cucumber quest: the doughnut kingdom

Do you ever think about how your reading habits have evolved? I used to be a strictly prose-only reader, but in the past two years I’ve been reading a lot of picture books, graphic novels, and I’ve even dipped into poetry. I have several friends who are branching out into audiobooks as well (and I know that’s a growing category for publishers, so it’s not just them!). This change means that I’m trusting different sources for recommendations – but one publisher that always publishes great graphic novels is First Second. When they sent me Gigi D.G.'s middle grade graphic novel Cucumber Quest: The Doughnut Kingdom, I knew it was going to be a fun read right off the bat.

cucumber quest: the doughnut kingdom by gigi d.g. book cover
What happens when an evil queen gets her hands on an ancient force of destruction?

World domination, obviously.

The seven kingdoms of Dreamside need a legendary hero. Instead, they'll have to settle for Cucumber, a nerdy magician who just wants to go to school. As destiny would have it, he and his way more heroic sister, Almond, must now seek the Dream Sword, the only weapon powerful enough to defeat Queen Cordelia’s Nightmare Knight.

Can these bunny siblings really save the world in its darkest hour?

Sure, why not?

In the Doughnut Kingdom, where this story begins, magic student Cucumber just wants to go off to school. However, his ineffectual mother Bagel and bad dad Lord Cabbage insist that he challenge the evil usurper Queen Cordelia. Never mind that he has no interest in becoming a hero! Luckily, Cucumber’s little sister Almond doesn’t listen to those who insist she can’t be a hero (what nonsense!), and decides that a quest is right in her wheelhouse. She drags Cucumber along with her straight into adventure, travel, and kingdom-saving exploits.

While the series is titled Cucumber Quest, in this volume Almond is the undisputed star. Cucumber plays her foil, worrying and asking important questions, while Almond makes decisions and keeps the action moving along. In a kingdom where almost every creature or place is named for food, you would expect the story to lean to fluff – and while it is super cute, it’s also funny, a little sassy, and there are some unexpected twists to liven things up. In other words, there’s plot to rival the art!

Speaking of art: the world of Dreamside is filled with folks who have different kinds of bunny ears, and that isn’t really explained (they don’t seem to have any other bunny attributes). The art itself is digital and soft-edged, with no lines to speak of. Most of the buildings are foodstuffs (Tiramisu Tower, for instance), and the whole book is, in a word, adorable.

As far as weaknesses go, I have two tiny, tiny nitpicks. First, the cover doesn’t do the story justice. You can’t really tell what’s going on? And the art is kind of a weird shape? But like, it’s such a tiny complaint it doesn’t really register. Second, there are a bunch of extras at the end of the book, and they’re kind of a mishmash. I think that with a little more editing/organization it would have made a lot more sense. But you’ll notice that neither of these had anything to do with the story, which is a great sign. The story is a lot of fun, and stands well on its own. It’s also available online for free as a webcomic!

In all, Cucumber Quest: The Doughnut Kingdom is a charming fairy tale adventure of a graphic novel, with several more volumes available or on the way!

Recommended for: fans of the 5 Worlds and Mighty Jack graphic novel series, and any readers ages 8-12 who enjoy fun, sassy protagonists, and quests to save the world.

Fine print: I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review consideration. I did not receive any compensation for this post.

the day you begin

Friday, October 5, 2018 | | 1 comments
How are you doing, fam? Today has been rough for a bunch of reasons, but I have to keep my head up, keep on believing that I can make the world a better place.  And what better way to do that than to read a book? One of the most affirming, wonderful books I’ve read lately is Jacqueline Woodson's picture book The Day You Begin, beautifully illustrated by Rafael López.

the day you begin by jacqueline woodson, illustrated by rafael lopez cover
There will be times when you walk into a room and no one there is quite like you.

There are many reasons to feel different. Maybe it’s how you look or talk, or where you’re from; maybe it’s what you eat, or something just as random. It’s not easy to take those first steps into a place where nobody really knows you yet, but somehow you do it.

Jacqueline Woodson’s lyrical text and Rafael López’s dazzling art reminds us that we all feel like outsiders sometimes-and how brave it is that we go forth anyway. And that sometimes, when we reach out and begin to share our stories, others will be happy to meet us halfway.

