The New Kid Has Fleas: A Picture Book Review

The New Kid Has Fleas by Ame Dyckman, illustrated by Eda KabanNo one is sure about the new kid. She is quiet with curly red hair. But that’s not the weird part. There’s something distinctly canine in her shadow. She doesn’t wear shoes. She might even have fleas.

When he’s paired with the new kid for a project, one boy doesn’t know what to expect. But as they work together he realizes that even though she’s a little different, some things like caring parents and afterschool snacks, remain the same in The New Kid Has Fleas (2021) by Ame Dyckman, illustrated by Eda Kaban.

Find it on Bookshop.

Dyckman’s text is brief and to the point as our non-new kid narrator expresses concerns about the new kid. Kaban’s digitally painted, cartoon style illustrations tease out the subtext of the story as the new kid is seen with a distinctly wolf-like shadow among other oddities in class. Our narrator and the new kid are presented as white (or at least light skinned) with varied skintones among the rest of the class.

When mean girl Molly starts a rumor that the new kid has fleas, our narrator is very worried about working together on a project–perhaps fairly when he finds out the new kid has literally been raised by wolves. But despite their (big) differences the new kid’s parents are doting and conscientious. Things like after school snacks are different (roasted squirrel anyone) but still good.

Molly’s rumor backfires when she’s the one who ends up out of school with lice. Whether she has learned her lesson or refuses to see the error of her ways is left to readers’ imaginations and not addressed in the story. While our narrator isn’t sure about a lot of other things at the end of the story he is sure that Kiki is no longer the new kid–she’s just a new friend.

The New Kid Has Fleas has a lot of interplay between what’s shown in the pictures and what is being said in the text which makes this a good one to read through a couple of times. This text vs. subtext dynamic will make it fun for one-on-one readings or with smaller groups–Kaban’s detailed illustrations may not translate as well to a larger setting if the images are not clearly visible to all readers.

Kids literally raised by wolves are always a favorite in the picture book scene and this one is a fun addition to that niche genre. The New Kids Has Fleas is also ideal for anyone looking for stories about making friends, embracing differences, or going to school.

*An advance copy of this title was provided by the publisher for review consideration*

Luck of the Titanic: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Of the eight Chinese passengers aboard the Titanic, six survived.

Valora Luck almost misses her chance to be one of those passengers when her entry is blocked thanks to the Chinese Exclusion Act which restricts the admission of Chinese immigrants into the United States. Valora is used to obstacles, though, and isn’t about to let a silly policy stop her from getting on board and seeing her twin brother Jamie for the first time in years.

Jamie is traveling on the Titanic as a seaman on his way to Cuba with the rest of his crew but Val has bigger plans for both of them. Reunited for the first time since their father’s death, this is the perfect opportunity for the twins to revive their acrobatics act–an act that Val knows will be good enough to attract the attention of the Albert Ankeny Stewart. One look at their performance and Mr. Stewart will have to recruit them for the Ringling Circus. Then Val and Jamie can finally get back to being family again instead of near strangers.

Val’s plan is perfect. Until disaster strikes and, as the Titanic begins its last night as an ocean liner, Val and her brother will have to worry about surviving the present before they can plan for the future in Luck of the Titanic (2021) by Stacey Lee.

Find it on Bookshop.

Luck of the Titanic is narrated by Val as she struggles to board the luxury liner and secure passage into America for herself and her brother. The story is inspired by the real Chinese passengers on the TitanicYou can read more about Lee’s real-life inspiration to write this story in an essay she wrote for Oprah Daily.

Lee once again delivers a masterful work of historical fiction. Luck of the Titanic is carefully researched with front matter that includes a cast of characters and diagrams of the famous ship. The balances portraying the very real racism and intolerance Val and her fellow Chinese passengers would have encountered on the ship (or in attempting to travel to the United States) while also highlighting small joys as Val reconnects with her brother, befriends his crewmates, and as all of them discover the magic of this larger-than-life ship before it strikes an iceberg and begins to sink.

