Salt Magic: A Graphic Novel Review

Salt Magic by Hope Larson and Rebecca MockVonceil is ecstatic when her older brother, Elber, comes home after serving on the front in the Great War. But the brother who comes back isn’t the one the Vonceil remembers. Wartime has made him serious and responsible–ready, even, to marry the girl he left behind–when Vonceil thought they’d have more time to play and get to know each other again.

Things get stranger when a sophisticated and mysterious woman arrives at their Oklahoma farm dressed all in white. She blames Elber for leaving her behind in France. She wants him to join her now.

When Elber refuses, she curses the family well and turns the entire town’s fresh water supply into saltwater.

To save her town and try to rescue her brother, Vonceil will have to travel far from everything she’s ever known into a world filled with magic, shapeshifting animals, and witches including a fickle Sugar Witch and the lady in white herself–a Salt Witch in Salt Magic (2021) by Hope Larson and Rebecca Mock.

Find it on Bookshop.

Salt Magic is the latest standalone graphic novel from Larson and Mock. All characters are presented as white.

Vonceil’s adventure blends historical fiction set at the end of World War I with larger than life fairytale magic–a contrast that mirrors Vonceil’s own mixed feelings about getting older and growing up. Mock’s artwork is sophisticated and layered as she captures both the vast emptiness of the midwest and the lush, decadent magical world Vonceil discovers. Detailed and vibrantly colored artwork fully capitalizes on the full color page design and perfectly conveys the lush magic of the story–especially the Sugar Witch’s confections.

A well-paced plot and nuanced characters elevate this story filled with action, adventure, and magic.

Possible Pairings: A House Divided by Haiko Hornig, Amulet by Kazu Kibuishi, Pony by R.J. Palacio, Tom’s Midnight Garden by Philippa Pearce, Oyster War by Ben Towle

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

Bounce Back: A Graphic Novel Review

Bounce Back by Misako Rocks!Moving to a new country means a lot of changes for Lilico Takada. In Japan Lilico was popular and the captain of her school basketball team. In Brooklyn, Lilico has to start from scratch with her best friends on the other side of the world and a whole new school culture to figure out–all while working on improving her English. When Lilico’s hopes of finding new friends on the basketball team ends with a painful rejection, Lilico finds unlikely help from her cat, Nico, who turns out to be way more than a regular housecat.

With magical Nico dispensing advice and two new friends excited about Japanese culture (and talking cats), Lilico finally start to find her footing. As Lilico navigates a year full of changes for her entire family, she’ll take any help she can to figure out where she fits in Bounce Back (2021) by Misako Rocks!

Find it on Bookshop.

Bounce Back is a standalone graphic novel filled with sports, friendship, and some magic. The book reads in the Western (left-to-right) style with artwork in Misako’s typical manga-infused style. The pages include quick asides, footnotes, and even back matter with a guide to draw Nico, create some of the characters’ signature fashions, and learn Japanese. Nico’s transformation from beloved pet cat to talking guardian spirit also makes this a great stepping stone from magical girl stories to more contemporary fare.

Lilico comes from a close-knit family and Bounce Back does a great job of showing the upheaval for both Lilico and her parents as they adjust to the move–especially Lilico’s mom who has to work even harder to make her own friends and learn English since she doesn’t work outside of the home. With a strong focus on basketball this graphic novel blends sports with Japanese culture and even fashion as Lilico and her new classmates find intersecting interests.

Full color illustrations are easy to follow and bring Lilico and her semi-magical world vibrantly to life. Bounce Back is a fun manga-style graphic novel perfect for anyone whose ever had to deal with being the new kid.

Possible Pairings: Swim Team by Johnnie Christmas, New Kid by Jerry Craft, Ahmed Aziz’s Epic Year by Nina Hamza, Pie in the Sky by Remy Lai, Measuring Up by Lily LaMotte, Front Desk by Kelly Yang

Alice Austen Lived Here: A Review

Alice Austen Lived Here by Alex GinoSam and TJ love being best friends and they love being nonbinary. Sam knows they’re lucky to have a family that gets it and is supportive and even luckier to have cool neighbors like femme Jess (who is fat and fabulous like Sam) and her family right in the same building.

