Awake: A Picture Book Review

Awake by Mags DeromaIn a big, big city on a busy street a little girl has her bedroom at the tipity-top of a pretty tall building. Just as she is getting sleepy and ready for bed  …

SPIDER!

… now the girl is not sleepy. She is awake.

No way is she going to sleep with a spider in her room. So the little girl starts brainstorming ways to remove the spider only to realize that the she might not be the only one scared by this sudden development in Awake (2021) by Mags Deroma.

Awake is Deroma’s picture book debut. As the copyright page notes, her artwork is created “with paint and soft pastels on a gazillion pieces of cut paper all collaged together.” This technique gives a colorblock look to Deroma’s illustrations while also offering opportunities for intricate details in wide views of the city outside the girl’s bedroom windows.

Every piece of this book ties back to the story from the copyright laid out like a spiderweb to the endpapers urging readers to open their eyes, minds, and hearts to be awake. The endpapers at the back of the book includes tips to remove any pesky spiders with a glass and a piece of cardboard–the technique our protagonist employs upon realizing the spider is more itsy bitsy than big and scary.

Awake is a dynamic picture book that makes use of the brief text and bold artwork to add action and drama to the story as the little girl contends with her unwanted companion. The artwork also contrasts the girl’s reality in her bedroom well with her interior monologue as she tries to figure out how to deal with her arachnid visitor.

Awake is a fun, sweet story ideal for reading at bedtime or in tandem with other pro-bug picture book adventures.

Possible Pairings: Worm Loves Worm by J. J. Austrian and Mike Curato, The Very Busy Spider by Eric Carle, Diary of a Spider by Doreen Cronin and Harry Bliss, How to Catch a Star by Oliver Jeffers, Thank You and Goodnight by Patrick McDonnell, The Dark by Lemony Snicket and Jon Klassen

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

Steelstriker: A Review

*Steelstriker is the conclusion to Lu’s Skyhunter duology. Start at the beginning with Skyhunter to avoid spoilers.*

Steelstriker by Marie LuSix months after the fall of Mara, the Karensa Federation works mercilessly to absorb the formerly free nation into its sprawling empire. Mara’s artifacts are carted to Federation museums and sculpture gardens, their heritage erased. Prisoners await execution or transformation into Ghosts–the hideous monsters the Federation uses so effectively against both its enemies and its subjects.

Talin Kanami watches helplessly. Once an elite Striker, Talin and her friends tried to stop the Federation’s invasion but they were too late. Now Talin stands at the Premier’s side as a Skyhunter–a human turned war machine with lethal strength and steel wings. Talin is the Premier’s unspoken threat against all who would defy him. She is also his hostage; her good behavior ensuring her captive mother’s continued survival until Talin’s transformation is complete and the Premier controls her completely.

Red escaped the Federation once, his desperate flight bringing him to Mara and to Talin. Her hope made him believe things could change. But now watching another invasion, his wings damaged in battle, the first Skyhunter knows he will need more than rage and regret to help his new friends–especially Talin in Steelstriker (2021) by Marie Lu.

Find it on Bookshop.

Steelstriker is the conclusion to Lu’s Skyhunter duology. Start at the beginning with Skyhunter to avoid spoilers.

Chapters alternate between Talin and Red’s first person narrations as the protagonists try to find their way back to each other and continue fighting the Federation. The strong link they shared in book one is weaker now as Talin struggles to contain her emotions before the Premier can use them against her. Isolated and worried about each other, this leads to repetition in the story as both Talin and Red wonder what has become of the other.

Seeds of rebellion and resistance spark action in this story which expands the sophisticated and nuanced world building from book one. Questions of who is fit to run a nation and how power is bestowed add further depth to the book’s political landscape while references to Talin’s tortuous transformation (which occurred between books) remind readers how very dangerous and cruel the Federation can be. As the Premier tries to harness (presumably nuclear) technology from the Early Ones, it becomes clear that sometimes mistakes are doomed to repeat.

Lu once again delves into the brutality of war and invasion as Talin–whose vocal chords were damaged in the invasion of her birthplace, Basea–and Red–who was recruited by the Federation as a child soldier–both reflect on what has brought them to this point. Steelstriker fast-paced and brutal but ultimately a satisfying conclusion to a strong dystopian duology.

