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Tween’s Eye View on Middle Grade Graphic Novels: Twins, Allergic and Primer

Today Scout, also known as Thing 2, is here to share some brief reviews of some new graphic novels she has been reading. She’s 12 and has dyslexia, and graphic novels are her jam.

Twins by Varian Johnson

Publisher’s Book Description:

Coretta Scott King Honor author Varian Johnson teams up with rising cartoonist Shannon Wright for a delightful middle-grade graphic novel!

Maureen and Francine Carter are twins and best friends. They participate in the same clubs, enjoy the same foods, and are partners on all their school projects. But just before the girls start sixth grade, Francine becomes Fran — a girl who wants to join the chorus, run for class president, and dress in fashionable outfits that set her apart from Maureen. A girl who seems happy to share only two classes with her sister!

Maureen and Francine are growing apart and there’s nothing Maureen can do to stop it. Are sisters really forever? Or will middle school change things for good?

Scout’s Thoughts: One of the sisters makes the parents change their schedules so they aren’t in all the same classes together because they are tired of everyone mixing them up. It’s about trying to find your own place and space and identity. This book was cool and taught me not to be afraid to be myself. I read this book 3 times and really recommend it.

Allergic by Megan Wagner Lloyd

Publisher’s Book Description: A coming-of-age middle-grade graphic novel featuring a girl with severe allergies who just wants to find the perfect pet!

At home, Maggie is the odd one out. Her parents are preoccupied with getting ready for a new baby, and her younger brothers are twins and always in their own world. Maggie loves animals and thinks a new puppy to call her own is the answer, but when she goes to select one on her birthday, she breaks out in hives and rashes. She’s severely allergic to anything with fur!

Can Maggie outsmart her allergies and find the perfect pet? With illustrations by Michelle Mee Nutter, Megan Wagner Lloyd uses inspiration from her own experiences with allergies to tell a heartfelt story of family, friendship, and finding a place to belong. 

Scout’s Thoughts: This was a cute book that reminds us that everyone is different. You shouldn’t make fun of someone because they are allergic to something and you should take their allergies seriously because if you put something near them then they could have a really bad reaction. I read it twice because I liked it and it was a really good book. I am definitely going to be reading it again.

Primer by Jennifer Muro and Thomas Krajewski

Publisher’s Book Description:

Primer introduces a brand-new superhero with a colorful array of superpowers to explore.

Ashley Rayburn is an upbeat girl with a decidedly downbeat past. Her father is a known criminal who once used Ashley to help him elude justice, and in his attempt to escape, a life was taken. He now sits in federal prison, but still casts a shadow over Ashley’s life. In the meantime, Ashley has bounced from foster home to foster home and represents a real challenge to the social workers who try to help her–not because she’s inherently bad, but because trouble always seems to find her.

Ashley’s latest set of presumably short-term foster parents are Kitch and Yuka Nolan. Like Ashley, Kitch happens to be an artist. Yuka, on the other hand, is a geneticist working for a very high-level tech company, one that’s contracted out to work for the government and the military. And it’s Yuka’s latest top secret project that has her very concerned. Developed for the military, it’s a set of body paints that, when applied to the wearer, grant them a wide range of special powers. Fearful that this invention will be misused, Yuka sneaks the set of paints home, substituting a dummy suitcase with an ordinary set of paints in their place.

From here, signals get crossed. Ashley comes home from school one day with her new friend Luke and, thinking that the Nolans have purchased a surprise gift for her upcoming birthday, finds the set of paints. Being an artist, Ashley naturally assumes these are for her. It isn’t long before she realizes that she’s stumbled upon something much bigger and a lot more dangerous. Although she uses her newly discovered powers for good, it’s not long before the military becomes wise to what happened to their secret weapon. And this spells big trouble not only for Ashley, but for her newfound family and friends as well.

Scout’s Thoughts: This was a really interesting book about a young girl in foster care who uses paints to become a super hero. The paint gives her super powers like invisibility and speed. There are 38 powers all together. This book was good. It was very inspiring. I also read this one twice and will most definitely be reading it again.

Book Review: Reckless, Glorious, Girl by Ellen Hagan

Publisher’s description

The co-author of Watch Us Rise pens a novel in verse about all the good and bad that comes with middle school, growing up girl, and the strength of family that gets you through it.

Beatrice Miller may have a granny’s name (her granny’s, to be more specific), but she adores her Mamaw and her mom, who give her every bit of wisdom and love they have. But the summer before seventh grade, Bea wants more than she has, aches for what she can’t have, and wonders what the future will bring. 

This novel in verse follows Beatrice through the ups and downs of friendships, puberty, and identity as she asks: Who am I? Who will I become? And will my outside ever match the way I feel on the inside?

A gorgeous, inter-generational story of Southern women and a girl’s path blossoming into her sense of self, Reckless, Glorious, Girl explores the important questions we all ask as we race toward growing up.