A black girl with curly hair enters a classroom and doesn’t see anyone who looks like her. She feels left out when she realizes that everyone else’s family traveled for the summer while she was at home babysitting. A boy named Rigoberto is laughed at when he speaks in his native tongue. An Asian girl feels less-than because no one understands the delicious food her mother makes for her school lunch. These are the interwoven narratives in The Day You Begin, a picture book about recognizing your differences, finding your place in the world, and beginning to tell the stories only you can.

Ms. Woodson is the 2018-2019 National Ambassador for Young People's Literature and a National Book Award winner, and it shows. The Day You Begin is poignant, earnest, poetic, and needed. Written to and for children whole feel separate and apart because of their differences (due to race, class, language, or culture), this picture book tells children 1) that they are brave, 2) that they can share their unique stories (and the world will make a place for them when they do), 3) that they will find themselves and find friends, and 4) that there is beauty in similarity AND difference.

On the writing itself: Woodson’s similes are reflected seamlessly in López’s art. Words like a song are reflected in musical notes on the page. Getting picked last is depicted in every heart-wrenching detail. The thoughts that kids tuck away so that they will hurt less are here, on the page, and it is enough to make you cry… until you realize that every difference and moment of other-ness is being turned into an opportunity to connect, in vibrant tones. Woodson’s words and López’s mix of textures, colors, and mediums are the perfect fit for this book.

"There will be times when the world feels like a place that you’re standing all the way outside of…"

In all, The Day You Begin is an affirming, heartfelt, and brilliant picture book for everyone and all-ages, but especially for children who feel isolated and different (and who hasn’t felt that way, one day or another?).

Recommended for: all picture book collections, classrooms, storytimes, and for children ages 6-9 need the encouragement that our differences make us special, in the best ways.

in other lands

Monday, September 24, 2018 | | 2 comments
I am on the best sort of streak right now – I’ve been reading one lovely book after another! And the latest in line is Sarah Rees Brennan’s In Other Lands, an affectionate send-up of popular fantasy tropes with lots of hilarity and snark added in. It’s gosh darn entertaining, and I kind of loved it a lot.

in other lands by sarah rees brennan cover
The Borderlands aren’t like anywhere else. Don’t try to smuggle a phone or any other piece of technology over the wall that marks the Border — unless you enjoy a fireworks display in your backpack. (Ballpoint pens are okay.) There are elves, harpies, and — best of all as far as Elliot is concerned — mermaids.

Elliot? Who’s Elliot? Elliot is thirteen years old. He’s smart and just a tiny bit obnoxious. Sometimes more than a tiny bit. When his class goes on a field trip and he can see a wall that no one else can see, he is given the chance to go to school in the Borderlands.

It turns out that on the other side of the wall, classes involve a lot more weaponry and fitness training and fewer mermaids than he expected. On the other hand, there’s Serene-Heart-in-the-Chaos-of-Battle, an elven warrior who is more beautiful than anyone Elliot has ever seen, and then there’s her human friend Luke: sunny, blond, and annoyingly likeable. There are lots of interesting books. There’s even the chance Elliot might be able to change the world.

Elliott Schafer is a short, obnoxious know-it-all of thirteen when an agent of a magical school finds him and escorts him into the Borderlands. He’s glad to go because his home life is pretty terrible, and also: mermaids. And then it turns out that Serene-Heart-in-the-Chaos-of-Battle, a beautiful elven warrior, is in his cohort. So that’s alright. Still, Elliott has to grapple with: a tech-primitive world, a war-obsessed society, issues of gender, race, and sexuality, and the annoying existence of golden boy Luke Sunborn, Serene’s other best friend. In this portal fantasy-turned-parody Elliott’s years in magic school are formative, transformative, and endearingly comical.

I think the first and most important thing about this book is that it made me laugh, a lot, unexpectedly. I probably sounded like a demented loon, barking out a laugh every 5-10 minutes while reading, but the dialogue and Elliott’s inner narrative were just that good. Elliott is uncharitable, sarcastic, and dramatic – and he says everything that comes to mind. I guess you could call him unlikable (he certainly says and does some unlikable things), but I loved him immediately for identifying and highlighting uncomfortable truths, all while pointedly not observing the social niceties. I identified with him.

The second thing about this book is that like any good parody, it interrogated its source material (popular portal fantasy and fantasy fiction at large) and turned tropes on their heads. The elven matriarchal society and its unique prejudices served as a direct foil to the familiar paternalistic human Border Guard. Elliott’s pacifist stance in a military camp raised sometimes obvious questions about who gets to make the decisions and what sorts of actions we value. And as a desperately earnest believer in love, Elliott breaks his heart and makes romantic missteps with partners of both sexes instead of automatically finding his “one” soulmate. I also appreciated that a typical YA fantasy trope (dead/absent parents) was interrogated as well.