Possible Pairings: The Scorpion Rules by Erin Bow, Defy the Stars by Claudia Gray, Birthmarked by Caragh M. O’Brien, War Girls by Tochi Onyebuchi, The Kiss of Deception by Mary E. Pearson, Scythe by Neal Shusterman, Uglies by Scott Westerfeld

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

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*

I Wanna Be Where You Are: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

I Wanna Be Where You Are by Kristina ForestChloe Pierce knows it will be hard to break into ballet as a Black dancer–especially one coming back from a bad ankle injury. What surprises Chloe is her mother’s reluctance to support Chloe’s plan to apply to a dance conservatory instead of college.

When her mom and her boyfriend take their first vacation in years, Chloe sees the perfect opportunity to apply to her dream program in secret. All she has to do is drive two hundred miles to the nearest audition. Easy.

But then Eli–longtime neighbor, former friend, and constant annoyance–sees Chloe leaving and insists on coming along if Chloe doesn’t want her mom to find out. And that’s before Chloe realizes that Eli’s smelly dog, Geezer is coming along too.

Chloe has her eyes on the prize, a sweet playlist on repeat, and two passengers she never expected. As the trio gets closer to Chloe’s audition, Chloe and Eli might even start to unpack the baggage that’s come between them and their friendship in I Wanna Be Where You Are (2019) by Kristina Forest.

Find it on Bookshop.

I Wanna Be Where You Are is Forest’s debut novel. Chloe and Eli are both Black–Chloe’s best friend is Latinx.

Chloe is a truly fun narrator. She is focused, driven, and quite snarky when her perfect plans have to change. She also struggles with stage fright and confidence as she works on coming back to dance after a badly broken ankle. While the cause of Chloe’s injury (walking to school in five inch heels instead of carrying them and walking in flats) never quite made sense to me, Chloe’s recovery and her efforts to rediscover what she loves about dance are totally relatable.

Eli is Chloe’s complete opposite and it makes their banter and shenanigans on their unexpectedly long road trip even more enjoyable. While the focus of the story is very firmly on Chloe and her audition, this book is also filled with a fantastic supporting cast including Chloe’s mom and best friend.

I Wanna Be Where You Are is a cute and often funny story about finding love–and confidence–in unexpected places.

Possible Pairings: Harley in the Sky by Akemi Dawn Bowman, The Way You Make Me Feel by Maurene Goo, To All the Boys I’ve Love Before by Jenny Han, Rise to the Sun by Leah Johnson, I Love You So Mochi by Sarah Kuhn, I’ll Be the One by Lyla Lee, When Dimple Met Rishi by Sandhya Menon, Charming As a Verb by Ben Philippe, Field Notes on Love by Jennifer E. Smith, This Train is Being Held by Ismee Williams

Kind of a Big Deal: A Review

Kind of a Big Deal by Shannon HaleJosie Pie was a big deal in high school. She was always the lead in school productions, her teachers always said she was destined for greatness. Which is why it made so much sense when Josie dropped out of high school to be a star.

Now, almost a year later, Josie is starting to wonder if she made the right choice. Turns out hitting it big on Broadway isn’t as easy as hitting it big in high school. After a series of failed auditions Josie is starting to wonder if she was ever star material. It certainly doesn’t feel that way while she words as a nanny.

Josie keeps in touch with her best friend, her boyfriend, and her mom. But there’s only so much you can talk about without admitting massive failure (and mounting credit card debt).

When Josie and her charge find a cozy bookstore, Josie receives a pair of special glasses that transport her into her current read. Literally. In the books she can save the day in a post-apocalyptic world, fall in love in a rom-com, and more.

Living out these fantasies is the best thing that’s happened to Josie in a while. But the longer she stays inside the stories, the harder it is to remember why she should come back to her own life in Kind of a Big Deal (2020) by Shannon Hale.

Find it on Bookshop.

Hale’s latest YA novel is a genre mashup. Framed by Josie’s contemporary coming of age story, Hale also plays with conventions in dystopian sci-fi, romantic comedies, and historical fiction (genres Hale has by and large tackled previously in her extensive backlist).

