April 23, 2018

Cybils Review Roundup: 2017 Graphic Novel Finalists

Here in a handy list is a set of links to all of my reviews of this past year's Cybils finalists for Graphic Novels. As always, it was a privilege and a pleasure to be a Round 2 judge and get to choose from the best of the best in terms of kid appeal and literary merit (the main Cybils criteria). Without further ado, here you go!

Young Adult

WINNER: Spill Zone by Scott Westerfeld, ‎ illustrated by Alex Puvilland
Buddha: An Enlightened Life by Kieron Moore; Illustrated by Rajesh Nagulakonda
New Super-Man Vol. 1: Made in China (Rebirth) by Gene Luen Yang, illustrated by Viktor Bogdanovic
Soupy Leaves Home by Cecil Castellucci, illustrated by Jose Pimienta
Spinning by Tillie Walden
Diesel: Ignition by Tyson Hesse

Elementary/Middle Grade

WINNER: Where's Halmoni? by Julie Kim
Pashmina by Nidhi Chanani
Real Friends by Shannon Hale, ilustrated by LeUyen Pham (check out Tanita's take on it, too!)
Suee and the Shadow by Ginger Ly, illustrated by Molly Park
The Big Bad Fox by Benjamin Renner
The Dam Keeper by Robert Kondo and Dice Tsutsumi

April 16, 2018

Cybils Review: DIESEL: IGNITION by Tyson Hesse

Synopsis: Well, first off, now I'm really glad I decided to change my WIP's title away from its working title of Ignition, because it suits this steampunk-inspired book much better. "Dee" Diesel is a somewhat troublemaking young woman who lives on the airship-city of Peacetowne, in a world above the clouds populated by humans and fanciful animal-people. All is going somewhat according to plan when suddenly a Teppan army ship full of birdmen appears out of nowhere and then disappears, leaving a strange broken engine behind. Dee, a budding gearhead, decides to try to repair it, which plunges her and her robot sidekick onto a strange adventure that brings them from the sky world to the earth below, and brings back some long-lost figures from the past to boot…

Observations: Diesel has an irresistible mix of fantasy and steampunk that is intriguing from the very start—part-animal/part-human characters like Bull, who is a sort of minotaur kid, and the Teppan, who are bird-people, as well as robots and flying cities and airships. The plot is full of continuous action and adventure, and the setting is incredibly cool—at the same time, the characters have problems with family and friends and responsibilities that are relatable. There's also plenty of humor and a super cute robot sidekick who talks in little lines, like Woodstock talking to Snoopy.

Click to embiggen. Also, check out a chapter preview
at Comics Alliance.
The themes brought in here give weight to the fantastical story and setting: the meaning of family, the types of trust issues that arise when someone is betrayed, the clash of personalities and goals that is inevitable in life but has to be dealt with. Thematically, this one will resonate with older teens, while younger ones will enjoy the overall action of the story. The art, too, is really wonderful, combining the fantastical with cute and funny touches, and a dash of manga influence—unsurprising, since the author/artist is also an animator who worked on a Sonic the Hedgehog game.

Conclusion: I'm really glad the Cybils brought this one to me as part of this year's YA Graphic Novels finalists—I don't know how well-known it is, but I was intrigued by both the unique twist on steampunk and the fun characters. Book 1 also ends on a bit of a cliffhanger, so I'm hoping to read more.

I received my copy of this book courtesy of the publisher for Cybils judging purposes. You can find DIESEL: IGNITION by Tyson Hesse at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

April 10, 2018

2♦sdays@the treehouse: Challenge the Fourth: April

Welcome back to our monthly Second Tuesday writing challenge!

From January - June, every second Tuesday of the month, we're going to post an image here on Wonderland of a Creative Commons licensed Flickr picture to which you can respond - with poetic, prose, or whatever kind of writing - and hopefully, you'll share a link in the comments below, so that we can visit your site, read your work and respond. No genre or style limit - just come and join the fun!

Welcome to April!

April brings with it, famously, showers and May flowers, but also National Poetry Month, as well as the National Welding Month celebration, which, I'm sure, is all the rage wherever it is. Additionally, there's National Pecan Month to celebrate as well. This month's image comes from Flickr user Claus Rebler of Korneuburg, Austria:


I've already got stories simmering, don't you? Just leave your link in the comments below, and we look forward to reveling in your inspiration! Happy writing!