Even at twelve, Sam already knows that not everyone is going to be as supportive which is why it’s no surprise that Sam and TJ’s history teacher is way more interested in teaching about Dead Straight Cis White Men (DSCWM for short) than anything really interesting. When they have to work on a presentation to create a new statue for Staten Island, Sam and TJ are determined to find someone outside of the DSCWM spectrum. Someone like photographer Alice Austen who lived right on Staten Island for years with her female partner.

When the kids find out that Alice Austen lived right in Sam’s very own apartment, the two become even more committed to their project. In researching Alice Austen and preparing their contest entry Sam learns more about the queer history surrounding his own friends and neighbors like Jess and 82-year-old lesbian Ms. Hansen as well as the larger history found throughout New York City.

Sam has never felt more connected to the queer community but as the contest deadline looms Sam and TJ worry their passion for representing Alice Austen might not be enough in Alice Austen Lived Here (2022) by Alex Gino.

Find it on Bookshop.

Gino’s latest novel taps into the moment as Sam and TJ become part of the movement to create monuments throughout New York that are more representative of the city’s diverse population. Be sure to check out the audiobook to hear Gino read their own words but check out a print copy for an author’s note about Gino’s connection to the story (and Alice) as well as some pictures of Alice Austen.

Sam is described as pale and blonde while TJ is described as having dark hair and tan skin. Most of Sam’s neighbors are presumed white. In addition to immersing readers in Sam and TJ’s ultra supportive community, this story also introduces readers to both Alice Austen and (later on) Audre Lorde–both real people whose work had lasting impact in New York, in queer communities, and beyond.

Alice Austen Lived Here is a gently told story about queer community, found family, and standing up for what you believe in. While Sam and TJ aren’t always sure their statue will win, their commitment is unwavering and an object lesson in staying true to yourself.

Possible Pairings: A High Five for Glenn Burke by Phil Bildner, Zenobia July by Lisa Bunker, Pride: An Inspirational History of the LGBTQ+ Movement by S. A. Caldwell, Twelfth by Janet Key, Ciel by Sophie Labelle, Different Kinds of Fruit by Kyle Lukoff, A Kind of Spark by Elle McNicoll, Gracefully Grayson by Ami Polonsky

Listen, Slowly: A Review

Listen, Slowly by Thanhha LaiTwelve-year-old Mai has a lot of plans for the summer including hanging out the at the beach with her friends, being cool, and maybe even talking to HIM. Mai’s plans do not by any means include traveling to Vietnam with her grandmother, Ba, to find out what happened to Ba’s husband during the Vietnam War. Although her parents thing the trip is important and a great chance for Mai to connect with her Vietnamese culture, all Mai can see is missed opportunities in her actual home which is California.

Arriving in Vietnam Mai is unprepared for the hear, the smells, or how isolated she feels in a country that everyone says is hers where she still feels like a stranger. With limited Vietnamese and even less familiarity with local customs, Mai can’t wait for this summer trip to end. At least she’s with her grandmother.

Ba doesn’t speak much English and Mai doesn’t speak much Vietnamese but they always understand each other. As Ba returns to a country she never thought she’d see again and Mai discovers a place she never imagined visiting, Mai begins to understand that embracing her Vietnamese heritage isn’t going to diminish her life in Califorina; instead, if she lets it, this trip has the potential to make her world a lot bigger in Listen, Slowly (2015) by Thanhha Lai.

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Listen, Slowly is set primarily in Vietnam–all main characters are Vietnamese. Lulu Lam’s narration in the audiobook perfectly captures Mai’s conversational voice along with pronunciation of all the included Vietnamese words and phrases which might be harder for non-Vietnamese speakers to parse from print.

