Tag Archives: graphic novel

Book Reviews: Clearing the Fog with The Dam Keeper

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Click to visit the publisher's site for links to order, summary, sample pages, reviews, and authors' bios.Click to visit the publisher's page for links to order, summary, sample pages, reviews, and authors' bios.When Pixar art directors get together to work on a graphic novel series, you have to expect excellent illustrations and story. It seems that the series is actually based on a short film from the two animators from 2014, and that they had intended a feature length film that, to my knowledge, has not been released. There seems too to be a series of short episodes under the title Pig: The Dam Keeper: Poems, released the same year as the first graphic novel. I’ve seen none of the animated pieces.

I am less attracted by the art style of these characters—which is very cartoonish and round—than to the background illustrations, which are soft and subtle and gloriously detailed. It was the description on the book’s flap and then the first few pages of text and illustration that got me to take the first home from the library, though, on a whim.

“Nothing lives in the fog… except memories. Painful memories. They haunt me. Memories of emptiness and loss. The dam holds back the sea of black fog.”

That’s fantastically poetic for a children’s graphic novel and fantastically bleak.

The protagonist Pig becomes the de facto dam keeper after his father, mad with grief, leaves the dam for the world beyond, which is shrouded in a dark and deadly fog. Still a child, Pig tries to balance his responsibilities as dam keeper—a job that the townsfolk have forgotten the importance of—with school and a friendship that he has built with Fox. Fox, more free of responsibility than Pig, has made a new friend in the school bully, Hippo, who frequently targets Pig. Fox tries to bridge her two friends into a trio, but neither Pig nor Hippo is particularly willing to see past first impressions.

An accident at the dam strands the three characters together in the wasteland beyond the town. Lost, they attempt to find their way back home and must rely on each others’ strengths to see them there: Pig’s brains, Hippo’s brawn, and Fox’s kindness.

Fox’s kindness leads them to the blind lizard Van, who promises to help the children home—but first they must retrieve—liberate—Van’s truck from a city very like their own with an even more impressive dam—but in this industry has made the air inside the city walls so foul that the three require their gas masks to breathe.

As they travel across the wasteland in Van’s stolen truck, they find more cities and more civilizations that have found ways to survive in what Pig has always believed to be a dead wasteland.

They narrowly escape being sacrificed by one such civilization to a creature of smoke, which they discover to be a machine with the insignia of the dam keepers on its side.

Throughout all of this, Pig keeps seeing the ghost of his father.

By the end of the second book, the reader begins to see the changes that their adventures have wrought in the three friends manifest. Pig loosens up enough to join his friends in attempting Van’s silly dance. Hippo crushes Van in a hug when they are reunited, and he is friendlier towards Pig.

It must be mentioned too that I appreciate a series with a female and two male protagonists that has no romantic entanglement in sight.

These authors favor a slow reveal through dropped bits of dialogue over a more straightforward and immediate reveal.

A good deal of the storytelling is done through the illustrations. Many of the issues driving the misfortune of the world are only hinted at and must be inferred: pollution, unsafe industrial practices that harm the environment and quality of life, forgetfulness, tribalism, ignorance, deforestation. Some of these I may be incorrectly inferring without the whole story too. There’s a third book that I have yet to read.

I think for this series about child protagonists who find their world turned upside down learning so little so slowly works.

Both of these books ends on a cliffhanger, and given the current state of things, I have not been able to arrange to have the third book in my hands.

The villains in Ru Xu’s Newsprints & Endgames and Kazu Kibushi’s Amulet series are (literally) more concrete than the ones here, but I think there are certainly some thematic similarities between the three, and this may be a new series for those who have enjoyed either. I have read two volumes of each, which is the full story (100%) for Ru Xu’s, two-thirds (about 66%) for Dam Keeper, and only about 22% of Amulet, so my comparisons may yet prove flawed.

***1/2

Kondo, Robert and Dice Tsutsumi. The Dam Keeper, Book 1. New York: Tonko House-First Second-Roaring Brook-Holtzbrinck distributed by Macmillan, 2017.

Kondo, Robert and Dice Tsutsumi. The Dam Keeper, Book 2: World Without Darkness. New York: Tonko House-First Second-Roaring Brook-Holtzbrinck distributed by Macmillan, 2018.

