Book Review: Surprising Diversity and Enjoyably Lower Stakes in The Baby-sitters Club

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I never read The Baby-sitters Club novels as a younger person.  I was never interested.  Honestly, I am still uninterested; though I can admire the girls’ gumption and savvy, the subject is just not one I find particularly interesting, much as I was never much interested in baby-sitting either and did so only for a few children and only when asked directly.  I turned to this series now because of my intention to catch up on series that sell well and are frequently requested, because the graphic novels are less of a commitment, and because they were readily available through my Libby app.

I’ve now read the first four.  (The next is by a different author, so I am taking a break from the series as this seems the logical break for a review.)

Especially the first of these graphic novels, Kristy’s Great Idea, felt dated to me.  A good part of that is the reliance on a landline, the rarity of Claudia having a phone readily available in her room.  The prevalence of cell phones today negates that part of the Baby-sitters Club’s negotiations.  These kids also just seem so young to be babysitting.  Perhaps that is again my own disinclination to baby-sit and to be a homebody.

Nevertheless I enjoyed these books as a low-stakes diversion.  There is no world-ending crisis in these books, no war.  Much of the drama comes from differences of personality among friends and family (and a rival baby-sitting group that begins to usurp business opportunities for the Club). Most at risk are friendships and a childhood business.

I appreciated the family diversity in this series.  Kristy’s mother is divorced and dating a single man with children of his own.  Mary Anne’s father is a widower.  Claudia lives with her parents, sister, and grandmother, who immigrated from Japan.  Stacey has both parents.

I appreciate the disability awareness as well.  Stacey has diabetes and has to manage her blood sugar through a careful diet and injections.  She originally hides the condition from her new friends in Stoneybrook because she was ostracized by her friends in New York after fainting around them one day.  They feared her condition.  The Baby-sitters Club are completely understanding, however.  In The Truth About Stacey, Stacey has to be her own advocate when her parents try to take her to another fad doctor in New York City.  Stacey finds a more esteemed doctor on her own, with some help from one of her baby-sitting clients, and sets up a visit with him herself.  This story line made me feel seen in ways that little has done, although my chronic condition is not diabetes, and I recommend it for any children with chronic conditions.

In Claudia and Mean Janine, Claudia’s grandmother has a stroke and much of the book is devoted to her family’s care for her through her recovery as she has to relearn speech and basic function.

For the most part, each book seems to focus its main story line on a single of the girls in the Club, but the stories include vignettes from the girls’ babysitting jobs as well, the clients’ stories and the girls’ families’ stories woven too among the girls’.

Never having read the original prose novels by Ann M. Martin, I cannot speak to how truly these stories reflect the source stories.  I did learn, however, that Claudia is Japanese American in the original novels as well, no small thing in books written and published in the 1980s (the other main characters seem to be coded as white and are depicted as white in these graphic novels, although there is more diversity among the neighborhood children, including at least one Black family by the third book, and among the girls’ schoolmates).

The palette that Telgemeier uses is generally bright, and the illustrations are usually un-cluttered, making them easy reading on a smartphone screen.

****

Telgemeier, Raina.  The Baby-sitters Club, Books 1-4.  Based on a series by Ann M. Martin.  New York: Graphix-Scholastic, 2006-2008. Kindle, 2015-2016.

Intended audience: Ages 8-12, Grades 3-7.

Visit Scholastic for links to order, summaries, and sample pages.

This review is not endorsed by Raina Telgemeier, Ann M. Martin, Graphix, or Scholastic, Inc. It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

My 2020 in Books

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There was nothing normal about 2020. That extended to my reading habits.

In 2019 I had read a few very good graphic novels: Jerry Craft’s Newbery-winning New Kid and Ru Xu’s NewsPrints. I started out this year with NewsPrints‘ sequel, Endgames. Loving those, I started the year with the intention to read through the graphic novel sections of two of our local libraries.

Well… along came March, right? The libraries were shuttered. Story times were canceled. By April the doors to the store were closed. By June I was furloughed. By September I was on disability. Here comes January 2021, and I’m still in my house, unable to work and having been unable to find a different, more remote, safer job. (The plan is to return to Barnes & Noble; it’s just taking me time….)

So I did not get to continue reading through the libraries’ graphic novels sections, stopping by every week or so to grab a few more and return the ones that I had finished. I was not going to any library. At all. I was not reading picture books to children weekly. By April I was re-reading old favorites for comfort and for the nostalgia of more precedented times. By June I was all but entirely cut off from new releases. I read a few picture books while house-sitting for friends with a young child and watched two Page Street Kids authors read their new releases for children on Instagram, but otherwise, I was limited to reading only the picture books that were already in my home. It was September before I rediscovered and dove deep into Libby. By September too the local library was doing contact-less pickup from their lobby, so I was able to retrieve a few books that way, though I did not do this near as often as I was reading digitally.

Now battling depression, traumatic responses to the world, a flare-up (I think) of my chronic, neurological health condition, and insomnia, I began reading graphic novels and illustrated middle-grade novels through Libby.