Mai’s snappy narration captures her California aesthetic and barely contained energy with an exciting crush on HIM, dashed summer plans and, eventually, tentative excitement about seeing Vietnam herself for the first time. With no previous interest in her cultural identity, Mai experiences a series of shocks as she learns about Vietnamese customs, foods, and how to deal with the unbearable heat and bugs.

The heaviness of the journey with Ba making what might be a final trip to the country she had to flee as a much younger woman to confront the truth of her husband’s death add melancholy to this story but are handled well. Lai expertly balances all of these nebulous feelings to create a story that focuses on resolution and progress rather than leaving any character stagnant. Mai navigating being decidedly out of her comfort zone as well as a potential friend who would much rather talk to her frogs than to Mai add levity and humor to the plot.

Mai’s explortation of Vietnam and tentative new connections with both family and her prickly friend contrast with Mai’s efforts to keep in touch with her American (presumed white) friends. Feeling isolated and left out from summer adventures back in California, Mai begins to wonder if having to make herself smaller and deny keys parts of herself–like being Vietnamese–are things she should have to do to keep up any friendship.

Listen, Slowly is a beautiful middle grade novel that blends a coming of age story with a travelogue as Mai and her grandmother explore Vietnam, reconnect with relatives and, for Mai, with her heritage.

Possible Pairings: Full Cicada Moon by Marilyn Hilton, Sunny Side Up by Jennifer L. Holm, Blackbird Fly by Erin Entrada Kelly, Dumpling Days by Grace Lin, Finding Junie Kim by Ellen Oh, Gone Crazy in Alabama by Rita Williams-Garcia, Front Desk by Kelly Yang

Witches of Brooklyn: A Graphic Novel Review

Witches of Brooklyn by Sophie EscabasseAfter her mom dies eleven-year-old Effie is shipped off to live in Brooklyn with Aunt Selimene and her partner Carlota–two weird old ladies she’s never met.

Effie misses her mom, her home, and her old life. Surly Selimene isn’t much happier about the change to her comfortable routine.

Things take an unexpected turn when Effie finds out her new family puts the strange in strangers. Turns out her aunts aren’t just eccentric. They’re witches! And Effie is too.

As she learns more about her family and her powers, Effie finds new friends and plenty of surprises in Brooklyn–especially when cursed pop star Tilly Shoo shows up at the family brownstone looking for help in Witches of Brooklyn (2020) by Sophie Escabasse.

Find it on Bookshop.

Witches of Brooklyn is the magical start to Escabasse’s Witches of Brooklyn series. The cast includes characters with a variety of skintones, body types, and styles all depicted with care in detailed illustrations. Bright colors, sharp lines and interesting choices like making Selimene’s pet Lion (a dog with some of his own magic) magenta give this graphic novel a unique palette and a distinct feel while reading. Sly pop culture references including unmistakable similarities between Tilly Shoo and a certain pop star add extra fun and whimsy to this story.

Effie’s initial grief and adjustment both to her new surroundings and her new magical identity are handled well. Escabasse makes great use of page design to showcase the beautifully detailed surroundings in Effie’s new home and neighborhood in larger panels while close ups help bring motion and body language into the narrative.

Witches of Brooklyn is the perfect blend of humor and heart with found family, action, and magic (of course!). While this volume has a self-contained story arc, fans will be eager to check out the next installment and return to Effie’s world.

Possible Pairings: ParaNorthern: And the Chaos Bunny A-hop-calpse by Stephanie Cooke and Mari Costa, The Tea Dragon Society by Katie O’Neill, The Witch Boy by Molly Knox Ostertag, The Okay Witch by Emma Steinkellner, Mooncakes by Suzanne Walker and Wendy Xu, Kiki’s Delivery Service

Amari and the Night Brothers: A Review

Amari and the Night Brothers by B.B. AlstonAmari Peters knows she can never measure up to her older brother Quinton. But with Quinton missing and the police no longer even pretending to look for him, Amari is all their single mother has left. So Amari tries her best even if Quinton left big shoes to fill with an outstanding academic career and a mysterious job that left no way to trace him after the disappearance.