Intended audience: Ages 7-11.

This review is not endorsed by Robert Kondo, Dice Tsutsumi, Tonko House, First Second Books, Roaring Brook Press, or Holtzbrinck Publishing Holdings Limited Partnership.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

Book Review: Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy: Modern Little Women

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Click to visit the publisher's page for links to order, summary, and reviews.

Spoilers.

After 150 years, it was perhaps time for an updated version of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. This isn’t the first attempt to update the classic, but I think it might be the first to do so as a graphic novel, and it is the first that I have read. In this, the sisters are from a blended family. Jo is Mrs. March’s daughter by her first marriage, Meg is Mr. March’s by his first marriage, and Beth and Amy are Mr. and Mrs. March’s. Meg and Mr. March, who is a soldier stationed in the Middle East, are African American. Mrs. March and Jo are white. Amy and Beth are mixed race, but as Jo explains to Mr. Marquez (who has replaced Mr. Laurence) and Laurie, even without the ties of blood to Meg, they are all four of them sisters.

Terciero and Indigo have moved the story from small town Concord to the more vibrant New York City with the Marches living in Brooklyn.

Chapters are frequently ended by emails sent by one of the girls to their father abroad.

On the whole this novel sticks well to the original’s plot, but there are some significant changes that Terciero and Indigo make to the original.

In this Jo has a secret she is keeping from her family, hinted at in diary entries and in her dialogue, which I don’t remember her having in Alcott’s original (it’s admittedly been a while…). And it isn’t the secret that I thought that it might be. I thought it likely that Jo would come out as transgender by the novel’s end but instead she comes out as lesbian. Her bravery in coming out to her family encourages Aunt Cath to wrestle with her own prejudices and come to the revelation that she herself is lesbian.

Meg does not marry the rich and well-connected Brooks when he laughs at her notion to become a lawyer for the less fortunate instead of taking the Vogue internship that he with his connections has secured for her. She is the catalyst in her family attending the Women’s March in DC. I was disappointed not to see Aunt Cath with them there, knowing that Meg had wanted her to come.

The novel still has the symmetry of the original, opening and closing on Christmas, covering only Little Women and not Good Wives, which is often nowadays released as the second half of Little Women, the two together in a single volume.

This was a longer graphic novel with a lot of text on each page compared to others that I have read, but still a much more accessible adaptation of the original work for both its length, its color, and its modern vernacular.

This story remains a celebration of familial love and a wholesome read in a time of darkness. It’s only that what was revolutionary in 1860s is less so now.

I think it a great introduction to the story, characters, and themes of Little Women, though those who are looking for the classic story on a one-to-one level, the text only modernized and simplified for a younger, more modern audience, would find other abridged versions more to their taste—and there are many.  I would consider this an excellent companion and comparison piece more than a abridgement.

But I personally really enjoyed what Terciero and Indigo have done with the story and celebrate this more diverse adaption.

****

Terciero, Rey and Bre Indigo. Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy. New York: Little, Brown-Hachette, 2019.

This review is not endorsed by Rey Terciero, Bre Indigo, Little, Brown and Company, or Hachette Book Group. It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

Book Reviews: Entering Amulet’s Alledia

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Click to visit the publisher's page for links to order, summary, sample pages, and reviews.Click to visit the publisher's page for links to order and summary.Spoilers.

The first book in this series felt incomplete to me, as if the whole were a prologue and maybe a first chapter, but certainly not a full story.

I decided that I really needed to read the Amulet series after opening one of the later books (I’m not sure which) and discovering the rebellious prince of the elf court and the political allies and enemies that he has in his father’s palace. He was present in this first book but only barely, given not even a name.

This book focuses on the humans who find themselves in this alternate earth, a brother and sister and their widowed mother.  It seems too to want to be about building the world, but the world introduced in this book is so shallow compared to what comes in the second.

This first book started more darkly than I expected, with the death by a car crash of the protagonist’s father, who while still alive but trapped beneath the dashboard and steering wheel plunged in the car over a cliff.