In October I found a few beginning chapter books. By the end of October I was reading anywhere between half a book to two full books in a night, all of them digital.

My page count this year is the highest it has ever been (since 2012) as a result. But I read I think only 22 fully prose novels for middle-grade or above (I read 27 in 2019). I listened to 4 middle-grade or teen audiobooks. I read 7 novels for middle-grade readers that were mixed prose and illustration. I read 33 graphic novels. I read 25 beginning chapter books. I read only 37 picture books (for comparison, I read 90 picture books in 2019). I read 1 nonfiction book that was an examination of medieval folk stories. I read 129 individual titles and read several books twice (accounting for the difference in Goodreads’ count).


I read 15 novels by Tracey West, as many as I could get of the Dragon Masters series. I read 8 books by Shannon and Dean Hale, the whole of the Princess in Black series; 8 by Kazu Kibuishi, the whole of the Amulet series; and 8 by Dav Pilkey, all but one of the Dog Man graphic novels. I read 3 books by Aaron Blabey and 3 by Cressida Cowell (the last 3 of the How To Train Your Dragon series, 2 of those were audiobooks). I read 5 novels and one book of short stories by Rick Riordan. I read 6 novels of Ursula Vernon‘s, the first in the Dragonbreath series. I read 3 novels and one book of short stories by J. K. Rowling. I read 4 short novels by Louis Sachar, the whole of the Wayside School books. I read 3 novels by Maggie Stiefvater (one of them an audiobook). I read three graphic novels by Raina Telgemeier. I read 3 picture books of Adam Wallace‘s and 3 by Dr. Seuss. I read 2 graphic novels by Robert Kondo and Dice Tsutsumi and 2 picture books by Suzanne Lang.

This year, I STRUGGLED to write. There was a month or more where I struggled to read! There were weeks that I missed posting at all. There were plenty of weeks that were not full book reviews. I did not NEARLY keep up with reviewing everything that I read. In an effort to try to catch up some, I began doing some series reviews—which I actually enjoy doing, and I hope that you enjoy reading too, because there will likely be more of those, especially if I continue to read shorter works in a series, but I did not rate those books on Goodreads because it was more difficult for me to rate the books individually.

Many books that I marked as read in 2020 on Goodreads I have not rated. This will make it more difficult for me to do my yearly best of the best posts (I have not yet decided how to best conquer that traditional post this year).

Goodreads says—and I suppose it IS possible—that I acquired NO new books this year that have remained unread. I know that I bought a very few, and those that I remember buying, I have in fact, already read.

No photo is going to be able to capture the books that I read this year, especially since so many were digital and a good number were library books, but I liked the photo from last year, so I’ve tried to pull together what print books I have in the house for a visual, and where I had print copies of the audiobooks, I included those.

How did your reading in 2020 compare to past years? How did… everything effect your reading? I’d be interested to hear more reading journeys in 2020.

Happiest of new years, readers. Here’s to hoping that 2021 (however little it is so far proving itself equal to the task) brings some normalcy and relief and good tidings. Happy new year of reading!

Book Reviews: The Princess in Black Learns to Accept Help from Others

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Oops, so I read another full beginning reader series as I battled insomnia. 

The Princess in Black didn’t capture me in the same way that did Dragon Masters.  These books are far shorter, and they are stories with less arc and less danger than the Dragon Masters.  I read the first in late November when I was a little more than midway through Dragon Masters, and read the 8th of the series at the end of December, not really returning to the series in earnest until after I’d finished Dragon Masters.  I easily—too easily, really—finished a book of The Princess in Black in a night.  I did not find that these had the length or scope to distract my worried mind and let me find sleep.  But they did work stunningly well when I was already tired as has finally happened a few times in the final weeks of December.

I do find Shannon Hale’s sentences and style superior to Tracey West’s.  Hale plays with the words in a way that West, possibly somewhat hindered by her longer format, does not.  There is often repetition of structure as when “Frimplepants had been a whisker away from a nap” (PIB8, 5) and Fur Suit later “had been a tail hair away from a nap” (PIB8, 40).

I appreciate the arc that this series seems to be taking.  Princess Magnolia/the Princess in Black moves from working solo to fight the monsters coming through the hole into Monster Land in the goat pasture to inspiring Duff the Goat Boy to become the Goat Avenger, to inspiring Princess Sneezewort to become the Princess in Blankets, until in this most recent story there are 12 masked princesses and their pets in costume and the Goat Avenger too, working together to stop a giant from squashing a village in Princess Magnolia’s kingdom.  Teamwork more and more often is saving the day.  Friendships are becoming more and more important to the series.

The princesses’ battles are expressed in illustrations spread over two pages with fanciful names for battle moves, the last of three always beginning with “twinkle twinkle little” in a superhero-comic-like fashion.  There’s never any blood drawn in these battles, and the battles are always against fantasy monsters.

(PIB8: 26-27)

Each in this series is about 100 pages, but nearly every page has either a full, facing illustrated page or the text is broken by an illustration taking up a half or third of the page.  The illustrations by LeUyen Pham are bright and whimsical.