When the latest round of bullying by the rich, white girls at her fancy private school ends with Amari’s suspension, Amari knows she’s in big trouble. She also knows being home alone is a great opportunity to continue her search for Quinton. Instead of finding a clue to where Quinton is, Amari finds an invitation that’s been waiting for her.

Turns out Quinton’s job was a bigger deal than anyone realized and, now that she’s thirteen, Amari has a chance to follow in her brother’s footsteps by joining the Bureau of Supernatural Affairs. Amari is certain that learning the truth about Quinton’s life will help her find him, but being in the Bureau also feels right. Even when Amari’s ceremony to receive her trainee shield goes very wrong. Turns out Amari is a promising trainee–even more promising than her brother, for once. Unfortunately, Amari’s supernatural level talent is also illegal because she’s a magician.

Amari has one chance to make it as a trainee and one chance to try and find her brother–she’ll have to make the most of both as she survives her rigorous trainee schedule, more mean girls, and tries to make new friends all while trying to understand her magic–and find out what really happened to her brother in Amari and the Night Brothers (2021) by B.B. Alston.

Find it on Bookshop.

Amari and the Night Brothers is Alston’s debut novel and the start of a series. Amari and her family are Black. Secondary characters are varied including Amari’s new roommate Elsie who is a dragon (and my favorite). The audiobook is a fun and fast listen as narrated by Imani Parks but you will catch more of Alston’s punny name choices in print.

Amari is a fantastic protagonist. She is street smart and savvy after growing up poor and living in the projects but she is also still open to wonder as she explores more of the supernatural world. Most importantly, she is still hopeful and has unflagging faith that she will find Quinton again and reunite her family. Alston’s writing is top notch as he weaves the supernatural world into a modern urban setting with a similar sensibility to the Men in Black films.

Strong world building, authentic characters, and a really fun magic system make Amari and the Night Brothers a great adventure for readers of all ages; a more enjoyable and more inclusive alternative to Harry Potter.

Possible Pairings: The School for Good and Evil by Soman Chainani, The Wishing Spell by Chris Colfer, Artemis Fowl by Eoin Colfer, Shadow Weaver by MarcyKate Connolly, Akata Witch by Nnedi Okorafor, Nevermoor: The Trials of Morrigan Crow by Jessica Townsend

A Kind of Spark: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

A Kind of Spark by Elle McNicollAddie has always known that she’s different. But she’s also always had her older sister Keedie to help her figure out how to navigate a world that doesn’t always know what to do with her.

Addie and Keedie are autistic. Their family, including Keedie’s twin Nina, have learned how to help make things easier for both girls offering them space to process feelings and deal with sensory overload. But the rest of Juniper is far less accomodating–something Addie is learning firsthand as her best friend drops her to be more popular and her new teacher constantly bullies and belittles Addie.

Addie suspects Keedie isn’t doing very well at college herself where she is struggling to “mask” as neurotypical. But no one wants to talk to Addie about that.

When Addie learns about the witches who were hanged in Juniper during a witch trial, she immediately recognizes kindred spirits. The more she learns, the more clear it is that these witches were women who were a lot like Addie and her sister–women who didn’t quite fit the mold for what the town considered “normal”, women who had no one to speak for them.

Addie’s campaign for a memorial to the Juniper witches draws ire from her teacher and local officials. But it also brings a new solidarity with her family, new friends, and a chance for meaningful change in A Kind of Spark (2021) by Elle McNicoll.

Find it on Bookshop.

A Kind of Spark is narrated by Addie (whose voice is brought to life, complete with Scottish accent, in the audiobook by narrator Katy Townsend) and set in a small Scottish town. All characters are presumed white. This title received an honor for the Schneider Family Book Award which is awarded yearly by ALA to “honor an author or illustrator for a book that embodies an artistic expression of the disability experience for child and adolescent audiences.”

Addie’s first person narration is great and, as written by neurodivergent author McNicoll, authentic as she navigates everyday problems like making new friends alongside bigger challenges like campaigning for a memorial for the witches.