Val is an accomplished acrobat which adds a fun dimension to the story. Because of the novel’s setting, this aspect of Val’s life can never be the main point of the story but it still adds so much to her character as readers see her talent and joy in her work–and the contrast in how Jamie feel’s about the same performance skills.

Readers familiar with the history of the Titanic will recognize many key points including the iconic state rooms and grand stairway while the story also shows more of third class (steerage) where Jamie and his crew are located. The novel does include an attempted sexual assault which moves the plot forward (necessitating the separation of Val and some of her friends as the iceberg hits) but also feels excessive in a story that already has plenty of tension and strife for the characters.

Lee also includes nods to common theories about contributing factors to the disaster including the lack of binoculars for crew working in the crow’s nest, the pressure on Captain Smith to drive at speed, and of course the lifeboats (of which there were too few) being launched without reaching full capacity. Other details (the lack of proper warnings from the Marconi operators, the confusion as Titanic tried to signal for help from nearby ships) are left off-page in favor of a focus on the characters. While Lee shows more behind-the-scenes areas of the ship, this novel is largely populated by fictional characters whenever possible leaving notable survivors like Molly Brown and crew member Violet Jessop out of the narrative entirely.

Luck of the Titanic is both gripping and melancholy as the novel builds to its inevitable conclusion. This story of survival and family is completely engrossing while also asking readers to consider whose stories are deemed worth telling in history–and how we can work to widen that scope. Recommended for fans of adventure and historical fiction novels.

Possible Pairings: Last Night at the Telegraph Club by Malinda Lo, Airborn by Kenneth Oppel, Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys, The Watch That Ends the Night by Allan Wolf

Allergic: A Graphic Novel Review

Allergic by Megan Wagner Lloyd, illustrated Michelle Mee Nutter
Maggie has been feeling like the odd one out at home for a while. Her parents are busy getting ready for the new baby. Her younger brothers are twins and always speaking their own language. Literally. Maggie hasn’t had anything just for her for a while.

Which is why getting a puppy for her tenth birthday is the best gift ever.

But there’s one problem: Maggie breaks out in hives the minute she tries to choose her new dog.

Turns out Maggie is allergie to anything with fur. With her pet options severely limited Maggie will have to get creative if she wants to find the perfect pet in Allergic (2021) by Megan Wagner Lloyd, illustrated Michelle Mee Nutter.

Find it on Bookshop.

Allergic is a really fun, full color graphic novel. Maggie’s father is depicted as white while her mother is darker skinned.

This story packs a lot into a slim volume. It’s sure to appeal to fans of contemporary graphic novels. Maggie struggles to come to terms with her allergies–and the numerous shot treatments she needs for them–while letting go of her idea of the perfect pet.

At the same time, Maggie makes new friends with a boy at school who has food allergies helping her put her own situation in perspective as something that just happens sometimes. She also befriends new neighbor Claire who is a grad ahead at school and tries to support Maggie on her pet search. While the girls have some growing pains with jealousy and related arguments, their friendship is back on solid ground by the end of the story.

Allergic is a relatable, funny story perfect for readers who enjoy slice-of-life comics and animals–with or without fur.

Possible Pairings: Real Friends by Shannon Hale and LeUyen Pham, The Popularity Papers by Amy Ignatow, All’s Faire in Middle School by Victoria Jamieson, Clementine by Sarah Pennypacker, Smile by Raina Telgemeier

Even and Odd: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Even and Odd by Sarah Beth DurstEven and Odd are sisters who share magic on alternating days. On her even days twelve-year-old Emma “Even” Berry tries to pack in as much magic use as she can while she prepares for her next exam from the Academy of Magic. With her level five exam looming, Even needs all the practice time she can get to make sure she stays on schedule with her plans to become a hero. As a hero Even will be able to accept quests and travel throughout the neighboring magical kingdom of Firoth helping people.