Princess Magnolia may be prim and proper, but she’s also interested in the sciences.  The princesses all attend a science fair in the 6th story (in that Princess Magnolia HIGHLIGHT TO REVEAL THE SPOILER gracefully loses the contest, an important lesson too) and in the 7th Princess Magnolia is building a bridge of kitchen utensils, a task I recognize as a classic middle grade science challenge, when her day is interrupted by an unpleasant stench.

This is a series for early readers.  There is action.  The action imitates superhero and ninja stories.  There are princesses who refuse to be confined to only wearing frilly dresses and hosting tea parties, though these things are not vilified.  These were an enjoyable diversion, and the stories seem only to be getting better as friendships and teamwork become more important and more and more heroes join with Princess Magnolia to protect their kingdoms.

****

Hale, Shannon and Dean. Illus. LeUyen Pham. The Princess in Black, Books 1-8. New York: Candlewick-Penguin Random, 2015-2020.

Intended audience: Ages 5-8.

Visit Penguin Random House for links to order every book in the series, for summaries, samples, and reviews.

This review is not endorsed by Shannon Hale, Dean Hale, LeUyen Pham, Candlewick Press, or Penguin Random House. It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

Book Reviews: Skimming the Too Often Unexplored Depths of the Dragon Masters Series

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A brief aside just to apologize for the weeks of silence. The holiday stress on top of everything else just shoved this poor blog to a back burner, but I have continued reading a fair few new titles. Happy December holidays to all!

A few minor series spoilers, but little of detail.

Dragon Masters has been a popular seller in our store (and now that I am hooked on Libby, I wonder if that is in part because our library has this whole series on that app—and has few full, beginning chapter book series on the app).  For both of these reasons—their popularity and their availability—I worked my way through this series from late October to early December during restless nights—usually finishing one of these novels in a night or two, and I am now as far as my library card and Libby app will allow (a few more books have been released that are not available digitally on that app with my card).

The first four novels in the series establish the base characters—a set of four children, roughly 8 years old; their paired dragons; their mentor, Griffith the wizard; the primary antagonist, a wizard named Maldred; and the antagonistic king, Roland, who really isn’t addressed as much in the course of the first 15 books as I think that he should be.

The first four books are about these four children learning to connect with their paired dragons more strongly.  The primary character of the series, Drake, a child from the English-like kingdom of Bracken, is the first to succeed in strongly connecting with his dragon, though each of the other three has been working with their dragon for longer—

—which was annoying because it plays into that trope of the student very quickly outshining his mentor—especially because Drake presents as a white male and his counterparts are a white girl also from Bracken, an Egyptian girl, and a Chinese boy, so it plays into the idea of white male superiority a little too easily—despite Drake’s gentle and unassuming nature.

Each successive book introduces a new dragon and a new dragon master. Several of these new Dragon Master must be introduced to told of their gift and waiting dragon by Drake and one of the other three main protagonists. Some are already connected with their dragon and either help or must be helped by the four main protagonists. Often these Dragon Masters come from a culture different than that of Bracken.

On the whole, the inclusivity of this series to me seemed token and strained despite the prevalence of non-white characters and cultures.  The children visit places that are very clear echoes of places in our world but the representation of those cultures relies on stereotypes signaled even in the place names.  Ana, who connects with her dragon in the second book, though I would argue that Drake remains our primary POV character, is from “the Land of Pyramids.”

Later, when we return to the Land of Pyramids in the 6th book to catch up with a character from 2nd who comes in the 6th to the series’ main four for help, the pyramids are misused and mischaracterized.  Heru’s parents seem to live in a pyramid and there have a library of ancient texts about dragons.  But though they and the group of which they are a part have been studying these texts for years, it is Griffith who finds the information that the Dragon Masters need to find the stone?  Jennifer on Goodreads notes this too.

It is a comfort that most characters from cultures outside of Bracken are generally treated as benevolent, the Dragon Masters from these cultures as heroic, and the leaders as wise.

The exception is Eko, a character of Near Eastern descent, perhaps Japanese, who for two books becomes the antagonist while Maldred is imprisoned.  Eko’s introduction brings one of the more interesting subplots—though it was not explored to the extent that I wish that it had been.  Eko, a former student of Griffith’s, fought with Griffith over the autonomy of the dragons, and one of the current students, Rori, sympathizes with Eko’s chaffing against Griffith’s caution and rules while Drake wonders whether Eko’s cause is not just.

Eko briefly works for but then turns later against Maldred when she realizes that he does not share her goal of autonomy for the dragons, and she must be rescued by Rori and Drake.

What was additionally frustrating for me was how easily arguments and differences of opinion were always resolved.  Once Rori returned to Bracken, and she did so less because she had lost faith in Eko’s cause than that the others’ needed her dragon Vulcan and she found that she missed her friends, the question of dragon autonomy pretty much vanished.  Other arguments were set up and resolved with a few lines of dialogue, with most characters usually caving to Drake or Griffith.  Arguments were set up and never had.  I wanted to dive more deeply into whether the Dragon Masters should be working with King Roland.  I wanted to dive more deeply into whether it was right that the dragons live apart with their Dragon Masters and not with their dragon families.  I was given plenty of conflict within the plot, but little of that came from disagreement between the protagonists.  (My mother can make snide remarks here about The Boxcar Children if she wishes and is reading this.)