April 09, 2018

Cybils Review: SUEE AND THE SHADOW by Ginger Ly and Molly Park

Synopsis: Suee and the Shadow was a Cybils finalist in 2017 for Elementary/Middle Grade Graphic Novels. This ghost story with a touch of horror—but not too much—will appeal to older elementary kids especially. Set in a school in Korea, it stars main character Suee, a young girl reminiscent of Emily Strange. She wears black all the time and doesn't have any friends at her new school. One day, she discovers the forbidden-to-students exhibit room, and as it turns out, she might not have been alone in there…

And then things start to get REALLY weird. First, her shadow has come to life and started talking. But even more alarming is when she discovers that the school hierarchy consists not only of the usual groups of jerks and wanna-bes, it also includes the Zeroes, who walk around all zombie-like and weird and have to go to a special classroom. What's going on at this crazy school? And just what does Suee's shadow have to do with it all?

Observations: I really enjoyed how relatable this one is; it takes place in a Korean school, but it feels like it could be any elementary school anywhere in terms of the worries and feelings of the students, and in the types of challenges they face. Suee is quirky, but with depth, and a well-developed sense of snark. I really enjoyed the artwork in this one, too—the blend of humor and spookiness was well done, the characters were easy to follow, and the overall style was appealing.

The book does a good job of weaving in common concerns of school and home and family with the suspenseful and supernatural creepiness of the ghost story, with thought-provoking moments that deal with the meaning of friendship, the subtle provocations of classism, and the emotional cost of bullying.

I received my copy of this book courtesy of the publisher. You can find SUEE AND THE SHADOW by Ginger Ly and Molly Park at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

March 30, 2018

Turning Pages Reasd: SAINTS AND MISFITS by S.K. ALI

Welcome to another session of Turning Pages!

Content commentary: This novel contains a physical assault, which is processed throughout the book, and may be unsettling to some readers. It is nothing younger readers can't read, and it is powerfully done, but FYI.

Synopsis: Fifteen-year-old Janna Yusef is smart and snarky, kind, and ...conflicted. She's navigating a new world, one where her father has married his administrative assistant and lives in a massive eight-bedroom house across town, one where her brother has changed his major and moved home from college for a year, and one where she's suddenly being inundated with the perfectly poised Saint Sarah, her brother Muhammad's fiancée - and organizer of the Fun Fun Fun Islamic Quiz Game. Janna isn't sure that this new world is all it's cracked up to be - she's wearing hijabi like her mother, but her father hates it. She's supportive of her brother changing his major at college, but she doesn't want him to move home, because sharing a room with her mother means no more privacy, ever. And Janna needs her privacy, especially as she fiddles with her graphic novel about the Prophet, daydreams a little about her non-Muslim crush, and seriously tries to figure out how to deal with the monster who has blighted her life ... and is circling, stalking her like prey.

Janna's keeping her head down, studying advanced math as hard as she can, but the sexist comments from the boys in the class against the only two girls, and the ways some students at her high school treat others, because of a birthmark or how quiet they are, just doesn't add up to the world the way it should be. At least Janna has Mr. Ram, the elderly man she walks to the Senior Center. He's always got wisdom about the world - even if Janna doesn't always have time to listen to it. And Tatyana listens - mostly, when she's not trying to Make Sure Janna gets what she wants out of life, which, Tats thinks, is her crush.

All Janna wants to do - sometimes - is run along under the radar, just keeping out of trouble, hanging with her friends, and admiring her crush on the sly. But lately, that hasn't seemed possible. Now, just when she needs her, Janna's best Muslim friend seems less friend and more faith, and her best non-Muslim friend is bent on managing her relationship with her crush's perfect forehead, and a mean girl named Sausun is friendlier than she thought possible. And now, Jeremy, the non-Muslim boy whose forehead she's been crushing on likes her back, and Janna realizes she hadn't thought things through beyond his perfect head. Muslim girls don't date... but maybe she's not as much of a saint as she ought to be? And, if she's not a saint, how can she figure out how to deal with the monster everyone calls a saint? If she calls him out, won't everyone look from him, to... her? And see how ashamed she is?

Conflicted, distracted, and nearly destroyed, Janna is a contemporary girl cherishing a traditional faith, and struggling to make sense of growing up, change, and a messy world.

Observations: Rudine Sims Bishop's "mirror books and window books" description is relevant to this novel, as non-Muslim readers will find both contemporary mirrors of their own life experiences inside, as well as mirrors into Janna's Indian-Egyptian culture, her modest clothing, and her faith practices, from the washing before prayer, to the right thing to say when someone dies. As Janna is fifteen, this book also falls into that little not-quite-middle-grade/not-quite-teen wasteland into which many books fall which are difficult for some publishers to characterize. Janna's story falls into YA because of her experience of assault, but she is otherwise a classic fifteen year old - full of weird impulses and funny thoughts; not too old, and not too young.