Seeking a new start and a less financially burdensome house, the widowed mother moves her family into an old house inherited from her eccentric grandfather. In her great-grandfather’s library, Emily pricks her finger on a handprint, which causes the revelation of a pendant that she cannot leave behind and which ties itself onto her neck.  (Are you getting One Ring vibes?  Because I was.)

In the house’s basement, chasing odd noises that she expects are caused by a wild animal, Emily and Navin’s mother is swallowed whole by a tentacled creature. The creature gets Navin too, but Emily and her mother are able to rescue him.  By the time that they do, though, all three of them and the creature have entered a strange land through a portal in the basement.

The amulet speaks to Emily and leads her to the home of her great-grandfather in this land.  Its instructions include telling her to leap off a cliff while clinging to a large mushroom which is too reminiscent of her father’s death, though that parallel seems never to be addressed within the text.

But her great-grandfather is dying.

His power over the amulet is passed to Emily when she accepts the power, and by accepting the power, she maintains the life force of her great-grandfather’s magical, mechanic creations.

Together with the machines, Emily and Navin chase after the creature that swallowed their mother.

With the amulet’s help, they manage to wrest her from the creature, but Emily is almost abducted by an elven prince who has his own stone amulet and who wants her help to kill his father. The amulet wants Emily to kill the prince for his attempted abduction, but Emily resists and lets him go. Emily’s desire for mercy I think will be central to what makes her an effective heroine of the series and of this fantasy world.

Emily’s mother is poisoned by the creature, and the second book takes the heroes of this tale to the nearest city where they seek the help of a doctor.

There Emily and Navin witness the cruelty of the elves who rule the city.

They are offered help from a vulpine bounty hunter, which they initially refuse, focused on merely helping their mother.

But the elves follow them to the doctor’s, and they narrowly escape into the arms of the resistance.

Emily, Leon Redbeard the bounty hunter/resistance fighter, and the leporine Miskit seek out the prophetic gadoba forest and the fruit that will cure Emily’s mother, pursued by the elves, but Navin discovers himself the commander of the resistance army.

The end of this second book is far more satisfying. The personal and societal stakes are heightened. The magic is a little better explained though still quite nebulous. The roles of the main pro- and antagonists are better settled. The family has a new home—the three of them, everyone conscious and mending.

I think I will continue on with the series, though I read the description of the last of the HiLo books the other day, and now I want to read that series too.  Kazu Kibuishi has only one more book planned for this series, so perhaps I will wait until the series is complete then binge my way through the war for Alledia.

My advice to you, though, if you’re just coming to this series is to read past the first book, to read at least through the second before deciding whether you will or will not continue.

Kibuishi, Kazu. Amulet, Book 1: The Stonekeeper.  New York: Graphix-Scholastic, 2008.

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

Kibuishi, Kazu. Amulet, Book 2: The Stonekeeper’s Curse.  New York: Graphix-Scholastic, 2009.

Intended audience: Ages 9-12, Grades 4-7.

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

Book Reviews: An Original Fairy Tale Reimagining and a Timely War Story by Ru Xu

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Click to visit the publisher's page for links to order, summary, and author's bio.Click to visit the publisher's page for links to order, summary, and author's bio.This review contains spoilers for both books. They are too many in this review to be hidden.

This first book ends on something of a cliffhanger! I was unprepared. I went out and bought the second in the series—new not used—when I could not get it from the library, something that is becoming for me quite rare for me unless I can get the book at half its list price. The first book’s cover has intrigued me for a long time with its buoyant protagonist in turn of the 20th century garb, surrounded by crows and being trailed by one bright canary.

Xu did something neat by having the cover art of the first book run neatly into the action of the book, the cover serving as—if not the first page then—the prologue to the novel.  (In the second book the cover does not serve as an opening for the story, but the title page and edition notice do.)

I was not expecting when I opened this novel to find a steampunk-y science-fiction/fantasy about warring countries and conscious war machines.

I was not displeased.

Where are my Legend of Korra fans? I was getting some serious Republic City vibes from Nautilene.

