Summary: Snapdragon believes a woman in her town is a witch, and when her dog goes missing, she’s afraid the witch has eaten him. An angry confrontation winds up being the beginning of an unusual friendship. The “witch”, Jacks, turns out to be a lonely old woman whose business is rescuing roadkill and rebuilding their skeletons to sell online. Snap and Jacks bond over their love of animals, but as they get to know each other better, Snap discovers that Jacks has a deep connection to her own family from long ago. Not only that, but the woman turns out to possess some of the magical powers Snap first suspected her of having, and Snap begins to learn some magic herself. When Snap’s mom’s abusive ex-boyfriend shows up, it’s up to Snap and Jacks to use their magic to save the day. Jacks finds herself back in the family again, and it looks like there just might be a happy ending for everyone. Includes pages showing the process of early sketches and turning them into the finished pages as well as some other book cover ideas. 240 pages; grades 4-8.
Pros: Kat Leyh packs a lot into this graphic novel, with an ambitious story and lots of interesting characters including the two main ones, as well as Snap’s mother and grandmother, and Lulu, her transgender best friend. She masterfully cuts from one scene to the next, keeping the action moving quickly.
Cons: The ending wrapped up pretty neatly, and I don’t see any sign of a sequel.
Summary: Jamila wants to spend the summer playing basketball, but her mother plans to sign her up for science camp. A chance encounter with a slightly odd girl named Shirley at a yard sale changes the course of her vacation. Shirley and her mother come to visit the next day, and the moms agree to let them spend their days together on the basketball court. Shirley seems to spend her days reading, but she gradually reveals her amazing powers of observation to Jamila. One day an 8-year-old boy named Oliver comes to the court to ask Shirley for help. It turns out she has a reputation as the neighborhood detective, and his gecko has been stolen from the local pool. Shirley gets to work, with Jamila tagging along. Solving the case almost ends their budding friendship, but in the end, each one sees how she needs the other. Shirley pulls a grand reveal to all involved in the case, as she unmasks the culprit, but also manages to plant seeds of friendships with the kids involved in the case. 224 pages; grades 3-7.
Pros: A clever graphic mystery with a bit of a nod to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle: Shirley has Sherlock’s astute powers of observation and lack of social skills, while Jamila serves as a Watson-like narrator and assistant. The characters are well-developed, and most readers will have to wait for Shirley’s grand reveal to figure out who stole the gecko. I also liked that both characters have just turned 10, as most middle grade novels seem to feature slightly older characters. This seems like a perfect series opener, so we can keep our fingers crossed there will be more mysterious fun to come.
Cons: I was hoping all the kids would become friends at the end, but Jamila and Shirley seemed like they were moving on.
Summary: Natalie is pretty nervous for the first day of middle school, and grateful to have her best friend Lily by her side. Lily moved over the summer and has been somewhat uncommunicative, but Natalie is sure everything will be fine once they’re back in school together. But on the first day, Lily’s hanging out with cool and popular Alex, and dismisses Natalie as a nerd. Fortunately, Natalie quickly makes a new friend, Zoe, but she still wants her best friend back, and spends weeks trying to figure out how to be cooler so Lily will like her again. Slowly, Natalie starts to discover her artistic talents, and to listen when Zoe points out that Lily isn’t acting like a friend. Winning a contest with her graphic story turns things around for Natalie, and she learns the importance of discovering what she can do versus focusing on what she can’t do. Book 2 is due out September 1. 240 pages; grades 3-6.
Pros: The latest graphic series from Graphix is sure to be a hit, checking all the boxes for a tried-and-true middle school series: the end of a friendship, the beginning of another, a first crush, and learning to be yourself. Appealing to reluctant and avid readers alike.
Cons: The plot was a little too tried-and-true for this reviewer, who has read many, many books with similar stories. Hopefully, kids will bring a fresher perspective to the story.
