Kate’s Review: “Pumpkinheads”

40864790Book: “Pumpkinheads” by Rainbow Rowell and Faith Erin Hicks (Ill.)

Publishing Info: First Second, August 2019

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: Deja and Josiah are seasonal best friends.

Every autumn, all through high school, they’ve worked together at the best pumpkin patch in the whole wide world. (Not many people know that the best pumpkin patch in the whole wide world is in Omaha, Nebraska, but it definitely is.) They say good-bye every Halloween, and they’re reunited every September 1.
But this Halloween is different—Josiah and Deja are finally seniors, and this is their last season at the pumpkin patch. Their last shift together. Their last good-bye.

Josiah’s ready to spend the whole night feeling melancholy about it. Deja isn’t ready to let him. She’s got a plan: What if—instead of moping and the usual slinging lima beans down at the Succotash Hut—they went out with a bang? They could see all the sights! Taste all the snacks! And Josiah could finally talk to that cute girl he’s been mooning over for three years . . .

What if their last shift was an adventure?

Beloved writer Rainbow Rowell and Eisner Award–winning artist Faith Erin Hicks have teamed up to create this tender and hilarious story about two irresistible teens discovering what it means to leave behind a place—and a person—with no regrets.

Review: Halloween has come and gone (pardon me while I sigh deeply over this fact), but it’s still technically Fall, even if in Minnesota our weather starts to trend towards Winter a bit earlier than other places. Given that Fall is such a short season here, I cherish it as long as we get to experience it. “Pumpkinheads” is the perfect Autumn story. It has a pumpkin patch, it takes place on Halloween, and it brings to life all of the best Autumn sights, games, and treats. Rainbow Rowell has always been great at creating charming and relatable characters and settings, and therefore she was probably the perfect person to create a story about two pumpkin patch workers on their last shift ever. Highjinx, nostalgia, and candy apples galore ensue!

Josiah (or Josie) and Deja are our seasonal BFF protagonists, coworkers who only interact when they are working at DeKnock’s World Famous Pumpkin Patch & Autumn Jamboree. Josiah is shy and pragmatic, while Deja is effervescent and free spirited. They work at the succotash stand together (this concept alone was so ridiculously endearing) and are besties until the season ends. This is their last night working at the patch, as it’s Halloween and they are both graduating in the spring and moving on. Their friendship was the beating heart of this book, and Rowell is superb at showing why they are such a good friend match through one night of misadventures. It reminded me of the classic film “American Graffiti”, as both in that film and in this book we really get a sense of these two people based on one seemingly random night. But we get to see through the happenings of that night so much about both of these characters that I felt like I knew everything about them by the time I was finished and their last shift had come to an end. I loved both of them for different reasons, and found them both to have lots of layers that were well explored. Josiah is sweet and shy, but also filled with hesitation that has prevented him from talking to his crush Marcy for three years. Deja is kind and adventurous, but she also can be capricious and impulsive. They balance each other out and their relationship is fun to see as she drags him around the patch in hopes of making his romantic dreams come true (and in hopes of finding all the delicious food to munch on. SO relatable). There is also the always looming bittersweet reality that once their night is done, they aren’t sure if they will ever see each other again. It’s light hearted and yet bittersweet.

Rowell also nails the joys of the Autumn season. This is certainly a kinder and gentler way to spend one’s Halloween, but the pumpkin patch is filled with all the fun things you want from this kind of thing: hayrides, candied apples, pumpkin picking, a corn maze, you name it, this place has it. I could practically smell the hay and the apple cider, and it felt like I was seeing a number of my favorite Autumn festivals come to life on the page. I WANTED TO VISIT DEKNOCK’S WORLD FAMOUS PUMPKIN PATCH & AUTUMN JAMBOREE!

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And I can’t guarantee I would leave unless I was dragged away. (source)

And the icing on this pumpkin cake is that the illustrations by Faith Erin Hicks perfectly complement Rowell’s story. They are expressive and detailed, but also have this coziness to them that just evokes feelings of Autumnal nostalgia.

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I really enjoyed reading “Pumpkinheads”. Rainbow Rowell is such a delightful author who always writes such pleasing stories. Keep that Fall spirit alive and grab this one to read over some hot apple cider and something pumpkin-y!