Kind of a Big Deal takes on a lot using these genre adventures to help Josie get a handle on her own life. Unfortunately, the stories within this story are often more compelling than Josie’s real life leaving Josie and her friends feeling one dimensional throughout. Stilted dialog and a premise that pushes the limits of plausibility (particularly with eighteen-year-old Josie being solely in charge of a seven-year-old girl while her mother works out of the country) further undermine this otherwise novel premise.

Kind of a Big Deal is a unique take on losing yourself in a good book. The story reads young and might have worked better for a middle grade audience or radically rewritten with older characters for an adult novel. Recommended for readers looking for plot driven genre studies.

Possible Pairings: Jane, Unlimited by Kristin Cashore, The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde, Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell, Afterworlds by Scott Westerfeld

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

Skyhunter: A Review

Skyhunter by Marie LuThe country of Mara is fighting a losing war against the Karensa Federation and its superior technology harnessed from the Early Ones–a fallen civilization readers will readily recognize in our present one.

Mara was supposed to be a safe haven for Talin and her mother. Instead refugees are kept outside the city walls and Talin’s status as an elite Striker can’t make some see her as anything more than a “Basean rat” who Marans look down on for little more than her skin color and the shape of her eyes.

As a Striker on the warfront Talin fights Ghosts–humans who have been horrifically re-engineered by the Federation to become monsters intent only on killing. When Talin saves a mysterious prisoner of war she may have also found the key to beating the Federation–but first she has to decide if the prisoner is a potential weapon or an ally in Skyhunter (2020) by Marie Lu.

Find it on Bookshop.

This post-apocalyptic, sci-fi adventure is a visceral exploration of the emotional and physical costs of war. Poison gas scarred Talin’s vocal chords leaving her unable to speak as much from the trauma as the injury; she instead communicates with the sign language used by Strikers.

Talin’s narration is caustic as questions of allegiance and loyalty move the plot forward with Talin and her friends struggling to save a country that offered Talin refuge while withholding common decency–a dichotomy she again has to struggle with while deciding if the enemy prisoner she has rescued is someone to be saved or something to be exploited.

At the cliffhanger end of Skyhunter Mara’s fate is far from secure leaving readers to wait for answers in the conclusion to this duology. Suspense and high-action fights make this plot-driven story both fast-paced and brutal.

Possible Pairings: The Scorpion Rules by Erin Bow, Defy the Stars by Claudia Gray, Birthmarked by Caragh M. O’Brien, War Girls by Tochi Onyebuchi, The Kiss of Deception by Mary E. Pearson, Scythe by Neal Shusterman, Uglies by Scott Westerfeld

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

Now That I’ve Found You: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Now That I've Found You by Kristina ForestEvie Jones is about to be Hollywood’s next big thing when her chance at stardom blows up in her face. After a self-imposed exile for most of the summer, Evie might have one chance to get her career back on track.

Unfortunately for Evie that plan relies on her grandmother Gigi (AKA bonafide movie star and now notorious recluse Evelyn Conaway) making her first public appearance in years. Evie is certain she can convince Gigi right until the moment Gigi disappears rather than hear Evie’s pleas.

With only days before the big appearance, Evie is running out of options to find Gigi and save her career. She reluctantly teams up with Milo–a cute musician Evie isn’t sure she can trust no matter how much Gigi seems to like him–for a madcap search across New York City.

As Evie and Milo try to follow Gigi’s trail they’ll also learn a lot about how best to blaze their own in Now That I’ve Found You (2020) by Kristina Forest.

Find it on Bookshop.

Now That I’ve Found You is Forest’s second novel and includes a fun nod to her debut.

Forest delivers one charming ensemble cast in this story of celebrity, family, and letting people in. Positioning Conaway as Hollywood royalty and an Oscar winner for best actress in the 1970s also shifts the world in the book to give Black creators and their contributions in Hollywood the space and respect they deserve but didn’t receive in the form of Oscar recognition until decades later in real life.

