Apple Crush by Lucy Knisley (Peapod Farm, book 2)

Published by Random House Graphic

Summary:  Jen and her family continue the story started in Stepping Stones.  She and her mom have settled into the routine of life on Peapod Farm with her mother’s boyfriend Walter.  Walter’s daughters Andy and Reese visit on the weekends.  Fall brings the beginning of middle school and a job for Andy and Jen helping to set up a haunted hayride at a neighboring farm.  The owner’s nephew Eddie is also working there, and even though he and Jen have a lot of common interests, Andy has a crush on him.  Jen doesn’t understand all the fuss made about romance and runs into even more issues with this when she becomes friends at school with a boy named Ollie.  Like it or not, romance is part of middle school life, and Jen has to learn to both deal with it and to speak up for herself and what she wants in her own life.  Includes several pages at the end in which Lucy shares incidents from her childhood that influenced this book.  208 pages; grades 3-7.

Pros:  Another fun graphic novel about a middle school girl that does a great job capturing family and friendship dynamics.  The fall setting makes this a perfect back-to-school book.

Cons:  While I would no longer describe Walter as verbally abusive (as I did in my review of book 1), he still presents as an insensitive dunderhead.  

The Stonewall Riots: Making a Stand for LGBTQ Rights by Archie Bongiovanni, illustrated by A. Andrews and The National Parks: Preserving America’s Wild Places by Falynn Koch

Published by First Second

Summary: These two entries into the History Comics series tell the story of the 1969 Stonewall Riots that helped bring gay rights into the national spotlight and the history of the National Parks System that helped preserve natural wonders and historical artifacts in the United States.  In The Stonewall Riots, Natalia’s abuela takes teen Natalia and her friends Jax and Rashad back in time to the night of the first protest.  Abuela had a girlfriend at the time, and the three kids, all part of the LGBTQIA+ community, get some lessons about the people and events of that time.  The National Parks features two narrators, a bigfoot and an eagle, who look at the patchwork history of the National Parks System, going all the way back to the early 19th century.  Each book starts with a foreword and includes an author’s note with additional information and resources at the end.  128 pages; grades 4-8.

Pros:  Both books make history accessible through the graphic format and the fun narrators (abuela and Bigfoot).  The additional resources at the end make these a good introduction that could lead to further research.

Cons:  I thought this format worked better for a specific incident (Stonewall Riots) than a longer period of time (National Parks).  I could see kids losing interest in such a sprawling history that included so many different people and places.

Miss Quinces by Kat Fajardo

Published by Graphix

Summary:  Sue (or Suyapa to her family) just wants to draw, go to camp, and hang out with her friends all summer, but her family has other plans: the annual trip to visit relatives back in Honduras.  When they get there, Sue is horrified to learn that her mother has been secretly planning her quinceañera, an event Sue has made clear she does not want.  She reluctantly agrees if her mother lets her go to camp when they get back in the US.  Sue’s abuela encourages Sue by telling her how she kept her sense of style for her own quinceañera.  When Sue finds out her mother forgot to sign her up for camp, the deal is off.  But then abuela passes away, and Sue begins to realize how important her extended family is to her and decides to respect her grandmother by having the quinceañera after all.  She manages to pull off an event that honors her grandmother, keeps the family traditions, and includes her own special flair.  Includes a four-page note with photos about quinceañeras.  252 pages; grades 4-8.

Pros:  Here’s another great graphic novel for Raina fans that shows a loving Latine family with a girl struggling to figure out exactly where she belongs. 

Cons:  I would definitely get this for an elementary library, but a 15-year-old protagonist seems a little old for that audience.

The First Cat In Space Ate Pizza by Mac Barnett, illustrated by Shawn Harris

Published by Katherine Tegen Books

Summary:  When scientists on Earth discover that a pack of evil rats is eating away at the moon, they realize they only have three days to fix the problem.  The solution?  Send a microchipped cat to the moon to devour the rats.  Thus begins a series of adventures that involve the Moon Queen, a toenail-clipping robot, and a lot of pizza.  This story started out as a collaboration between former high school classmates Barnett and Harris during the 2020 lockdown, and their original videos can be seen on YouTube.  By the end of the book, the rats seem to have been eliminated, but there is sure to be at least one sequel.  316 pages; grades 3-5.