Eleven-year-old Olivia “Odd” Berry would be just as happy skipping her magic days altogether. Except for turning her sister into a skunk when she’s annoying, Odd rarely has control of her magic. Odd’s magic might improve with practice, but she’d much rather focus on spending time volunteering at the animal shelter in their sleepy town in Connecticut where the Berrys run a border shop helping visitors from Firoth navigate the mundane world.

When the hidden portal behind Fratelli’s Express Bagels suddenly closes, no one can access their magic. Worse, a lot of magical Firoth residents are stranded far from home and cut off from their families. Even is eagerto help investigate as hero practice and Odd is excited to get to know the unicorn Jeremy who also offers assistance if it means getting home before his parents ground him.

When they find themselves trapped on the wrong side of the border, both sisters will have to rely on all of their skills–magical and otherwise–to figure out who is stealing the border magic and how to fix it in Even and Odd (2021) by Sarah Beth Durst.

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Even and Odd is filled with humor and timely commentary on the harms of closed borders. Narrated in close third person following Even, the story explores magic from both sides as Even embraces all things magical and Odd is readier to find magic in the mundane world (like new kittens!).

With help from Jeremy, a unicorn with a surprising fondness for soda, Even and Odd explore their birthland Firoth for the first time while trying to fix the border. The magic system here is logical and has several parallels to climate change as magical energy is treated as a limited resource–a fact that leads to dangerous consequences for the border and all of Firoth.

Whimsical magical elements and humor help temper these weightier topics as the sisters realize that sometimes being a hero has a lot less to do with proper training and a lot more to do with offering to help. Even and Odd is a fast-paced, magical adventure perfect for readers who like their fantasy with a bit of humor and a lot of sisterhood.

Possible Pairings: The Dragon With a Chocolate Heart by Stephanie Burgis, The Wishing Spell by Chris Colfer, Shadow Weaver by MarcyKate Connelly, Keeper of the Lost Cities by Shannon Messenger, The Secret Keepers by Trenton Lee Stewart

*An advance copy of this title was provided by the publisher for review consideration*

A Psalm for the Wild-Built: A Review

“The human body can adapt to almost anything, but it is deceptively selective about the way it does so.”

A Psalm for the Wild-Built by Becky ChambersSibling Dex begins to dream of hearing crickets in the wild. Sibling Dex is very good at what they do as a monk in Panga’s city-located monastery. But have they become complacent?

Thinking the answer might be yes, Dex decides to become a tea monk. There’s nothing arcane about it but there is still a learning curve as Dex figures out how to listen to peoples’ problems and offer them a perfectly brewed cup of tea. With a self-sustaining wagon and increasing experience, Dex has everything they need.

But it turns out crickets are extinct in most of Panga.

After years of traveling the same route between Panga’s outermost villages, Dex decides their last chance to hear those crickets is to travel even farther out. Into the wild.

Then Dex meets Splendid Speckled Mosscap in the middle of the forest. Mosscap is one of the many robots on Panga who, after gaining self-awareness a century ago, chose to abandon the city and travel into the wild.

Now, the robots feel it’s time to check in on the humans and see what they need. And Mosscap has decided that Dex is the perfect person to help it figure that out. But as Dex struggles to figure out what they want for themself, the monk doubts that they can help a robot answer such a large question for all of Panga. Maybe there will at least be some crickets along the way in A Psalm for the Wild-Built (2021) by Becky Chambers.

Find it on Bookshop.

A Psalm for the Wild-Built is the first novella in Chambers’ new solarpunk series, Monk & Robot.

Chambers turns her considerable world building talents to imagine a bright future for humanity where society is harmonious, sustainable, and sees robots as little more than the stuff of legend until Mosscap comes along.

The gentle, character-driven narrative gives readers ample time to get to know Dex and understand the nuances of their work as a tea monk (as well as Dex’s restlessness) as Dex travels alone and, later, when Dex and Mosscap begin to talk. Philosophical questions of how robots and humans can (or should) interact as well as discussions of where passions can fit into this future pepper the story as Dex and Mosscap begin to understand what they can accomplish together.

