Monster Friends by Kaeti Vandorn

Published by Random House Graphics

Monster Friends: (A Graphic Novel): Vandorn, Kaeti: 9781984896827:  Amazon.com: Books
Monster Friends: (A Graphic Novel): Vandorn, Kaeti: 9781984896827:  Amazon.com: Books

Summary:  Reggie is spending his summer house sitting for relatives, living by himself after what seems to have been some unsettling events in his recent past.  He seems torn between enjoying his solitude and feeling lonely.  When gregarious Emily the rabbit shows up, he has a good time hanging out with her.  Emily’s got her own troubles with four sisters, one of whom makes fun of her for her vivid imagination.  As the summer progresses, Reggie starts to make more connections and to accept that he may not be as adventurous as the best friend he left behind.  By the end of the summer, he and Emily are good friends and he has decided on a new life path for himself.  272 pages; grades 1-5.

Pros:  Younger graphic novel fans will love Reggie and his friends, all of them monsters with some surprising abilities.  The illustrations are adorable and the “be true to yourself” message that Reggie learns is a good one.

Cons:  I found the first chapter confusing.

Amber and Clay by Laura Amy Schlitz, illustrated by Julia Iredale

Published by Candlewick

Amazon.com: Amber and Clay (9781536201222): Schlitz, Laura Amy, Iredale,  Julia: Books
Amber and Clay by Laura Amy Schlitz, Julia Iredale, Hardcover | Barnes &  Noble®

Summary:  Rhaskos is a slave in ancient Greece, separated from his mother at an early age.  His mother is taken away to live in a household that includes Melisto, a girl whose wealthy father loves her, but whose mother despises her.  When Melisto joins a group of young girls serving the goddess Artemis, her life takes an unexpected turn and becomes entwined with Rhaskos’s.  Rhaskos’s mother finds a way for Melisto to obtain Rhaskos’s freedom…but it will take years and many strange turns that involve gods, goddesses, and the great philosopher Sokrates.  Includes exhibits of ancient Greek artifacts with museum-type descriptions interspersed throughout the book; each of these plays a role in the story.  Also, an author’s note with additional information about Greek words, verse, and history; and an extensive bibliography.  545 pages; grades 5-8.  ó

Pros and Cons:  I honestly don’t know where to begin with this book.  It truly is a masterpiece, written mostly in verse, but with some sections in prose, and an incredible attention to historical detail.  I can’t even fathom the research that must have gone into writing it, and I can’t imagine any other publisher besides Candlewick producing this.

Having said that, I feel like this is a book with very, very limited appeal.  Looking back over my 21 years of being a school librarian, I can think of two middle school girls who might have been interested in this book.  I had to really push myself to read it (it’s over 500 pages!), although it was pretty absorbing once I started.

Will this book receive Newbery consideration?  Absolutely, and there is no question that the writing and research of that caliber.  Do I hope it wins?  To be honest. Call me a simpleton, but I would rather see a book win that is going to appeal to a much greater audience of young readers.

Turtle in Paradise: The Graphic Novel by Jennifer L. Holm and Savanna Ganucheau

Published by Random House Graphic

Amazon.com: Turtle in Paradise: The Graphic Novel (9780593126318): Holm,  Jennifer L., Ganucheau, Savanna: Books
Amazon.com: Turtle in Paradise: The Graphic Novel (9780593126318): Holm,  Jennifer L., Ganucheau, Savanna: Books

Summary:  Turtle’s gotten her nickname from being hard-shelled, but a new friend guesses that she also has a soft underbelly.  This proves to be the case when her mother sends her to live with her aunt in Depression-era Key West, Florida.  Her overworked aunt wasn’t expecting her, and Turtle finds herself spending her days with her boy cousins and their friends, a group that calls themselves the Diaper Gang because of their abilities to calm babies and cure diaper rash.  An unusual friendship with Turtle’s newly-discovered grandmother leads Turtle to a discovery that results in near-tragedy, but ultimately triumph (and treasure!).  Just when Turtle thinks she’s on her way to a home and family with her mother, another unexpected twist destroys their plans.  But in the final few pages, Turtle and her mother learn the value of their Key West family, and it looks like they have found a home after all.  256 pages; grades 3-7.

Pros:  Based on the 2010 Newbery honor book by Jennifer Holm, this graphic novel is told in vignettes which I assume are similar to the original (which I haven’t read).  The story and artwork are engaging, providing a look at the impoverished Key West before it became a tourist destination.  Fans of Raina Telgemier, Victoria Jamieson, and Holm’s other graphic novels are sure to want to read this one.

Cons:  Like I said, I haven’t read the original, but I did read the prequel Full of Beans, and I felt like some of the interesting historical details were lost in the transition to a graphic format. 

