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.

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)


INGREDIENTS

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

DIRECTIONS

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.

cenzontle

Thursday, August 9, 2018 | | 0 comments
Here is my truth: I don’t read poetry often, but I wish I did. I want to be that person who reads poems and religious texts and essays on important cultural topics regularly. And it’s not because I think that sort of person is better or more serious. No, I just know that when I read more widely, because I had to (school, for so many years), I was a more interesting on the inside. I absorbed it all and tried on different ways of thinking and my dreams were varied and colorful.

So every now and then I try to make myself into that person again. I try. I read poetry, I linger on a prayer, and I purchase a book of essays. And when I do, I sometimes come across a text that is… abstruse? I can’t get into it at all, though I enjoy the language and drink in the words with my eyes. They just end up traveling right through me without leaving a permanent mark. When I read novels, if they are any good, they scoop out my feelings with a spoon, and that is its own delightful pain/pleasure. I return to that over and over. Lighting up my brain with poetry takes more effort (usually), and I am loath to loan myself the time if the pleasure is fleeting. In this case I took as long as I needed to. And my reading experience turned into something meaningful.

I asked my library to order Marcelo Hernandez Castillo’s volume of award-winning poetry, Cenzontle, because I read a lovely review of it in Shelf Awareness. And then, because I kept it so long, the library declared it lost (don’t worry, I eventually returned it). I finished it, and though I don’t think I “got” all of it (poetry is hard), I enjoyed it. I tried. I am maybe becoming the person I want to be. I adored the way Hernandez Castillo’s words made me play with mine (even here in this “review”), and I’ll be amazed by the vivid dreams I’m probably going to have for the next few weeks because those words painted the inside of my brain in electric neon.

Hernandez Castillo writes about growing up, and sex, and birth and death, and birds and honey and words and dreams. He writes about having a brown body, and sorrow (unrelated)(?), and being an undocumented immigrant. His poems are peppered with prayers, and internal/external juxtapositions. Maybe I didn’t absorb it all, but I could appreciate the lyricism and flights of fancy and maybe I understood a few metaphors. I understood enough to like, to keep reading. I think it was beautiful. I kept rereading one line here, maybe two, pondering if that one or this one was something I’d copy down and keep. Okay, I know it was beautiful.

God, I don’t have anything else to say. Read that Shelf Awareness review. Read the book yourself (it’s compact). Let me know what you think of it. I am going to work on reading more poetry and I plan to come back to Cenzontle again. I’ll even buy my own copy this time so that the library doesn’t think it’s lost.

cenzontle by marcelo hernandez castillo book cover
In this lyrical, imagistic debut, Marcelo Hernandez Castillo creates a nuanced narrative of life before, during, and after crossing the US/Mexico border. These poems explore the emotional fallout of immigration, the illusion of the American dream via the fallacy of the nuclear family, the latent anxieties of living in a queer brown undocumented body within a heterosexual marriage, and the ongoing search for belonging. Finding solace in the resignation to sheer possibility, these poems challenge us to question the potential ways in which two people can interact, love, give birth, and mourn―sometimes all at once.

ice wolves

I have, for the past several years, considered myself a dragon person. Not that I am personally a dragon (though I admit to entertaining thoughts about books as a hoard in place of gold), but that I will read practically any book that contains dragons. So along came this middle grade fantasy Ice Wolves by an author I already admired (Amie Kaufman), combining both shapeshifting dragons and wolves, and I knew it would be just my sort of comfort reading. And it was, along with fun, readable, and a solid start to a series with an interesting premise.

ice wolves by amie kaufman book cover
Everyone in Vallen knows that ice wolves and scorch dragons are sworn enemies who live deeply separate lives.

So when twelve-year-old orphan Anders takes one elemental form and his twin sister, Rayna, takes another, he wonders whether they are even related. Still, whether or not they’re family, Rayna is Anders’s only true friend. She’s nothing like the brutal, cruel dragons who claimed her as one of their own and stole her away.

In order to rescue her, Anders must enlist at the foreboding Ulfar Academy, a school for young wolves that values loyalty to the pack above all else. But for Anders, loyalty is more complicated than obedience, and friendship is the most powerful shapeshifting force of all.