Rating 8: A very cute seasonal story with fun characters, a cheerful setting, and an adorable plot.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Pumpkinheads” isn’t on very specific Goodreads lists as of yet, but it would fit in on “Best Books to Read in Autumn”, and “Black Girl Comics”.

Find “Pumpkinheads” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “Mooncakes”

44774415._sy475_Book: “Mooncakes” by Suzanne Walker and Wendy Xu (Ill.)

Publishing Info: Lion Forge, October 2019

Where Did I Get This Book: I received an eARC from NetGalley.

Book Description: A story of love and demons, family and witchcraft.

Nova Huang knows more about magic than your average teen witch. She works at her grandmothers’ bookshop, where she helps them loan out spell books and investigate any supernatural occurrences in their New England town.

One fateful night, she follows reports of a white wolf into the woods, and she comes across the unexpected: her childhood crush, Tam Lang, battling a horse demon in the woods. As a werewolf, Tam has been wandering from place to place for years, unable to call any town home.

Pursued by dark forces eager to claim the magic of wolves and out of options, Tam turns to Nova for help. Their latent feelings are rekindled against the backdrop of witchcraft, untested magic, occult rituals, and family ties both new and old in this enchanting tale of self-discovery.

Review: Thanks to NetGalley for providing me with an eARC of this book!

I know that not everyone has the same love and affinity for all things horror that I do. And while I know that for me the month of October is all about the ghosts, ghouls, slashers, and monsters that I want to associate with, for others that may not be as appealing. So for today’s Horrorpalooza book, we’re actually inching away from the horror, and looking at a kinder, gentler kind of book of the season, where witches and werewolves fall in love, and magic can lead to self discovery. Today I’m going to talk about the sweet and romantic graphic novel “Mooncakes” by Suzanne Walker and Wendy Xu, a story about a witch named Nova and a werewolf named Tam and the magic that surrounds their lives, for better or for worse.

“Mooncakes” takes the kinder, gentler witch story and gives it some new and unique twists. Nova’s family life is the familiar matriarchal witch household, as she is living with her grandmothers Quili and Nechama and learning about magic and spells from them. While I do love a vengeful or spiteful witch, or one who has legitimate grievances with society and the patriarchy, I do have to say that I also like the positive stories of witches empowering other witches through education, family, and love. “Mooncakes” really embodies this positive trope, and Quili and Nechama are the perfect supportive and bustling mother figures that fill the void of Nova’s parent’s deaths. Nova herself is a unique main character. She is Chinese American, so her culture influences not only her home life but also her magic. Along with that she also has hearing aids, and after she lost her hearing she began to master the art of nonverbal magical spells, a concept that we may see (as sometimes witches don’t have to say ANYTHING to make magic happen in stories), but is rarely explored. But it’s her romance with Tam that is the center of the story. Tam and Nova were childhood friends, but Tam left town and has been wandering on their own, living as a werewolf and distancing themself from an abusive home life. When Tam and Nova reconnect, their lingering feelings for each other start to re-boot. Their romance is sweet and not terribly complicated, and I liked that Tam’s nonbinary identity wasn’t the focus of the conflict, and that they were easily and readily accepted by the other characters.

The plot and the magical aspects of this story, however, weren’t as strong as I had hoped they would be. We know that Tam is being targeted for some kind of nefarious spells, as when we meet them they are in conflict with a horse demon in the woods. Nova is there for Tam and is determined to figure out what is going on, but I never felt like that aspect of the plot was really focused on. We get hints as to who may be behind it, and while I feel like Walker tried to hide the culprit, it felt pretty obvious as to who it was going to be. While we are told that Tam is in some serious danger, it never feels like the stakes are all that high. And once we got to the big showdown, things resolved themselves rather easily, and threw in some obvious tropes that have been seen many times before for good measure in terms of resolution. Is that a bad thing? Not necessarily! I love a ‘the love for the other person is able to fight through a spell’ twist as much as the next person, but when the rest of the magical plot and conflict feels a little haphazard, that doesn’t exactly make the twist seem stronger. I think that had this story paid more attention to building up the conflict and magic issues, it would have worked better. As it was, it felt more like an afterthought.

The art, however, is totally adorable and sweet! I really like Wendy Xu’s style, and I love the details and designs that she brought to the characters.