A Psalm for the Wild-Built is the bright start to a series that promises to be as thought-provoking as it is cozy. Recommended for readers looking for science fiction with a little more tenderness and a lot of tea.

Possible Pairings: Last Day by Ruta Domenica, Do You Dream of Terra-Two? by Temi Oh, The Sol Majestic by Ferrett Steinmetz, Space Opera by Catherynne M. Valente, All Systems Red by Martha Wells

*An advance copy of this title was provided by the publisher for review consideration*

Rise to the Sun: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Rise to the Sun by Leah JohnsonOlivia is trying to make her way through yet another heartbreak with help from her best friend and trying to figure out how she can ever face going back to school after her latest romantic disaster.

Toni is grieving the death of her roadie father and trying to figure out what happens next when pursuing her dreams feels a lot like making the same mistakes her father seems to have made.

Two different roads lead to the same destination and Olivia and Toni end up at the Farmland Music and Arts Festival. The festival is a chance to enjoy live music and for both girls a chance to have one last really good time before everything changes.

What neither of them counted on is meeting each other. With chemistry that feels inevitable, Olivia and Toni are immediately drawn to each other. But after spending so long making bad choices, will either of them be ready to make the right one this time?

When the festival goes from a safe haven to anything but, both Olivia and Toni will have to dig deep to find their way back to each other and to the music they both love in Rise to the Sun (2021) by Leah Johnson.

Find it on Bookshop.

Rise to the Sun is Johnson’s sophomore novel. This standalone contemporary can be read alone but readers familiar with Johnson’s previous novel You Should See Me in a Crown will recognize secondary character Mack and everyone’s favorite band. Olivia, Toni, and Olivia’s best friend are Black. Toni’s best friend Peter is presumed Indian (last name Menon). The story alternates between Olivia and Toni’s first person narrations.

This story is an ode to music–both performing and listening–as well as live performance. Farmland is such a well described setting that it quickly becomes a character in the story as the novel builds to a final act where the fate of the long-running music festival is called into question.

At the start of the novel, Toni is still grieving her father’s death and still unsure how to reconcile her love of music with her father’s seeming lack of success in the same profession before his premature death. Scared to be hurt again, she instead closes herself off with self-destructive choices to deny what (and who) she really wants.

Olivia, meanwhile, is a self-described nightmare person. Constantly surrounded by drama from her endless search for love, Olivia is used to having her hand held by best friend Imani through any and every stumbling block. The tension between long-suffering Imani and oblivious Olivia adds another layer to this story as Johnson explores what makes a healthy friendship alongside the specific pain of unrequited love.

Rise to the Sun is a story of first love, second chances, friendship, and one epic music festival. Recommended for readers who enjoy books with festivals or road trips, music, and characters with chemistry.

Possible Pairings: Happily Ever Afters by Elise Bryant, Felix Ever After by Kacen Callender, I Wanna Be Where You Are by Kristina Forest, Who Put This Song On? by Morgan Parker, Truly Madly Royally by Debbie Rigaud, The Summer of Jordi Perez and the Best Burgers in Los Angeles by Amy Spalding

Don’t Hate the Player: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Don't Hate the Player by Alexis NeddEmilia Romero is the star of her high school field hockey team, a straight A student, and a world class secret keeper. It’s the only way she’s found to keep her double life as a player on a competitive esports team in Guardians League Online (GLO) on the down low. Emilia isn’t ashamed of her gaming–she knows she’s great at it. But she also knows that the gaming community is very white and very male and not a great place for a Puerto Rican teen girl to be honest about who she is.

When her team qualifies for a local eSports tournament, Emilia knows she can’t miss this opportunity. Keeping her gaming life separate from her real life, gets a lot more complicated when Emilia recognizes one of the competitors.

Jake has had a crush on Emilia since they met as kids at an arcade birthday party. His underdog team qualifying for the tournament is exciting enough. Seeing Emilia and being thrown back into her orbit? That’s a whole other level.