Set over the course of a week this fast-paced story lets Evie and Milo shine as foils and, eventually, reluctant allies in the hunt for Gigi. Milo is a sweet contrast to cynical Evie and the ideal sidekick on their search. The story’s romance and humor set the perfect stage for Evie’s powerful arc as she learns that she is the only one who can determine her own worth.

Now That I’ve Found You is a gentle, perfectly paced romantic comedy with a protagonist learning to appreciate both her loved ones and herself. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: Permanent Record by Mary H. K. Choi, The Voting Booth by Brandy Colbert, Somewhere Only We Know by Maurene Goo, You Should See Me in a Crown by Leah Johnson, Tweet Cute by Emma Lord, Now a Major Motion Picture by Cori McCarthy, Lucky Caller by Emma Mills, Don’t Date Rosa Santos by Nina Moreno, The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid, Eliza and Her Monsters by Francesca Zappia

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

Presenting Buffalo Bill: The Man Who Invented the Wild West: A Non-Fiction Review

Presenting Buffalo Bill by Candace FlemingNowadays Buffalo Bill is a legend, part of the story of the westward expansion of the United States and the “Wild West” as it has been romanticized for white audiences in popular culture.

In fact, Buffalo Bill was part of that romanticizing with the creation of his traveling Wild West show.

But before William Cody became the showman better known as Buffalo Bill, he was a boy raised on the frontier–the son of a man who would become a prominent abolitionist, he may have ridden with the Pony Express (or not), among other exploits.

One fact remains: Buffalo Bill is an enduring part of American history–both good and bad–and helped define an era as much with his very real show as his tall tales. You can learn more about both (and separate one from the other) in Presenting Buffalo Bill: The Man Who Invented the Wild West (2016) by Candace Fleming.

Find it on BookShop.

Fleming brings her usual thorough research and care to this biography filled with illustrations and primary sources including Cody’s own memoirs and those of his sister Julia. Fleming balances facts with Bill’s penchant for mythologizing his own life with tall tales and other embellishments in sidebars called “Panning for the Truth” where she works to parse the sometimes limited facts from first person accounts.

Each chapter also opens with a dramatic and, given the textual format, surprisingly cinematic account of various key acts in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West which truly transport readers to the show. Fleming also brings a modern lens to this moment in history highlighting the US government’s systemic campaign against Native Americans and also Cody’s own role therein.

Although a little melancholy, as many stories of the famous figures of the old west are, Presenting Buffalo Bill: The Man Who Invented the Wild West is as fascinating as Buffalo Bill himself. This book does a lot to demonstrate how, often much to his own dismay, Cody was really first and foremost a showman with innovative ideas about showmanship, presentation, and (later on) employing both women and Native performers.

Possible Pairings: Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West by Dee Brown; An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States For Young People by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, adapted by Debbie Reese and Jean Mendoza; My Calamity Jane by Cynthia Hand, Brodi Ashton, Jodi Meadows; Under a Painted Sky by Stacey Lee

Comics Will Break Your Heart: A Review

cover art for Comics Will Break Your Heart by Faith Erin HicksArguably, Miriam’s family should be rich. After all, her grandfather co-created The TomorrowMen. But he also signed away his rights to the series in an acrimonious deal in that has left nothing but bitterness in its wake. Miriam’s mother says they have enough to get by. But just barely. And certainly not enough to let Miriam consider college in any serious way.

Then there’s the new guy in town, Weldon, who is really cute and really off limits once Miriam finds out he is the grandson of the man who cheated her grandfather all those years ago.

Knowing their families, Mir and Weldon are wary of starting anything together. But their hearts have other plans. Will mutual attraction, friendship, and maybe even love be enough to end a decades long feud? in Comics Will Break Your Heart (2019) by Faith Erin Hicks.

Comics Will Break Your Heart is Hicks’ prose novel debut. Chapters alternate close third person perspective between Mir and Weldon.

Hicks’ prose debut is a uniquely Canadian, very comic-centric, and distinctly funny story. The story opens with a meet cute that escalates from bookstore shelf organizing to a fistfight and the stakes only climb from there.

