Scout Is Not a Band Kid by Jade Armstrong

Published by Random House Graphic

Summary:  Scout’s greatest dream is to go to AlmonteFest and meet her favorite author.  When she finds out her school band is going, she decides to join, pretending that she can play trombone.  The only other trombone player is Merrin, a dedicated player who is trying to get into an exclusive arts high school.  Merrin has been wanting to have first and second trombone parts and is annoyed that Scout is faking her way through all the music.  A disastrous concert forces a reluctant Scout to take lessons from Merrin, and much to the surprise of both girls, they discover they actually have quite a bit in common.  By the time of the festival, they’ve become pretty good friends.  A falling out on the trip reveals to both how much they need each other, and that having dreams come true isn’t always as important as having a best friend to count on.  Includes several pages from the artist showing how they developed the characters and story.  272 pages; grades 4-8.

Pros:  As I revealed a couple of years ago, I too was a band kid, so I always enjoy reading about the fun if slightly cringey world of teen musicians.  This particular ensemble has a pretty stellar cast of unique characters, and I found it satisfying to watch Scout gradually realize that her true friends are in the band.  Raina Telgemeier fans will enjoy this when they’re ready to move onto something a little bit edgier.

Cons:  Occasionally some of the characters looked like they were sketched in instead of fully drawn.  I think there was probably a reason for this, but I couldn’t figure it out.

Killer Underwear Invasion! How to Spot Fake News, Disinformation & Conspiracy Theories by Elise Gravel

Published by Chronicle Books

Summary:  In six chapters, Elise Gravel covers the bases of information literacy: fake news, disinformation, how social media spread such things, confirmation bias, and how to check for accuracy.  Her drawings and examples are funny, with cute monsters talking to each other about why doctors are bad, pollution is okay, and how drinking shampoo will make you healthy, but underwear might kill you.  The final chapter gives ten tips for telling real news from fake.  No back matter, alas.  104 pages; grades 2-6.

Pros:  This would make a great text to use for an information literacy class, using the humorous examples to springboard to real-life ones.  Kids will definitely be entertained, and there’s plenty of great information.

Cons:  Feels like librarians have been teaching this stuff for my whole twenty-plus-years-long career, yet the spread of disinformation is worse than ever.

Adventuregame Comics: Leviathan by Jason Shiga

Published by Harry N. Abrams

Summary:  In this choose-your-own-adventure graphic novel, a giant sea creature called Leviathan is terrorizing the villagers.  It’s up to you to find a way to defeat it.  On almost every page, a choice is given with page numbers attached to comic panels or different parts of the illustration.  Turn to that page to continue your story.  Be sure to read the first page before starting, as it contains important information about how to navigate your way through the book.  144 pages; grades 3-7.

Pros:  According to the author’s introduction, this deceptively small book contains hundreds of adventures.  Kids raised on video games are going to love going back and forth to discover the different stories.  I can’t even imagine creating this!  It’s billed as book 1, so look for more to come.

Cons:  Personally, the format of this just about drove me mad.  Guess I am a linear reader.

The Tryout by Christina Soontornvat, illustrated by Joanna Cacao

Published by Graphix

Summary:  Seventh grade is tough, and to Christina, the cheerleading squad looks like they have it all figured out.  She and her best friend Megan decide to try out, a two-step process that involves a first round with a panel of judges and a second round in which the whole school votes.  Christina, who is Thai-American, and Megan, who is Iranian-American, have often felt like outsiders in their small Texas town.  Megan decides to partner with someone else for the tryouts, feeling that they’ll stand out less if paired with white girls.  Christina is hurt but finds a new partner and throws herself into preparing for the big day.  Things don’t turn out the way the girls are hoping, but just getting through the terrifying experience of auditioning in front of their classmates gives both girls new confidence to pursue other goals.  Includes an author’s note and five pages of photos that give more information about Christina’s real-life middle school experiences.  272 pages; grades 3-7.

Pros:  Add this to the list of high-quality books produced by the incredibly prolific Christina Soontornvat. Readers will be entertained and inspired by her middle grade graphic memoir that looks at racism, bullying, and learning to be yourself.  

Cons:  This seems like a truly terrible way to choose a middle school cheerleading squad.

Boo! Hiss! By Cyndi Marko

Published by Aladdin

Summary:  Phyllis the ghost and Sheldon the snake have a pretty good life together in an old abandoned house, until–horrors!–a human family moves in.  The two of them flee to the attic where they make plans to take the house back again.  They start with the baby, who thinks they are a couple of fun toys, then move on to the older boy, who’s too absorbed in his book and science project to pay any attention.  Back in the attic, Phyllis and Sheldon get in a huge argument over who is scary or not scary, and the family hears lots of strange noises as a result, convincing them to move out.  Suddenly, the snake and ghost start to notice the humans’ more endearing traits and decide they’ve been wrong.  Their “un-scare plan” does the trick, and everyone settles back into the house–all together.  80 pages; grades 1-4.

Pros:  A cute graphic early chapter book that makes a perfect not-too-scary book just right for this time of year.  

Cons:  This seems like a great series starter, but I don’t see any evidence of book 2.

