Serena’s Review: “Gallant”

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Book: “Gallant by V.E. Schwab

Publishing Info: Greenwillow Books, March 2022

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

Where Can You Get this Book: Amazon | IndieBound | WorldCat

Book Description: Everything casts a shadow. Even the world we live in. And as with every shadow, there is a place where it must touch. A seam, where the shadow meets its source.

Olivia Prior has grown up in Merilance School for girls, and all she has of her past is her mother’s journal—which seems to unravel into madness. Then, a letter invites Olivia to come home—to Gallant. Yet when Olivia arrives, no one is expecting her. But Olivia is not about to leave the first place that feels like home, it doesn’t matter if her cousin Matthew is hostile or if she sees half-formed ghouls haunting the hallways.

Olivia knows that Gallant is hiding secrets, and she is determined to uncover them. When she crosses a ruined wall at just the right moment, Olivia finds herself in a place that is Gallant—but not. The manor is crumbling, the ghouls are solid, and a mysterious figure rules over all. Now Olivia sees what has unraveled generations of her family, and where her father may have come from.

Olivia has always wanted to belong somewhere, but will she take her place as a Prior, protecting our world against the Master of the House? Or will she take her place beside him?

Review: Though some of her books have been a bit of a miss for me, V.E. Schwab is firmly on my “must read” list. Even those books that I didn’t love still always had superb writing and creative fantastical ideas. And then there’s the fact that these less liked books are far and away the more rare for me. Typically, I’ve really adored her writing and own several of her books outright. But when a book hasn’t hit for me, it’s typically come from her YA fare. So, while I was super excited to see a new book coming out, I was a bit more nervous than I typically would be when I saw that this was marketed as YA. Luckily, that wasn’t an issue here! Is that because I’d argue this might not be YA?

Olivia dreams of what every orphan child dreams of: a home and a family who want her. But at age 14, she’s well aware that all she has left in this world, truly, is her mother’s cryptic journal. So no one is more surprised than she when a letter suddenly arrives at her orphanage calling Olivia home to Gallant. But when she arrives, though she does discover family, she realizes that not only did her unwelcoming cousin Mathew not send the letter, but that he seems almost desperate for her to leave as soon as possible. When she stumbles into a shadowy world mirroring Gallant itself, she begins to suspect that there is more to the old house and her family’s history than she ever could have imagined.

This book was marketed as a Gothic “The Secret Garden,” and I can definitely see that all over this book. It’s also notable that V.E. Schwab is something of an old hand at penning these type of overlaying, mirrored worlds. This same concept is at the heart of her popular “Shades of Magic” trilogy, so it was fun seeing her return to that same fantasy element. But, true to her being a very talented author, she does so in a way that it is original and stands completely separate from that trilogy.

For one thing, I’d argue that this book is more Middle Grade than YA. The protagonist, Oliva, is definitely on the younger side of teenage-dom. And, not that all YA books require romance by any means, but the story itself is fully devoid of any love story, something that is rare in typical YA fantasy fare. The themes of the story, family, home, the understanding of choosing the way we move forward into a more adult world, are all of the sort that I think would appeal greatly to Middle Grade audiences. Some of the fantasy elements are a bit dark, but I’d think the average middle grader would be up for it.

Olivia was an excellent main character. She is a character who has grown up without the ability to communicate verbally. She can hear but must use sign language or writing to speak with those around her. It’s telling of Schwab’s abilities that she was able to write such a complex character and story while relying on minimal dialogue. Instead, she finds a variety of ways for Olivia to communicate. But while doing this, the author also explores the way that those without a voice can be easily silenced and dismissed, speaking to a power imbalance that many may not even be aware of.

I really liked Gallant and its shadow-world as well. The Gothic overtones were high, with secret passages, moldering rooms hinting of past grandeur slowly sinking into decrepitude, and haunted forms flitting in and out of rooms. The history of the house and Olivia’s family was also very interesting. I especially appreciated the use of a selection of abstract artwork that is sprinkled throughout the story to add another layer to the story unfolding on the page.