Pros:  As I’ve shown again and again, I have pretty lowbrow literary tastes, so this was a lot of fun for me, and I laughed out loud more than once.  Definitely plan to buy multiple copies for any elementary school library. Dog Man fans, rejoice.

Cons:  Don’t forget to fasten your seatbelt. It’s a wild ride.

Growing Pangs by Kathryn Ormsbee, illustrated by Molly Brooks

Published by Random House Books for Young Readers

Summary:  Kathryn Ormsbee’s memoir begins the summer before sixth grade when Katie and her best friend Kacey are going off to camp for a week.  Katie feels like a bit of an oddball as a homeschooled kid with red hair, crooked teeth, and a secret about the obsessive thoughts she sometimes has when she’s feeling anxious.  Camp turns out to be good, though, except that Kacey starts acting cold when Katie makes a new friend.  Katie hopes that things will get better when their homeschool co-op starts up again, but the two friends seem to be moving in different directions.  On top of that, Katie learns she has to have dental surgery and her obsessive thoughts are getting worse.  A chance to act in a local theater production and a couple of new friends help the situation, but things really start to improve when she’s forced to tell her parents about her anxiety.  The last page sees Katie about to walk into a therapist’s office where she feels hopeful that she can get some help.  Includes an author’s notes with photos from her childhood and an artist’s note showing how she developed the art.  250 pages; grades 3-6.

Pros:  Another one for Raina fans that even deals with some similar topics (dental difficulties, anxiety).  Katie is a character many kids will relate to as she navigates the ups and downs of friendships and the beginnings of puberty.  I loved how the artist portrayed Katie’s OCD thoughts with buzzing bees, and I also loved the support that Katie’s parents showed when they finally found out what was going on with her.

Cons:  I was so curious to know how the therapist appointment went.  I hope we get a sequel.

Swim Team by Johnnie Christmas

Published by HarperAlley

Summary:  Bree’s nervous about her big move with her dad from New York to Florida, but things seem to be going well until she finds out that her sixth-grade elective is Swim 101.  Surrounded by kids who have grown up around pools and the ocean, Bree is embarrassed that she doesn’t know how to swim.  All that changes one day when she accidentally falls into her apartment complex’s pool and is rescued by her neighbor, Miss Etta.  It turns out that Etta was a swimming champion, and she takes Bree under her wing and, step by step, teaches her how to swim.  To raise her Swim 101 grade, Bree agrees to try out for the swim team and to everyone’s surprise–including her own–she’s a natural.  The girls on the team have their ups and downs as they prepare for the big state championship.  When Etta sees their struggles, she decides to reunite with her old swim team, including one woman with whom she hasn’t spoken for decades.  The older women coach the girls to a nail-biting but ultimately entirely satisfying state championship win.  256 pages; grades 3-7.

Pros:  Fans of Raina Telgemeier and Jerry Craft will definitely want to dive into this graphic novel.  The excellent art (I especially love the swimming scenes) and compelling story will have them clamoring for a sequel.  The difficult history Black people in America have had with swimming and racism is seamlessly woven into the present-day narrative.

Cons:  Bree’s journey from non-swimmer to champion seemed a bit unrealistically short.

Surviving the Wild (series) by Remy Lai

Published by Henry Holt and Company

Summary:  Each book in this new graphic novel series tells a true story of survival from an animal’s perspective.  Star and her mother and aunt seek a new home due to deforestation.  They swim to an island where they’re captured by humans and sent to an elephant sanctuary.  Rainbow survives a wildfire in the Australian bush country and is taken to a koala hospital before being released back into the wild.  Both books include several pages at the end that tell more about the animals, their story, and what kids can do to help the environment.  108 pages; grades 1-4.

Pros:  A perfect trifecta of cute and funny animals, graphic novel format, and important environmental information.  Book 3, Sunny the Shark, will be available in August.