Two-Headed Chicken by Tom Angleberger

Published by Walker Books

Summary:  This is a graphic novel about a two-headed chicken being chased through the multiverse by a fried chicken-loving moose.  Each time it/they is/are about to be eaten, the chicken(s) use its/their Astrohat to escape to another universe.  Along the way, there are quizzes, the world’s longest knock-knock joke, and a fish who wants to talk to you about your feelings.  Just when you feel like you can’t handle another universe, you are suddenly in the book, telling the chicken(s) to hurry up and defeat the moose already.  Which they do.  Using the world’s longest knock-knock joke.  208 pages; grades 2-5.

Pros:  It’s funny, it’s ridiculous, it’s annoying in a good way, and kids will love it.

Cons:  Sadly, I didn’t have jury duty, so I couldn’t run the experiment I tried with Tom Angleberger’s The Rat With the Human Face.

Ride On by Faith Erin Hicks

Published by First Second

Summary:  Best friends Norrie, Hazel, and Sam are mystified by the new rider at Edgewood Stables.  Hazel recognizes her as Victoria, a girl she saw compete in a show at the more elite Waverly Stables.  Impetuous Norrie is certain that she’s a spy, sent over to check out the competition, but as the three get to know her, they learn the truth.  Victoria loves to ride but is not as a hardcore a competitor as her former best friend Taylor.  When Taylor refused to let Victoria ride her new horse, they had a falling out, and Victoria left Waverly.  The new group at Edgewood bonds over horses, of course, but also their favorite cheesy sci-fi TV show Beyond the Galaxy.  Between preparing for an upcoming competition and planning a stunt to celebrate the revival of BTG after a 20-year hiatus, the four friends have a busy time of it and come to appreciate the power of their friendship.  Includes an author’s note about her experiences growing up around horses.  224 pages; grades 3-7.

Pros:  Graphic novel fans are going to love this story of Victoria and her new friends at Edgewood.  The story line is engaging and moves easily between the past and present to slowly reveal what brought Victoria to the new stable, and the artwork is gorgeous, especially the portrayals of horses.

Cons:  I hope the author won’t wait as long as the Beyond the Galaxy producers to create a sequel.

Invisible by Christina Diaz Gonzalez, illustrated by Gabriela Epstein

Published by Graphix

Summary:  The story opens with five middle school students gathered in the principal’s office, clearly in some kind of trouble and being asked to tell what happened.  Jorge, or George, begins.  When he’s assigned a community service stint in the cafeteria, he’s told he’ll be with “kids like him”.  He assumes that means other gifted students, but it turns out it’s a group of Latinx kids, many of whom, unlike George, speak Spanish as their first language.  While they’re often lumped together, each student is from a different country and has a distinctive personality: George is Puerto Rican, Dayara is from Cuba; Miguel is Dominican; Nico, Venezuelan, and Sara, Mexican.  Although each one has a typical middle school label (smart, tough, jock, snob, loner), as they take turns recounting their story, a very different picture emerges that shows each of them struggling with both family and school issues.  By the end, the principal has heard a story of compassion, helping a little girl and her mother who have been living in a van near the school.  The mean cafeteria lady is reprimanded and sent on her way, while the five kids celebrate their accomplishment and the beginning of a new friendship.  Includes notes from the author and illustrator.  208 pages; grades 4-7.

Pros:  There’s a lot packed into this graphic novel, with five unique and well-drawn (in both senses of the term) characters who help dispel the notion that Latinx kids all have similar backgrounds.  Most of the students speak Spanish throughout the story, with the English translation added with a dashed-line cartoon bubble.  Sure to be a big hit with all the fans of graphic novels set in middle school.

Cons:  I was hoping for a little redemption for the mean cafeteria lady.

Mimi and the Cutie Catastrophe by Shauna J. Grant

Published by Scholastic Graphix

Summary:  Mimi loves pink and purple, dressing up, and playing with her magical stuffie, Penelope.  An unfortunate consequence of this is that she often gets called “cute”.  To counter this, she tries on different personalities that Penelope is able to create for her: a superhero, a smart teacher, and a cool kid.  Each one fails for one reason or another, and by the end she’s decided to be herself and to speak up for what she wants.  To her happy surprise, those around her see her as strong, smart, and cool.  80 pages; grades K-3.

Pros:  Kids will relate to Mimi’s wish to be seen as more grown up, and the repeating structure of the story makes this a good choice for beginning readers.

Cons:   The girly-girl cuteness was a little thick, as per usual with Scholastic series marketed to girls.

Twin Cities by Jose Pimienta

Published by Random House Graphic

Summary:  Luisa Teresa and Luis Fernando are twins collectively known as the Lu-Lu’s.  When they get to sixth grade, though, they are eager to seek their own identities.  They start going by Teresa and Fernando, but more importantly, Teresa heads to school across the border in Calexico, California, while Fernando continues on in Mexicali, Mexico, where the family lives.  Each finds sixth grade to have its struggles.  Teresa’s workload is tough, and she has to get up early to make it to her carpool in time.  Fernando’s friends are at Teresa’s school, and he feels lonely until he befriends eighth-grader Alex who tries to recruit him to sell weed.  This activity leads to a showdown between the twins, but it also finally gets them talking about what they’ve been going through.  By the last few pages, Teresa finally has gotten her own room to work in, and Fernando is starting to make some friends his own age.  256 pages; grade 4-7.

Pros:  This fascinating look about life at the border is richly illustrated with many pictures that show what is going on in each twin’s life simultaneously.  Kids will relate to Teresa and Fernando’s struggles and learn about life in an area that may be unfamiliar to them.

Cons:  The sixth-grade protagonists make this a great elementary read, but the weed storyline may raise a few eyebrows.