Amanda’s thoughts

Oh, how I hope middle schoolers pick up this book. Beatrice is asking the biggest question: who am I? Having recently survived parenting a human through middle school, I am convinced that, in general, there is no worse age, no worse time, no worse everything than middle school. What a hard age. Hagan deftly captures how complicated this age is, and how all-consuming the questions of identity and fitting in can be.

I loved this book for a lot of reasons, and one of the biggest is Beatrice’s relationship with her grandma (Mamaw) and her mom. It’s loving and inspiring and accepting even when it’s challenging and frustrating and disappointing. With her Mamaw, she has a wonderful role model for embracing eccentricity and being yourself, whoever that is. She encourages Beatrice not to observe life from the sidelines, but to get right in there and live life.

Beatrice longs to show people more of who she really is, the parts that no one ever sees, her multitudes and complexities. She’s feeling a pull between her old self and the new self she maybe wants to be. She knows she sometimes mimics who she’s with, that she changes depending on who she’s around and the expectations. She’s worried about shaving, bras, periods, dating, kissing, and popularity. She wants to be noticed, to be really seen, to be liked by a boy. She does and feels all these things in the company of two totally accepting and unique best friends, friends who let her grow and change and make mistakes. Listen, for middle school? that’s a great depiction of friendship.

The message to be yourself, to be free, to not let others define you, and to not hide yourself away comes across loud and clear as we watch Beatrice fumble her way through early adolescence. This novel in verse will speak to many who so totally and completely relate to how Beatrice is feeling. She’s yet another middle grade character I want to give a hug and say, I know this is hard, but you will be okay. Thankfully, she has wonderful people in her life to do this. A beautifully written book with an empowering message.

Review copy (ARC) courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9781547604609
Publisher: Bloomsbury USA
Publication date: 02/23/2021
Age Range: 8 – 11 Years

Balance in the Time of Productivity Culture: Jen Petro-Roy and Life in the Balance

When I was writing LIFE IN THE BALANCE, I thought a lot about goals. Writing this book—getting a book deal for this book—was a goal of mine. Before I was first published, I had worked for years, writing manuscript after manuscript, trying to improve my writing and find a story that would connect with readers.

I achieved that goal. With the publication of LIFE IN THE BALANCE, I’ll have achieved the goal of seeing another book on the bookshelves (in normal times when we’re able to go bookstores, that is). But regardless of how cool that accomplishment is, I want to always make sure that publication isn’t always the goal—that validation isn’t the only thing that brings me joy and fulfillment.

This can be hard. In a culture like ours, when everything is commodified and ranked and everyone is so focused on productivity and staying busy, it can be hard to do something purely for the joy of it. For the feeling of losing yourself in a passion, of doing something with no hope of reward.

Those kind of loves are worth savoring and cherishing. They’re also the ones that are sometimes discouraged by the people around us, the ones who are more focused on “getting things done.”

In Life in the Balance, Veronica has been obsessed with softball her entire life. She’s part of a softball family, after all—her mom was the star of her college team and her grandmother played, too. Plus, Veronica is good. Really good. Good enough to definitely make the local travel team, now that she’s old enough to try out.

Softball is also the thing that Veronica has always shared with her mom. It’s what makes them “them.” It’s part of her and part of her family legacy.

But then it turns out that her mother has something else going on—an addiction to alcohol that’s been affecting their family, too. An admission that she needs to go to rehab.

And Veronica soon finds out that she may not be as passionate about softball as she’s always been. So happens when you don’t want to achieve in the area you’re good at? When you don’t necessarily want to “get the things done” that have been the goals all along?

Life in the Balance is a story of what happens when our family members “disappoint” us, and why that disappointment may not be an actual, well…disappointment…at all. Why being vulnerable is important and how sometimes, passion may find us in the places we don’t expect them at all.

It’s about the pressures that life presents us with and how trying to achieve those “goals” that society expects–how trying to be who you’ve always been—may not necessarily be the path you want to take with your life.

It’s about love—between a mother and a daughter, an old love and a new, and for balance above all.

It’s about how reaching for balance and admitting we don’t have to do it all—or sometimes, even something–is sometimes the best choice we can make.

Meet the author

Jen Petro-Roy writes “honest books with heart,” about kids who are strong, determined, unsure, struggling to fit in, bubbly, shy, and everything in between. She is the author of P.S. I MISS YOU, GOOD ENOUGH, YOU ARE ENOUGH, and LIFE IN THE BALANCE (out February 2021), all from Macmillan/Feiwel & Friends. LIFE IN THE BALANCE has received a starred review from School Library Journal and is a Junior Library Guild Gold Standard Selection.

When she isn’t writing, Jen can be found reading, playing board games, belting out songs in the car to embarrass her two daughters, and working as an eating disorder awareness advocate.

Website: http://www.jenpetroroy.com

Twitter: @jpetroroy

Instagram: @jpetroroy

About LIFE IN THE BALANCE

Veronica struggles to balance softball, friends, and family turmoil in this new honest and heartfelt middle grade novel by Jen Petro-Roy, Life in the Balance.