Cons:  The ways to take action feel like such tiny drops in the whole climate change bucket.

Sir Ladybug by Corey Tabor

Published by Balzer + Bray

Summary:  Sir Ladybug is a modest knight who likes to hang out with his friends, Pell, a roly poly bug who serves as his herald, and Sterling, his trusty squire, who’s a snail with a shell that’s bigger on the inside than the outside.  Sir Ladybug claims that he will go on a quest when one presents itself, and soon enough his path crosses with a panicky caterpillar being chased by a “monster” (actually a chickadee).  The insects head inside Sterling’s shell to strategize and come up with a perfect solution: Sir Ladybug will bake his famous lemon cake which will take care of the chickadee’s hunger and save the caterpillar.  Surprisingly, this plan works, and the satiated chickadee declares them all friends.  68 pages; grades 1-3.

Pros:  Caldecott honoree Corey Tabor has created this fun new early graphic novel starring creatures who resemble some of the characters in Mel Fell.  The bugs are pretty cute, the story is pretty funny, and this is sure to appeal to graphic novel fans who enjoy books like Narwhal and Jelly.  Look for books 2 and 3 coming later this year.

Cons:  No lemon cake recipe.

The Aquanaut: A Graphic Novel by Dan Santat

Published by Graphix

Summary:  In the prologue to the story, brothers Paul and Michel are struggling to survive as their research vessel fills with water.  Paul makes it; Michel does not.  Five years later, Paul is raising Michel’s daughter Sophie and trying to keep their research going at a San Diego theme park called Aqualand.  One day a mysterious being dressed in an old diving suit rises out of the ocean and pays a visit to Sophie.  It turns out to be a group of small ocean animals seeking refuge from the dangers of the sea.  Things get chaotic when they make it to Aqualand, where they rescue an orca whale and try to help Uncle Paul from a greedy investor who wants to capitalize on the brothers’ research.  As the Aquanaut’s crew races to escape the bad guys, they wind up back in the ocean in a scene that seems to be playing out the same way Michel’s ship sank.  There are happy endings for everyone, though, as the animals learn that love can overcome fear and the humans realize that family is more important than careers or money.  Includes an author’s note with additional artwork and some explanations about the genesis and development of the story.  256 pages; grades 3-7.

Pros:  The nonstop action, compelling story, interesting sea creatures, and especially the gorgeous illustrations by Caldecott Medalist Dan Santat make this a book that is sure to be embraced and savored by a wide range of graphic novel fans.

Cons:  The plot was a bit convoluted, and I’m not sure I got all the nuances of it.

Isla to Island by Alexis Castellanos

Published by Atheneum Books for Young Readers

Summary:  Marisol has a happy childhood in Cuba, where she is a cherished only child.  When Castro comes to power, though, life suddenly becomes dangerous for her family.  Her parents decide to send her to New York where she is placed with foster parents.  The illustrations abruptly change from brilliant colors to monochromatic grays as Marisol struggles to adjust to living with strangers, bullying at school, enduring cold weather, and not speaking English.  Bits of color return as she begins to connect with her foster parents and discovers the school library with its books about botany, a subject she loved in Cuba.  As winter turns into spring, summer, and fall, Marisol’s world slowly becomes fully in color once again.  A series of pictures at the end show Marisol’s later life: a reunion with her parents when they immigrate from Cuba, a career as a teacher, and marriage and children with both sets of parents supporting her.  Includes a recipe for arroz con pollo a la Chorrera; additional information about Operation Peter Pan; an author’s note about how her family’s story inspired this book; and a list of resources.  192 pages; grades 5-8.

Pros:  This nearly wordless graphic novel beautifully relates an immigrant girl’s story using color to show her emotions and the connections between her old home and the new one. The author’s note makes some interesting comparisons about how Cuban children were treated by the U.S. versus children immigrating from Latin American countries today.

Cons:  Readers who don’t have much background knowledge on Cuba in the 1950’s and 1960’s may want to start with the back matter to better understand the story.