Janna has friends who are non-Muslim, but also people of faith. Hindu, like Mr. Ram, or open to anything, like her bestie, Tatyana, or even Christian, like Mr. Khoury. No one gets to swan through the world surrounded solely by Their People, even if they come from a fairly tightly-knit community. Janna, as her Amu - her uncle the iman - describes it, bobs through the seas of life with other souls, and the books spends time allowing her to have a critical perspective on people from other walks of life, sometimes complimenting her own, at other times, challenging it.

I was very impressed with Janna's explanation of wearing hijab, and exploration of niqab. No one's faith observance is going to be a cookie cutter same-as-hers experience, and Janna's observance is unlike her friend Fizz's, unlike her frenemy Sausan's, and also unlike her brother and mother's. Throughout the book, Janna is herself, imperfect, impatient, wrestling with her own impulses while contrasting them against what is against her personal rules and her parent's expectations.

S.K. Ali also gives readers the most horrifyingly accurate picture of the internal silencing which occurs after an assault that I've ever read. After the incident, the cognitive dissonance just swallows Janna, and she's frozen still in a moment that has long passed. This mirror resonated really strongly with me, and will with other readers who have experienced something horrible, and have struggled to move past the moment and go on. Other mirrors include Janna's crushes, her scholastic successes - and bombs - and the push-back she receives from racist teachers and sexist fellow students as she changes and grows organically throughout the story arc. A lot of this is part and parcel of the fabric of living life in contemporary times, and I think how Janna deals with them - how she thinks things through - is very appealing.

Conclusion: Goth-emo girls, fluffy floral girls, average, low-maintenance girls - all the girls are here, and quite a few of them are wearing hijab or niqab. SAINTS AND MISFITS shows that not every follower of Islam is perfect or some kind of misfit - that Muslims are real people, with real struggles, and though their communities are not perfect, neither are they the breeding grounds for insanity that some people seem to think they are. Full of wisdom, snark, and genuine emotion, this book deals with heavy, thoughtful topics in a way that is neither facile or heavy-handed, imparting a solid story with a big heart. Bring your tissues.

I received my copy of this book courtesy of Overdrive at the public library. You can find SAINTS AND MISFITS by S.K. Ali at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

March 29, 2018

Cybils Review: SOUPY LEAVES HOME by Cecil Castellucci and Jose Pimienta

Synopsis: Graphic novels lend themselves to telling a wide variety of stories, and Soupy Leaves Home is one of those that helps push the boundaries of the medium, bringing us a story of intrepid, valiant underdogs and misfits made good. It's also a historical piece, set in 1932, in the heyday (if you can call it that) of the hobo lifestyle—when hobos were not just vagrants, but train-hopping rovers, down on their luck but riding the rails here and there to find work and their next meal. (Thanks, Herbert Hoover.)

Our narrator Pearl has run away from an abusive home life to try to find a new existence, and when she stumbles on a hobo camp she takes on a new identity: Soupy, a young boy new to the hobo life. An older hobo named Ramshackle takes Soupy under his wing, and they continue their journey Westward together. They might not have much food or shelter, but they share what they do have…and both have their secret hidden baggage that needs to be dealt with if they want to reach a satisfying end to their ramblings.

Observations: Running away to find yourself is a timeless topic and one that has enduring reader appeal—I was immediately drawn into the idea of Pearl leaving a difficult home life for a life on the road. Also, there is a certain romanticism to the old-style hobo way of life depicted in this book. It provides an inside look at a lesser-known cultural lifestyle of the time period (including a glossary of hobo signs!), and the difficulties of the Depression that forced so many onto the road.
Beyond the historical elements, this one is also thematically strong; themes of empowerment and redemption are woven throughout the book, focused as it is on characters who lack social and economic power for a variety of reasons. The characters are intriguing and sympathetic, particularly the Pearl, who learns the meaning of friendship and how to rely on her own wits to survive—not simply blindly believing in others' judgments.

I loved the art style and judicious use of color in this one—it manages to be both stark and whimsical in equal measure, with a lot of fun little hidden drawings that make it rewarding to explore slowly and re-read.

Conclusion: It's clear why Soupy Leaves Home ended up on the Cybils shortlist for 2017. The timeless story of journeying to find oneself, along with the intriguing historical backdrop, make for an appealing combination.

I received my copy of this book courtesy of my library. You can find SOUPY LEAVES HOME by Cecil Castellucci and Jose Pimienta at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

March 27, 2018


Welcome to another session of Turning Pages!