I did have to drop the rating down a bit by the time I got to the end, however. While the quality of the storytelling, world-building, and characterization were high throughout, by the time I finished the last page I was left with a sense of feeling a bit unmoored. When I think back on the book, I’m not sure I can see a real point to the story. That, and the fact that I feel like the ending didn’t so much conclude a story as re-set the board. I’m not quite sure what to make of it, honestly. But I feel like Schwab somehow missed the mark a bit here.

Overall, however, I really enjoyed this book. I definitely think it’s worth checking out for fans of Gothic fantasy. It’s also a great stand-alone story and one that doesn’t include a love story at its heart. I think it probably veers closer to Middle Grade than YA, but at a certain point that distinction blends to a point where both would likely enjoy it equally.

Rating 8: Splendidly creepy while also reflecting on deeper topics such as the choice involved in home and family.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Gallant” is on these Goodreads lists: 2022 Gothic and 2022 Anticipated Fiction Fantasy Reads.

Book Club Review: “Front Desk”

We are part of a group of librarian friends who have had an ongoing bookclub running for the last several years. Each “season” (we’re nerds) we pick a theme and each of us chooses a book within that theme for us all to read. Our current theme is “Award Winners”, in which we each picked a book that has won an award of some kind.

For this blog, we will post a joint review of each book we read for book club. We’ll also post the next book coming up in book club. So feel free to read along with us or use our book selections and questions in your own book club!

Book: “Front Desk” by Kelly Yang

Publishing Info: Arthur A Levine Books, May 2018

Where Did We Get This Book: The library!

Award: Asian/Pacific American Award for Children’s Literature

Book Description: Mia Tang has a lot of secrets.

Number 1: She lives in a motel, not a big house. Every day, while her immigrant parents clean the rooms, ten-year-old Mia manages the front desk of the Calivista Motel and tends to its guests.

Number 2: Her parents hide immigrants. And if the mean motel owner, Mr. Yao, finds out they’ve been letting them stay in the empty rooms for free, the Tangs will be doomed.

Number 3: She wants to be a writer. But how can she when her mom thinks she should stick to math because English is not her first language?

It will take all of Mia’s courage, kindness, and hard work to get through this year. Will she be able to hold on to her job, help the immigrants and guests, escape Mr. Yao, and go for her dreams?

Kate’s Thoughts

I don’t usually seek out Middle Grade fiction unless it’s in graphic novel form. There are always exceptions to this, but Young Adult is about as young as I go these days. So when our book club picked “Front Desk” by Kelly Yang, I was interested to see what the Middle Grade landscape was looking like, and it also just so happened that this book was being targeted by angry white adults completely scandalized that a children’s book would dare talk about racism. Talk about timely!

I enjoyed “Front Desk” as a children’s book to be sure! I think that Yang did a really good job of making our protagonist Mia super relatable to her target audience, as Mia has some pretty familiar hang ups and anxieties, all while having to work the front desk at the motel her parents have found themselves working at. It’s definitely true that this book follows a lot of Middle Grade patterns in terms of how certain scenarios set up and play out, and that isn’t a bad thing for the target audience, it still made my reading of this an exercise in suspending my disbelief here and there. But all that said, I thought that Yang also does a great job of tackling the relevant social issues of the difficulties immigrants face, to racism, to exploitative labor practices, to how life in America has a lot of problems for a lot of people. And she does this in a way that makes it very easy to understand for the age group that is going to be reading this book.

“Front Desk” is a good book to give to kids who are starting to learn about certain injustices of the world, as while it doesn’t sugar coat them, it has a hopeful story through Mia, and one that will probably be enjoyable for lots of the kids that do pick it up.