Veronica Conway has been looking forward to trying out for the All-Star softball team for years. She’s practically been playing the game since she was a baby. She should have this tryout on lock.

Except right before tryouts, Veronica’s mom announces that she’s entering rehab for alcoholism, and her dad tells her that they may not be able to afford the fees needed to be on the team.

Veronica decides to enter the town talent show in an effort to make her own money, but along the way discovers a new hobby that leads her to doubt her feelings for the game she thought she loved so much.

Is her mom the only one learning balance, or can Veronica find a way to discover what she really wants to do with her life?

ISBN-13: 9781250619730
Publisher: Feiwel & Friends
Publication date: 02/16/2021
Age Range: 8 – 12 Years

Book Review: The Year I Flew Away by Marie Arnold

Publisher’s description

In this magical middle-grade novel, ten-year-old Gabrielle finds out that America isn’t the perfect place she imagined when she moves from Haiti to Brooklyn. With the help of a clever witch, Gabrielle becomes the perfect American — but will she lose herself in the process? Perfect for fans of HURRICANE CHILD and FRONT DESK.

It’s 1985 and ten-year-old Gabrielle is excited to be moving from Haiti to America. Unfortunately, her parents won’t be able to join her yet and she’ll be living in a place called Brooklyn, New York, with relatives she has never met. She promises her parents that she will behave, but life proves to be difficult in the United States, from learning the language to always feeling like she doesn’t fit in to being bullied. So when a witch offers her a chance to speak English perfectly and be “American,” she makes the deal. But soon she realizes how much she has given up by trying to fit in and, along with her two new friends (one of them a talking rat), takes on the witch in an epic battle to try to reverse the spell. 

Amanda’s thoughts

I loved this. Hand this to readers who like mostly realistic stories with just a bit of magic. Yes, the bad witch plays a big part in the story and Gabrielle’s new friend is a talking rat who wishes he were a rabbit, but it’s MOSTLY realistic.

Readers start out seeing a bit of Gabrielle’s life in Haiti. She is happy and loved, but like many, the hope is to be able to go to America. But instead of going there with her parents, Gabrielle has to go alone, to live with her relatives. And while she’s still so excited about the many opportunities and riches she has heard she will find in America (and, endearingly, she is most excited about free school), she’s worried. She fears she won’t fit in or understand things, so when a witch confirms for her that indeed no one will like her, Gabrielle begins to make some bad deals. The kids definitely are mean to her at school—they’re racist and prejudice and make fun of her—and Gabrielle decides that she will trade losing something small in return for the witch granting her some wishes. Before long, Gabrielle has lost her Haitian accent and is speaking perfect English, she’s fitting in better (thanks to wishing to be “100% pure American”), and she even gets the long, straight hair of her dreams and brand name clothes! Sounds great (maybe), right? Everything comes at a price, and those prices are hardly “small.”

Gabrielle’s story asks what you would give up in order to fit in and shows the dangers of losing yourself. Full of bravery, friendship, strength, and resourcefulness, this story of immigration, identity, and acceptance is one all collections should have.

Review copy (ARC) courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9780358272755
Publisher: HMH Books
Publication date: 02/02/2021
Age Range: 8 – 12 Years

Uncovered: Masks That Reveal Who We Are, a guest post by Matt Wallace

In another time I might have started this by asking if you, the reader, have ever worn a mask, perhaps for Halloween or to a masquerade-themed party. That is, of course, an irrelevant question. It’s even a laughable one at this point. We all wear masks now, some of us more stringently than others. Of course, for folks from certain cultures and countries, wearing a mask for public health reasons is nothing new or particularly shocking. It is, in fact, entirely commonplace for many. For others, masks have been and are a major adjustment. Some of us react more reasonably than others to this adjustment.

It didn’t really hit me that I have a novel coming out featuring a largely masked protagonist and the extra significance of that in the year 2021 until I sat down to compose this essay. I looked at the cover of my debut middle-grade novel, BUMP, and the face of the young girl smiling through the mask she wears, perfectly and joyously depicted by artist Kat Fajardo. I started thinking about what that character’s mask means, both to her and in a much larger sense.

It is a strange time to write about wearing masks, to say the least. However, it may also be the perfect time to examine and explore what masks mean to us, in different ways and different cultural contexts. We often use “wearing masks” as a metaphor for hiding one’s true self, either out of fear, insecurity, necessity, or even duplicity. These connotations give the very idea of masks, especially as an everyday fixture, an already negative foundation before we even get into the larger issues surrounding them today.

I was raised to view masks very differently. I was raised on professional wrestling, both the American style and the quintessentially Mexican style known as lucha libre. The enmascarado is the particular variety of Mexican wrestler, or luchador, who dons an often colorful mask, or máscara, as the central symbol and costume of their wrestling persona. These masks can draw a direct line and lineage back to the time of ancient Aztec warriors. They have been and are used to represent animal essences, gods, heroes, and heroines. Traditionally, the enmascarado not only wrestles in their mask, they live their entire public life inside that mask. It is inseparable from their identity. It even becomes the public identity of entire families and generations, often handed down from parent to child along with the corresponding ring name. To lose one’s mask is the ultimate disgrace.