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If you want a sweet romantic story with magical elements, “Mooncakes” could be a good choice. I wouldn’t go in expecting a whole lot of magical system building, but it does have charming characters and some great representation. And if you don’t want something scary this witchy season, it’s a good alternative.

Rating 6: A cute and romantic story about witches, family, and magic, “Mooncakes” is filled with a lot of sweetness, though not much complexity.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Mooncakes” is included on the Goodreads lists “Comics for Witches”, and “Graphic Novels Featuring LGBTQ Themes”.

Find “Mooncakes” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “The Tea Dragon Festival”

42369064Book: “The Tea Dragon Festival” by Katie O’Neill

Publishing Info: Oni Press, September 2019

Where Did I Get This Book: I received an eARC from NetGalley.

Book Description: Rinn has grown up with the Tea Dragons that inhabit their village, but stumbling across a real dragon turns out to be a different matter entirely! Aedhan is a young dragon who was appointed to protect the village but fell asleep in the forest eighty years ago. With the aid of Rinn’s adventuring uncle Erik and his partner Hesekiel, they investigate the mystery of his enchanted sleep, but Rinn’s real challenge is to help Aedhan come to terms with feeling that he cannot get back the time he has lost.

Review: Thanks to NetGalley for providing me with an eARC of this book!

A couple years ago I stumbled upon a sweet and unique graphic novel called “The Tea Dragon Society”, a charming story about a group of people who raise and care for Tea Dragons. After reading that book I became and instant fan of author Katie O’Neill’s fantasy tales, and when I saw that she had a follow up called “The Tea Dragon Festival”, I immediately requested to read it via NetGalley. I’m still in need of all the dragon positivity I can get in my stories, as dragons are my favorite mythical creatures and any and all positive depictions are going to bring me all kinds of joy. Especially if it means characters get to coexist with dragons peacefully and everything ends happily.

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Happier times. (source)

“The Tea Dragon Festival” is something of a peripheral prequel to “The Tea Dragon Society”, but it is able to exist on its own. But this time around, our dragon lore moves beyond the Tea Dragons, and expands it to include wild Dragons. While a mountain town prepares for the annual Tea Dragon Festival, a girl named Rinn discovers a sleeping Dragon named Aedhan. Aedhan was supposed to be the protector of the town, but some kind of forest magic put him to sleep for eighty years. The focus of the story has two aspects. The first is trying to figure out what kind of being put Aedhan to sleep, which brings in the familiar faces of Erik and Hesekiel! In “The Tea Dragon Society”, Erik and Hesekiel have retired and opened a tea shop where they care for Tea Dragons, but in “The Tea Dragon Festival” they are still young and adventuring throughout the lands together. Erik is Rinn’s uncle, and his connection to the town is deftly placed and he and Hesekiel feel right at home in the pages of this story. But the larger focus of the tale is about Aedhan trying to readjust to life after being asleep for so long. Perhaps not as long for a Dragon, but still long enough that he feels like he’s missed out and failed the people he was supposed to look over. I really liked that this was the narrative with the most attention, as it let the characters grow and unfold organically. That isn’t to say that the Erik and Hesekiel storyline was neglected; on the contrary, I also enjoyed the mystery of the magic of the forest, and it was awesome getting a glimpse into their adventuring days while still being overall positive and not succumbing to tropes of wandering adventurers and bounty hunters. They were still true to their characters even in a completely different circumstance.

The new characters were also lovely and endearing. Not only was Rinn a kind and unique protagonist, as she too is trying to find her place in town and what role she has to play, Aedhan and his own background is rewarding and fascinating. He has the ability to shapeshift to look more ‘human’, which is explained as a defense against people who still may want to slay Dragons out of a toxic need to prove themselves as brave and fearless. The friendship that develops between Rinn and Aedhan really reminded me of Chihiro and Haku in “Spirited Away”, as their deep friendship is touching and isn’t really defined by platonic, romantic, or anything else. But they aren’t the only characterizations that were strong and well thought out. From Rinn’s Gramman, who is her mentor in all of her cooking endeavors, to Lesa, one of Rinn’s friends who is deaf and mute (note on this: I LOVED that not only did O’Neill incorporate a disabled character into her story, she created a way to denote sign language within her illustrations), to a little girl named Aya who looks up to Rinn, a number of the characters all have their parts to play and feel complex and interesting. And just like in “The Tea Dragon Society”, O’Neill brings in a lot of diverse characters, be they different skin tones, or different sexual orientations, or having different abilities. Both overt diversity and more everyday diversity are very important for kids to see in their stories, and these stories handle both kinds beautifully.