Comics Will Break Your Heart is filled with witty banter, pop culture references (both real and fictional), as well as a deep and abiding affection for geek culture and the fandoms who love them. Recommended for anyone who’s ever scrambled to buy tickets opening day or stayed up way too late for a midnight launch party.

Possible Pairings: Bookishly Ever After by Isabel Bandeira; Alex, Approximately by Jenn Bennett; Words in Deep Blue by Cath Crowley; Verona Comics by Jennifer Dugan; Now a Major Motion Picture by Cori McCarthy; Prince Charming by Rachel Hawkins; The Romantics by Leah Konen; Tweet Cute by Emma Lord; Famous in a Small Town by Emma Mills; Truly Madly Royally by Debbie Rigaud; This Time Will Be Different by Misa Sugiura; Stay Sweet by Siobhan Vivian

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

Moxie: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Vivian Carter is sick of the toxic sexism and systemic misogyny at her high in East Rockport, Texas. She’s sick of girls being targeted by the administration’s sexist dress code. She’s sick of the harassment from the football team boys and their cronies who get away with everything. But she isn’t sure what she can do about it when even the thought of making waves is terrifying.

That changes when Viv finds her mom’s box of mementos from her misspent youth. In the 90’s Viv’s mom was part of the Riot Grrrl movement known for their music, their feminist manifesto, and the zines they used to share ideas and find each other. Suddenly Vivian has a plan to help her speak out and Moxie, her own zine, is born.

Viv doesn’t know what to expect when she distributes the first issue of Moxie in secret to her classmates. In the pages of her zine she calls out sexist jokes, harassment, and unfair dress codes and asks girls at the school to join her in protests that quickly gain momentum and help the Moxie movement take on a life of its own. As the stakes rise for what the zine and the Moxie girls are fighting for, Vivian has to decide how far she’s willing to go for what she believes in Moxie (2017) by Jen Mathieu.

Find it on Bookshop.

Vivian’s no nonsense narration brings East Rockport to life–complete with its small town charm and stifling atmosphere. Mathieu does a great job of showing Viv’s love of her home and family alongside her frustration with the town’s dated, sexist culture as well as her desire to do more and be more than she might ever manage if she stays.

Moxie shows a grassroots movement at its finest as the Moxie girls’ ranks swell and girls in East Rockport learn that they can (and should) speak up for themselves. Frank and nuanced discussions of feminism showcase a variety of perspectives from self-proclaimed feminists like Viv’s new friend Lucy to those more reluctant to label themselves (like Vivian’s best friend Claudia). Mathieu works to make sure Moxie is an inclusive movement with many girls taking the lead while acknowledging the school’s previous stratification along racial and social lines.

The growing sense of community among the Moxie girls and the feel good girl power vibes are balanced with the push and pull between Viv and a sympathetic (but not always understanding) boy. Their romance subplot adds a touch of sweetness to this edgy story while reminding readers that being a feminist doesn’t have to preclude love.

This powerful book proves that the pen can be mightier than the sword and that girls are always stronger when they’re united. Moxie is a must read for everyone but especially young women who have had to apologize on behalf of boys, girls whose ideas only gain validity when a boy shares them, and anyone who’s had the moment of realization that some people will never understand what it’s like to walk down a dark street alone.

In the first issue of Moxie, Vivian asks readers to draw hearts and stars on their hands so likeminded students can find each other at school. After you read and love Moxie (and I’m sure you will) don’t forget to add stars and hearts to your own hands. And always remember: Moxie Girls Fight Back!

Possible Pairings: A Girl Like That by Tanaz Bhatena, Unclaimed Baggage by Jen Doll, In a Perfect World by Trish Doller, The Careful Undressing of Love by Corey Ann Haydu, Unclaimed Baggage by Jen Doll, The Outsiders by S. E. Hinton, Here We Are: Feminism for the Real World edited by Kelly Jensen, The Last Time We Were Us by Leah Konen, Wonder Women: 25 Innovators, Inventors, and Trailblazers Who Changed History by Sam Maggs, Saving Francesca by Melina Marchetta, Now a Major Motion Picture by Cori McCarthy, The Nowhere Girls by Amy Reed, Wild Swans by Jessica Spotswood

Be sure to check out my interview with Jennifer about this book too!

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