Synopsis: Jules, a senior, lives with her librarian mother, who is, by Jules' lights, not much of one of mother. She dislikes her job at the library, cares indifferently for Jules, but she lives and breathes painting. And she's got talent, too - but her humanity as a mother and her humanity as an artist seem to be two wildly different things, in Jules' opinion. Sometimes she vanishes into her art and doesn't surface for days. Jules is grateful for the roof over her head, but longs for the kind of mother who asks about her, is interested in her day to day, and who is more like her friends Leila and Gab's mothers - women who show their love by cooking and providing a beautiful home, where nothing is taped together, or cracked. Unlike her mother, who is thrifty and tidy to the point of throwing away even memorabilia, Jules loves antiques, is fascinated by how the world was in days gone by -- but with no grandparents, no antecedents, and no connections, she feels cast adrift in a world full of odds and ends - nothing with real value, nothing anyone would keep, or put in a museum.

Jules - on yearbook staff - has been asking for a baby picture for yearbook for weeks, and now that the deadline has passed, she finally goes into her mother's room to find one... but discovers that there's a nineteen month gap from her newborn photograph to when she's almost two years old. Why aren't there any good, real baby pictures? And, why's there an envelope of paperwork from the Department of Children and Families? What happened in her and her mother's lives? When Jules discovers the answer, her world tilts off its axis. She's always wanted more of what she had - more family, more connection, more life, more love -- and now she realizes that somewhere, she might have had it. Pursuing the connection she finds on the other end the love she feels she's been denied. But, is it really all for her? Does she have the right to it? And, if she tries to grab all of that love with both hands... what happens to everything else? Wanting more can lead to having more, true - and some of the chances Jules takes have panned out into a past and a history she could never have dreamed existed. But, Jules is unable to let go of the temptation to have it all... with predictable results. After Jules is left with her hands empty, she has to learn to accept that you can't have it all in life -- but appreciating what you have is the key to everything.

"It didn't escape me, despite all my angst about family, about finding family and having family and missing out on family that this was a very real thing I had: friends I would drop anything for. Friends I'd take a bullet for. Friends I'd handle dead rats for.

There is more than one kind of family."

- RELATIVE STRANGERS, unfinished copy

Observations: This book will resonate with anyone who has had an unsatisfying relationship with their family, who ever dreamed of having been adopted, or who always wished they could be part of a huge, amazing family, or closer friends with the people with whom they hang out... which means that this book will resonate almost every teen at some time or another. There is such a huge well of wanting in Jules that her desires slip into the heart like a little hook. Is there anything so wrong with wanting more love? More family? More people to pay attention and SEE you? The desires seem innocent - and they are - but the narrative shows how easily pandering to the desire for more than what you have can ultimately overwhelm you.

I don't think I've ever read a YA book quite like this before, which deals with the ignorance immaturity and privilege provides, convincing us to believe the convincing narratives others present to the world, and to envy them in a destructive way in response. Most people can pull back from that brink, identify that the lives we encounter - whether at work or school or digitally curated on Instagram - are airbrushed and carefully displayed for maximum affect. Most of us know that when people are out in public, they wear a public mask... however, this is a book about someone who believed the hype so thoroughly that she allowed herself to wallow in that envy, and made selfish choices based on what she believed she saw, what she believed people had that they could stand to share, and the luxuries of family and affection which she felt she needed but which she hadn't been given.

Garner is a practiced write, and Jules' voice is confident and assured - but there are other YA novels with that confident, wry, snarky voice. What sets this novel apart is that most of us aren't able to articulate the dangers of ...unexamined neediness, maybe let's call it. Jules grieves for what she doesn't have in such a realistic way - and the repeated lashings of grief, the haunting, nostalgic longing, the sadness and the hope blends together to make a truly beautiful, quiet, thoughtful, emotional read. (I teared up repeatedly through the entire last half, surprising myself.) This was an unusual book topically, and I can't imagine how many fewer mistakes I might have made as a teen and nascent adult had I had this book then.

While there isn't a lot of ethnic diversity necessarily, this book has titanium strong male and female friendships and a realistic depiction of the judgment and confusion surrounding understanding friends and a burgeoning sexuality.

Conclusion: A quiet, thoughtful book with humor and insight, and a HUGE miscalculation, which may catch some readers off guard, but to others may be perfectly understandable, if still cringeworthy. A very real book about fumbling our way to a very real understanding and acceptance of who we are, and what we truly need.

I received my copy of this book courtesy of the publisher. After April 10th, you can find RELATIVE STRANGERS by Paula Garner at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!