Published by Quill Tree Books (Released October 6)
Summary: The kids from New Kid are back for their second year at Riverdale Academy Day School, a.k.a. RAD. This time, the focus is on Drew, who along with Jordan, is one of the few black kids in the school. Drew lives with his grandmother, who still works long hours to support him, and he struggles with the unfairness of his situation when he’s invited to Liam’s house. Liam, who is white, lives in a mansion with servants, a pool, and a stay-at-home mother. When Drew starts hanging out with some older black RAD students, his friends have trouble understanding. Ultimately, though, he’s drawn back to his original group, and finds a way to get past his pain and mend his friendship with Liam. A visit from Liam to both Jordan’s and Drew’s neighborhoods highlights the warm community that is somewhat lacking in Liam’s life. While the focus is on Drew, the story begins and ends with Jordan, who concludes that life is a lot of things, but perfect is not one of them. And it’s time to draw some comics. 256 pages; grades 3-8.
Pros: Just when I was ready to give up on 2020, I discovered an upcoming sequel to New Kid, and was able to snag an advance reader copy. I am happy to report that it is every bit as good as the Newbery Medal-winning first book. Appropriate to the new eighth graders, this book deals with slightly more mature themes, and the questions about race and racism are for the most part left as questions–no easy answers. Let’s hope we get to follow Drew, Jordan, and the rest of the group all the way through high school.
Cons: No easy answers is right, as I found myself feeling frustrated at how difficult it is for Jordan and Drew to find their places at RAD.
Summary: Twins Mauren and Francine are starting middle school. Maureen, who’s the narrator, is known as the thinking twin, while Francine’s reputation is as the talking twin. Francine, now calling herself Fran, seems to be reinventing herself with tons of friends and not much time for Maureen. Although Maureen excels in her classes, she struggles to connect with other kids and ends up eating lunch in the library. Everything changes, though when the twins decide to run against each other for class president. Although their parents try to keep things civil, emotions run high as each twin assembles a campaign staff and decides on a platform. The tension finally leads to a heart-to-heart conversation where each girl is able to share her own insecurities and see what her sister is going through. 256 pages; grades 3-7.
Pros: Another fun graphic novel from Graphix, this one written by Coretta Scott King honoree Varian Johnson. A fast-paced middle school story, excellent artwork, and a multicultural cast of characters will make this a popular choice for sure. This book is billed as book 1, so we can hope there will be more to come in the Francine/Maureen saga.
Cons: Although Shannon Wright did a commendable job of giving Francine and Maureen distinctive characteristics, it was sometimes a little difficult telling the identical twins apart in the illustrations.
Published by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
Summary: Baloney’s introduction to his book is interrupted by his friends: Peanut, a blue pony; Bizz, a cheerful bee; and Krabbit, a grouchy pink rabbit. Once introductions are (finally) out of the way, the friends move on to three more stories: Baloney’s somewhat lame magic show, how his friends help him overcome his fear of swimming, and attempts by Peanut to cheer up Baloney when he’s feeling blue. In between the longer stories are two-page mini-comics. The last few pages show kids how to draw the four characters so they can create their own comics. 96 pages; grades K-2.
Pros: The straight-guy narrator with the goofy friend(s) has proven a winning combination before (Narwhal & Jelly, Peter & Ernesto, etc.), and undoubtedly will again with this crew. I found myself laughing out loud a few times, particularly at Krabbit, and I’m sure kids raised on Elephant and Piggie will find this new series (I think it will be a series) delightful.
Cons: It kind of bugged me how Baloney’s nose seemed off-kilter, like it was being shown in profile, but his eyes and mouth weren’t.
Summary: Jen’s having a difficult adjustment from city life to country life, compounded by her parents’ divorce and her mom’s new boyfriend Walter. When Walter’s two daughters start spending weekends on the farm, Jen has more changes to deal with. Andy is bossy and seems to be better at everything than Jen (or at least to think she is), and Reese is a bit of a whiner, prone to tantrums when things don’t go her way. Jen’s mom has always wanted to live on a farm, but Jen’s not so sure about it as she helps out at the farmer’s market, takes care of the new chickens, and performs other chores, sometimes with the help of Andy and Reese. Things aren’t perfect by the end of the story, but the three kids and their parents are beginning to be something resembling a family. Includes an author’s note about her childhood, which inspired Jen’s stories 224 pages; grades 3-7.