And finally, THE TEA DRAGONS ARE BACK AND THEY ARE ADORABLE! Not only do we see Tea Dragons again, we get new kinds of Tea Dragons because of the different region within the world of the story. That said, O’Neill brings in other fantasy creatures that are just as breathtaking as the Tea Dragons, such as Aedhan’s full Dragon form and some of the forest creatures. The designs are both adorable and gorgeous.

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Cuteness overload. (source)

I am so glad that Katie O’Neill decided to revisit her Tea Dragons and their friends with “The Tea Dragon Festival”. It’s a dragon story that stands out from the rest, and while I don’t want to be greedy, I am going to once again hope that she makes more stories within this world!!

Rating 9: Katie O’Neill has once again brought a gentle and calm fantasy story to vibrant life. “The Tea Dragon Festival” lets us revisit the Tea Dragons and other familiar faces, and brings in more delightful characters with rich mythologies.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Tea Dragon Festival” is included on the Goodreads lists “Dragons”, and “Graphic Novels Featuring LGBTQ Themes”.

Find “The Tea Dragon Festival” at your library using WorldCat!

Previously Reviewed: “The Tea Dragon Society”.

Kate’s Review: “They Called Us Enemy”

42527866Book: “They Called Us Enemy” by George Takei, Justin Eisigner, Steven Scott, and Harmony Becker (Ill.)

Publishing Info: Top Shelf Productions, July 2019

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: A stunning graphic memoir recounting actor/author/activist George Takei’s childhood imprisoned within American concentration camps during World War II. Experience the forces that shaped an American icon — and America itself — in this gripping tale of courage, country, loyalty, and love.

George Takei has captured hearts and minds worldwide with his captivating stage presence and outspoken commitment to equal rights. But long before he braved new frontiers in Star Trek, he woke up as a four-year-old boy to find his own birth country at war with his father’s — and their entire family forced from their home into an uncertain future.

In 1942, at the order of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, every person of Japanese descent on the west coast was rounded up and shipped to one of ten “relocation centers,” hundreds or thousands of miles from home, where they would be held for years under armed guard.

They Called Us Enemy is Takei’s firsthand account of those years behind barbed wire, the joys and terrors of growing up under legalized racism, his mother’s hard choices, his father’s faith in democracy, and the way those experiences planted the seeds for his astonishing future.

What is American? Who gets to decide? When the world is against you, what can one person do? To answer these questions, George Takei joins co-writers Justin Eisinger & Steven Scott and artist Harmony Becker for the journey of a lifetime.

Review: When I was in grad school, one of our professors asked us how old we all were when we first learned about the Japanese American Internment during World War II. I was in sixth grade, but I remember that was on the early side of things in that straw poll. It is a shameful part of American History when our Government targeted innocent people based on their race, and shipped them off to internment camps based on bigotry and fear. I knew that actor and political activist George Takei and his family were sent to one of these camps when he was a little boy, but didn’t know his full story. “They Called Us Enemy” is him telling that story, but not only is it that, it’s connecting that experience and horrible government policy with more recent policies that are playing out in our country today.

Takei weaves his own personal story together with the broader political climate and maneuvers that ultimately led to Executive Order 9066, which relocated over 100,000 Japanese Americans to internment camps during World War II. Takei was a little boy when this happened, and his memories are shaped by his age and perceptions at that time. I thought that it was especially effective to tell the stories of how he as a little boy perceived what was going on around him, and how looking back at how his parents were acting during that time now shows him the broader pain and injustice of what happened to their family. Moments like him and his little brother Henry playing on the train that was taking them to Camp Rohwer, where their natural curiosity made their mother nervous that they would get the negative attention of the guards, were especially chilling. He remembers having a fun time with Henry, but then also looks back and sees the unease his mother had regarding their safety, and it hits the point home that their innocence was being slowly chipped away at, even if they didn’t know it. I also liked that he would show other moments of childhood joy and innocence, like seeing their first snow or experiencing a visit from Santa at Christmas, but then would still reiterate that moments of happiness do not outweigh or negate the fact that he and his family were being imprisoned because of their heritage and race and not their actions.