Competing in the tournament should be as simple as letting the best player win. But when the stakes rise Emilia and Jake both realize they have a lot to gain–and potentially lose–depending on the tournament’s outcome. Growing closer as gamers is great but it will take more than the perfect hidden combo to make sure they can stay close in real life too in Don’t Hate the Player (2021) by Alexis Nedd.

Find it on Bookshop.

Don’t Hate the Player is Nedd’s debut novel. Most of the story is narrated by Emilia with some chapters in third person following Jake.

Nedd knows her stuff and delivers a story entrenched in online gaming that remains approachable to non-gamer readers. The high stakes of the tournament contrast well with the tension as, with Jake’s help, Emilia tries to keep her identity a secret to avoid harassment from the gaming community. Jake has been a gamer all of his life and is aware of the harassment faced by non-male/non-white players from the experiences of his own GLO teammates who include BIPOC players who are queer and trans.

Emilia’s efforts to balance her parents’ expectations with her own desires adds a lot of dimension to the story. Both Jake and Emilia’s friends offer a strong support system as the competition at the tournament amps up and add a lot of humor to the story.

Don’t Hate the Player is a funny, romantic story that shines a light on the joys (and hazards) of the gaming community while proving that sometimes a little competition can bring people together. Recommended for gamers, romantics, and readers looking for books with a healthy dose of humor.

Possible Pairings: Emergency Contact by Mary H. K. Choi, Chaotic Good by Whitney Gardner, In Real Life by Jessica Love, Analee in Real Life by Janelle Milanes, Don’t Read the Comments by Eric Smith, Follow Your Arrow by Jessica Verdi

*An advance copy of this title was provided by the publisher for review consideration*

A Season of Sinister Dreams: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

A Season of Sinister Dreams by Tracy BanghartStill grieving the death of his son and heir during the Sickness years earlier, the elderly king of Tyne forces all magic workers to the capital where they can prolong his life and protect the castle while the rest of the kingdom suffers.

Annalise has spent years in the castle secretly using her unwieldy magic to weave a web of influence around the king, his grandson (and her cousin) Prince Kendrik, and the king’s advisors. Annalise hopes to exact revenge against the king for her mother’s death–a plan that is close to fruition when Annalise accidentally uses her magic on Kendrik leaving him hidden and monstrously transformed while Annalise becomes the new heir.

Meanwhile, Evra’s quiet country life is ruined when her magic manifests years later than expected making her the first girl ever to become a Clearsee. As magical prophets Clearsees (usually men) use their magic to interpret visions meant to guide and protect the kingdom. While Annalise prepares for her coronation, Evra reluctantly arrives at the capital where she sees cryptic visions hinting at danger. But is the danger a threat to Tyne’s rulers or is it the rulers themselves? in A Season of Sinister Dreams (2021) by Tracy Banghart.

Find it on Bookshop.

This plot-driven standalone fantasy alternates chapters between Annalise and Evra’s first person narrations. All characters are presumed white.

With Annalise used to hiding the scope of her powers and Evra newly invested with magic, both narrations are claustrophobic leaving readers and characters floundering. Themes of agency as both heroines try to defy expectations are undermined by extremely limited world building and backstories that never fully explain character motivations or actions–particularly Annalise’s.

Fans of Banghart’s Grace and Fury will appreciate this book’s strong female leads, fast-paced action, and the focus on Evra and Tam’s friendship despite other shortcomings.

Possible Pairings: Girls Made of Snow and Glass by Melissa Bashardoust, Truthwitch by Susan Dennard, Forest of Souls by Lori M. Lee, The Orphan Queen by Jodi Meadows, There Will Come a Darkness by Katy Rose Pool, The Queen’s Rising by Rebecca Ross

*A more condensed version of this review appeared as a review in an issue of School Library Journal*

Be More Chill: The Graphic Novel: A Review

Be More Chill: The Graphic Novel by Ned Vizzini, adapted by David Levithan, illustrated by Nick Bertozzi Jeremy Heere is an average high school boy even though his decided lack of popularity sometimes makes him feel well below average. Jeremy pines for the beautiful Christine and wishes he could figure out all the rules the popular kids seem to know out so easily to be, well, popular.

