling myself not to do it because I’ll just end up thinking about it instead.

There are names for these conditions, but I didn’t know them for a long time. I never used to think of myself as neurodivergent or as having a mental illness. I just thought there was something wrong with me. It was a difficult thing to live with, this idea that I was somehow weak, or lazy, or just wrong in some way because I couldn’t control the way I felt or the thoughts I had. How could I not be able to tell my own brain what to do? Why couldn’t I just “get on with it” or “get a grip” like I was told to?

I know now, of course, that there’s nothing wrong with me. I am neurodivergent and I have a mental illness. My OCD, depression and anxiety may never go away, but they can be treated, and I no longer feel any sense of shame or guilt about them. As for my neurodivergence, which for me is mostly my ADHD, well, that’s something I’ve come to embrace. I used to think my brain was my enemy, but now I think of it with fond exasperation. It’s unquestionably a pest. It is. I wish it behaved better.

But I also never forget that it makes me who I am. Yes, it misbehaves, but it’s also creative, kind and brave. It gives me shelter from the real world and it gives me the stories I live to tell.

And that’s the space out of which Kiki Kallira Breaks a Kingdom was born. Kiki, my young, creative heroine, is like me. She’s a British-Indian girl with ADHD and OCD, though she doesn’t know the words yet. She’s strong, but questions her own strength. She’s brave, but worries about big things and small things. She creates whole worlds in her sketchbook, but struggles to enjoy a simple day out with her friends because her brain has other ideas.

Then her sketchbook kingdom, a world of folklore and magic, comes to life and suddenly, Kiki has to be a hero. She doesn’t think she can do it, of course. She doesn’t think she’s strong enough or brave enough. She doesn’t think art, creativity and heart are as powerful as swords and monsters.

Spoiler: she’s wrong.

Kiki Kallira Breaks a Kingdom is all about creativity, magic, and friendship. There’s folklore from the south of India, a warrior goddess, a talking lion, a crew of plucky rebel kids, and, above all, a heroine who finds her own unique way of fighting back. I hope Kiki’s story finds a place in the hearts of the readers who need it most.

Meet the author

Sangu Mandanna was four years old when an elephant chased her down a forest road and she decided to write her first story about it. Seventeen years and many, many manuscripts later, she signed her first book deal. She is the author of YA novels The Lost Girl, A Spark of White Fire and its sequels, and has contributed to several anthologies. She lives in Norwich, in the east of England, with her husband and kids. Kiki Kallira Breaks a Kingdom is her first middle-grade novel.

About Kiki Kallira Breaks a Kingdom

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?

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

Book Review: We Can’t Keep Meeting Like This by Rachel Lynn Solomon

Publisher’s description

A wedding harpist disillusioned with love and a hopeless romantic cater-waiter flirt and fight their way through a summer of weddings in this effervescent romantic comedy from the acclaimed author of Today Tonight Tomorrow.

Quinn Berkowitz and Tarek Mansour’s families have been in business together for years: Quinn’s parents are wedding planners, and Tarek’s own a catering company. At the end of last summer, Quinn confessed her crush on him in the form of a rambling email—and then he left for college without a response.

Quinn has been dreading seeing him again almost as much as she dreads another summer playing the harp for her parents’ weddings. When he shows up at the first wedding of the summer, looking cuter than ever after a year apart, they clash immediately. Tarek’s always loved the grand gestures in weddings—the flashier, the better—while Quinn can’t see them as anything but fake. Even as they can’t seem to have one civil conversation, Quinn’s thrown together with Tarek wedding after wedding, from performing a daring cake rescue to filling in for a missing bridesmaid and groomsman.

Quinn can’t deny her feelings for him are still there, especially after she learns the truth about his silence, opens up about her own fears, and begins learning the art of harp-making from an enigmatic teacher.

Maybe love isn’t the enemy after all—and maybe allowing herself to fall is the most honest thing Quinn’s ever done.

Amanda’s thoughts

Rachel Lynn Solomon is an auto-read for me. Did you know she also wrote an adult book, too? Just as great as her YA. I’m glad she’s so prolific because I just adore her writing.

There is so much to like about this book. Newly graduated Quinn isn’t sure what she wants to do in college/for her grown-up life. But she does know she doesn’t want a future working for her family’s wedding planning company. She just doesn’t. But her parents have it all planned out for her—major in business, work for them, everything’s taken care of! And though Quinn doesn’t want that, she doesn’t know how to tell them that. She’s also worried that bailing on the business will upset the balance of their family and not give her the connection she loves having with her older sister.

One more summer of working weddings puts her back in the orbit of Tarek, son of the caterers who usually work with her parents. After she confessed her crush to him last year, he ghosted her, which is a pretty rotten move for a super romance-obsessed guy who loves grand gestures. Predictably, and thankfully (because they’re so cute together and their banter is A+), they get together, but it’s not smooth sailing. Quinn’s having a Big Summer. She’s grappling with what her future holds, how to please her family, the idea of her best friend moving across the country for college, and more. So dating her crush while simultaneously not believing in love or romance or relationships is… a lot.

The tension between Tarek and his belief that love is all about destiny and big gestures and “meant to be” stuff and Quinn and her totally cynical and guarded approach to relationships makes for an interesting story. As an adult, I read this thinking, “Quinn, come on. You’re doing all the relationship ‘stuff’ but are just too scared to call it that and feel the feelings!” But the teen stuck inside of me was like, “Yesss, Quinn, I feel you. Hide from those feelings. Blow things up yourself before you can get hurt or disappoint someone!” Especially because Quinn has anxiety and that good ol’ anxiety brain loves to churn everything around until everything seems fraught with peril and sure to implode.

Tarek and Quinn’s relationship has lots of ups and downs, which, again, feels so realistic and makes for a great read. They go from surface level friendship to a deeper and true friendship to so much more.

I also love how mental health is dealt with in this story. Quinn has OCD and generalized anxiety. Tarek has depression. They talk openly about medication, therapy, being diagnosed, the hard days, symptoms, and getting better. We love to see it!

Full of humor and heart and, yes, love, this is a fantastic story about being brave, being imperfect, learning, trying, changing, growing, and taking chances. An excellent look at vulnerability, trust, and self-exploration.

Review copy (ARC) courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9781534440272
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Books For Young Readers
Publication date: 06/08/2021
Age Range: 12 – 18 Years