Blue masquerades as a boy to remain a part of the found family of newsboys that she has found at The Bugle, a family managed by the paper’s owner (who is also the city’s mayor) and his wife, who uses a wheelchair. Blue shares her secret only with Mrs. Nancy and an older boy who has left the Nancys’ home and is now a reporter in the capitol city—and he knows her secret because he was the one who found an orphaned girl on the street and invited her to the Nancys’ found family.

This first is a story about finding family, about truth and propaganda, about embracing truth, about morality, about personal autonomy.

Both books discuss the effect of war on civilians.

The second book gets into more of the grit of the war. I love how much of the politics of war Xu includes in this book supposedly written for children; she gives her intended audience ample credit.  This book expands on the way war changes the civilians’ mindsets on both sides as well as the cost of war and empire-building on colonies.

Blue chases after the friend that she made in the first book who turns out to be an automaton that controls a fleet of weaponized airships for the country of Goswing. She is abducted by a spy who has been working as Jack Jingle’s assistant. The spy, a girl about Blue’s age, reveals herself on the sea crossing to be a mixed-race child like Blue. Rejoining the Grimmaean air fleet, the pair are immediately shot down—by the Grimmaeans who distrust the spy, Snow, and her transgender brother, Red, who is Snow’s getaway pilot.

The three mixed-race children and Crow help to stop the war by making the adults in the room see reason—with the help of a natural disaster caused by the fighting that destroys a vital fuel source for the emerging world. But this is a book that gives me hope that a new generation can undo an old world’s prejudices, violence, and imperialism.

This second book deals with the prejudices that are ignited and are inflamed by governments to justify and sustain war and the prejudice.

We are introduced to another differently abled person in Goswish’s young, newly crowned queen who is blind but has learned to use a form of modified echolocation to help her navigate. She fears that her people will think her weak for being blind, but she proves an able and wise ruler.

In reading the second book particularly I noticed the fairy tale inspiration for the characters and their names. The Goswish take their inspiration from Mother Goose’s rhymes while the Grimmaeans take inspiration from Grimm’s. Blue herself echoes Little Boy Blue, and the queen is advised by a team of Jacks (Jack being a name that a person takes as part of the team): Jingle, Horner, Nimble, and Anory. There are Grimmaean twins named Snow-White and Rose-Red, and there’s brave little Leonhart Tailor and the kings Jacob and Wilhelm. It’s exciting to see someone doing something so different with fairy tales and clashing fairy tale characters when their worlds collide. This series is at once a fairy tale reimagining and a timely, original story of war and prejudice.

It is strongly hinted I think though never confirmed that Leo and Hector become a romantic pair.

This series feels complete to me.  I don’t think that there will be a book 3.

*****

Xu, Ru. NewsPrints, Book 1. New York: Graphix-Scholastic, 2017.

Xu, Ru. NewsPrints, Book 2: EndGames. New York: Graphix-Scholastic, 2019.

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

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

Book Review: The Surprising Sweetness of Dog Man

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This was my first Dav Pilkey novel. I missed the Captain Underpants books when they were coming out during my elementary school years; I didn’t have any interest. I never had any interest in Dog Man either as an adult and a bookseller despite their popularity among the children. Then I was asked to throw a release party for the 8th novel in the Dog Man series, and I thought I had better at least introduce myself to the characters and the story.

Lucky for me, the 7th book at least begins with a recap of the story thus far. In sum, a police dog’s head is surgically attached to a policeman’s body when the two are in a horrific accident (a bit of a creepy premise, but okay). The two become Dog Man. Dog Man continues to protect the city from evil, which seems to come primarily in the form of other even more anthropomorphized animals, because Dog Man himself doesn’t talk.

Among his foes is Petey, a cat inventor, and Piggy, an evil mastermind who was shrunk with his henchmen to the size of a flea prior to the start of For Whom the Ball Rolls.

Petey’s heroic deeds in the previous novel earn him a pardon from the mayor at the beginning of For Whom the Ball Rolls.

Petey comes to claim his son/clone Lil’ Petey from Dog Man and 80-HD, who have been parenting Lil’ Petey during Petey’s incarceration.

Lil’ Petey is conflicted about leaving his found family to live with his father/clone Petey, but Petey insists, though he does quickly compromise by saying that he will allow Lil’ Petey to spend weekends with his found family if he can have weekdays.