Anders and Rayna are twins surviving on the streets of Holbard, the biggest city in Vallen. Holbard’s harbor is famous for being protected by magic, and so it has a diverse populace from all over the (fictional) world. Anders and Rayna steal to eat, run across the city’s rooftop meadows, and rely solely on one another – the only way of life they’ve ever known. As orphans of a dragon fire fight that destroyed part of the city when they were very young, they must make it on their own – coexisting with other street kids, but never joining them. When the city’s typical trial for twelve year olds to see if they can manage a wolf transformation upends their lives, Anders will have to step out of his more independent sister’s shadow, make his own way, make new friends, and concoct a daring rescue/escape plan.

Ice Wolves is an action-packed adventure with plucky orphans, a wolf school, mysteriously failing magics, secretive enemies, kidnappings, ice and fire fights, and scorch dragons and ice wolves. It’s definitely an electric mix, and the plot is fast-moving to match the subject matter. Anders is the focal point, and his frustrations and explorations introduce the reader to a world full of contradictions.

Anders himself is the typical unlikely hero who discovers something remarkable about himself, but cannot capitalize on it (and is the weakest link in his new environment). Meanwhile he’s trying, for the first time in his life, to be the twin with initiative and rescue his savvier sister. It’s a fairly standard setup for the middle grade fantasy genre, and I would not say it is groundbreaking…

EXCEPT, Kaufman’s writing is solid and the concept (dragon- and wolf-shifters at war!) is terrific. Ice Wolves will introduce young fans to a cool fantasy world based a bit on Norse history (marked by Holbard’s turf roofs, runic magic, and location far enough north that there’s plenty of snow). Kaufman also has Anders mull the moral quandaries of stealing to eat, saving and acknowledging society’s most vulnerable, his city’s class hierarchy, the divide between magical and regular humans, and misinformation campaigns spread by those in power. In addition, Anders and Rayna are brown, which challenges the white-as-default stereotype I read as a young fantasy fan (and which still pervades today). All while keeping the plot moving and including plot twists!

In all, Kaufman’s execution, world-building and attention to detail in Ice Wolves generate something out of the ordinary. The Elementals series is sure to make new fans of fantasy, dragons, and werewolves, and delight current ones.

Recommended for: fans of dragon books, those who like middle grade fantasy and science fiction along the lines of Shannon Hale’s Princess Academy or the How to Train Your Dragon films, and anyone with a soft spot for shapeshifting and adventurous orphans.

hortense and the shadow

For as long as I can remember I’ve been an admirer of things whimsical and/or strange, especially when it comes to books and art. When I saw the cover for sisters Natalia and Lauren O’Hara’s picture book collaboration Hortense and the Shadow, I thought, “That looks like my kind of book.” And when I read it all these months later, I realized I was right! Love when that happens.

hortense and the shadow by natalia and lauren o'hara book cover
A haunting, original fairy tale from two dazzling debut picture book talents, in the spirit of Neil Gaiman and Carson Ellis.

Hortense is a kind and brave girl, but she is sad–even angry–that her shadow follows her everywhere she goes. She hates her shadow, and thinks her shadow must hate her too. But one cold, dark night, when bandits surprise her in the woods, Hortense discovers that her shadow is the very thing she needs most.

This stunningly illustrated story stirs the soul with its compelling, subtle exploration of self-esteem, self-identity, and finding inner strength.

Hortense lives in a large house deep in the snowy woods, but she’s sad because she hates her shadow. It follows her everywhere! One day, she becomes so upset that she cuts her shadow off. Then! Well, then she sings with happiness. Until… something terrible arrives in the night. Hortense learns that her shadow, like her sometimes sad, mad, and wild feelings, is another part of herself.

Hortense and the Shadow is a wintry sort of book, with a bit of a contrary personality. Hortense herself is a singular, stubborn figure: she’s kind and brave, and at the same time deeply unhappy with a part of herself. There are sinister forces at work, as well as magical. Hortense acts – in what adults might label a foolish way. Overall the book is a bit odd, a lot creative, with a dash of menace mixed in (like a proper fairy tale).

While the prose is lovely (“sad as an owl” is my favorite new simile), the art is, hands down, the best part of this book. The cover has rose gold foil detailing on the dust jacket and the boards themselves are a light peach. Inside, Lauren O’Hara has created beautiful, muted watercolor illustrations full of Eastern European-style buildings, gingerbread-like detailing, and woodland creatures. Eagle-eyed readers will also notice menacing men hiding in margins, adding to the juxtaposition of beauty and darkness throughout.

All in all, Hortense and the Shadow a delightfully dark fairy tale of a book in a charming package.