Rez Dogs by Joseph Bruchac

Published by Dial Books

Rez Dogs: Bruchac, Joseph: 9780593326213: Amazon.com: Books

Summary:  Malian has been visiting her grandparents on a Wabanaki reservation when Covid hits, and she can’t go back home to Boston.  She loves her grandparents and the reservation, but sometimes gets bored, lonely, and frustrated by the spotty Wi-Fi.  When a rez dog appears one morning, Malian names him Malsum (meaning wolf), and welcomes his company.  Malsum never comes into the house, but his presence brings joy to Malian and her grandparents as they go about their daily lives.  In between school, gardening, cooking, and Star Trek episodes, Malian and her grandparents share stories: folklore, and tales of her grandfather’s time at an Indian boarding school, and how her mother was taken away from her parents and put into foster care as a child.  By the time summer comes and Malian can return to Boston, she has learned how much her Wabanaki heritage is a part of her.  While she’s sad to say goodbye to Malsum, she knows she’ll be back.  “Just like us, you’re a rez dog, too,” her grandmother tells her.  192 pages; grades 3-7.

Pros:  This timely novel-in-verse introduces readers to contemporary life on a reservation while beautifully weaving in folktales and indigenous history.  

Cons:  I am curious about the Wabanaki reservation; I am guessing it’s in Maine (or somewhere in New England), and I would have liked to have learned more about it, maybe in an author’s note.

Jukebox by Nidhi Chanani

Published by First Second

Amazon.com: Jukebox (9781250156372): Chanani, Nidhi, Chanani, Nidhi: Books
Jukebox | Nidhi Chanani | Macmillan

Summary:  When Shahi’s music-obsessed dad goes missing, she and her cousin Naz wind up at Earl’s music store where her father spent a lot of time.  They find an unusual old jukebox that plays LP records, then accidentally discover that it transports them back to the time the album was released.  While they get some interesting glimpses of history, they don’t find Shahi’s dad.  It takes a lot of trial-and-error and some detective work to finally figure out what’s going on and to have a reunion that not only brings Dad back to the present but mends some of the more difficult parts of Shahi’s relationship with him.  Includes a playlist of songs referenced in the story; an author’s note explaining her inspirations for the book; and several pages showing the evolution of some of her artwork.  224 pages; grades 4-7.

Pros:  The premise of this graphic novel is very cool, and serves as a great introduction to a lot of music and some of the historical events that both inspired that music and were influenced by it.  Although there’s a bit of an age gap between the two girls (Naz is Shahi’s babysitter), they are loyal friends who help and protect each other.

Cons:  The story felt a bit too ambitious with not only the musical and historical aspects, but a variety of relationship issues and subplots about Naz’s ear surgery and worries about coming out as bisexual.  The pictures at the beginning of the time travel sections included some jotted notes about the artist and/or album, which looked really interesting, but were hard to read.

Finding Junie Kim by Ellen Oh

Published by HarperCollins

Finding Junie Kim: Oh, Ellen: 9780062987983: Amazon.com: Books

Summary:  Junie’s strategy for getting through middle school is to keep her head down and her mouth shut, even when a boy bullies her for being Korean.  When racist graffiti starts appearing in her school, her friends want to take a stand, but Junie’s not so sure.  But when she starts recording her grandfather’s stories about the Korean War for a school project, she sees the price that can be paid for not standing up for what is right.  After a family tragedy, her grandmother finally agrees to talk about her childhood, and Junie gets another lesson in courage.  Their inspiration leads Junie to confront her bully and to find her own way to lead the conversation about racism at school. Includes an author’s note about how her own family members’ stories inspired this book.  368 pages; grades 5-8.  

Pros:  The rich narrative shifts from Junie’s Trump-era story to her grandfather’s as a young boy and then her grandmother’s as a young girl.  Each one has its own fascinating cast of characters, and the Korean War sections will undoubtedly provide an education for readers, as they did for me.  This would be an amazing book to read and discuss with middle schoolers.

Cons:  The grandparents’ stories, especially her grandfather’s, revealed the motivation for the bullying behavior.  I wish there had been more of that for the bullies in Junie’s life, who just seemed like terrible MAGA hat-wearing boys.

Flight of the Puffin by Ann Braden

Published by Nancy Paulsen Books

Flight of the Puffin: Braden, Ann: 9781984816061: Amazon.com: Books

Summary:  Vincent lives in Seattle, where he’s bullied at school for being different.  T has run away to from a family that couldn’t accept their nonbinary identity, and is living on the streets near Vincent’s home.  Jack lives in a rural Vermont community, going to a small school in danger of being shut down.  And Libby lives near Jack, creating colorful, hopeful cards to help relieve the difficulties she has getting along with her family.  When Libby starts distributing her cards around town, she unexpectedly finds ways to offer hope to the other three kids.  Her message to each one that they are not alone helps them to find the courage to be themselves while at the same time finding connections to others in their families and communities.  Ann Braden’s acknowledgements mention her organization Local Love Brigade that inspired this story. 240 pages; grades 4-7.