This is what first sold me on Dog Man. How many other books are dealing with incarcerated parents right now? While I wish such books weren’t needed, there is a need. I can think of few other fictional parents who have been incarcerated and released (Lucius Malfoy, the Titan General Atlas) but no books that have at all dealt with a child’s return to a formerly incarcerated parent’s custody.

Ultimately, I think this book was about the meaning of family. Lil’ Petey, Dog Man, and 80-HD have become a family through proximity that becomes love and a bond. Petey believes at first that his blood bond with Lil’ Petey gives him more claim to Lil’ Petey. With that lesson, Lil’ Petey discovers that Petey doesn’t know his own father and sends 80-HD to retrieve the tomcat. Petey’s father remains critical and curmudgeonly as he was in Petey’s youth. He steals all that Petey and Lil’ Petey have, and Petey explains that it is okay that his father won’t be in his life; his father’s blood bond with Petey and Lil’ Petey does not promise him a place in their life. Petey as promised leaves Lil’ Petey with Dog Man and 80-HD for the weekend, and Petey goes home to his empty house with his love of Lil’ Petey to keep him warm.

Lil’ Petey is this story’s heart and conscience, though here he briefly falters and has to be uplifted again by Petey.  Love, Lil’ Petey espouses, sometimes must be an act before it can be a feeling.  So too good acts prove goodness; good intent without good acts are not enough for goodness.

The book is ridiculous. There’s no denying that. We’re introduced to a superhero this book whose superpower is less a superpower than a compulsion to eat cupcakes and knock over whatever baddies stand between him and the treats. But there’s also a great deal of sensitivity and positivity in this book.

Petey sees the mud and the pollution and the weeds but with Lil’ Petey’s help he learns to see the beauty in the world. He learns that a world that is shared with those he loves is never only horrible.

This was such a short book that I was able to finish it in the time that it took for my 20 oz of brewing tea could cool to lukewarm (maybe 20 minutes?). Do you have 20 minutes to spare? Perhaps while waiting for a cup of tea to cool or a pot of water to boil into spaghetti? Perhaps like me you’ll feel good about having completed a book in so little time. Perhaps like me your soul will feel just a bit better, the future will look just a bit brighter, and you’ll trust a bit more that the littles know good literature when they find it.

****

Pilkey, Dav. Dog Man, Book 7: For Whom the Ball Rolls. Graphix-Scholastic, 2019.

Intended audience: Ages 7-10, Grades 2-5.

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

Book Review: A Well Written, Realistic Tale in Awkward

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Click to visit the author's page for links order and summary.

I read Awkward to prep for an event for work, but it is one that has caught my eye before with its adorable leads, embarrassed it seems on the cover by the nearness of the other, and the later books, the next of which features a girl in a hijab (Akilah we learn in Awkward).

Peppi Torres manages to break Cardinal Rule #1 of surviving on the first day at her new school when she smacks into a boy in the hallway, causing a scene, and getting noticed by the bullies of the school. He shoves away the boy when he tries to help her, and almost immediately the guilt of doing so shreds her conscience. She knows that she ought to apologize to him, but she can’t seem to make herself do it; she is too embarrassed by what she has done and too afraid of his reaction to her.

Fate thrusts the two of them into an awkward alliance when he becomes her assigned science tutor. It seems for a moment that they might smooth over the awkwardness of their initial encounter, though still Peppi can’t force the apology out.

But then of course Peppi discovers that Jaime is in her art club’s rival science club, which makes talking to him outside of tutoring even more impossible.

The two clubs are competing for a table at the club fair, and the principal has said that the club that the school votes as having made the greatest contribution to the school will win the table. The rivalry, the pranks only escalate in the face of the competition.

The diversity in this novel is fantastic, not only racial diversity in Peppi Torres herself, the students in the clubs, and in the fantastically cool, African American science teacher, Miss Tobins; the diversity within the student body and clubs themselves, but also with the inclusion of Jaime’s mother, a successful artist who happens to use a wheelchair, at least one character who is differently-able. Chmakova has realistically peopled her middle school. I see many students and teachers that I have known in the ones at Berrybrook. Each character seems to have such dimension, even the ones whose names I know only from the character design gallery at the back of the book.