I am only really beginning to dip my toes into the beginning chapter books section (apart from this series, I have read a few first books of other series and am currently working through The Princess in Black), and this is the first series I’ve been able to almost finish, but this has a stronger arc than any of the others seem to do—both within the stories and as a series.  These are higher reading, higher interest beginning chapter books, as perhaps should have been signaled to me by their lack of colored illustrations (I’ll let you know if that observation holds true as I read other series; I don’t honestly think that it will).

I recognized even as I kept borrowing later books especially that these just weren’t the best written books that I could be reading, but there was a safety in them, in that surety that whatever crisis would be resolved, in that lack of true argument, in that lack of a sense of high stakes, I suppose, that was good for easing my mind away from the horrors of real life and into some kind of sleep—while the books still had a plot, still had a villain who intended real harm, while the series still had a loose, connecting arc.  These are also long enough to serve as a decent distraction until sleep becomes more insistent, where a series like The Princess in Black is proving not to be long enough. I thought at first that I didn’t really enjoy them, but I’m realizing that I did; I just maybe didn’t enjoy that I was enjoying a series that was so clearly meant for a younger audience and I was frustrated that the series shied from issues that I wanted to discuss.

There are individual books in the series about which I have particular thoughts, but this review seems long enough. Perhaps I will return to this series at some point to share my favorites and least favorites, the individual stories that particularly struck a note with me.

***

West, Tracey. Illus. Graham Howells (Books 1-4), Damien Jones (Books 5-10), Nina De Polonia (Book 11), Sara Foresti (Book 12), Daniel Griffo (Books 13 and 15), Matt Loveridge (Book 14). Dragon Masters, Books 1-15. New York: Branches-Scholastic, 2014-2020.

Intended audience: Ages 6-8.

Visit Scholastic for links to order, summaries, reviews, author and illustrator and character bios, reading guide, and activity sheets.

This review is not endorsed by Tracey West, Graham Howells, Damien Jones, or any of the series’ illustrators, Branches Books, or Scholastic, Inc. It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

Book Review: Surviving the City: Crises in Indigenous Communities

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This is a Canadian graphic novel about two teenage friends, Miikwan and Dez, who are First Nations tribes members (the books’ description names Miikwan as Anishinaabe and Dez as Inninew) in a city (I think based on some research that the city is Winnipeg), the population of which is not primarily Indigenous.  In just a few short pages (just over 50), this book tackles several heavy subjects.

Miikwan’s mother is one of the alarmingly large number of Indigenous women in Canada who have disappeared and not been found.  Dez is living with her grandmother, a diabetic woman who is about to lose her foot to the disease.  Social workers intend to take Dez away from her and put her in foster care, bringing up memories of the seizure of Indigenous children to be put into residential schools.  Unwilling to be taken from her grandmother, Dez spends a two nights on the streets, hiding from the social workers, before being found by another Indigenous woman who takes her to a safe place, a center for Indigenous people.

To wrestle her fear while Dez is missing, with the prompting of the school’s Indigenous guidance counselor, Geraldine, Miikwan joins a march to raise awareness for the missing Indigenous women like her mother.

I felt a little like an outsider reading this story—and I am.  I am privileged as a white woman in a predominately white society in ways that the girls as members of a minority in a predominately white city are not.  I was unfamiliar with the ceremonies discussed and depicted in the novel.  I am unfamiliar with the traditions.  I would have enjoyed a little more information, especially about what the mentioned traditions—smudging, the Berry Fast—mean historically to the Indigenous characters, even if only in the afterward, which does have many resources for learning about murdered and missing Indigenous women, girls, and two-spirit people (sometimes shorthanded as MMIWG2S).  I do feel like I have some idea from the text what these experiences mean emotionally to the characters, which is no small feat for the author and illustrator.

But I also know that there is a chance that this book is not written for me and that it is written intentionally to make a white woman like myself to feel like an outsider.

It appears that the First Nations people in the novel’s illustrations are accompanied by ancestral spirits—most of the spirits are women—and that some outside of the First Nations are accompanied by more malevolent, more shapeless, and darker-colored spirits.

The girls are occasionally harassed on their walks in the city by people—primarily if not only white men—accompanied by these malevolent spirits.  The mall has become a place of discomfort, with too many of these spirits present, and the girls leave it quickly, going instead to the Forks, an outdoor park steeped in Indigenous history.

Spillet and Donovan cleverly use text messages and Facebook posts within the text and the illustrations, which makes the setting very obviously modern.

This is an important subject on which to shed light.  This story like the butterfly-shaped signs made by the characters for the march remind us as Geraldine says, “that our women are more than the statistics, that they are valued and loved,” and the story gives examples of a few healthy ways to hold space for a loved one while grieving.

There are (one is really too many) readers who will feel truly seen by this story of survival as a minority in an antagonistic society.

***

Spillett, Tasha.  Surviving the City, Vol 1.  Illus. Natasha Donovan.  Winnipeg: HighWater-Portage & Main, 2019.