Takei is also really good at presenting the political events and policies that surrounded the Japanese Internment, from putting forth the major players like FDR and Warren Berger in the spotlight to showing how the racism and fear meant more policies and more rules, and more distrust of those who were imprisoned. We see such policies play out on the larger scale, and then see how they impact the Takei family. His parents Takekuma and Fumiko are doing their best to keep their children safe, but as the policies become more restrictive their refusal to declare ‘loyalty’ to America, as to do so would be pledging loyalty to a country that had imprisoned them AND supposed that they were loyal to the Japanese Empire even though they did not live there and hadn’t for most of their lives. This, of course, led to consequences and the Takei family was sent to an even more restrictive camp called Tule Lake. We also see George Takei reflecting upon the conflict between older prisoners and younger prisoners, with older prisoners more likely to try to bow their heads and stay safe, and younger ones more willing to question and openly rebel. This is all seen through hindsight, as Takei has memories of, after the fact when he was a young adult, pushing against and deriding his father for not fighting back, and his father clearly still feeling caught between what was right and what would keep his family safe. It’s clear this still hurts Takei as he looks back on it.

Finally, Takei isn’t afraid to compare the Japanese Internment Camps and Policy to what we are seeing at the border with asylum seekers and the Muslim Travel Ban. The comparison has made some people uncomfortable and indignant, but Takei is more than game to show that the inhumanity of these policies is very reminiscent of what happened to Japanese Americans during World War II, and that they’re based similar fears and racism that Executive Order 9066 sprung from. It’s a wrenching comparison, and a hard reality to face that we’re falling into the same mistakes and injustices of our past.

The artwork by Harmony Becker is lovely to look at and fits the story well. It strikes a balance between realism, especially when talking about policy and world events, but also has cartoony moments that reflect childhood and childrens’ reactions to various events in their day to day lives.

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“They Called Us Enemy” is a story that is upsetting and personal, and it is a familiar situation that many had hoped we had left in the past. George Takei opens up and shares this story with power and grace, and if you want to know more about the Japanese American Internment, this is a good place to start. Learn our history. We’re repeating it now and it’s atrocious.

Rating 9: A powerful, heartbreaking story that shows injustices of America’s past (and present), “They Called Us Enemy” is a stunning and personal graphic memoir by George Takei.

Reader’s Advisory:

“They Called Us Enemy” is included on the Goodreads lists “Japanese American Internment”, and “History Through Graphic Novels”.

Find “They Called Us Enemy” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me”

29981020._sx318_Book: “Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me” by Mariko Tamaki and Rosemary Valero-O’Connell.

Publishing Info: First Second Books, May 2019

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: Laura Dean, the most popular girl in high school, was Frederica Riley’s dream girl: charming, confident, and SO cute. There’s just one problem: Laura Dean is maybe not the greatest girlfriend.

Reeling from her latest break up, Freddy’s best friend, Doodle, introduces her to the Seek-Her, a mysterious medium, who leaves Freddy some cryptic parting words: break up with her. But Laura Dean keeps coming back, and as their relationship spirals further out of her control, Freddy has to wonder if it’s really Laura Dean that’s the problem. Maybe it’s Freddy, who is rapidly losing her friends, including Doodle, who needs her now more than ever. Fortunately for Freddy, there are new friends, and the insight of advice columnists like Anna Vice to help her through being a teenager in love.

Mariko Tamaki and Rosemary Valero-O’Connell bring to life a sweet and spirited tale of young love that asks us to consider what happens when we ditch the toxic relationships we crave to embrace the healthy ones we need.

Review: Teenage love is rough. True, I married my high school sweetheart and we haven’t really had any rough patches, then or now, but hey, I had my fair share of awkward pining and heartbreak before all that. While romance isn’t really a go to genre for me, when I do read it I like seeing how the love story aspects of a book portray romance and relationships, especially when a book is Young Adult. This brings me to “Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me” by Mariko Tamaki and Rosemary Valero-O’Connell, a YA graphic novel about the tumultuousness of a teenage romance. I’ve always found Tamaki to be honest and realistic when it comes to her books, and therefore I was very interested in seeing what she was going to do with the story of Freddy and Laura, two teenage girls who keep falling in and out of a relationship.