Pros: Another fun graphic memoir for fans of Raina Telgemeier, Shannon Hale, and Jennifer Holm. Kids will relate to Jen’s family issues, and there’s a relatively happy ending that seems to pave the way for a sequel.
Cons: Walter seems at best insensitive and at worst, verbally abusive. I hope he gets a chance to redeem himself in book 2, but in the author’s note, Lucy Knisley refers to the real-life Walter as “loud, bossy, and annoying” and “annoying and beloved until his dying day”, so I don’t have a lot of hope.
Summary: Omar and his younger brother Hassan have spent a good portion of their lives in a refugee camp in Kenya. Originally from Somalia, they have been refugees since their father was killed and their mother disappeared during the civil war there. An older woman named Fatuma lives in a nearby tent and acts as a foster mother to the boys. Every day in camp is pretty much the same. Omar wishes he could go to school, but feels that he must stay at home with Hassan, who is nonverbal and has seizures. The book covers many of the years the boys are in the camp, starting when they are young, and continuing as Omar finally decides to go to school, where he is able to stay until he graduates high school; and their excruciating wait for resettlement, which finally ends when they get permission to move to the United States in 2009. An afterword tells what happened to the two after they moved to the U.S.; there are also authors’ notes by both authors telling how they came to create this book. 264 pages; grades 4-8.
Pros: This may be my favorite book of the year so far. I love Victoria Jamieson’s work, and her artwork is as engaging as it was in Roller Girl and All’s Faire in Middle School. The story is compelling, and readers will experience the boredom of the refugee camp, as well as the seesawing between hope and despair. Victoria Jamieson has so many fans, and having her name on this book will make this important story accessible to kids who might not otherwise read it. I’d love to see it considered for the Newbery or other awards.
Cons: The story is very different from the lighthearted middle-grade fare of Jamieson’s other works. While there’s nothing in here that’s inappropriate for fourth and fifth graders, kids who pick it up expecting more of the same may need a little guidance.
Summary: Gabby and her family have always spent their summer vacation at the family’s lakeside cabin. But this year is different. At the beginning of the week, her father announces that he’s being transferred, but doesn’t know where yet. And there’s a new family staying next door with two obnoxious kids the same age as Gabby and her younger brother. The parents insist that the kids hang out together, and they find themselves breaking into a mysterious mansion that’s been abandoned for years. The house fires up Gabby’s imagination, and she begins writing a mystery about it. When new girl Paige finds out, they start collaborating, using clues they’ve found in the house. Things get a little too real as they begin to find evidence of foul play, possibly involving their kind old neighbor. By the time the week ends, bookworm Gabby has realized that there’s plenty of adventure to be found in real life, and when the family finds out where they’re moving, she’s ready for a new chapter to unfold. 256 pages; grades 3-7.
Pros: Scholastic Graphix hasn’t disappointed me yet, and this fun summer graphic novel is sure to find many, many fans among the Telgemeier-Holm-Jamieson crowd. The mystery is fun, and family and friendship issues feel real, yet wrap up reassuringly.
Cons: I’d love to see another story about Gabby and/or Paige, but as near as I can tell there are no plans for a series.
Summary: Fox and Rabbit enjoy each other’s company and make some new friends in this five-story graphic novel. They take a trip to the ice cream store, enter a bubble-blowing contest (with disastrous results for Fox’s fur), make an imaginative new friend, get lost in a corn maze, and carve jack-o-lanterns with all their friends. One story leads into the next, giving the whole book some continuity. Their friends, a sparrow who loves to eat and a turtle who usually misses out on most of the action, make cameo appearances in each story. Book 1 was released last week (April 21) and the graphic above showing a sample page is from book 1. 96 pages; grades 1-4.
Pros: These gently humorous stories will undoubtedly be a big hit with young graphic novel fans. The full-color illustrations and animal characters are appealing, and kids will connect to the everyday events and friendships in the stories.
Cons: Due to the strange state of the world, I was only able to get an advanced reader copy of book 2, so I’m not able to review book 1, which would generally make a lot more sense.