Recommended for: fans of fairy tales – all ages, anyone who has enjoyed Bethan Woollvin’s picture books, and those looking for magical stories no matter the time of year.

cece loves science

I’ve had a copy of Kimberly Derting, Shelli R. Johannes, and Vashti Harrison’s picture book Cece Loves Science sitting by my desk at work for a few weeks now. Whenever anyone sees the title, they smile and ask 1) if I love science, and/or 2) if I know the authors (Cece is one of my nicknames). That in turn makes *me* smile, and the circle is complete. I’ve found that the combination of cute cover and title make this book nearly irresistible for adults to page through, and I think kids will enjoy it as well.

cece loves science by kimberly derting, shelli r. johannes, illustrated by vashti harrison book cover
Cece’s parents say she was born curious. She asks: Why? How? What if? When her teacher, Ms. Curie, assigns a science project, Cece knows just what to ask—do dogs eat vegetables? She teams up with her best friend, Isaac, and her dog, Einstein, to discover the answer. They investigate, research, collect data, and analyze, using Einstein as their case study. Their final conclusion is surprising, and a lot of fun!

Illustrated by Vashti Harrison, whose Little Leaders: Bold Women in Black History is a New York Times bestseller and an NAACP Image Award winner. Cece Loves Science is just right for fans of Rosie Revere, EngineerWhat Do You Do with an Idea?; and anyone who loves learning.

Cece loves to ask questions about the world, to find out how and why things work. When her teacher asks students to try an experiment and record their results, Cece and her friend Isaac brainstorm ideas. Are bears ticklish? Do pigs know that they are smelly? But eventually Cece and Isaac decide to test if animals eat vegetables, and experiment on Cece’s family dog Einstein. Through the process Cece and Isaac learn about observing, asking the right questions, thinking outside the box, and never giving up.

Cece Loves Science is a charming, informative picture book featuring a curious scientist-in-training as main character. Cece's questions, frustrations and discoveries will please teachers, librarians, parents and kids (especially those learning about the scientific method for the first time). This title is a great candidate to read aloud during science- and STEM-related classroom units. Cece’s teacher Ms. Curie assigns a project worksheet that is very similar to ones found in most science lesson plans, and the folks at HarperCollins have created a fun tie-in activity kit for download as well.

A couple of other things that stand out: Cece is biracial girl from a blended family, and it’s great to read about her and her friend Isaac carrying out their experiments creatively in a supportive family environment. I also appreciated the final page of the book, which is a glossary of terms, or “Cece’s Science Facts” – this will prompt further interest in famous scientists and branches of science. Finally, I think this would be a fun read-aloud book or even a good candidate to act out – there’s dialogue assigned to each character that would be ideal for doing voices with.

Let’s talk about Vashti Harrison’s art! Harrison’s illustrations were created in a digital medium, and the effect overall is colorful and soft (not line-heavy) – with cute human figures and the feel of a well-drawn animated short. In addition, the book design pops – I loved the endpapers and the softer crayon-drawn figures on some pages that represented Cece’s internal thoughts. Great art to match a good book, in other words!

In all, Cece Loves Science is a fun science-laden adventure that will appeal to 5-8 year olds and pair well with Izzy Gizmo and Ada Twist, Scientist.

Recommended for: parents, teachers, and librarians looking to beef up their STEAM- and STEM-related libraries for kids, and any child that likes to ask “How?” “Why?” and “What if?”

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

tiny, perfect things

I love to escape into books at any time, but when there’s a lot going on in the world and in my day-to-day life, that escape becomes more precious and important. Or, if an escape isn’t going to cut it, a book reminding me to savor beautiful everyday moments is even better. M.H. Clark and Madeline Kloepper’s picture book Tiny, Perfect Things encourages readers young and old to take a walk outside with a loved one, pay attention, and celebrate the act of discovery.

tiny perfect things by m.h. clark illustrated by madeline kloepper cover
The whole world is a treasure waiting to be found. Open your eyes and see the wonderful things all around. This is the story of a child and a grandfather whose walk around the neighborhood leads to a day of shared wonder as they discover all sorts of tiny, perfect things together. With rhythmic storytelling and detailed and intricate illustrations, this is a book about how childlike curiosity can transform ordinary days into extraordinary adventures.

A girl and her grandfather take a walk along a nature trail and through their neighborhood. Along the way they take turns pointing out the tiny, perfect things they see – a spider web, a bottle cap, a group of crows, and so on. As the sun begins to go down, they head home to celebrate their discoveries with family, and to plan another adventure.