Intended audience: Grades 7-12

Visit Portage & Main Press for links to order, summary, preview, resources list, reviews, and awards list.

This review is not endorsed by Tasha Spillett, Natasha Donovan, HighWater Press, or Portage & Main Press. It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

Challenge: November 2020 Lines Out of Context

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So these have been too much fun, and they’re decent writing exercises, so I’m thinking about making them a monthly thing. I’ve gone back to tag older self-imposed challenges of this type with “out of context” so that they’ll be easy to find together.

The challenge is this: Find the last line that I have read in the several books that I consider myself to be actively reading at any one time and try to use those lines to make a new scene, first adding nothing to the lines, only arranging them, and then I’ve added a second layer: trying to make the lines more cohesive by giving them new dialogue tags and adding new lines to create new context.

Doing this is a writing challenge for me that also gives you a glimpse into my “currently reading” pile while giving you the smallest sampling of text from each of the books on that pile.

In no particular order, the last lines I read in the 5 stories that I would consider myself actively reading are:

“Oh yeah…” (Book 5: Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix by J. K. Rowling)

And with that, Spencer had to be satisfied. (Dragonbreath, Book 6: Revenge of the Horned Bunnies by Ursula Vernon)

“By Castor, you just never change, you never change!” (“The Brothers Menaechmus,” Four Comedies, Oxford World’s Classics by Plautus) *This is a play, and I decided to stick with the spoken dialogue instead of using the stage directions, which are written as sentence fragments or very oddly constructed sentences. Of course, the quotation marks I added here to keep it in style with the other prose books.

“You’d better!” snapped Boo from his place on the elephant’s trunk. (Aru Shah and the End of Time by Roshani Chokshi

Babbitty hopped out of the grounds and far away, and ever after a golden statue of the washerwoman stood upon the tree stump, and no witch or wizard was ever persecuted in the kingdom again. (“Babbitty Rabbitty and her Cackling Stump,” The Tales of Beedle the Bard by J. K. Rowling)


I think the order in which they make the most sense (to me) is:

“Oh yeah…”

“By Castor, you just never change, you never change!”

“You’d better!” snapped Boo from his place on the elephant’s trunk.

Babbitty hopped out of the grounds and far away, and ever after a golden statue of the washerwoman stood upon the tree stump, and no witch or wizard was ever persecuted in the kingdom again.

And with that, Spencer had to be satisfied.


So there are A LOT of names in that pack: Boo, Babbitty, and Spencer seem to be the players who MUST be on stage. Why is Spencer satisfied that Babbitty’s left and why is it not really enough? Why and how is Boo on an elephant’s trunk? At whom are Boo and the unnamed second speaker yelling? And why are they yelling (apart from that that person never changes)?

“Oh yeah….” Babbitty’s eyes glazed over as she looked at the life-sized statue, completely out of place in the muddy fair grounds, despite the sagging, striped silk tents of the traveling circus, and unwieldy baggage for a traveling troupe, especially a troupe whose annual profits had just been spent on a statue.

“By Castor,” Spencer swore, “you just never change, you never change!”

“You’d better!” snapped Boo from his place on the elephant’s trunk.

Babbitty hopped out of the grounds and far away, and ever after a golden statue of the washerwoman stood upon the tree stump, and no witch or wizard was ever persecuted in the kingdom again.

The statue proved to heavy to carry, but with Babbitty fled, though perhaps she would never change, she would not bother them with her thoughtless spending again. And with that, Spencer had to be satisfied.


I still have not to my satisfaction answered what the statue has to do with witches and wizards, but otherwise… with that, I’ll have to be satisfied.

So how’d I do? Would you do something different with these lines? Would you like to try with your own “currently reading” pile? Let me know in comments. I’d love to see how others approach this challenge.

Book Reviews: Dragonbreath is My Tonic for a Pandemic Reading Slump

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Continuing my quest for books that are enough like cotton candy that I can handle them in the middle of a pandemic, I stumbled across the Dragonbreath series in late September, and was very pleasantly surprised.  This series has been my best pandemic companion so far.

Danny Dragonbreath, a dragon with an overactive imagination and a predilection for cult movie genres, living in a suburban American community of less mythical reptiles and amphibians, has to struggle through the trials of middle school—homework, bullies, questionable cafeteria food….  His best friend, Wendell, an iguana and a straight-A student, is by his side—despite the many adventures and trips to the emergency room.  The protagonists’ relationship dynamic is one that I enjoy a great deal: the impulsive, reckless daredevil and the worried, doubtful, loyal friend. 

The parents too are individuals.  I enjoy that they have their own lives and quirks and are not just vehicles for the plot, not just support for (or hindrance to) Danny, and I like that his two parents complement one another and seem to have a good, working partnership.  Also Mrs. Dragonbreath is me in the morning.

The books blend adventure with the school story, fantasy with nonfiction (they squeeze in factoids among ninja frogs and were-wieners, making me feel like I do learn and that the books aren’t total cotton candy), and prose with the graphic novel format, where the prose occasionally breaks for an often very expressive bit of illustration with dialogue in speech bubbles and the text is sometimes broken by a full or partial page illustration.  The color palette is simple: primarily black, white, and shades of green. 