Pros:  If you’re looking for a feel-good story, you’ve come to the right place.  All four kids face some realistically difficult situations, and the ways they cope with them would make a great starting point for some interesting discussions. An excellent choice for upper elementary or middle school book clubs. And I love that cover!

Cons:  I wish that T’s story, which is brief and told in verse, had been fleshed out more.  There aren’t many nonbinary characters in the world of middle grade literature.

Pawcasso by Remy Lai

Published by Henry Holt and Co.

Pawcasso: Lai, Remy, Lai, Remy: 9781250774491: Amazon.com: Books
Pawcasso: Lai, Remy, Lai, Remy: 9781250774491: Amazon.com: Books

Summary:  Jo is facing a lonely summer with her father working away from home much of the time and not a lot of friends.  One dull morning, she sees a dog walk by with a basket in his mouth, she follows him and discovers he’s been trained to shop, going to different stores with a list and cash in his basket.  Some kids taking an art class at a bookstore see Jo and assume the dog belongs to her.  They all fall in love with him and want to paint him.  Jo, enjoying the company of other kids, plays along, and promises to bring “her” dog back the following Saturday.  The lie seems harmless enough, but when a curmudgeonly old man goes after the dog (now called Pawcasso) for breaking the leash law, the whole town becomes divided into two camps: the Picassos and the Duchamps.  Jo wants to tell the truth, but will her honesty cause her to lose Pawcasso and all of her new friends?  Includes a recipe for ice cream that can be enjoyed by both dogs and humans.  240 pages; grades 3-6.

Pros:  I try not to indiscriminately toss around the word “adorable”, but that is the only word for Pawcasso and his friends.  Elementary kids are going to love this graphic novel, which not only features an amazing and loveable dog, but also includes some well-delivered messages about families and forgiveness.

Cons:  Jo’s twin baby brothers had disturbingly huge eyes.

The Shape of Thunder by Jasmine Warga

Published by Balzer + Bray

The Shape of Thunder by Jasmine Warga

Summary:  Cora and Quinn used to be best friends.  On November 11, almost a year ago, Quinn’s brother Parker went to school with a gun and killed four people, including Cora’s older sister Mabel and himself.  The two girls haven’t spoken since, but as the new school year begins, Quinn needs to talk to Cora.  She’s been researching time travel, and has some ideas for finding a wormhole that can take them back in time to save their siblings.  Cora has the scientific curiosity and perseverance Quinn needs to make her idea a reality, so she reaches out with an unusual gift for Cora’s twelfth birthday.  Cora is intrigued, but both girls are so weighted down with grief, anger, guilt, and regrets that it’s difficult for them to reconnect.  Slowly, as the days count down to the anniversary of the shooting, they start to put pieces together and to believe that, just maybe, they can change the past and create a different present.  Includes an author’s note about how her fear and frustration around gun violence led to this book.  288 pages; grades 5-8.  

Pros:  This beautifully written, heartbreaking book told in the alternating voices of Cora and Quinn, may get more Newbery recognition for Jasmine Warga. Cora’s dad’s explanation near the end of the book of how he applies Newton’s laws of motion to grief was one of the best lessons about loss I have ever read.   

Cons:  The subject matter definitely makes this a difficult story to read.

Maybe Maybe Marisol Rainey by Erin Entrada Kelly

Published by Greenwillow

Maybe Maybe Marisol Rainey (Maybe Marisol, 1): Kelly, Erin Entrada, Kelly,  Erin Entrada: 9780062970428: Amazon.com: Books
Maybe Maybe Marisol Rainey (Maybe Marisol, 1): Kelly, Erin Entrada, Kelly,  Erin Entrada: 9780062970428: Amazon.com: Books

Summary:  Marisol’s active imagination helps her to enjoy silent movies, name inanimate objects (like Buster Keaton, the refrigerator), and make up stories about her collection of stuffed cats.  But it also means she can imagine falling out of Peppina, the huge magnolia tree in the backyard that she longs to climb like her best friend Jada does.  Marisol has other fears, like mean girl Evie Smythe and Daggers, the dog she has to pass on her bike ride.  But at one point Marisol was too afraid to even ride a bike, and her dad stayed with her until she learned.  By the end of the story, with plenty of parental and best friend support, Marisol has made it to the top of Peppina.  160 pages; grades 2-5.

Pros:  This is one of those rare gems, like Billy Miller or Stella Diaz: an illustrated chapter book, clearly written for elementary kids, that beautifully portrays the challenges ordinary kids face to get through the day.  Marisol is an introspective, imaginative girl, and many readers will relate to her fears, and how she slowly but steadily works to overcome them.  I’m always rooting for books like this, geared to younger readers, to get some Newbery love.

Cons:  Kids raised on a diet of Dog Man and Scholastic Branches books may need a little help getting into a less frenetic book like this one.