Tiny, Perfect Things is a quiet, contemplative picture book that revels in the wonder of the commonplace. It urges readers of all ages (but especially very young ones) to become everyday observers as they move through the world, and to look for so-called “hidden” marvels. On each page there are unexpected or partially concealed details for readers to find. Uncovering these elements one by one will prompt interaction beyond the text.

For children too young to read, this book will be a good one to page through by themselves – with its pages full of treasures it invites telling a story to oneself. It is also a good candidate for a bedtime story – the rhyming text ends as the day ends, and the characters muse about what the next day may hold. I’d put the ideal reading age at 2-5.

Let’s talk about the art! Kloepper’s art is exceptional, warm, and unaffected. The colored pencil-filled pages are full of delightful details, and yet the lines and strokes are visible enough to prompt kids to mimic them. It’s art, but it’s also artful – the whole book is a feast for the eyes. I include in that the gorgeous production (there’s a yellow cloth binding and embossing on the cover), beautiful endpapers, and a fold-out page spread at the end. It’s pretty enough to be a gift book and practical enough to be a kid-favorite, and that’s the best of both worlds, as far as I’m concerned.


Other (good) things to mention: the family in the story is blended, there isn’t a dust jacket, and while it isn’t nonfiction, this would be a good book to pair with other nonfiction nature-filled picture books, such as The Things That I Love About Trees and Over and Under the Snow, and as a precursor to STEM-friendly titles like Ada Twist, Scientist.

In all, Tiny, Perfect Things is a delightful, tranquil picture book, and should be a hit with most of the preschool set.

Recommended for: children ages 2-5 and their respective adults, and especially any kids whose favorite/first question is “What’s that?”

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

as the crow flies

When I was researching my all-ages guide to girl power graphic novels, I expected to come across some amazing books. I could not have predicted how much I would love Melanie Gillman’s young adult graphic novel As the Crow Flies, though. It’s beautiful in so many ways: from art, to story, to emotional honesty, to tackling tough subjects. I LOVED it, and I think you will too.

as the crow flies by melanie gillman book cover
Charlie Lamonte is thirteen years old, queer, black, and questioning what was once a firm belief in God. So naturally, she's spending a week of her summer vacation stuck at an all-white Christian youth backpacking camp. As the journey wears on and the rhetoric wears thin, she can't help but poke holes in the pious obliviousness of this storied sanctuary with little regard for people like herself… or her fellow camper, Sydney.

Queer black teen Charlie’s parents have signed her up for a week at an all-girls Christian backpacking camp. Charlie has misgivings, but when she arrives and sees a room full of white girls she feels even more like an outsider. Charlie determines to stick it out – but along the way she questions her faith, her presence in the group, and whether she’s truly alone. How will the week end?

One of the strengths of this book is that it is truly Charlie’s story. She’s at the intersection of a couple of marginalized identities, and very aware of that fact. Add in to the mix what is sometimes a hostile (or seemingly hostile) environment and faith into the mix, and the result could have been a muddle. But Gillman’s careful storytelling avoids that. Charlie’s internal dialogues are key to the story, and her honesty (both with herself and with others) is the key to moving forward and finding something positive to carry with her.

A thread throughout the book is questioning the narratives that are being taught by society and the authorities in our lives – and in Charlie’s case, this means the camp story of the women who have gone before and been transformed by the journey (as told by the hike leader Bee). Charlie – sometimes openly and sometimes not – asks important questions that reveal racism and a limited version of feminism. Those around her react in a variety of ways that reflect reality: sometimes people learn and change, and sometimes they stick to their comfort zones. Meanwhile, Charlie’s struggling with her faith through prayer. I found those panels heartbreakingly earnest and honest.

If it’s not clear already, I believe Gillman tells Charlie’s story with sincere, heartfelt grace. Readers will see that and respond to it. As the Crow Flies is quietly magnificent.

And the art! I haven’t even covered it yet. The art is colored pencil and lovely – done in a warm color palette that works with the setting. The beauty of the art elevates the story. Gillman chose to illustrate some key scenes in creative ways – from overhead shots, to emphasizing tiny details, to grand panoramas. Seriously, the book is worth reading for the art alone.

In all, As the Crow Flies is notable for its gorgeous illustration, unusual story in a usual setting (summer camp!), and the kind, open, and unaffected way it tackles important topics.