Serena’s Thoughts

Like Kate, Middle Grade isn’t an age-range of books that I read very often. Even in the last few years I’ve noticed my inner curmudgeon coming out more and more with Young Adult, so the prospect of reading even younger was a bit daunting. That said, objectively, I think “Front Desk” succeeds at all it sets out to do and will appeal perfectly to its target audience (as demonstrated by the many very worn-down copies our bookclub members have checked out from the library).

I knew going in that “Front Desk” set out to tackle a lot of important, touch topics. That said, I was surprised by the level of emotion and depth it went into. The work “dark” is too strong for a Middle Grade book like this, but if you tone that word down some, you get to what I’m talking about. The author is definitely setting out to challenge her readers while still creating a safe environment in which to engage with these topics. Mia’s good-hearted, self-starting persistence is just the sort of character strengths that are sure to appeal to middle graders and allow the story to not let any of these bigger topics weight down to the story too much.

As an adult reading this, like Kate mentioned, there was a decent amount of suspension of disbelief needed. Some of the problems seemed to be tidied up much too easily and the solution to many of these situations was often the same. After the first couple of rounds, it began to feel fairly repetitive and predictable. The ending was also a bit too fairytale-like for my taste, especially given the very real challenges the rest of the book tackled. But, again, I think these are the kinds of flaws that stand out to me as an adult reader but will not read as flaws at all to the target audience.

Kate’s Rating 7: A well done children’s book that has enjoyable characters and tackles a lot of good and important issues in a way that kids can understand.

Serena’s Rating 7: The perfect combination of fun characters and important issues, a very good book for middle grade readers. Perhaps less so for an adult.

Book Club Questions

  1. Did you have expectations going into “Front Desk”? If so, were they met as you read the book?
  2. Did you think that Mia was a realistic ten year old?
  3. What did you think about Mia’s parents? Was there anything about their portrayals that stuck out to you?
  4. What were your thoughts on the portrayals of Mr. Yao and Jason?
  5. How did you think Yang did when it came to talking about some themes that are sometimes hard to talk about?
  6. Who would you recommend this book to?

Reader’s Advisory

“Front Desk” is included on the Goodreads lists “Middle Grade Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion”, and “Middle Grade Books Featuring Characters of Color”.

Find “Front Desk” at your library using WorldCat, or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Next Book Club Book: “Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine” by Gail Honeyman

Kate’s Review: “Sheets”

Book: “Sheets” by Brenna Thummler

Publishing Info: Oni Press, August 2018

Where Did I Get This Book: The Library!

Book Description: Marjorie Glatt feels like a ghost. A practical thirteen year old in charge of the family laundry business, her daily routine features unforgiving customers, unbearable P.E. classes, and the fastidious Mr. Saubertuck who is committed to destroying everything she’s worked for.

Wendell is a ghost. A boy who lost his life much too young, his daily routine features ineffective death therapy, a sheet-dependent identity, and a dangerous need to seek purpose in the forbidden human world.

When their worlds collide, Marjorie is confronted by unexplainable disasters as Wendell transforms Glatt’s Laundry into his midnight playground, appearing as a mere sheet during the day. While Wendell attempts to create a new afterlife for himself, he unknowingly sabotages the life that Marjorie is struggling to maintain.

Review: Who says that ghost stories need to be scary? I know that when I cover them on this blog, they usually are. But there are also kind and friendly spirits, not just ones that want to make peoples lives miserable. “Sheets” by Brenna Thummler is one such tale, a ghost story for kids, but instead of focusing on scares and bumps in the night, it takes on friendship, loss, and moving on from tragedy. All themes that can fit within a ghost story pretty well. I had high hopes for this story, as ghosts are definitely my jam. “Sheets”, however, didn’t really give me what I wanted from it.