Like her other stories, Tamaki really knows how to capture realistic and relatable teenage voices. Just about every character in “Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me” feels like a real teenager, both in how they act in situations and how they don’t always understand how their actions affect other people. Freddy is our protagonist, the lovelorn girlfriend of the fickle and manipulative Laura. When we meet her Freddy has had her heart broken by Laura once again, and is seeking advice from an online advice columnist. Freddy is absolutely being taken advantage of, but at the same time she is so caught up in her own miserable love life she isn’t able to see what is going on with her other, more loyal friends. She is both someone you can’t help but root for, as well as someone you want to shake for being so self absorbed. As a character she’s very well conceived, and her flaws and moments of unlikability make her an even stronger protagonist than I was expecting. Her relationship with Laura is toxic at its heart, as Laura’s interest is only in Freddy when it’s convenient to herself, and because of this you both feel pity for Freddy, as well as frustration. But that was one of the stand out themes of this book, in that toxic relationships, be it between teens or adults, romantic or platonic, don’t only affect those in said relationships, and how we can blind ourselves to the people we become while inside of them. But even if Freddy makes mistakes and can be hard to like at times, she doesn’t compare to Laura, who is just the worst. We don’t really get to see THAT much of Laura when all is said and done, as she flits in and out of Freddy’s life in fickle and self absorbed ways, but you definitely know the kind of person she is even in these moments. Tamaki is great at portraying how cruel and mean Laura is without going into heavy handed monologues or speeches, as well as how the toll it takes on Freddy ripples across her other relationships. It’s a great example of showing and not telling, something that is sometimes lost in books written for teens.

I also really liked that this book is very sapphic and LGBTQIA+ in it’s themes. Many of the characters, from Freddy and Laura to their friends groups, are LGBTQIA+, and the normalcy of it all is very evident from the get go. While sometimes these themes did fall more into a telling vs showing trap (a couple of kind of shoe horned in bits of dialogue that didn’t quite fit popped up here and there), I really liked that all of these characters were true to themselves and the majority of the conflict had nothing to do with their identities. Along with this, I liked that this exact normalcy made it so that Laura Dean could be a genuinely terrible person, and that it would be next to impossible to say that she is that way because of her sexual orientation, a them that is sometimes still seen in fiction stories, regrettably. This book also tackles other, harder issues that YA books aren’t always comfortable tackling in empathetic ways. I don’t want to spoil too much, but I will say that there is a side storyline involving abortion that did a really good job of not stigmatizing the procedure or the choice of having one. 

Finally, I really really loved the artwork in this book. It has a muted and subtle quality to it, with some manga-esque traits that still felt unique to the artist, Rosemary Valero-O’Connell. I also liked that while it’s mostly in black and white, there are little splashes of a soft pink throughout the story. It really made the images pop.

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“Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me” is a bittersweet and hopeful look at the ups and downs of teenage relationships. If you haven’t checked out anything by Mariko Tamaki yet, I would say that this would be a good place to start.

Rating 8: A bittersweet story about the ups and downs of teenage romance, “Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me” hits you in the feels when it comes to love and toxic relationships.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me” is included on the Goodreads lists “Lesbian Teen Fiction”, and “Sapphic Graphic”.

Find “Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “Kiss Number 8”

22612920Book: “Kiss Number 8” by Colleen A.F. Venable and Ellen T. Crenshaw (Ill.)

Publishing Info: First Second Books, March 2019

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: Amanda can’t figure out what’s so exciting about kissing. It’s just a lot of teeth clanking, germ swapping, closing of eyes so you can’t see that godzilla-sized zit just inches from your own hormonal monstrosity. All of her seven kisses had been horrible in different ways, but nothing compared to the awfulness that followed Kiss Number Eight. An exploration of sexuality, family, and faith, Kiss Number Eight is a coming-of-age tale filled with humor and hope.

Review: It may seem like I’m doing a LOT of graphic novels lately, but in my defense I neglected this format a lot this summer. This occurred to me when I was requesting books for a teen graphic novel display, and one of the books I stumbled upon was “Kiss Number 8” by Colleen A.F. Venable and Ellen T. Crenshaw. After requesting it for work, I requested it for myself. I hadn’t looked too much into it when I requested it; I knew that it had LGBTQIA+ themes, and I knew that it was about a teen girl figuring out her sexuality. But what I didn’t expect was how emotional “Kiss Number 8” was going to be, and how hard it would be to read at times because of the themes.