Recommended for: all readers ages 12 and up, and especially anyone interested in seeing religion, LGBTQ+ representation, and black teens navigating white spaces together in a graphic novel format.

the city on the other side

Fairyland has figured heavily in my pleasure reading for almost as long as I’ve been reading. First, because it is and was a staple of English-language fantasy (a favorite), and secondly because it was the sort of thing I didn’t have to hide from my mother (she never really took to fantasy, but fairies were okay because it’s classic myth!). But complicated feelings about fantasy aside, I read some really fabulous fairy stories as a young one, and I know kid me would have loved Mairghread Scott and Robin Robinson’s The City on the Other Side.

the city on the other side by mairghread scott and robin robinson book cover
In The City on the Other Side, a young girl stumbles into a pitched war between two fairy kingdoms, and the fate of San Francisco itself hangs in the balance!

Sheltered within her high-society world, Isabel plays the part of a perfectly proper little girl—she’s quiet, well-behaved, and she keeps her dresses spotlessly clean. She’s certainly not the kind of girl who goes on adventures.

But that all changes when Isabel breaches an invisible barrier and steps into another world. She discovers a city not unlike her own, but magical and dangerous. Here, war rages between the fairies of the Seelie and Unseelie Courts. Only Isabel, with the help of a magical necklace and a few new friends, stands a chance of ending the war before it destroys the fairy world, and her own.

From Mairghread Scott and Robin Robinson comes a colorful fantasy graphic novel set in early twentieth century San Francisco.

Isabel is a young girl growing up in post-1906 earthquake San Francisco. She lives a sheltered and privileged life, though not necessarily a happy one. She’s admonished not to be a bother, to be silent, and to stay clean. Meanwhile, she’s shuttled between two distracted and/or absent parents. So of course, she ends up in the middle of a fairy war!

One of the strong points in this story is Isabel’s development. Isabel finds purpose and lives through more action in the course of her adventures in fairyland than she has seen in her whole life, and it changes her. She develops her voice, decides who to trust, comes up with plans (even if they’re bad ones), and speaks up to those she loves. In the end she finds a way to live in both worlds.

Another great element of the story is the art. The art in a graphic novel tells just as much (if not more!) of the story as the words on the page, and this book has PHENOMENAL art. Robin Robinson has illustrated fairy creatures of all stripes and looks and mythological traditions. The fairy that can travel through walls and the ground? Super cool! Fairyland also has a direct counterpart in the real world, and the parts where they are overlaid with each other or set side-by-side are wonderful.

On the list of weaker story elements, I’d put the character development of Isabel’s parents and the set-up for and consequences of the fairy war (we see lots of broken down buildings, etc., but the true reason for the war wasn’t revealed until too late in the story). I would also have liked to see more historical elements (rather than just dress), since the story is set quite far in the past.

In all, The City on the Other Side is an enjoyable, beautifully-illustrated middle grade graphic novel featuring protagonists of color, a fairy war, and a race to save the world(s).

Recommended for: fans of graphic novels and fairy art, and readers ages 8 and up who are looking for a quick, fun read.

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

the color of earth

Have you ever participated in a readathon? I hadn’t before. Though I have devoted whole days to reading before (many times!), I didn’t understand how awesome or intense a 24-hour readathon would be. If you are interested in participating, this is the one I did, and the next one is scheduled for October 20, 2018. So, how does this relate to Kim Dong Hwa’s graphic novel The Color of Earth? I read it during the April readathon, of course!

the color of earth by kim dong hwa book cover
First love is never easy.

Ehwa grows up helping her widowed mother run the local tavern, watching as their customers - both neighbors and strangers - look down on her mother for her single lifestyle. Their social status isolates Ehwa and her mother from the rest of the people in their quiet country village. But as she gets older and sees her mother fall in love again, Ehwa slowly begins to open up to the possibility of love in her life.

In the tradition of My Antonia and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, from the pen of the renowned Korean manwha creator Kim Dong Hwa, comes a trilogy about a girl coming of age, set in the vibrant, beautiful landscape of pastoral Korea. 

Ehwa is the daughter of a widowed tavern-keeper in rural Korea, and though life is at times lonely due to her mother’s social status, it is also filled with unexpected beauty. As Ehwa grows up, her understanding of the world grows as well, and she relies on her mother for guidance and wisdom. But as her mother is letting romantic love back in, Ehwa discovers first attraction as well – one that may be complicated.

In this first of three connected volumes, the author writes and illustrates vignettes adapted from his mother’s life as a young girl growing up in pastoral Korea from many years past. The book is focused on Ehwa’s coming of age, and her rich inner life is the heart of the story (instead of dialogue, which most graphic novels rely on heavily).