But let’s talk about what I did like first. The themes I mentioned above are all very well done in the narrative. We have two main characters, both of whom are dealing with these themes in different ways. For Marjorie, a thirteen year old girl running the family laundromat, she is still mourning the loss of her mother and adjusting to her new life. Her father has been so depressed that he doesn’t leave his room, and Marjorie is left to care for her brother, the family business, and to take care of herself. On the other side of the coin is Wendell, a ghost who lives in a world of other ghosts (who all wear sheets) who died when he was very young. He doesn’t really feel like he fits in in his new afterlife, and decides to hitch a ghost bus (loved this idea!) back to the living world. Where he finds himself in Marjorie’s laundromat, and their worlds collide. Both characters are dealing with loss and sadness, and I thought that Brennan did a really good job of exploring grief in ways that kids could understand without being condescending or grim. I especially liked her take on what the Ghost world is like, with lots of different designs for a bunch of stereotypical sheet wearing ghosts and some really humorous moments.

My biggest qualms with this story, however, really dock the points that I would have given it. Namely, the complete lack of any empathetic, responsible, and caring adults in Marjorie’s life, bordering on complete criminal negligence. I understand that this is a book written with a kid protagonist, and as such needs to give the protagonist more agency and independence than a regular kid would have in the real world. But I really struggled with it in “Sheets”. Marjorie is a thirteen year old girl who is running the family business herself, as after her mother died her father has been completely overtaken by depression and barely leaves his room. And if that had been the extent of it, I might have been able to swallow it down. Depression can absolutely be completely hobbling, and it’s not unrealistic for him to fail his children and to have Marjorie feel like she needs to pick up the pieces. My BIGGEST problem is that the customers she does have aren’t asking ANY questions as to why this child is running this place! Hell, they even get mad at her when Wendell messes things up, more inconvenienced about their laundry than they are concerned about a child, a CHILD, having to run the business in which they are patronizing! We get a couple adults who do question her life and how she’s doing here and there, but it’s never pursued. Perhaps it is strange for me to be questioning this in a story about literal ghosts, but I couldn’t get past it. It seems really farfetched, and spoiler alert, it isn’t really resolved! We get a deus ex machina at the end and Marjorie is STILL running the darn laundromat instead of, you know, living her life as a child. I’m just not sure about what this tells kids about Marjorie’s circumstances. Because oh man, her Dad really needs to get his act together.

And this could possibly be because of the fact the story itself feels a bit half baked. Marjorie interacts with Wendell here and there, they never really have super in depth moments, but we just kind of have to believe that the way it all wraps up is because of their friendship, which I never felt like was really explored. There is a connection that Marjorie and Wendell share even before he became a ghost, but it feels convenient and twee, and not used enough that it really felt important. Had their connection been stronger, both before and after his death, it would have been a more enjoyable relationship. As it was, it was hard to invest in the two of them as friends.

I did like the artwork though! It’s quite unique, and the designs of the ghosts are pretty darn cute. And as someone who appreciates a nice color scheme, I really liked the palette in this one.

“Sheets” didn’t give me the feel good ghost story I was anticipating, but I absolutely can see myself recommending it to kids who are looking for something ghostly, though maybe not too scary.

Rating 6: A really good examination of different kinds of grief, but ultimately felt half baked and unrealistic (even taking into account we’re dealing with ghosts!).

Reader’s Advisory:

“Sheets” is included on the Goodreads lists “Spooky Graphic Novels for Kids”, and “Friendly Ghosts”.

Find “Sheets” at your library using WorldCat, or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Kate’s Review: “Superman Smashes the Klan”

Book: “Superman Smashes the Klan” by Gene Luen Yang and Gurihiru (Ill.)

Publishing Info: DC Zoom, May 2020

Where Did I Get This Book: I own it.

Book Description: The year is 1946, and the Lee family has moved from Chinatown to Downtown Metropolis. While Dr. Lee is eager to begin his new position at the Metropolis Health Department, his two kids, Roberta and Tommy, are more excited about being closer to the famous superhero Superman!