Weakness: the copyediting. This book originated as a serial online, and though it made a pretty serious jump to book form with aplomb, I found several errors. Still, that’s nothing when you’re in the flow and really enjoying a book. Which I was.

In Other Lands was ridiculously enjoyable. Although I know not every reader will love Elliott (or the book), I did. Sarah Rees Brennan has a knack for writing comedy, and this book is FUNNY and fun.

Recommended to: fans of science fiction and fantasy parodies (think Rainbow Rowell’s Carry On with 100% more snark), and anyone who likes portal fantasies, LGBTQ+ inclusive young adult fiction, and grappling with big questions while maintaining a sense of humor.

check, please!: #hockey

Friday, September 21, 2018 | | 1 comments
When I held Ngozi Ukazu’s debut graphic novel Check, Please!: #Hockey for the first time in my hands, I thought about how much I loved it already (the entire comic is available online for free and I’ve been reading it for years), how perfect it was for my interests (hockey + baking + LGBTQ+ representation), and how it was going to solve all of my holiday gifting needs. I adore this story, and I think you will too, even if your preferred reading doesn’t include anything mentioned above. It’s just that loveable.

Helloooo, Internet Land. Bitty here! 

Y’all . . . I might not be ready for this. I may be a former junior figure skating champion, vlogger extraordinaire, and very talented amateur pâtissier, but being a freshman on the Samwell University hockey team is a whole new challenge. It’s nothing like co-ed club hockey back in Georgia! First of all? There’s checking. And then, there is there is Jack—our very attractive but moody captain.

A collection of the first half of the megapopular webcomic series of the same name, Check, Please!: #Hockey is the first book of a hilarious and stirring two-volume coming-of-age story about hockey, bros, and trying to find yourself during the best four years of your life.

Let’s get down to it: WHAT is in this book that makes it so beloved? I’ll level with you here: this is a cute story about a baker with a video channel who is also a former champion figure skater, who is ALSO a gay boy and a Southerner, and who is just starting college and joining a serious, competitive hockey team. In other words, it’s about a character with a lot of varied interests and identities, at a pivotal point in time. And Bitty (Eric Bittle, to be precise) isn’t special or perfect, he’s just a guy making friends, learning his new environment, and trying to be himself. It works because author-illustrator Ngozi has tapped into the best parts of the tropes referenced above (coming of age, coming out, etc.), deleted toxic masculinity from the equation, and presented the reader with a bunch of lovable goofballs as Bitty’s support system, hockey miscellany for laughs, and hijinks that will be familiar to anyone who has spent too much time with one group of people. It’s FUN. Good, clean fun (swearing and references to college-aged-shenanigans aside).

What does it do best? It’s funny, the angst is realistic, there are moments of tension and then superb hits of relief, the art is focused on the characters’ faces (so you see a lot of emotion). And, as mentioned, there’s acceptance, friendship, and eventually falling in love. The majority of the book is panel by panel storytelling over the first two years of Bitty's college career, and at the end there are extra comics from specific times and/or explanations of hockey lingo. There is also a section full of Bitty's tweets listed chronologically (for a good chunk of time Ngozi was into multi-platform storytelling, tweeting in character as Bitty). Taken as a whole, you really get a sense of Bitty's life and voice, and it's 100% endearing. 

Shortcomings... hmm, this is a tough one. This book was tailor-made for me, and so it's difficult to take a step back from it and evaluate it fairly. I will say that because this book started life as a webcomic, there are things that didn't make it into the final published edition that add to the context, liveliness and overall fun. Ngozi's Instagrams of personalized bookplates (with hilarious captions), commentary during live-drawing streams (available to Patreon patrons), and the blog posts (one for each "episode" of the comic, posted a day or two after they go up) all add to the world of Samwell, and I missed them as I reread the comic for review. Also I don't think Bitty's love of Beyoncé comes through as much. Weird!

In all, #Hockey is a kick, and graphic novel fans ages 14 and up will love it, even if they don't care much (or at all!) about hockey or baking.

Recommended for: hockey fans, graphic novel fans, and readers who like found families, happy/hopeful coming of age stories, and fun.

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