In BUMP, the protagonist, MJ, is a young girl who is dealing with grief and feelings of total isolation. She’s lost her main connection to what she perceives as her identity, and what’s left of that sense of self is derided every day by bullies at school. She is given the máscara of a fallen luchador to wear as her own, along with their name. The mask gives her a new sense of identity. It does not replace who she is, but reinforces and gives her a new outlet for her self. It also inducts her into a community of like-minded individuals who become her new family. The mask and the persona it represents allows her to become more than she ever thought she could be.

Returning to the cover I mentioned, it was so important to all of us to depict MJ smiling as she flies through the air above the wrestling ring, to really see the joy she’s taking in what she’s doing and who she is and also who she is becoming. It was important to me for children of color, particularly little girls like my nieces, to see a character like that, to see themselves reflected in it. MJ’s mask doesn’t inhibit that, it amplifies it in a very special way. It’s a symbol of culture and heritage and belonging. It’s the garb of a warrior who is larger than life. It is equal parts superhero cape and flag.

More people could learn from that, especially at a time when masks are vital to public health, safety, and even survival. They could learn that a mask is not inherently a way to stifle or hide one’s identity, or restrict their freedom of expression and choice. In fact, choosing a mask can be a liberating experience. It can be opting into a culture of solidarity and celebration. It can enhance and clarify one’s own identity in a million different ways and with a million different individualistic shades. The right mask doesn’t cover up who you are, it announces it to the world.

Luchadores wear their masks proudly. Every day, they strive to be the kind of people who earn the masks they wear, because those masks are a symbol of what is best in all of them.

Meet the author

Matt Wallace is the Hugo–winning author of Rencor: Life in Grudge City, the Sin du Jour series, and Savage Legion. He’s also penned over one hundred short stories in addition to writing for film and television. In his youth he traveled the world as a professional wrestler, unarmed combat, and self-defense instructor before retiring to write full-time. He lives in Los Angeles with his wife, Nikki. You can visit him at www.matt-wallace.com.

About Bump

A moving and triumphant middle grade contemporary debut from award-winning author Matt Wallace about a heroic young girl—who dreams of becoming a pro wrestler—learning to find courage and fight for what she loves. Perfect for fans of Kelly Yang, Meg Medina, and Jason Reynolds’ Track series!

MJ knows what it means to hurt. Bruises from gymnastics heal, but big hurts—like her dad not being around anymore—don’t go away. Now her mom needs to work two jobs, and MJ doesn’t have friends at school to lean on.

There is only one thing MJ loves: the world of professional wrestling. She especially idolizes the luchadores and the stories they tell in the ring. When MJ learns that her neighbor, Mr. Arellano, runs a wrestling school, she has a new mission in life: join the school, train hard, and become a wrestler.

But trouble lies ahead. After wrestling in a showcase event, MJ attracts the attention of Mr. Arellano’s enemy at the State Athletic Commission. There are threats to shut the school down, putting MJ’s new home—and the community that welcomed her—at risk. What can MJ do to save her new family?

ISBN-13: 9780063007987
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 01/26/2021
Age Range: 8 – 12 Years

Book Review: Bump by Matt Wallace

Publisher’s description

A moving and triumphant middle grade contemporary debut from award-winning author Matt Wallace about a heroic young girl—who dreams of becoming a pro wrestler—learning to find courage and fight for what she loves. Perfect for fans of Kelly Yang, Meg Medina, and Jason Reynolds’ Track series!

MJ knows what it means to hurt. Bruises from gymnastics heal, but big hurts—like her dad not being around anymore—don’t go away. Now her mom needs to work two jobs, and MJ doesn’t have friends at school to lean on.

There is only one thing MJ loves: the world of professional wrestling. She especially idolizes the luchadores and the stories they tell in the ring. When MJ learns that her neighbor, Mr. Arellano, runs a wrestling school, she has a new mission in life: join the school, train hard, and become a wrestler.

But trouble lies ahead. After wrestling in a showcase event, MJ attracts the attention of Mr. Arellano’s enemy at the State Athletic Commission. There are threats to shut the school down, putting MJ’s new home—and the community that welcomed her—at risk. What can MJ do to save her new family?

Amanda’s thoughts

A very long time ago, way back in the 1980s, I was a child who liked to watch professional wrestling. I liked the theater of it all, I liked the huge personalities with weird names (Hulk Hogan! Macho Man! Junkyard Dog! Rowdy Roddy Piper! Sgt. Slaughter!), and I liked watching it with my brother, my dad, and my uncle. I just now googled “professional wrestlers of the 80s” and seeing all of those photos of wrestlers totally threw me right back to being young and shouting at the tv over the moves, booing the “bad guys,” and being amazed that they could do such amazing moves. All of this is to say that I was a kid a loooong time ago, but reading about MJ and her love of wrestling reminded me of that childhood and that amazement.