Then Jeremy learns about the squip. It’s from Japan. Quantum nano-technology CPU. The quantum computer in the pill will travel through your blood until it implants in your brain and it tells you what to do.

With a pill-sized supercomputer telling him what to do, Jeremy knows he can finally win over Christine, gain popularity, and become the coolest guy in school. But as Jeremy relies more and more on the squip’s influence, he’ll have to decide if being cool is worth giving up on being himself in Be More Chill: The Graphic Novel (2021) by Ned Vizzini, adapted by David Levithan, illustrated by Nick Bertozzi.

Find it on Bookshop.

Be More Chill: The Graphic Novel is, as you might have guessed, the graphic novel adaptation of Vizzini’s 2004 novel by the same name. The original book also inspired a musical adaptation which I may more or may not have quoted in my booktalk above–did you catch the reference?

Levithan’s adaptation of the text works well to bring the book into graphic novel form. Bertozzi’s illustrations are primarily black and white with blue as an accent color. This choice works very well to focus reader attention as the story moves forward. It’s worth noting that this a faithful adaptation of Vizzini’s original text which features a dramatically different story arc than the musical.

Readers familiar with the story but new to graphic novels will enjoy this new format even without the madcap changes found in the musical. Recommended for readers looking for a contemporary graphic novel with elements of speculative fiction and caustic wit.

Possible Pairings: Simon Vs. The Homo-Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli, Deacon Locke Went to Prom by Brian Katcher, The Astonishing Adventures of Fanboy and Goth Girl by Barry Lyga, The Rest of Us Just Live Here by Patrick Ness, Super Fake Love Song by David Yoon

Broken Web: A Review

Broken Web by Lori M. LeeThe Soulless is awake and recovering in the Dead Wood. The long peace between the nations of Thiy might be crumbling. And Sirscha and her best friend Saengo still have no idea how to fix any of it.

The world believes that Sirscha is a rare soulguide but she and Saengo know that Sirscha is actually a soulrender–just like The Soulless. Despite the dangers, Sirscha is determined to stop The Soulless and, if she can, save Saengo from the rot he infected her with that is slowly killing her.

With powerful allies and even more powerful enemies circling, Sirscha will have to risk everything to find–and fight–the most immediate danger in Broken Web (2021) by Lori M. Lee.

Find it on Bookshop.

Broken Web is the second book in Lee’s Shamanborn trilogy which begins with Forest of Souls.

Set two weeks after the explosive conclusion of book one, Sirscha and Saengo are still trying to understand Sirscha’s new powers and Saengo’s role in nurturing them as a familiar. Treachery is a constant threat hanging over the girls and their allies as they try to learn more about the Soulless and how to stop him once and for all.

Lee has created a nuanced and compelling world in this series although this book focuses more on action to move the series toward what promises to be a shocking conclusion.

Broken Web is a fast-paced, exciting installment in a singular fantasy series. A must read for fans of book one; a recommended series for readers seeking a new friendship focused fantasy adventure.

Possible Pairings: Hunted by the Sky by Tanaz Bhatena, The Reader by Traci Chee, Race the Sands by Sarah Beth Durst, For a Muse of Fire by Heidi Heilig, Furyborn by Claire Legrand, Truthwitch by Susan Dennard, Into the Heartless Wood by Joanna Ruth Meyer, Fireborne by Rosaria Munda, Uprooted by Naomi Novik, Crown of Feathers by Nicki Pau Preto, The Midnight Lie by Marie Rutkoski, Star Daughter by Shveta Thakrar, Realm of Ruins by Hannah West, The Guinevere Deception by Kiersten White

*An advance copy of this title was provided by the publisher for review consideration*