check, please!: #hockey

Friday, September 21, 2018 | | 0 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.

good morning, neighbor + apple-raisin cake

Does reading about food make you hungry? Sometimes (often) I will salivate over a meal I’ve come across in a novel. So obviously, the only option left is to make it. I once stopped reading Neil Gaiman’s Stardust mid-book to bake bread, and I learned to make cinnamon rolls (and other treats!) because of their descriptions in Robin McKinley’s Sunshine. Last year I made dinosaur cookies after reading Cookiesaurus Rex. My latest picture book read, Good Morning, Neighbor by Davide Cali and illustrated by Maria Dek, inspired me to make an apple-raisin cake.

good morning neighbor by davide cali, illustrated by maria dek cover
A mouse decides one morning to make an omelet, but needs an egg, and sets out to find one. On his search, he eventually finds everything needed to bake a cake, including apples, flour, and sugar, but also those most precious ingredients—community and friends, from a hedgehog to an owl to a raccoon—and learns about the unexpected gifts of asking for what you need and sharing what you have.

A mouse wants to make an omelet but doesn't have an egg. That is how this adventure begins! Mouse visits various animal neighbors asking for an egg, but instead gathers all of the ingredients for an apple-raisin cake. In the end, a bat has an egg, an owl has an oven, and a cake is baked! But... who will get a slice? Ideas are important contributions, and the animals agree that sharing is the order of the day.  

Good Morning, Neighbor is a story about asking your community for help, sharing the results of a group project (in this case, baking a cake), and being fair to everyone who contributedall great lessons for little readers and their adults. The messages are "baked in," so to speak (see what I did there?), and all of the talk of cake is enough to make you want to bake your own (as I did), and reflect on the story. Reading + baking would be a fun, parent/grandparent/friendly adult-kid activity this autumn.

Mouse's travels from neighbor to neighbor grow with every page as he adds another animal to his entourage. The repetition of each animal involved during each stage of the egg search is a child-friendly device, but may weary adults by the end. Otherwise, the prose is unexceptionable, and even includes a funny aside on the last page. This book is made to be read aloud, and the illustrations pored over.

Speaking of the illustrations! Maria Dek's watercolors are the absolute star of the book. The quirky designs have a cute/eccentric vibe with lots of little forest-y details. My favorite page spreads were those with closeups where an animal almost covered the page, and showed them in their home environment. The book design is also top-notch, with text placement, size, and weight varying based on the action. In all, a visual feast of a book (I will keep going with these food puns until someone yells "Put a fork in it!").

Recommended for: anyone looking for read aloud books about sharing, baking, or being a good neighbor for the 3-6 year old set, and picture book fans with an eye for art and design.

And now... cake!

Apple-Raisin Cake (adapted from this Better Homes & Gardens recipe)


1 cup apple juice or sweet wine (I used Moscato di Asti)
3/4 cup raisins
2 medium tart apples, peeled, cored, and thinly sliced (I used Granny Smith)
1 tablespoon sugar
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 tablespoon finely chopped crystallized ginger
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup butter, melted
3 egg yolks
2 teaspoons vanilla
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
3 egg whites
1/3 cup honey


Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Grease and flour a 9-inch springform pan; set aside.

In a small saucepan heat 1 cup apple juice or sweet wine just until simmering. Remove from heat. Add raisins; let stand for at least 20 minutes. Drain well, discarding liquid.

In a medium bowl combine apple slices, the 1 tablespoon sugar, the lemon juice, and ginger. Set aside.

In a large bowl combine the 1/2 cup sugar, the melted butter, egg yolks, and vanilla; beat with an electric mixer on medium-high speed about 2 minutes or until thick and light yellow (I did this with a handheld mixer). Add flour, baking powder, cinnamon, and salt, beating just until combined. Set aside.

If reusing the beaters, wash thoroughly (I did this next bit in my KitchenAid). In a separate medium bowl beat egg whites with an electric mixer on medium speed just until stiff peaks form (tips stand straight). Stir about one-third of the beaten egg whites into the flour mixture to lighten. Fold the remaining egg whites into flour mixture. Drizzle the 1/3 cup honey over batter; fold in until combined.

Spoon half of the batter into the prepared springform pan, spreading evenly. Top with half of the apple mixture. Spoon the remaining batter over apples, spreading to cover apples. Top the batter with the remaining apple mixture (discard any lemon juice remaining in bowl). Arrange raisins over apples.

Bake for 35 to 55 minutes or until top of cake is evenly golden brown (the time is quite variable because the original recipe called for 35-40 minutes, but my cake took around 55 – I did the toothpick test). Cool in pan on a wire rack for 10 minutes (center may dip slightly). Loosen and remove sides of springform pan. Cool completely on wire rack.

Serve with ice cream or whipped cream, split with friends, or eat a slice for a decadent breakfast treat – this is a versatile, and delicious, recipe!

Recommended for: an autumnal treat to share with friends and neighbors (obviously!), an ambitious weekday night if you want to be the star of the dinner table, or a simple-ish but impressive weekend/dinner party dessert.  Also would be especially good after an Italian family-style meal (the recipe is adapted from a torta di mele).

Interested in other food related recipes? Check out Beth Fish Reads’ Weekend Cooking!

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

am i yours?

One of my favorite picture books when I was tiny was P.D. Eastman’s classic Are You My Mother? My mother claims that most of my first words were question words, so it makes sense that I’d like a book full of them. But I also think (from hearing her read the book to subsequent siblings) that I just liked the way my mother read – not in “voice” so much but emphasizing the interrogative so far that it became hilarious. She played it straight, but the child she was reading to always laughed. She also had so much patience with the book, which she must have read dozens of times. Anyway, I loved that book, and I’ve since gifted it to many friends’ children (who maybe didn’t have as many positive associations with it as I did)(oh well!). And when I read Alex Latimer’s Am I Yours? nearly the first thing I thought of was Are You My Mother?

am i yours? by alex latimer cover
A heartwarming story of community, family, and finding your way home.