12-year-old Mexican American MJ is a 6th grader in middle school. She doesn’t really have any friends and is frequently bullied by the meanest girl on her gymnastics team and her minions. MJ was bullied by her so much, in fact, that she didn’t go out for the team this year. All she really wants to do is hide out and watch Lucha Dominion, a pro-wrestling show, which helps connect her with her dad, who is, as she says, “gone.” Wrestling is there for her even if her dad isn’t. It’s a great stroke of luck that the new place she and her mom live in is right next door to Mr. Arellano, who runs a wrestling school (and whose niece is MJ’s favorite luchadora). MJ convinces her mom to let her start training at the school, where she not only finds that wrestling is just as fun as she’d expected it to be, but she’s finally making friends. When she begins wrestling as the masked Lightning Girl, MJ finds herself becoming a star of the weekly shows.

But it’s not all sunshine. There’s a nefarious state athletic commission inspector determined to shut down the school. And there’s some drama with a new friend. And then there’s the whole issue of how MJ is dealing with her father being “gone.”

While centered around wrestling, this is a very relatable story about belonging, friendship, family, and falling down and getting back up again. MJ is a great character who is brave, determined, and interesting. This will be a fun one to recommend for how unique it is while still having such relatable emotions and experiences.

Review copy (ARC) courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9780063007987
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 01/26/2021
Age Range: 8 – 12 Years

The Mysterious Road to THE IN-BETWEEN, a guest post by Rebecca Ansari

I was raised on puzzles, games and mysteries.

The earliest memories I have of my grandfather are the two of us, stooped over a so-full-it-can’t-be-used-for-dining table, scanning 2000 jigsaw pieces for the right color or shape to fit into the emerging image of a church, country bridge, or whatever was depicted on the nearby box. When we tired of that, we would move to the card table for a family match of Hearts, everyone focused on their hands, calculating how to trick the others and Shoot the Moon. My mother’s bookshelf was dominated by Agatha Christie who-done-its, my dad’s with Isaac Asimov’s Black Widowers Club and others, books they subsequently put in my hands. They would delight in watching to see if I could solve them before the last page. To this day, my mother emails my own children word and math puzzles just for fun.

My mother having finished the puzzle my 4 sons gave her for Xmas this year

This love of problem solving was part of my parents’ professional lives as well. My mother, a math major, spent her career looking at MRI’s, CT scans and ultrasounds, trying to sleuth out the source of a patient’s malady. My father took me to his lab every weekend as he did research to answer questions about why his patients were born premature, and how to best treat their tiny bodies and lungs. I followed in their footsteps, spending twelve years as an ER doctor, investigating if a given patient’s abdominal pain was appendicitis, ectopic pregnancy, a kidney stone, or another of the myriad possible causes.

Me in my doctoring days

When I jumped from ER doc to middle grade author, some of my peers were surprised. The two fields don’t appear to have much—anything?—in common. But it makes perfect sense to me. My whole life, I reveled in being the one to solve the mysteries.

Me in my writing space now

Then, as a writer, I found the thrill of creating the mysteries myself.

What if your little brother disappeared, and you’re the only one who notices? What if you discover that a new girl moving in next door is a very bad omen, but you’re the only one who sees it? These are the starting premises of my first two novels, and I didn’t know the answers to these questions when I began writing each. In trying to figure them out, I frequently wrote myself into such tight corners I was sure I could never find a way out. Story telling is its own mystery, its own puzzle—and it brings with it the thrill of success in figuring out the answers as well as the hope that I’ve created something that will give others that same sense of wonder and satisfaction.

People ask me if I miss being a doctor. I certainly miss a great case, a “good catch,” or a critical save under pressure, but I think many who have read my books find that I’m still doing those things, through the experiences of my characters. If you have a chance to read my debut, The Missing Piece of Charlie O’Reilly, or my new book, The In-Between, I hope you too find a mystery to challenge you—and the thrill of finding the answer.

Meet the author

Photo credit: Amber Rishavy with Pixel Dust Photography

After twelve years as an ER doctor, Rebecca K.S. Ansari shelved her scrubs to write magical and mysterious worlds for middle grade readers. Her debut novel, THE MISSING PIECE OF CHARLIE O’REILLY (2019, Walden Pond Press/Harper Collins) earned a starred review from School Library Journal, an ALA 2020 Notable Children’s Book nomination and was a Junior Library Guild selection. It was also a finalist for the Minnesota Book Award. Her second novel, THE IN-BETWEEN, releases January 26, 2021 and has received starred reviews Kirkus, Publisher Weekly, and School Library Journal. It is also a Junior Library Guild selection.

When Rebecca isn’t writing, you can find her joyously biking and skiing, begrudgingly running, or escaping “up north” in Minnesota with her husband, four boys, two huge dogs and a stack of good books. You can find her on Twitter at @RebeccaKSAnsari, on Instagram at @Rebeccaansariauthor, or at her website RebeccaAnsari.com.

The virtual launch party for THE IN-BETWEEN will be this Thursday, at 6:30CST. Everyone in the whole wide world is invited!