And to note, I will have to address some vague spoilers in this review to fully discuss my opinions. I’ll do my best to keep it general.

“Kiss Number 8” takes place in 2004, a time that doesn’t seem to distant to me but is actually fifteen years ago. As I was reading this book, it served as a reminder of how many things have changed in terms of societies views on sexuality, and yet how far we still have to go. Amanda is written as a pretty typical teenage girl of this time and place, and up until this point she can count on a number of things: she has a fantastic relationship with her father, she has a tempestuous relationship with her mother, and her best friends Cat and Laura are always going to be there for her, even if they don’t particularly like each other. You get a great glimpse into Amanda’s life through snippets of scenes, and by the time the main plots start to kick in you already know who she is and what her reality is. Venable does a good job of showing rather than telling when it comes to how Amanda feels about those in her life, especially her growing infatuation with Cat, whose care free and somewhat selfish personality is apparent to everyone BUT Amanda. I also liked the slow unraveling and reveal of the other main plot line: a mysterious phone call to her father, and a mysterious letter that he tries to hide from her. Venable does a really good job of making the reader think it’s going to be one thing, but then piece by piece shows that it’s something completely different, something that connects to Amanda’s present emotional situation with Cat and goes even further back into how people have to hide their identities from others.

I also thought that Venable did a good job of portraying realistic, and at times very flawed, characters. As I mentioned earlier, Amanda is a pretty normal teenage girl, but along with that comes a cruel streak towards those who care about her, especially her mother and Laura. She makes bad decisions in moments of great emotion, and it ends up hurting people, who in turn react poorly and hurt her back. But you never get the sense that she is a bad person when she does these things, rather that she is in a great deal of pain and dealing with confusion about herself and a life she thought she had all sorted out. The fallout from these choices always felt real, and sometimes that meant that it was painful to read. But again, Amanda doesn’t ever come off as a bad person, just a person who is still learning. In fact, most of the characters are given a certain amount of grace when they screw up, and aren’t painted as being one dimensional or cardboard cut outs of tropes…. Even when they don’t necessarily deserve it. Because to me, with how some of the characters did end up reacting to Amanda’s identity, and the identities of others within the story, I didn’t want them to be given a pass, realistic or not. Not when they caused to much pain.

And that is a good segue into difficult moments that I had with “Kiss Number 8”, specifically with how a number of the characters were when it comes to LGBT issues. There is a LOT of homophobia and transphobia in this book, and while it’s all written within the context of the story, and doesn’t feel like it’s excused or glossed over, it could still be triggering for readers who are in those communities. While Amanda was a lived experience of learning about herself and her sexuality, I feel like the ball was dropped a bit more with the trans characters in the narrative. They were more used as lessons for Amanda to learn, and their voices and experiences were put in the context of a cis girl realizing that they too are human beings who deserve respect and dignity. That isn’t to say that I thought Venable was malicious in her portrayal, but it does show that we still have a ways to go when it comes to how trans characters are portrayed within the stories we read. That said, I am a cis straight woman, so if my assessment is off kilter to anyone please do let me know. I, too, am still learning.

I have nothing but good things to say about Crenshaw’s artwork. The characters are cartoony and fun, and their designs remind me of other popular teen graphic works like “Drama” and “This One Summer”, but the style is still unique and feels new and fresh. And even with the more ‘cartoony’ drawings, the emotional weight of the various situations still came through loud and clear.

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(source)

Uncomfortable and clunky aspects aside, I enjoyed “Kiss Number 8”. It’s an honest and emotional book that kept me reading, and reminded me that there is still so much progress to be made, even if we’ve come so far.

Rating 8: A bittersweet and emotional story about finding one’s identity, “Kiss Number 8” has complex characters and relevant themes. We’ve come so far with stories like this, but we still have a ways to go.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Kiss Number 8” is included on the Goodreads lists “Lesbian Teen Fiction”, and “Sapphic Graphic”.

Find “Kiss Number 8” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “Clueless: One Last Summer”

38926467Book: “Clueless: One Last Summer” by Amber Benson, Sarah Kuhn, and Siobhan Keenan (Ill.)

Publishing Info: BOOM! Box, December 2018

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: Cher, Dionne, and Tai set off for one last summer of footloose and fancy-free fashion and fun before college starts! 