A group of friendly dinosaurs helps a lost egg search for its parents after it’s been blown out of its nest. But if the little egg is to be reunited with its family, first they must discover what kind of dinosaur lies inside. What does that egg look like inside its shell? Surely, there must be a way to tell!

This fun and unique tale featuring Alex Latimer’s signature bold art style will keep dinosaur lovers and fans of Are You My Mother? enthusiastically following along and guessing who is inside the shell.

In this delightful picture book, an egg has fallen out of a nest and lost its way. It is pretty sure it’s a dinosaur, but it doesn’t know what kind – so it asks for help (the titular “Am I yours?”). Along its journey the egg meets all kinds of dinosaurs – from the Tyrannosaurus Rex to the Brachiosaurus, to Triceratops! Finally, with help from new friends the egg is identified and returned to the correct nest – just in time to hatch.

This picture book is beautifully done. The illustrations in vivid pencil and finished digitally are very appealing, and the text is both familiar-fun (rhyming, options for lots of voices!) and scientifically accurate (proper dinosaur names included as a matter of course). The pacing is spot-on, and while there are lots of repeated “Am I yours?” questions throughout to make an impression on younger readers, there aren’t so many as to make adult readers weary. Another highlight: as each type of dinosaur is eliminated there are identifying details shared, so readers learn about the characteristics that make each kind of dinosaur unique.

There’s also a possible classroom science experiment tie-in, as the baby dinosaur is finally identified by light shining through its eggshell. I’ve seen lesson plans that incorporate doing this with chicken eggs, and Am I Yours? could work well as a read along for a unit of that nature.

Am I Yours? will appeal to dinosaur-obsessed kids and parents who haven’t outgrown their dinosaur days yet (who has with a new Jurassic Park film every couple of years?!), little ones with questions about family and how they fit into it, and anyone looking for a well-paced rhyming read that doesn’t condescend to readers, no matter how young. I can see it being adapted to board book form at some point as well.

In all, Am I Yours? is sure to be a hit with the 3-6 year-old set, especially during any storytime!

Recommended for fans of The Pout-Pout Fish and Are You My Mother?, and anyone looking for a fun, rhyming picture book for read aloud storytime.

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

this one summer

Summer is over? Already?? How did that happen? I know I shouldn’t be surprised as this has been the case every year since forever, but summer really did seem to fly by. If you’re still in the mood for some summery reading (say… if you’re at the beach this weekend and looking for a quick recommendation), I’d like to suggest This One Summer, a poignant graphic novel by cousins Mariko and Jillian Tamaki.

this one summer by mariko tamaki and jillian tamaki book cover
Every summer, Rose goes with her mom and dad to a lake house in Awago Beach. It's their getaway, their refuge. Rosie's friend Windy is always there, too, like the little sister she never had. But this summer is different. Rose's mom and dad won't stop fighting, and when Rose and Windy seek a distraction from the drama, they find themselves with a whole new set of problems. One of the local teens - just a couple of years older than Rose and Windy - is caught up in something bad... Something life threatening.

It's a summer of secrets, and sorrow, and growing up, and it's a good thing Rose and Windy have each other.

This One Summer is a tremendously exciting new teen graphic novel from two creators with true literary clout. Cousins Mariko and Jillian Tamaki, the team behind Skim, have collaborated on this gorgeous, heartbreaking, and ultimately hopeful story about a girl on the cusp of childhood - a story of renewal and revelation.

Rose and her parents head to the lake every summer – it’s tradition. It’s where Rose sees Windy, her friend and surrogate little sister, every year. This year’s visit is different, though. Rose is in that in-between stage between kid and teenager, and the atmosphere at the lake is fraught with tension. Her parents might be fighting. Her friendship with Windy doesn’t hold as much appeal. The locals have their own drama. And while secrets are being traded and/or coming to light, Rose and Windy are growing up.

This One Summer is an award-winner, and for good reason. It’s a beautifully-written and -illustrated coming of age tale. Rose and Windy are entirely believable characters and friends. Rose is on the cusp of womanhood, with all of the angst and feeling that entails. One of the book’s strengths is the way it outlines how familiar places and social landscapes can change shape faster than you can imagine. The book also shines in its portrayal of family conflict – resolved or not. Another strong point is unpacking the words society uses for girls and women. This book does so many important things well, it’s really impressive.

This One Summer was the most banned book of 2016. And that is because the Tamakis not only told a beautiful story, but a true one. There’s so much honesty in the text and the art – and in telling a story around the sorts of secrets that are real and terrible. This One Summer is a slice of summer life as it really is, not sugarcoated, but perhaps heading in a positive direction. I would not hesitate to give this book to any child aged 11-and-up – it will spark important conversations and questions.

I mentioned the art, so let’s talk about that. It’s great! The facial expressions in particular are fantastic – rendered in blue and purple colored pencil line work on white pages. There’s visceral feeling imbued in each of the panels, and the choice of subject is subtle and tender at some of the most anxious moments. This book shines in a lot of ways, but the harmony between text and art is really fabulous.

In all, This One Summer is an incredible book, and one that should rightfully become a classic. If you haven’t picked it up yet, do yourself a favor and relive the summer-ness of it (and maybe cry a bit too).

Recommended for: fans of excellent graphic novels and anyone who enjoys affecting coming-of-age fiction, á la Melissa Walker’s Unbreak My Heart.
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