Peppi is a realistic role model. She may not always do the right thing, but she wants to do the right thing. She is a clever problem-solver, and that makes her a leader.

It is also really refreshing for a book to so honestly deal with a crumbling marriage and an emotionally abusive father. The book does not spend long on the situation, but it is good to see so stresses acknowledged and openly discussed on this level.

This is a book of lessons in being your best self, how to react in awkward situations: new schools, competitions that seem to prevent cooperation and stymie friendships, being asked by a friend to help them do something wrong and against the rules.

Ultimately, Peppi and Jaime, who become friends outside of school when they discover themselves to be neighbors, help the two clubs come together to complete a project that requires the talents of both groups, and their collaboration helps them face down the bullies that are the true enemy of them all.

I appreciated the absence of any romance in this novel.

This book uses a limited, pastel palette that is easy to read, soothing to look at.

This story is very well structured, using the title Awkward and the refrain situations defining “awkward” as “This.”  It encourages the exploration of several hobbies: art, cartooning, tinkering, science, and geocaching.

I enjoyed this time at Berrybrook, though here was nothing earth-shattering, no thrilling quest.  These were good characters to get to know.

****

Chmakova, Svetlana. Berrybrook Middle School, Book 1: Awkward.  JY-Yen, 2015.

Intended audience: Ages 8-12 per a comment by the author on Goodreads.

This review is not endorsed by Svetlana Chmakova, JY, or Yen Press. It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

Book Review: Flat Characters and Assumed Context in a Hole New World

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Click to visit the publisher's page for links to order, summary, sample, and reviews.

I read A Hole New World to be better equipped to run a corporate-organized book discussion that used this and three other young reader titles as its jump points. I read the book in a day (after finishing Odd Gods). I am not its intended audience. I have neither played Minecraft (or really any other video games past a few rounds with friends) nor watched the PopularMMOs YouTube channel. I think I missed a lot of this book’s context. There was not a great deal of explanation of… anything. I know enough about Minecraft to have recognized Bomby as a Creeper when he appeared in the illustrations at last, but I haven’t any knowledge of what a Creeper is and what characteristics of Bomby’s persona are typical or atypical of its species.

I feel like I was being told what these fairly flat characters are like rather than being shown how they are. Jen is bubbly but clutzy; Pat says early that she often falls into the craters that Bomby makes. I did like that Jen is portrayed as a great swordswoman and bubbly and pink.  She and Pat are a steady (maybe married) couple.

Pat is the Hero™. He uses his sword to get out of most situations, but is somehow also the more cautious of the couple, looking down instead of forward and so avoiding falling into holes.

Carter, the one dark-skinned character, is a rival for Jen’s affection that Jen likes as a friend despite Pat’s protestations. Maybe he and Jen were previously in a relationship; maybe they were not. Pat is almost unsettlingly antagonistic towards Carter in his “defense” of Jen. Writing about this gets weird because I don’t know how close the characters in this self-insertion fiction are to their real counterparts, so I’m not going to write about it anymore, but just remind everyone not to let your partner try to distance you from your genuine friends.

The villain Evil Jen excuses her desire for world domination and causing a zombpocalypse with a tragic backstory about being thought unattractive for having overlarge lips. (Otherwise she looks “just like” Jen. What?? Making a trait deemed typically attractive unattractive does not a feminist or a body positive message make, just as the “real women have curves” slogan excludes another group of women from womanhood instead of creating a more inclusive view of femininity.)

Every other character passes in a few pages, which is almost a shame because how can you only wave at characters like a grumpy boat captain named Captain Cookie who we are told previously rescued the protagonists or a rebellion leader named Mr. Rainbow who is a rainbow-wooled sheep with access to magic loot boxes and a palatial hideout?

With Carter’s help and Mr. Rainbow’s help, Pat and Jen fight Evil Jen’s zombie minions to venture deeper into this hole new world, seeking to rescue their friend Bomby from Evil Jen.

All in all, I felt like an outsider reading this. The whole thing felt jagged and unfinished as a book detached from its webseries. But I think—I hope—that fans of the webseries won’t find it so without context, seeing the whole book as more of a tribute than as a separate entity. It’s a rare film that stands up to its original book. Maybe that goes backwards too.  But I definitely wish there had been more character-building and more “show don’t tell.”