Tommy adjusts quickly to the fast pace of their new neighborhood, befriending Jimmy Olsen and joining the club baseball team, while his younger sister Roberta feels out of place when she fails to fit in with the neighborhood kids. She’s awkward, quiet, and self-conscious of how she looks different from the kids around her, so she sticks to watching people instead of talking to them.

While the Lees try to adjust to their new lives, an evil is stirring in Metropolis: the Ku Klux Klan. The Klan targets the Lee family, beginning a string of terrorist attacks. They kidnap Tommy, attack the Daily Planet, and even threaten the local YMCA. But with the help of Roberta’s keen skills of observation, Superman is able to fight the Klan’s terror, while exposing those in power who support them–and Roberta and Superman learn to embrace their own unique features that set them apart. From multi-award-winning and New York Times bestselling author Gene Luen Yang comes an exciting middle grade tale featuring Superman. 

Review: Gene Luen Yang is no stranger to Superman. He’s written for Superman before, as well as creating an offshoot character Super-Man that is based in China (and that I have reviewed here on the blog). But I think that “Superman Smashes the Klan” is the Superman story of his that almost immediately caught my eye when I heard it was a thing. I had seen this bouncing around various book and comics circles, and bought it for myself as I love Yang’s work, and I am always in the mood to see a good smashing of racists and fascists. Especially these days.

“Superman Smashes the Klan” follows both Superman as he tries to come to terms with his own identity, as well as the Lee Family, a Chinese-American family that is moving from Chinatown to downtown Metropolis. Our main focuses are on charismatic and popular Tommy and his younger sister Roberta, who is a little more reserved and unsure of herself. While Tommy can seemingly easily code switch with the white kids in their new community, Roberta has a harder time reconciling her Chinese-American identity with this new environment. When the Lees become a target of the hate group The Klan of the Fiery Cross (more on this name in a bit), both Tommy and Roberta want to fight back in their own ways, while their parents are just trying to not make waves to keep themselves and their children safe. I liked how Yang not only addressed the full blown bigotry and violent racism of the Klan, but also the more subtle and systemic racism of society, mostly through Tommy and Roberta’s parents. Dr. Lee, their father, has taken a new job at the health department, and encourages his children and wife to assimilate (many a time does he tell his wife to speak English instead of Chinese), as well as wanting to fit in with his white colleagues and superiors and not be associated with other minorities. We also see Tommy playing down his Chinese identity by being self deprecating in hopes of fitting in too.

And as I mentioned earlier, Superman himself is dealing with his own identity crisis in this story, as he has been downplaying some of his powers that make it more clear that he isn’t just a very strong or gifted human. Specifically, he hasn’t allowed himself to really fly after an incident in his childhood where he lost control of that ability for a moment, and some people in Smallville nearly turned on him because they thought he was possessed. I LOVED this for two reasons. The first is that initially in the comics Superman couldn’t fly, he just could jump really, really high and far. It was genius for Yang to incorporate this character change into the story in this way. But the other reason is that it’s a great way to show kids who are reading this book that Superman, a strong, nearly perfect, ideal of a superhero, ALSO has struggles with his own identity, and that he too is from a group that could easily be Othered and discriminated against because he’s different.

I do want to talk about The Klan of the Fiery Cross as well. What I didn’t realize until we got to the super helpful author’s note at the end is that this is based on a story arc from the Superman Radio Show from the 1940s! That story was pretty similar, a Chinese-American family moves into a white neighborhood, and the Klan of the Fiery Cross (at the time the KKK was a powerful group after its second wave post “Birth of a Nation” with many members, and the radio show didn’t want to get sued for using their actual name) targets them, and Superman saves the day. Yang, of course, expands upon this within this new story, and it works very, very well. We see the Klan for the hate filled racists that they are, but he also touches on how some people who are really just looking for power and money will latch on to racist and fascist movements in hopes of getting the power and clout they crave (sounds familiar). You’d think that it would be hard to break this down in a kids book, but Yang does it and makes it super understandable for the audience the book has been written for.