There is much to love here: excellent art (black and white line work in an anime style with exquisite details in some panels), a strong mother-daughter relationship that features advice-giving, secret-telling, and teaching, an introduction to Korean culture through the meanings of flowers, among other things.

The story is also, if you read it closely, told through a male lens. The book’s blurb compares it to coming-of-age classics A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and My Ántonia. While it does share many similarities with those books, including a portrayal of Ehwa’s budding sexuality over time, it does not have some of the… how shall I say this… gentleness? or understanding? maybe the word I’m looking for is empathy? for a young girl growing up in a world designed for men. I can’t describe it any better than that, but you’ll (probably) understand what I mean.

So, who is this book for? I think it’s for fans of traditional manga or anime – folks who’ve read graphic novels before. But it is also a beautiful introduction into Korean dress, culture, art styles, and so on – and it could be used in education units. It would also be a good pick for those who like graphic novels but don’t usually read historical fiction.

In all, The Color of Earth is a quiet read with strong emotional underpinnings and gorgeous art. I’d pair it with The Undertaking of Lily Chen.

Recommended for: graphic novel fans ages 14 and up, and those who appreciate coming-of-age and historical fiction.

the things that i love about trees

I’ve mentioned this on Instagram before, but one of my local indie bookshops is just down the street from the place I get my hair done. I stop by to browse their picture books nearly every time I walk by, and thus I buy their latest selection, because I have several little ones in my life and no self-control in bookstores. I picked up Chris Butterworth and Charlotte Voake’s The Things That I Love About Trees the last time I was there, and I really adore it.

the things that i love about trees by chris butterworth, illustrated by charlotte voake book cover
In an exuberant text accompanied by gorgeous, windswept illustrations, two esteemed picture-book creators celebrate the mighty tree.

Journey through the seasons and discover how much there is to love about trees! From brand-new buds in spring to the sound of the wind whooshing through the leaves in summer, from the fall colors to the feel of winter's rough bark and the promise of spring returning again -- no matter what time of year, there's always something extraordinary to notice about the trees around your neighborhood. Chris Butterworth's text, gently sprinkled with facts, captures the wonder of a child as Charlotte Voake's busy, buoyant artwork conveys how something as simple and common as a tree can feel like magic taking root around you.

There’s just something wonderful about trees, isn’t there? I’ve always thought so, and I especially thought so growing up in the Pacific Northwest with a front yard full of trees, forts, and pine needles. Chris Butterworth’s nonfiction picture book about trees leads readers through the seasons, starting with spring, and describes how trees act and grow in the changing environment.

The Things That I Love About Trees invites engagement with the senses – Butterworth tells readers how trees react to hot days and storms, reminds them what to listen for, and describes the feel of bark and leaves. It may be printed on traditional paper, but it is a sensual buffet. It made me want to go outside on a tree-spotting walk, and I’m sure others will feel the same!

This book is perfect for a range of young readers – very little ones will love the illustrations and simplicity of the big text story that goes on a seasonal journey. Slightly older and independent readers will enjoy the brief tree facts in smaller text on each page. Adults will appreciate the book’s year-round readability, as each season in a tree’s life cycle is represented. The combination of beautiful art and interesting tree facts ensure that this book will be re-read over and over with love.

Oh, did I mention the art? Charlotte Voake’s illustrations are done in beautiful ink and watercolor, with broad, abstract strokes contrasted with precise, tiny details. The illustrations allow for generous white space on most pages, and the humans and animals included in the illustrations provide scale to trees (and keep the book from being an overwhelming smorgasbord of greenery).  The human figures are mostly fairly indistinct – trees are the focus of the book, after all! The pages depicting enormous summer-time tree trunks were perhaps my favorite – they reminded me of the great trees I’ve seen in my life.

My two personal favorite things about the book were the endpapers, which feature close-ups with different kinds of tree leaves and their identifying information, and the final page spread at the end which suggests tree-adjacent activities and guides younger readers in how to do research! The author doesn’t talk down to his young readers, and that’s always nice to see.

In all, The Things That I Love About Trees is full of facts that will delight curious kids, and perhaps prompt them to want to learn more (and see more)!