**

PopularMMOs, Pat and Jen. A Hole New World. Illus. Dani Jones. New York: HarperCollins, 2018.

Intended audience: Ages 8-12.

This review is not endorsed by PopularMMOs’ Pat or Jen, Dani Jones, or HarperCollins Publishers.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

Book Review: New Kid is Important and Eloquent

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Click to visit the publisher's site for links to order, summary, audio excerpt, reviews, and author's bio.

I read an ARC of Jerry Craft’s new graphic novel, New Kid. Actually I’ve now read it twice. In the ARC, most pages were left in grayscale.  The finished novel is fully colored.

The book opens on Jordan Banks’ first day at a new school, Riverdale Academy Day School, which touts itself as a premier education, but which his father points out does not look to be a particularly diverse environment. Jordan is picked up from his Washington Heights home by his guide Liam and Liam’s father, who warns Liam to stay in the car with the doors locked when he goes to the door for Jordan.

Of every book I have ever read, this one perhaps best illustrates the harm that microagressions, even thoughtless ones, cause. There aren’t many African American students in Jordan Banks’ new school. He and other students (and staff) of color are subjected to stereotyping in a multitude of ways by their peers and the school staff, some of them acting intentionally cruelly and others not even aware of their racist acts. This comes out even in the types of books that the librarian recommends to the students of color versus the ones that she recommends to the white students. Drew in particular is forced to endure one of the teachers unable to remember that his name is not Deandre, the name of an older African American student in the school, though every African American character including one of the teachers faces this problem.

Jordan has to code-switch between his mostly white school and his Washington Heights neighborhood. This too is very elegantly and succinctly described, the nervousness of moving between the two worlds, the burden of having to do so, the exhaustion caused by such hyper-awareness of the environment.

But he wants the same intimacy with all of his friends and seeks on the advice of his grandfather to find a way to hang out with all of his friends together.

For these illustrations, the ways in which Craft captures the myriad ways that internalized racism effects his protagonist, I cannot recommend this book enough especially to white people, especially to white educators. It is such a poignant reminder of the harm that we can unknowingly or unthinkingly inflict on kids just trying to get through the day, fighting for their dreams. It’s not even a difficult or long read. I think the last time I read it, it took only a day, maybe two.

Jordan himself is such a likeable and relatable protagonist.

In the end, Jordan even takes pity upon the bully of his school year, whom earlier that year he had helped to finally get his comeuppance by standing up for a falsely accused friend.

This is the story of Jordan’s navigating this new, predominately white space, coming to figure out how he can be himself and grow in such a space, and how he can improve that space for himself and for his classmates of every color. And his confrontations with injustice are painted as not requiring a great deal of forethought or planning. There is nothing elaborate about his calls for justice. He merely speaks up for himself and his friends when he sees injustice. I think that too is important.

In sum, go read this book.

*****

Craft, Jerry. New Kid. New York: HarperCollins, 2019.

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

This review is not endorsed by Jerry Craft or HarperCollins Publishers.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

Book Review: Poor Mythological and Tired School Representation in Odd Gods

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Click to visit the publisher's page for links to order, summary, sample, and reviews.Spoilers have been whited out. Highlight the space between the brackets to read.

I am going to start out by saying that this book I read because work “required” it rather than because it is anything that I would have chosen. The necessity of my reading it (to be able to feel adequately prepared to lead a discussion using this book and three others as launch points) has colored my reading, and despite the event going fairly well overall, I can’t un-color my opinion.

I read an ARC of this book over two days. The ARC was missing a few illustrations, and several of the illustrations I think were unfinished, still having a more sketchy quality than others in the book.