The class of 1997 has left Bronson Alcott High School for good, and as the weather heats up, Cher and besties Dionne and Tai head off for their last summer vacation adventure together before, ugh, REAL LIFE! 

Picking up after Clueless: Senior Year, head back to the ’90s for summer fun and fashion from superstar writers Sarah Kuhn (Heroine Complex) and Amber Benson (The Witches of Echo Park), and illustrator Siobhan Keenan.

Review: It took a little while for my library to get this book in their catalog, but they did and I got it right in time for summer! As I mentioned in my review of “Clueless: Senior Year” (linked at the bottom of the post), “Clueless” is one of my favorite movies and no matter how many times I watch it I will never get sick of it. I was very excited for the next comic when I heard that it was coming out, and the sort of long wait was absolutely worth it. Just like “Senior Year” before it, “One Last Summer” brings back Cher, Dionne, Tai, and more, and gives them worthy stories of their fabulous characters. On top of that, we got some focus on characters we hadn’t even seen yet (still no Elton though. I get it, but I love that creep so much that I can’t help but be bitter).

Cher, Dionne, and Tai are the primary focuses of the story, as they all have their own conundrums to solve, while trying not to think about how things are going to be changing in their lives. Cher has taken on a summer internship as an assistant to an advice columnist (who is not a very good or honest person, much to Cher’s chagrin), Dionne is in charge of planning a beach party that her parents are helming, and Tai is preparing for her favorite aunt to come to town, and introducing her to Travis. On top of that, all three of them are hoping to solve a mystery for their friend Summer, who has a secret admirer. The stories are kind of simplistic to be sure, but the characters were just so in character and absolutely on point that I highly enjoyed every foray that they went on. I also enjoyed that for some of the characters, especially Dionne, the worries and anxieties about having to go to a new environment and leave people behind make things all the more stressful, even if they don’t totally get why. I found Dionne’s storyline to be especially compelling, as she and Murray are going to different schools across countries from each other. The anxiety and fear of a long distance relationship after high school was captured perfectly, and as someone who knows from experience hers was the story that I most related to. It’s also great seeing the spotlight being shared between these three girls once again, as they all are so endearing and different from each other.

But as mentioned above, “One Last Summer” also brings more attention to other characters that didn’t get as much last time. The biggest one is Summer, a character from the movie who is probably best remembering for her shining moments at the Valley Party, where she initiated a game of Suck and Blow, and snagged a lawn snowman for no discernible reason. I liked seeing her being brought into the main three friend group, and I liked how well she fit in. Benson and Kuhn made her a distinct and fun character who is similar enough to fit in with Cher, Dionne, and Tai, but different enough that she felt like she had her own complexities. And I mean, fine, if we can’t get Elton I was totally happy getting another awesome lady character. Along with Summer we did see a little more focus on other characters, like Josh, Murray, and Travis. And on top of that, they got to play roles that usually are reserved for female characters, which felt like a bit of a subversion and I REALLY liked it. For Josh, we got to see his own insecurities when it comes to his relationship with Cher and his worries that she still may judge him when he’s a bit of a geek. For Murray, it’s his fears about the long distance relationship, and not being sure of how to deal with Dionne when her anxiety turns into anger. And for Travis, HE IS JUST SO SUPPORTIVE AND ADORABLE AND SWEET, just there to love Tai like she’s the goddamn best thing ever. HOW WONDERFUL IS THAT?

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While Josh and Cher are my favorite couple, THESE TWO MELT MY HEART TOO. (source)

And the art continues to be very bubblegum and perfect for the tone. The characters look enough like their counterparts that it feels like the actors and actresses, but also show off Keenan’s unique style.

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Awww. (source)

“Clueless: One Last Summer” was a bittersweet but lovely story for the characters from “Clueless”. I understand that Benson and Kuhn might stop here, but honestly they could keep telling these stories with these characters and I would be filled with joy.

Rating 8: Another fun and nostalgic story featuring some of my favorite movie characters, “Clueless: One Last Summer” brings back some classic characters, brings in new ones, and serves some cute summer stories!

Reader’s Advisory:

“Clueless: One Last Summer” isn’t included on any Goodreads lists as of yet, but I think that it would fit in on “Summer Break Books for YA”, and “Comics & Graphic Novels by Women”.

Find “Clueless: One Last Summer” at your library using WorldCat!

Previously Reviewed: “Clueless: Senior Year”.