January 28 6:30 pm CST. Virtual Book Event! A Conversation with Rebecca K. S. Ansari and Anne Ursu 

About The In-Between

A dark, twisty adventure about the forgotten among us and what it means to be seen, from the acclaimed author of The Missing Piece of Charlie O’Reilly.

Cooper is lost. Ever since his father left their family three years ago, he has become distant from his friends, constantly annoyed by his little sister, Jess, and completely fed up with the pale, creepy rich girl who moved in next door and won’t stop staring at him. So when Cooper learns of an unsolved mystery his sister has discovered online, he welcomes the distraction.

It’s the tale of a deadly train crash that occurred a hundred years ago, in which one young boy among the dead was never identified. The only distinguishing mark on him was a strange insignia on his suit coat, a symbol no one had seen before or since. Jess is fascinated by the mystery of the unknown child— because she’s seen the insignia. It’s the symbol of the jacket of the girl next door.

As they uncover more information— and mounting evidence of the girl’s seemingly impossible connection to the tragedy—Cooper and Jess begin to wonder if a similar disaster could be heading to their hometown.

ISBN-13: 9780062916099
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 01/26/2021
Pages: 320
Age Range: 8 – 12 Years

Book Review: Amari and the Night Brothers by B. B. Alston

Publisher’s description

Artemis Fowl meets Men in Black in this exhilarating debut middle grade fantasy, the first in a trilogy filled with #blackgirlmagic. Perfect for fans of Tristan Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky, the Percy Jackson series, and Nevermoor.

Amari Peters has never stopped believing her missing brother, Quinton, is alive. Not even when the police told her otherwise, or when she got in trouble for standing up to bullies who said he was gone for good.

So when she finds a ticking briefcase in his closet, containing a nomination for a summer tryout at the Bureau of Supernatural Affairs, she’s certain the secretive organization holds the key to locating Quinton—if only she can wrap her head around the idea of magicians, fairies, aliens, and other supernatural creatures all being real.

Now she must compete for a spot against kids who’ve known about magic their whole lives. No matter how hard she tries, Amari can’t seem to escape their intense doubt and scrutiny—especially once her supernaturally enhanced talent is deemed “illegal.” With an evil magician threatening the supernatural world, and her own classmates thinking she’s an enemy, Amari has never felt more alone. But if she doesn’t stick it out and pass the tryouts, she may never find out what happened to Quinton.

Amanda’s thoughts

As I write this, it’s the final days of 2020 and Minnesota has decided to be very Minnesota-y and is having a rather unexpected blizzard. I’m tired and cranky and just over EVERYTHING lately. I stop and start books, I scroll on my phone, I rewatch The Office. Nothing feels interesting. But then! BUT THEN! I picked up this book. I read it slowly, delighting in every clever department name and plot twist. I got completely caught up in Amari’s world and only really set the book down to text people how great this book is. This book is stupendous.

Amari is off on a fantastical adventure after she receives a mysterious interactive recording from her missing brother. Under the guise of it being a summer camp, she goes to attend training at the Bureau of Supernatural Affairs, where her brother was apparently working before his disappearance. There, she’s paired up with her new roommate, Elsie Rodriguez, a weredragon and mastermind inventor, and learns that her brother was one of the most famous agents in recent history, responsible for helping bring about the end of two powerful magicians who were waging war on the supernatural world. Amari, whose aptitude and talents make it seem like she might be a hero, isn’t concerned about anything like that—she doesn’t want to be a hero; she just wants to find her brother. But when her talent is revealed to show her true abilities, suddenly Amari is seen as a potential villain, an enemy of the Bureau.

Now Amari has to prove herself to those in charge or she’ll be cut loose from the program and have her memory wiped. Staying and succeeding is the only chance she has at tracking down her brother. As Amari thinks, this is not so different from being a Black girl from the projects attending a private school (as she did). She’s used to standing out, to being judged. She doesn’t like being underestimated and will prove people that they’re wrong about her, but will have to deal with secrets, lies, blackmail, creatures, illusions, tests, and traitors along the way.

Every page of this story was a delight. Really all I want in life right now is for this whole series to be out and all the movies so I can just live inside the world of Amari and friends. I’m obsessed. Go order this right now. And get ready for it to fly off library shelves. One of the best starts to a fantasy series that I’ve read in a very long time.

Review copy (ARC) courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9780062975164
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 01/19/2021
Series: Supernatural Investigations #1
Age Range: 8 – 12 Years

Ally’s Favorite Graphic Novels of 2020

It’s no secret that 2020 has been…a lot. But also, a lot of beautiful comics and graphic novels have come out this year. Here’s a few of my favorites middle grade and YA graphic novels from 2020, in no particular order:

Go With the Flow by Lily Williams and Karen Schneemann

Go With the Flow is a great MG graphic novel about a group of friends fighting for menstrual equality at their school: why does the football team have more funding than female health?? I loved the palette on this one–the red accents are fun and the art is great!