While it adds a lot of tension to the story, and leads to a dramatic conclusion with both Keedie and Nina rallying around Addie, the bullying Addie faces from her teacher feels over the top. The abuse is so extreme it had me questioning if I was actually reading historical fiction (even with Nina being a beauty vlogger) because it felt like the kind of treatment a character would face decades ago. I’ll add that I have no familiarity with Scotland or small town life so that might be part of the problem. But it also also felt very strange to have Addie tell her parents about how mean her teacher is (the book opens with Addie’s classwork being torn up because the handwriting is too messy) and they laugh it off and remark that Addie’s grandfather “got the strap” in school and he turned out fine. First of all, it’s hard to believe parents presented as being attentive and caring for Addie (and Keedie) would shrug that off–especially when the threat of forced institutionalization looms over both autistic girls after Keedie’s best friend was forced into a care facility. Second of all, my grandfather also had similar abuses in school–but I am at least twenty years older than Addie which again points to a dated portrayal. My best guess is that the author translated some of her own experiences as a neurodivergent young person to this modern book without fully factoring in changes to social norms/behaviors. And, again, maybe this is more of an issue in small towns that my urban self realizes.

A Kind of Spark expertly weaves Addie’s personal journey with her research and advocacy for the witches creating a multi-faceted and compelling story. The inter-family dynamics with Keedie trying to attend college without requesting accomodations and Nina choosing to pursue content creation instead of college add another layer to this story that, ultimately, reminds readers to celebrate what makes them different.

Possible Pairings: The Crossover by Kwame Alexander, Alice Austen Lived Here by Alex Gino, Fish in a Tree by Lynda Mullaly Hunt, Rain Reign by Ann M. Martin, Tune It Out by Jamie Sumner

Gallant: A Review

Gallant by V. E. SchwabFourteen-year-old Olivia Prior has grown up at the Merilance School for Independent Girls. At least, it calls itself a school. Really, it is an asylum for the young and the feral. For the fortuneless. For the orphaned and unwanted.

Olivia is young. She is an orphan. The school matrons think she is feral although if they learned to sign, Olivia could tell them why she is always so angry.

She doesn’t think she is unwanted. She has her mother’s journal–all of the words and sketches that she long ago memorized. She has the final letter her mother wrote to her at the end of the notebook. The letter where she tells Olivia that she will always be safe. As long as she stays away from Gallant.

What her mother didn’t know, back then, is that eventually Olivia would have nowhere else to go.

It starts with a letter from family Olivia never knew she had telling to come home. Come to Gallant.

It starts when she walks through the doors and feels at home for the first time.

It starts when she realizes the barely-there ghouls haunting the property aren’t strangers the way they were at Merilance but ancestors.

Olivia isn’t sure if she is wanted–her cousin Matthew certainly doesn’t make her feel that way. But she knows she needs Gallant, needs its answers. And she thinks the stately old house and its tattered occupants might need her too in Gallant (2022) by V. E. Schwab.

Find it on Bookshop.

Gallant is a standalone novel. The story is accompanied by black and white illustrations from Manuel Šumberac which bring Olivia’s mother’s journal to life for readers. Olivia and most of the cast are white; the house’s handyman Edgar is described as having brown skin.

Readers learn early on that Olivia is unable to speak–something that severely limits her ability to communicate at Merilance where the teacher who taught her sign language has since left and where most of the other students and teachers assume being unable to speak also means Olivia is unable to hear or of limited intelligence–both of which prove patently untrue as Olivia’s sharp internal dialog unfolds.

Schwab weaves together a puzzle-like narrative as the pieces of Olivia’s past are laid out with excerpts from her mother’s journal accompanying each chapter until the entire piece can be read as a whole. Interludes from another, stranger house and its master add tension and urgency to this otherwise quiet story as Olivia learns more about Gallant and her family’s role there. Fantasy elements slowly unfold alongside this exploration as the sinister master and his house are further explained in an artful nod to gothic horror.

Gallant is a distinct, melancholy story. Atmospheric descriptions of Gallant’s dilapidated elegance and its tense residents will win over readers as quickly as they entrance Olivia; a beautiful and thoughtfully introspective story that toes the line between life and death. Recommended.