Recommended for: tree-lovers and -huggers of all ages, young readers who want to know how things work, fans of Kate Messner's Over and Under the Snow, and teachers doing environmental, natural world, and season-focused units.

the prime of miss jean brodie

I’m currently in Scotland with my mother – a trip that I planned as a gift for her 70th birthday. How did I sneak a pilgrimage to the home of Hogwarts and the book capital of the world (Edinburgh) past my non-reading mother?? Well, there are ancestral ties, and history, and lots of mountains, lochs, and sea to hike, swim, and kayak in (maybe)(if we’re brave enough!). In preparation for our trip, I read a few books by Scottish authors, and my favorite by far was Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.

the prime of miss jean brodie by muriel spark book cover
At the staid Marcia Blaine School for Girls in Edinburgh, Scotland, teacher extraordinaire Miss Jean Brodie is unmistakably, and outspokenly, in her prime. She is passionate in the application of her unorthodox teaching methods and strives to bring out the best in each one of her students. Determined to instill in them independence, passion, and ambition, Miss Brodie advises them, "Safety does not come first. Goodness, Truth, and Beauty come first. Follow me." And they do—but one of them will betray her.

Unconventional schoolteacher Jean Brodie is in her prime, and the group of girls she selects as her set is destined… for what, they do not yet know. But Miss Brodie has assured them she will mold them into the crème de la crème.  The school years of the Brodie set form the background of a comedic, incisive, and thoroughly enjoyable coming-of-age novel – one that never falters in excellence or execution.

At first I thought (as maybe you are thinking now), after reading that description: What is there in this book about a group of girls and their schoolteacher that is so universal, that has won so much acclaim? Also it’s a short book… what can be so enchanting about it? But by chapter two I was a convert. It’s delightfully, perfectly succinct, and it doesn’t need another word added to it at all.

What first caught my attention was the careful unspooling of the personalities of each of the girls in the set, measured by the chronological storyline, but also enhanced by semi-frequent flashbacks and flash-forwards (mostly the flash-forwards). As a reader you are figuring out a central mystery (the betrayal of Miss Brodie! *gasp*) as you go, and Spark leaves a breadcrumb trail that employs repetition, economy, and small twists to outstanding effect.

Here’s how my reading experience went: I knew I was reading a Great Book, but I still spluttered with laughter and raised my eyebrows and thought to myself, “this is FUN” at regular junctures. And mixed in with the absurd and hilarious, there was commentary about classism, religion, and morality – nothing heavy-handed, but threads to tease out and provide context to the world of the novel, the world of 1930s Edinburgh.

I ended my reading happy and refreshed, but also with the wish that this title had been paired with Jane Eyre in my school days – it might have shaken me out of my pious seriousness a bit, and given me some perspective for the stack of Great English Novels I was steadily working my way through. There’s no doubt that The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is brilliant – it is simply so in a sharply edited, comedic sort of way.

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is beyond my powers of description. I adored it.

Recommended for. fans of classic literature, novels, literary fiction, historical fiction, novellas, and coming-of-age fiction. Or really anyone ages 14 and up.

izzy gizmo

Monday, May 21, 2018 | | 2 comments
For almost a decade I’ve been talking a big game about how when my friends and family have kids I fully intend to be “crazy Aunt Celia.” A defining characteristic of Aunt Celia is that she brings a new picture book with her whenever she visits. Well, the dream is now reality (and I’ll stop talking about myself in the 3rd person!). My friends have coached their little ones (parent: “What does Aunt Celia like to do?” child: “READ!!!”), picture books have become my #1 book buying category, and I couldn’t be more pleased (they’re so fun!). I’ve been really impressed by the recent crop of picture books, including Pip Jones’ Izzy Gizmo, beautifully illustrated by Sara Ogilvie.

izzy gizmo by pip jones, illustrated by sara ogilvie book cover
Izzy Gizmo just loves to invent, but her inventions never seem to work the way she wants them to. When she finds a crow with a broken wing she just has to help. Izzy tries again and again to build him a new pair of wings, but nothing is working. Can Izzy overcome her failures? Or will her new crow friend never fly again?

This wonderfully feisty new character from bestselling author Pip Jones is brought to life by acclaimed illustrator Sara Ogilvie.

Precocious young inventor Izzy lives with her supportive grandfather. She designs and builds machines of all kinds, though they don’t always seem to work as they ought. When Izzy finds an injured crow one day, she takes it home – and so begins her most ambitious project yet – to fix its wing.  However, some problems can’t be solved easily. Izzy will need to learn to try and try again before she succeeds.

Izzy Gizmo’s smart, quirky protagonist and her will to carry on despite setbacks will please plenty of children and their parents. The story is rhymed, which could annoy/delight depending on the reader. For my part, it lent the book charming, rhythmic pacing. I look forward to seeing what my nieces think about it – though I expect they’ll be focusing mainly on the vibrant illustrations (and possibly the crow sidekick).