The Dark Matter of Mona Starr by Laura Lee Gulledge

I really liked the Dark Matter of Mona Starr, both for its art and celebration of creativity AND the very real way it portrays depression in a teenager. Our teens are dealing with mental health issues and we need to take that seriously. MAJOR bonus points for normalized on-page therapy sessions!!

Almost American Girl by Robin Ha

Almost American Girl tells the story of Robin Ha’s transition from a normal teenager in Seoul to an immigrant in Huntsville, Alabama. This graphic memoir is beautifully illustrated and also looks at how isolated and difficult it is for anyone to be dropped into a new country, a new language, a new school.

The Witches of Brooklyn by Sophie Escabasse

The Witches of Brooklyn is the cutest thing I’ve read in quite some time. I LOVED main character Sophie, who is mourning the loss of her mom, and her home. But things start to get interesting when she finds out that magic runs in her family!! (I liked this one so much I gave it to my niece for Christmas!)

Stepping Stones by Lucy Knisley

Stepping Stones is Lucy Knisley’s first middle grade graphic novel. I’ve long been a fan of Knisley’s adult titles and her social media presence so I was excited to dig into this one. Jen is upset that she’s had to move away from the city and to a farm with her mom and her mom’s boyfriend. She’s even more upset when she finds out that she’ll be spending weekends with her new stepsisters. Can they become friends or are they all too different?

Twins by Varian Johnson, illustrated by Shannon Wright

Twins is maybe the perfect middle grade graphic novel. It has everything: sibling rivalry, new friendships, starting middle school. I absolutely loved this story of twins Maureen and Francine who find themselves running against each other for student council president. The art is wonderful, and I’m really hoping this one becomes a whole series about the twins!!

Displacement by Kiku Hughes

Displacement is a gorgeous graphic novel mix of family history and magic. Kiku, a teen living today, becomes displaced in time and finds herself living in a Japanese internment camp in the 40s. She witnesses the lives of the residents of the camp, seeing how their civil liberties were violated by the American government. This is a powerful treatise on intergenerational trauma and memory.

The Magic Fish by Trung Le Nguyen

The Magic Fish is…kind of a masterpiece? The art is absolutely breathtaking. If you haven’t picked this one up, you’re in for a treat. Thirteen year old Tiến is trying to find the words to tell his Vietnamese parents that he’s gay…but he hasn’t managed it yet, in English or in Vietnamese. The story of Tiến’s life is interwoven with the fairytales that he reads with his mother. Have I mentioned the art? Because it’ll make your jaw drop. I hope we see more from this artist very soon!!

What were your favorite graphic novels of 2020?

Bullies, best friends and phones: Will Covid shift the balance toward real-world socializing? a guest post by Sheila M. Averbuch

Friend Me

“Just be careful,” my husband called out as our teen-aged kids left for the first day back to school. Although mask-wearing was going to be enforced, we still sent them off with trepidation. “Stay away from other people, even your friends, especially if they’re laughing,” he added.

Wow. What a thing to say. I knew where my husband was coming from — how can we keep our kids safe when there’s still an airborne, incurable virus hopping from person to person? — but hearing the words made me realize just how much we’re asking young people to forego this year, their friends’ laughter included.

Here in Scotland we locked down in March: from then on, our kids had almost no contact with friends. At first they enjoyed the break from the grind of school, but then my daughter, especially, began to talk about and long for the chance to see friends in person.

This was new: typically she’d default to her phone for socializing, but a real, face-to-face meet-up was what she wanted most. Video calls were set up as a regular stopgap, but I could see how excited she was for those beach strolls and dog walks: outdoor,  socially-distanced meet-ups where she could hang out with friends in person. Other parents reported the same hunger among their teens to get back into a group and feel normal again.

Face to face, not phone-only

Covid has overturned so many norms, and I think the way tweens and teens use their phones may be one of those. So much has been written about how technology isolates young people and has created that digital default: socializing through their handsets can feel so much more natural than phoning a friend or meeting in person.

Roisin, the main character in my middle grade thriller debut FRIEND ME (Scholastic Press), repeatedly pushes away her brother and other real-world potential friends for her new online bestie. A spark for the story was the day my then 13-year-old said it was his best friend’s birthday; I urged him to phone the boy for a chat and he acted like it was a bizarre suggestion.

This got me thinking: it would be completely feasible for an entire friendship to blossom and grow via the phone, but without speaking to each other. I wanted to explore how and whether this could be a lifeline and a hazard. Can you really know friends you’ve only met through a screen? But if you find your tribe online, should you auto-mistrust them, just in case they’re bad actors?

In FRIEND ME, Roisin is an Irish transplant to Massachusetts who’s picked to pieces by a bully; the girl targets Roisin in school and online. The fact that both Roisin’s best friend and her enemy come to her through the same screen highlights a core problem with cyberbullying: phones are the most personal of personal electronics.

It’s hard to tell young people who are experiencing cyberbullying to stay away from their phones, when the phone has become an umbilical cord to the rest of life, from parental text messages to homework alerts from online classrooms.