Possible Pairings: Book of Night by Holly Black, The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett, The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow, A Forgery of Roses by Jessica S. Olson, Sorcery of Thorns by Margaret Rogerson, A Treason of Thorns by Laura E. Weymouth, Crimson Peak

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

The Awakening Storm: A Graphic Novel Review

The Awakening Storm by Jaimal Yogis and Vivian TruongGrace is excited to move to Hong Kong with her mom and her new stepdad. Her father might be dead, but this is her chance to connect with his culture and the stories he always told her about dragons.

When an old woman thrusts a strange egg at Grace during a school trip, she begins to realize that her father’s stories might be more fact than fiction.

After the egg hatches Grace and her new friends will have to find a way to protect the baby dragon while trying to figure out the scope of the dragon’s powers–and who the shady organization is that wants to use those powers for ill in The Awakening Storm (2021) by Jaimal Yogis, illustrated by Vivian Truong.

Find it on Bookshop.

The Awakening Storm is the first graphic novel in Yogis and Truong’s City of Dragons series. The book includes full color illustrations. Grace’s mother is white and her father was Chinese. Grace’s friends at her international school come from a variety of cultures.

Yogis’s characters are presented with care and an excellent use of dialog–especially with Grace and her new group of friends–to showcase the character relationships at work. Truong’s full color illustrations are dynamic and translate the action of this story well into motion-filled panels. The vibrant colors and cartoon-like style work well for the story and make for one extremely cute dragon.

The Awakening Storm is an immediately engrossing adventure filled with fast friends, quick banter between characters, and an amazing blend of Chinese mythology in a modern story.

Possible Pairings: Caster by Elsie Chapman, Chasing Power by Sarah Beth Durst, City of Thieves by Alex London

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

Kaleidoscope: A Review

“Maybe this is what it’s like to be inside the mind of God. The past and the future mean nothing, and the time is always now.”

Kaleidoscope by Brian SelznickIt starts with a ship going to see. Or exploring a wondrous garden. It begins when a boy named James leaves a message for his father with a doll that will be discovered years later, encased in ice.

Always there is searching. There is missing, hoping. There is saying goodbye.

It ends with an invisible key. A spirit machine born out of a dream made reality. With answers found inside inside an apple.

Every spin of the kaleidoscope fragments one story while bringing another into focus. The beginning is always different. The end keeps changing. But always, slowly, there is peace in Kaleidoscope (2021) by Brian Selznick.

Find it on Bookshop.

Selznick’s latest illustrated novel reads as a series of interconnected short stories–mediations on the same themes of loss and separation examined through different lenses. In his author’s note Selznick explains the inspiration he drew directly from the early days of the pandemic when Selznick and his husband were separated for three months–a fracture that inspired more abstraction in his art and eventually led to this story.

Each chapter (or self-contained story depending on your interpretation of the text) begins with a kaleidoscopic image followed by the unabstracted image pulled directly from the story. A namesless narrator tells each story and although the characters change, always there is a nameless character trying to make their way back to James. In some stories like “The Ice” or “The Spirit Machine” the grief is overt while other standout stories (“The Apple” or “In the Dark”) offer more optimism.

Common images and themes throughout each story slowly unfold to bring a larger narrative of connection and loss into focus. While the story lacks any significant female characters, the nameless narrators do serve as a cipher of sorts allowing readers to insert themselves fully into each story.

Kaleidoscope is very much a product of the pandemic. Readers will see that in Selznick’s carefully rendered artwork, the disjointed narratives, the stories that almost but don’t quite but maybe do intersect. Kaleidoscope is a meditative and ultimately hopeful book, ideal for readers seeking a puzzle-like diversion. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: Midwinterblood by Marcus Sedgwick, The Mysteries of Harris Burdick by Chris Van Allsburg, The Chronicles of Harris Burdick: Fourteen Amazing Authors Tell the Tales by Chris Van Allsburg et al

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