And finally, the art work. Gurihiru has some clear manga influences and styles, and it works for the story. I also loved the use of colors and the character designs, be it body designs or period appropriate clothing.

“Superman Smashes the Klan” is a fast paced and charming story that has a lot to say without getting heavy handed or too bogged down. Yang’s story telling talents match perfectly with the story at hand, and fans of Superman should definitely read it!

Rating 9: An action-filled screed against racism that is filled with empathy and hope, “Superman Smashes The Klan” is no doubt an exciting read for children and adults alike.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Superman Smashes the Klan” is included on the Goodreads lists “Middle School Social Justice”, and “Paper Lantern Writers: Best Own Voices Historical Fiction”.

Find “Superman Smashes the Klan” at your library using WorldCat, or a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Kate’s Review: “The Tea Dragon Tapestry”

51323376Book: “The Tea Dragon Tapestry” by Katie O’Neill

Publishing Info: Oni Press, September 2020

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

Book Description: Join Greta and Minette once more for the heartwarming conclusion of the award-winning Tea Dragon series!

Over a year since being entrusted with Ginseng’s care, Greta still can’t chase away the cloud of mourning that hangs over the timid Tea Dragon. As she struggles to create something spectacular enough to impress a master blacksmith in search of an apprentice, she questions the true meaning of crafting, and the true meaning of caring for someone in grief. Meanwhile, Minette receives a surprise package from the monastery where she was once training to be a prophetess. Thrown into confusion about her path in life, the shy and reserved Minette finds that the more she opens her heart to others, the more clearly she can see what was always inside.

Told with the same care and charm as the previous installments of the Tea Dragon series, The Tea Dragon Tapestry welcomes old friends and new into a heartfelt story of purpose, love, and growth.

Review: Thank you to NetGalley for providing me with an eARC of this graphic novel!

I don’t know if not being at work has made my advanced knowledge of titles a little rusty or what, but when I was perusing NetGalley for a new batch of books I saw that Katie O’Neill had written a new “Tea Dragon” book that I hadn’t heard of. So I of course immediately accessed it, counting my luck stars that once again we were going to join Greta, Minette, Hesekiel, and Erik, and all of their adorable Tea Dragons.

And then I found out that it was the last story in the series.

giphy-7
How can this possibly be the end? HOW? (source)

“The Tea Dragon Tapestry” takes us back to the characters in “The Tea Dragon Society”, as we are reunited with blacksmith Greta, tea shop apprentice Minette, tea shop owners Hesekiel and Erik, and the always adorable Tea Dragons. Everyone is a bit older, and now Greta and Minette are starting to wonder about their places in the world and what they are going to do next with their lives. All the while, the Ginseng Tea Dragon that has ended up in Greta’s care after its owner passed away hasn’t been flourishing, and Greta is worried that she will never be able to bond with it. So right off the bat, identity and grief are presented as the themes of this book. O’Neill has a real gift for taking on heavy topics and making them feel digestable and gentle for the reader, and no matter how much anxiety or conflict a character may be feeling, you never get the sense that things are going to turn out badly for anyone. While this may come off as a lack of conflict and therefore a lack of investable plot, I actually really liked the calm atmosphere of this book. I also liked that there were moments dedicated to addressing the grief of the Ginseng Tea Dragon, and that grief is natural and doesn’t have to abide by timelines, nor does it mean that a person (or Tea Dragon) is broken. It was a great way to teach the young reader demographic potentially reading this (as this is generally a Middle Grade series) that when someone you care about is dealing with it, just being there is better than trying to find a fix so YOU feel better. Important lessons that even lots of adults don’t quite get, so I loved seeing it here.