It’s even harder for adults to impose rules, boundaries and time-of-day tech curfews unless we model that behavior. The issue here isn’t just the hypocrisy of ‘do as I say, not as I do,’ it’s that we’re putting these most addictive objects into kids’ hands — untested technology, that’s being tested on young people. There’s a reason that many Silicon Valley executives, who created today’s ultra-addictive tech, banned their own children from using the tech: they realized themselves just how hard it was to stop.

The Social Dilemma and the siren call of social media

If you’ve seen The Social Dilemma on Netflix, you’ll have discovered chilling new insights into the most addictive apps of all: social media, whose algorithms keep users hooked by dishing out dopamine hits of praise on an unpredictable basis. 

The documentary interlaces with a dramatization of social media at work on a ’typical’ American family, including a painfully realistic example of a tween girl who finds the compulsion to post selfies overwhelming. Seeing those likes and comments rack up is an ego boost, but one insult wipes out the positive. The character Isla, played masterfully by Sophia Hammons, can’t stop looking in the mirror and hating herself after one of her followers says her ears make her look like an elephant.

Safeguards for social

There are no easy answers in relation to tweens, mental health, and social media, but cyberbullying in particular is something every teen and carer can take action on right away, following excellent guidance like that from stopbullying.gov. There are best-practice tips on what young people should and shouldn’t post, or repost, and the importance of speaking up immediately about any bullying behavior.

There’s also solid advice on healthy use of apps: including, if you’re a young person, the importance of allowing parents or carers to follow you on social media, to keep them in the loop.

Disabling notifications is always good: it means you’re not yanked back into the app on its schedule, but when you choose. In the case of bullying, screenshot everything; principals and teachers will be grateful for the trail of evidence if they need to get involved.

The fact that our young people are isolated by Covid and in many places learning from home doesn’t protect them from the long arm of the bully. But 2020 has also, by necessity, caused many parents and carers to become more accustomed to technology, which better equips them to use and monitor the apps where bullies prowl.

Technology can be isolating, but it can also be a savior, linking young people to friends, learning and community. I’m also encouraged by the growing availability online of fantastic mental health and mindfulness resources, and the increasing societal awareness that mental health is just health and must be nurtured and protected. 

As long as adults model the self-control and tech-curfews with our own devices that we want our kids to exercise, I think we need to trust young people, and open our eyes to just how much they’re valuing real-world interaction with real-world friends right now.

The trend I’ve seen in my own kids, favoring face-to-face instead of online-only socializing, gives me hope. My daughter recently spent hours one Sunday with her friend group just roaming the parks and fields around us: hanging out, taking pics…and laughing.

ANTI-BULLYING IN MIDDLE GRADE FICTION

It’s a golden age for middle-grade fiction which tackles bullying and its fallout and demonstrates how young people can cope, thrive and prevail. Here are recommended reads to get you started:

Friend Me by Sheila M. Averbuch (Scholastic)

The Brave by James Bird (Feiwel & Friends)

Looking Glass Girl by Cathy Cassidy (Puffin Books)

Ella on the Outside by Cath Howe (Nosy Crow)

American as Paneer Pie by Supriya Kelkar (Aladdin)

Restart by Gordon Korman (Scholastic)

What Lane? by Torrey Maldonado (Nancy Paulsen Books)

Meet the author

Photo credit: Rob McDougall

Sheila M. Averbuch is a former technology journalist and author of the middle-grade thriller FRIEND ME publishing November 10, 2020 with Scholastic Press. Find Sheila at sheilamaverbuch.com

Sheila’s local independent bookshop near Edinburgh in Scotland is the marvellous Portobello Bookshop, which has signed copies of FRIEND ME while supplies last at bit.ly/SMAbuyindie  Or, find FRIEND ME at your own local indie here bit.ly/SMAorder

About Friend Me

Friend Me

What happens when an online friend becomes a real-life nightmare?

Roisin hasn’t made a single friend since moving from Ireland to Massachusetts. In fact, she is falling apart under constant abuse from a school bully, Zara. Zara torments Roisin in person and on social media. She makes Roisin the laughingstock of the whole school.

Roisin feels utterly alone… until she bonds with Haley online. Finally there’s someone who gets her. Haley is smart, strong, and shares anti-mean-girl memes that make Roisin laugh. Together, they are able to imagine what life could look like without Zara. Haley quickly becomes Roisin’s lifeline.

Then Zara has a painful accident, police investigate, and Roisin panics. Could her chats with Haley look incriminating?

Roisin wants Haley to delete her copies of their messages, but when she tries to meet Haley in person, she can’t find her anywhere. What’s going on? Her best friend would never have lied to her, right? Or is Haley not who she says she is…

With twists, turns, and lightning-fast pacing, this is a middle-grade thriller about bullying, revenge, and tech that young readers won’t be able to put down.

ISBN-13: 9781338618082
Publisher: Scholastic, Inc.
Publication date: 11/10/2020
Age Range: 8 – 12 Years