Of course the pictures matter as much (or more!) than the story in some cases, and the art of Izzy Gizmo is eclectic, funny, and possibly inspiring for junior inventors in the wild. Beyond the bright colors themselves, I loved the small details in Ogilvie’s art, like a flying pig lamp, the grandfather’s recognizable Ikea armchair, a picture of an animal with a whole pot stuffed in its mouth at the vet’s office. These subtleties will make rereads a pleasure for both children and adults.

The single thing I loved most about the book? Izzy is a black girl with natural hair and glasses. Though the book has a light tone, Izzy learns serious lessons about coming up with original ideas, getting frustrated, researching to come up with a better solution… and in the end, going back to fix any messes you’ve made along the way. It’s positive picture book representation for smart little girls, and that’s important.

On a personal note, I may have been predisposed to like Izzy because I read this book the day I found out that I have a new niece with that name. This will (of course) be one of her gifts in the coming years.

In all, Izzy Gizmo is a smart, fun picture book with verve. It’ll pair excellently with Rosie Revere, Engineer and other Andrea Beaty books.

Recommended for: readers aged 4-8 and their adults, and especially young ones interested in how things work and/or inventing.

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

scarlett hart: monster hunter

I have the United Kingdom on the brain these days. First, there’s the royal wedding this Saturday (I’ve been invited to an early-morning watch party, and I’m making a Victoria Sponge). Second, next Saturday I’m headed to Scotland with my mom for a 12-day tour/adventure (!!!). And thirdly, I recently read and thoroughly enjoyed Marcus Sedgwick and Thomas Taylor’s England-set middle grade graphic novel Scarlett Hart: Monster Hunter.

scarlett hart: monster hunter by marcus sedgwick and thomas taylor book cover
Scarlett Hart, orphaned daughter of two legendary monster hunters, is determined to carry on in her parents’ footsteps—even if the Royal Academy for the Pursuit and Eradication of Zoological Eccentricities says she’s too young to fight perilous horrors. But whether it's creepy mummies or a horrid hound, Scarlett won’t back down, and with the help of her loyal butler and a lot of monster-mashing gadgets, she’s on the case.

With her parent’s archrival, Count Stankovic, ratting her out to T.R.A.P.E.Z.E. and taking all the monster-catching rewards for himself, it’s getting hard for Scarlett to do what she was born to do. And when more monsters start mysteriously manifesting than ever before, Scarlett knows she has to get to the bottom of it and save the city... whatever the danger!

In his first adventure for middle-grade readers, acclaimed YA author Marcus Sedgwick teams up with Thomas Taylor (illustrator of the original edition of 
Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone) to create a rip-roaring romp full of hairy horrors, villainous villains, and introducing the world’s toughest monster hunter—Scarlett Hart! 

As you can tell from the title, this is the story of Scarlett Hart, the orphaned heir to a monster-fighting legacy. She has a trusty butler and housekeeper on her side and an old mansion filled with cool gadgets to her name, but not much else. She’s too young to officially fight monsters, and her fellow monster-fighting bounty hunters don’t respect either her age or her family name.

In Sedgwick’s first foray into graphic novel territory, the action is pretty much non-stop, there are plenty of fight sequences, and cool gadgets, discoveries, and mysteries make their way into the narrative as well. It’s basically Sherlock Holmes crossed with Batman, with fantastical monsters and a preteen protagonist. In other words, reliable fun. The first page features a sea monster chomping down on a sailor, so it’s pretty clear from the get-go what you’re getting into.

Young readers will identify with wanting to fight their own battles and make a difference, and the frustration of not being taken seriously by adults. Adults will want to take it at face value as a fantasy, and not murmur too much at the irresponsible parenting. All readers will enjoy the transitions from one monster emergency to the next, with some extra big-picture mysteries and a possible open door left at the end for further adventures.

Now, the art! It was my favorite part of this book. The monsters were by far the best part – everything from zombies to ghostly dogs to sea monsters and more. It’s a field day for the imagination, but nothing gets so gory that a younger crowd can’t enjoy it. The color palette also enhance the story – darker, muted tones set a serious mood that complimented some of the lighter moments and contributed to the background scenery.

In all, Scarlett Hart: Monster Hunter is a graphic novel with rousing adventure art that will appeal to monster-obsessed kids.

Recommended for: graphic novel aficionados ages 10 and up, those who think a girl-powered Batman/Sherlock Holmes mashup sounds like fun, and fans of Jonathan Stroud’s Lockwood & Co. and Maryrose Wood's The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place series.

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