These are pretty nearly exactly what I’ve needed during this pandemic.  They are light.  They are ridiculous.  But there is enough plot that I feel that there are stakes, that the story has a reason to exist beyond laughs.  I began reading these mostly at night on my phone while battling insomnia, but once I read all that the Libby app had to offer, I moved on to print copies in the daytime.

Although I think that they’d read fairly easily independently of one another, successive books reference early ones. The first five books teach 1) marine life and oceanic geography 2) ninjas and samurai 3) werewolf mythology 4) Zapotec mythology and bat biology and lifestyles 5) the fraud of spiritualism and ghost stories from around the world.

SPOILERS.

Dragonbreath, Book 1.  2009.

Danny Dragonbreath is given the chance to rewrite a paper, but no way is going to read a book to learn about the ocean.  Instead, he’s going to the mythical Sargasso Sea to visit his cousin the sea serpent.  And Wendell is coming too.  Edward takes the two on a tour of the ocean, a mostly educational foray until in a deep-sea trench they are attacked by a giant squid and the book becomes more of an adventure as they have to be saved by Edward’s friend, a sperm whale.

Book 2: Attack of the Ninja Frogs.  2010.

Wendell is crushing on the foreign exchange student, Suki, and Danny is less than pleased about Wendell’s attempts to coax a girl to join them in the lunchroom.  A scream in the park after school draws Danny and Wendell to the rescue—because the chance to be a hero isn’t to be ignored, and maybe they’ll find an adult to help them on the way.  They find Suki fighting off two ninja frogs, who when Danny and Wendell arrive flee, leaving Suki behind.  Suki doesn’t know what to do about the ninjas, who seem to be stalking her.  Danny takes her to mythical Japan to visit his great-grandfather and learn about samurai and ninjas. They allow themselves to be captured by the ninjas to lead a group of samurai to the ninjas’ hideout.

Although this parodies ninja films far more than any kind of Japanese history or even (I think) any Japanese mythology, Vernon still finds time to squeeze in a few factoids about historical ninjas and samurai. 

Although Danny’s views of girls are disappointing, I like Suki herself as a character.  Also disappointing was the implication that a boy identifying in a way that is historically feminine is worthy of derision.  I have not seen that called out as much as I have Danny’s aversion to associating with a girl.  It was only this one page, but rereading this book, that moment was a gut-punch.

Book 3: Curse of the Were-wiener.  2010.

The tale of suspect cafeteria food continues.  Wendell is bitten by a disturbingly red hot dog served to Danny in the school cafeteria.  He and many other members of the student body begin to sprout hair all over his body, which itches terribly.  Sneaking into the school kitchen, Danny discovers the packaging for the wieners, Transylvanian were-wieners that are known to have caused lycanthropy.  The company’s toll free number, however, provides them with little help but the information that they can cure Wendell and the others if they kill the alpha.  Danny and Wendell travel to the sewers to enlist the help of the animate potato salad that Danny released in the first book and get help from the rats that treat the potato salad reverentially and have been adding to its mass with tributes.  But their quest is a race against the clock because in three days Wendell and the others infected by the rogue were-wieners will be under the sway of the alpha wurst, determined to protect the alpha and unable to be cured of their lycanthropy.

Book 4: Lair of the Bat Monster.  2011.

In this Danny and Wendell rescue a bat from a pool drain, and not sure what to do to help it, Mrs. Dragonbreath sends them to Mexico and Danny’s cousin Steve, who researches bats.  While investigating the cave in the Mexican jungle that is the focus of Steve’s studies, Danny is carried off by a monstrously large bat who seems to be the Zapotec god Camazotz, leaving Wendell and Steve to track down the bat and rescue Danny, which of course does not go smoothly.  Wendell barely squeezes through the spider-infested crevice to get to Danny in Camazotz’s cave, and Camazotz is blocking the easier exit, so the two go deeper into the cave and discover the Camazotz who abducted Danny has a mate—and he’s hungry.  Bat species and behavior and Zapotec mythology are the areas of study in this novel.  I may be partial because I know a bat researcher and I didn’t know any Zapotec mythology, so I learned lots (and I love a good myth), but this has been my favorite so far.

Book 5: No Such Thing as Ghosts.  2011.

Danny Dragonbreath makes a Halloween special.  Dared by Big Eddy to enter a haunted house on Halloween night, Danny can hardly refuse when socially awkward, self-assured doubter Christiana agrees to go in—and Wendell follows rather than be left with Big Eddy.  Once locked inside, the three disentangle the explicable from the supernatural and turn around to scare Big Eddy with their knowledge of the house.  But even with Big Eddy fled, the three are locked in… and they may not be alone.  Still no one can explain how that creepy crying clown painting was replaced by one of a mundane flower vase, and the walls are oozing something that looks like… raw eggs….  And what is that in the doorway!?  I do not handle horror books well.  I managed to get through the creepy clowns and slamming doors, but… the thrills were atmospheric.  There were fewer factoids in this than in previous novels, though Wendell drops some knowledge of ghosts from around the world and Christiana briefly explains the scam of spiritualists. 