David Slavin and Daniel Weitzman’s Odd Gods, illustrated by Adam J. B. Lane, is a middle school of cliques and stereotypes, “bathroom humor,” bad puns, and representations of mythological characters that are largely unsupported by ancient canon. Adonis and Oddonis are twin boys born to Zeus and Freya. Let’s start there. Zeus isn’t one to create a stable household. Would he have bedded a Norse goddess? Almost certainly if opportunity presented itself. Would he have stayed with her? Almost certainly not. Hera is completely absent from Slavin’s mythos here. If she hadn’t been, Freya would have been roasted, starting a war between the Vanir and the Greek gods. If Odd’s mother had been Hera and not Freya, he probably would have been cast off of Mount Olympus like her other imperfect son by Zeus. The Greek Adonis is mortal, not a god, or at least he began that way, and his death gave rise to the anemone and a festival commemorating his death. DON’T look for this to help you ace your mythology test, because it won’t. Go back to Riordan for that.

Here Adonis is a god, the Greek ideal in contrast to his odd twin brother. The gods are the cool kids of the school who bully and cheat their way to the best of everything that the middle school has to offer. The odds are the rejects of the school. It’s a tired trope that I’ve seen better done. In this school they seem to be split near 50/50, though we only get a few main characters from each pack: Adonis, Poseidon, Heracles, and Aphrodite vs. Odd, Mathena, Germes, Puneous, and Gaseous.  (Note that that’s only two girls in a horde or boys too.  I think this might pass a Bechdel test if I am correctly remembering the math teacher to be a woman, but the only interaction that I concretely remember is between any two women in the whole story is Aphrodite bullying Mathena, so if it passes, it doesn’t pass well.)

Math is singled out in this novel as a particularly abhorrent subject, and Mathena is the only god relegated to Odd’s group of outcasts.

[SPOILER] Odd ignores his classwork and study in favor of planning his campaign against his brother for class president and nearly looses by default when it is revealed that he is failing math. Despite spending his time with the goddess of math, he has failed to ask his friends for help when he needs it, or failed to see the importance of study, or both. He does apologize to his friends, and work hard to recover from the mistake, and his hard work is rewarded. [END SPOILER]  That is laudable, a good lesson: ask for help and work hard, and you might be rewarded.

Odd and the “odd gods” come to grips with their oddness by accepting and acknowledging their quirks and that the things that make them unusual make them individual.  The gods acknowledge odd quirks in themselves too (particularly fears and superstitions), and tout themselves as individual too because of them.

Personally, I’m ready to set aside this idea that this is middle school: everyone breaks off into their stereotyped roles, hangs out together in packs of like-stereotyped individuals, and the “cooler” kids bully the individualists, the “kids like me” (I think it rare that anyone sees themselves as a Heather, Plastic, or a jock from such films and books). I think it’s time we start modeling what middle school could be instead of telling kids that this is what middle school was like for me, and this is what it will be like for you. It won’t improve until we tell them that they don’t have to accept what they see. And though many of these films and books resolve by some re-balancing of power, whether the cool kids are knocked off the pedestal or the outcasts gain some power, the model, the beginning framework is still the same.  High School Musical actually resolved this well, better I think than did Odd Gods, with the breaking up of the caste system, the rejection of the “status quo,” the release of everyone to explore their own interests.  I think High School Musical surpasses Odd Gods in part because the kids are given some more control over the things that make them individual, where Odd Gods‘ quirks are inherent and innate.

In the tradition of epilogues destroying a decent ending (I’m looking at you, Rowling), [SPOILER] after Odd agrees to co-president with Adonis because he recognizes that the division between the odds and the gods is toxic, Adonis asks for a recount, undoing any character growth that he had hitherto very briefly obtained via agreeing first to yield to Oddonis and congratulating his brother as the better candidate. [END SPOILER]

Overall, there was too much that I personally didn’t like about this book for me to rate it well. My bar for books based on mythology is set awfully high, and this book took a limbo approach to this high jump competition while relying on tired tropes and negative representations of school atmosphere.

But it was all right.  The lessons of inclusivity and acceptance and equality and standing up for oneself and one’s friends, of hard work and of not being afraid to ask for help, and the forgiveness of friends were good.

**

Slavin, David and Daniel Weitzman. Odd Gods. Illus. Adam J. B. Lane. New York: HarperCollins, 2019.

Intended audience: Ages 8-12.

This review is not endorsed by David Slavin, Daniel Weitzman, Adam J. B. Lane, or HarperCollins Publishers.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.