  —

I expect that I will finish this series if it is at all possible.  I currently have book 6 out from the library.  Episodic as these books are and as the reviews that I’ve been writing for them have become, I don’t want to subject you to a full review of all 11 in the series.  So maybe we’ll split them here, the first 5 and the last 6.  That I’m enjoying these enough to seek out the physical copies from the library really ought to be most of the review that you need, but if that isn’t enough:

These are a lot of fun.  They’ve been exactly the right level of nonsense and cohesive plot for me during this pandemic.  Read them.  Try one.  You don’t have to, it seems, read them in any particular order, so pick up whatever topic interests you most.

Objectively, the series overall is probably more of a

****

but during these weird times, when they have been everything I’ve needed in a series, it is tempting to bump them up to

*****

This review is not endorsed by Ursula Vernon, Dial Books for Young Readers, or Penguin Random House LLC. It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

Vernon, Ursula. Dragonbreath series. New York: Dial-Penguin Random, 2009-2011.

Intended audience: Ages 8-12.

Visit the Penguin Random House for links to order and summaries.

Book Review: Friendship as a Superpower in Hilo

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Spoilers!

It was the jacket blurb on the back of the most recent (6th) book in the Hilo series that got me interested in this graphic novel series:  “Being a hero isn’t easy.  But Hilo had no idea it would be this hard.  Hilo came to earth because he was running from Razorwark.  But he’s done running.”

DJ Lim feels mediocre in the shadow his four siblings.  In the absence of his best friend, Gina Cooper, who moved to New York 3 years back, he feels alone.  Being friends with Gina was the one thing that he felt he was good at. 

Alone, he goes to investigate a fallen object and finds a pale-skinned, blond boy in metallic underwear in the crater.  The boy speaks English—or he does after a static shock occurs between him and DJ—but he knows nothing of Earth—not grass, not milk, not rice—and delightfully believes that humans scream at one another in greeting—nor does he know anything about himself or where he came from or why he fell from the sky.  He gives DJ no choice but to befriend him as he asks the way to DJ’s house and then leads the way there with a cry of “outstanding!”  Hilo faces anything short of life-threatening (and even a few things that are life-threatening) with exuberance.

Over the course of the book, Hilo begins to remember more about his life before he fell.  It comes to light that he is a robot who can shoot lasers from his hands and fly and that his mission is to stop Razorwark, a robot who destroyed the capital city where Hilo lived.  In his more technologically advanced parallel universe, robots do most work for humans, but some robots have become noncompliant and are seeking to destroy instead of serve humans.  Hilo was created to stop the noncompliant, “bad” robots, the most powerful of which is Razorwark (155). (Razorwark’s methods of rebellion, destroying the whole city, are extreme, but I’ll be interested in more discussion in later books about whether the cause itself is wrong.)

There is a great deal of action in this book, whole pages of battle without dialogue.  There are too many jokes about burping for my taste.  Although with Hilo’s photographic memory and ability to breeze through a dictionary and most of an encyclopedia collection in 20 minutes, Winick squeezes in factoids about Texas and some difficult vocabulary words like “octoped” and “astronomy” and “vacate.”

Although the titular character bears the appearance of a white male, I appreciate the diversity in this cast.  DJ, who I would argue is the primary POV character, is Asian American, and his best friend, Gina—who happens to return to town the same day that Hilo crashes there—is Black. 

I really appreciated the lesson about the elasticity of friendship and about what makes a person interesting: 

(p. 125 and 132)

DJ by protecting Hilo reminds Hilo that he was made to protect others.  DJ learns the strength and importance of his skill in friendship, although it is difficult to put on a college resume. 

Hilo returns to his universe to protect the people of this, his friends DJ and Gina and their families.  But it isn’t enough.  In the final pages, Razorwark comes through the portal through which Hilo fell, making quite a hook for book 2 in the series.

***

Winick, Judd. Hilo, Book 1: The Boy Who Crashed to Earth. New York: Penguin Random, 2015.

Intended audience: Ages 8-12.

Visit Penguin Random for links to purchase, summary, sample, reviews, and author’s bio.

This review is not endorsed by Judd Winick, Penguin Random House LLC. It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

Book Review: Ghosts’ Spirit Is Good But

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Raina Telgemeier is a name any children’s bookseller knows (even if I’m not sure how many of us—myself included—are sure of the pronunciation of that surname. I just checked myself, and I have been pronouncing it correctly!  Scholastic has videos on its YouTube channel where she introduces herself, like this one for Ghosts.).  Her books are frequently bestsellers, frequently were on company-mandated displays, are frequently requested, and Drama is also frequently on the challenged books lists.  Of her many books—Drama, the Smile series, the first set of the new Babysitters’ Club graphic novels, etc.—Ghosts is the one I was most excited to try, the only one, I believe, to have any element of fantasy—which, if you’ve spent any time on this blog, you’ll know to be my genre of choice.  I was excited too to see the representation of Mexican culture.

And so one night as I struggled for sleep, I found myself reading Ghosts in its entirety on my phone using the library’s most-nifty Libby app (seriously, Libby has been a Godsend during the pandemic, and I 100% recommend getting in touch with your library to see if they use it or something similar).

Cat, Maya, and their family are moving from a southern Californian town to a northern one called Bahía de la Luna.  Maya has cystic fibrosis, and the salt air of the seaside town is supposed to be good for her.  Cat is sad to be leaving behind her home and her friends.  Bahía de la Luna is foggy and cold and has a strange reputation for hauntings.  Their neighbor, Carlos, is a ghost tour guide, who gels with Maya almost immediately.  He and his family help Cat and Maya and their mother (who is a fully assimilated Mexican American married to a white man) reconnect with their Mexican heritage.  When with Maya’s prodding, he takes the girls to the haunted mission, the ghosts’ interaction with Maya, though friendly, brings on such a violent reaction that she is home-bound for the first months of the school year.  Cat gets to experience a life at school where others don’t know her sister, where she is neither beneath the shadow of her sisters’ illness nor sharing her friends with her sister.

Maya hopes on Día de los Muertos to be visited by the ghost of their estranged Mexican grandmother. Cat, far more nervous of the ghosts than anyone else, including Maya, has to be persuaded by Maya to attend the town’s midnight Día de los Muertos celebration at the mission and face her fears. Once there, she makes peace with the ghosts, who party with the living on that night, even bringing one of them, Carlos’ eight-year-old uncle, back to the house to meet Maya. With José’s help, Cat comes a bit more to terms with the possibility of her sister’s premature death, because in Bahía de la Luna, death is not a permanent goodbye. It is implied that their grandmother comes back to the family as a cat.

I appreciate the story of a family reconnecting with their heritage, but reviews tell me to curb my enthusiasm for Telgemeier’s representation here of Mexican culture and history.  I’m not the most informed voice to listen to there, and I’ll refer you to others’ reviews (Debbie, Kimberly, Booktoss). In sum, the main critiques seem to be that the history of the missions and the Mexican people’s experiences in missions is grossly misrepresented and that the celebration of Día de los Muertos is poorly handled and disconnected from the honoring of family, becoming instead a town-wide party that includes the living and the dead, where the dead interact equally with family and strangers and friends made after their passing.

Cat goes trick-or-treating and then to the Día de los Muertos party dressed as her namesake, La Catrina, a figure of Día de los Muertos, whom she learns about from her friends earlier in October. La Catrina is a Mexican cultural icons that is too often used as a costume, appropriated by those outside of the culture and who do not celebrate Día de los Muertos. It is better that Cat, newly learning about her Mexican heritage, dress as La Catrina than that one of her white or Black friends does, and La Catrina is an appropriate costume it seems for Día de los Muertos, but I still don’t know how I feel about seeing La Catrina as a Halloween costume, even on Cat.

As a note, this book came out the year before Coco, which brought Día de los Muertos even more into the public conscious and spotlight and, from reviews that I remember reading at the time, seems to have been better received by the community.

I also can’t speak to the accuracy of the representation of cystic fibrosis and will refer you to Sharon’s review on that or this by Gunnar Esisaon.  (I was an older sibling with a childhood illness that left me home-bound, but I am almost wholly unfamiliar with CF.)  I appreciate Telgemeier shining a light on childhood illness and on a less-often represented illness.  I appreciate that Maya’s illness is represented as something both that she has to manage, that does disable her and keep her from doing “normal” things sometimes, but also something that she has largely accepted.  Maya is neither a morose, bedridden figure nor the shining success story of a miraculous recovery.  Sometimes recovery isn’t possible, and management is the goal, and that’s hard, but that’s real. Cat struggles to accept Maya’s illness and struggles with the shadow of being Maya’s sister, of having to share her friends when Maya can’t go out to make any of her own. I appreciate the representation of Cat’s struggle both with being the sister to a chronically ill sibling and with the possibility of Maya’s premature death.

Ghosts tries to achieve a lot, and the story is good.  Where it falls is in its connection with the ghosts of the story to Mexican culture and tradition.  As much as this wouldn’t be a story of reconnecting with heritage if the parts about Mexican heritage and culture had been left out, I wish that more research had been done, more sensitivity readers consulted before the book’s publication.  It seems that a few fairly simple changes would have made this a far less problematic book. Perhaps even just the exclusion of the mission altogether.

The less than accurate representation does present an opportunity for learning in the classroom and for all of us though.  There were details that Telgemeier got correct, and those make a jump point for curious readers.  We just have to be curious enough to correct our impressions from the book.

I can’t quite offer this book four stars because it did fall too short too often, but it was also an impressive undertaking, so a medial three stars seems too little.

***1/2

Telgemeier, Raina. Ghosts. New York: Graphix-Scholastic, 2016.

Intended audience: Ages 8-12.

Visit Scholastic for links to order, summary, preview, trailer, and discussion guide.

This review is not endorsed by Raina Telgemeier, Graphix, or Scholastic Inc. It is an independent, honest review by a reader.