Along with some great themes, revisiting characters from both “The Tea Dragon Society” and “The Tea Dragon Festival” was such a joy. O’Neill ties the two stories together and finally brings all of the characters to one place, with Rinn and Aedhan visiting Erik and interacting with Greta and Minette, and helping them with their self reflection. It was delightful seeing Rinn all grown up, and seeing her relationship with Aedhan and how it has changed and progressed. And even with the treat of familiar faces, O’Neill still manages to bring in some new characters, and lets us get to know them and learn to love them just as much as the old. I was particularly taken with Ginseng Tea Dragon, as it had a different, and just as valid, personality to some of it’s compatriots. New favorite Tea Dragon? Very possibly.

But it’s hard to choose, of course, because the Tea Dragons REMAIN EVER SO CUTE!! The design of this story is the same unique imagery that O’Neill has had for her previous books, and I still love it and how sweet and dreamy it is. The simplicity and bright and vibrant colors really bring out such joy and bring the story to life.

Screen Shot 2020-07-30 at 2.46.44 PM
Source: Oni Press

While I am not ready to say goodbye to the charming and wonderful characters of this series, “The Tea Garden Tapestry” gives it the best kind of send off I could have hoped for. I am very interested in seeing what Katie O’Neill does next now that she’s leaving her Tea Dragons and those who care for them.

Rating 8: A heartwarming and sweet conclusion to a series that I have come to associate with kindness and tranquility, “The Tea Dragon Tapestry” gives us one more adventure with Greta, Minette, and all the Tea Dragons.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Tea Dragon Tapestry” is included on the Goodreads lists “Fantasy Fiber Fiction”, and “2020 YA Books with LGBT Themes”.

Find “The Tea Dragon Tapestry” at your library using WorldCat, or a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Previously Reviewed:

Book Club Review: “It’s Not The End of the World”

504509We are part of a group of librarian friends who have had an ongoing bookclub running for the last several years. Each “season” (we’re nerds) we pick a theme and each of us chooses a book within that theme for us all to read. Our current theme is “American Girl Readalikes”, in which we each pick an American Girl book and a book that can be connected to it, however tenuous as it may be.

For this blog, we will post a joint review of each book we read for book club. We’ll also post the next book coming up in book club. So feel free to read along with us or use our book selections and questions in your own book club!

Book: “It’s Not The End of the World” by Judy Blume

Publishing Info: Macmillan, 1972

Where Did We Get This Book: The library!

American Girl Book: “Meet Julie” by Megan McDonald

Book Description: Can Karen keep her parents from getting a divorce? This classic novel from Judy Blume has a fresh new look.

Karen couldn’t tell Mrs. Singer why she had to take her Viking diorama out of the sixth-grade showcase. She felt like yelling, “To keep my parents from getting divorced!” But she couldn’t say it, and the whole class was looking at her anyway.

Karen’s world was ending. Her father had moved out of the house weeks before; now he was going to Las Vegas to get divorced, and her mother was pleased! She had only a few days to get the two of them together in the same room. Maybe, if she could, they would just forget about the divorce. Then the Newman family could be its old self again—maybe. But Karen knew something she didn’t know last winter: that sometimes people who shouldn’t be apart are impossible together.

Kate’s Thoughts

Okay, literary confession time. Before Book Club picked “It’s Not The End of the World”, I had never read anything by Judy Blume. I don’t really know how I missed that, as I was almost certainly in the target demographic of her books, and I know that various classrooms at my grade school had her books on the shelves. But this was my first experience with Blume, so I was glad that one of our members picked it! I know that Blume is a queen of kid lit, so finally reading one of her books seemed far past due. Unfortunately, I didn’t enjoy “It’s Not The End of the World” as much as I thought I would.

I do want to say that first and foremost, I definitely understand the significance of a book about divorce being written in 1972. Especially a book that shows how toxic and terrible an acrimonious marriage and split can be for a family, without the promise of a happy moment of Mom and Dad reuniting because they do still love each other. As the 1970s brought more lenient social mores and changing ideas of values, divorce became more commonplace, and I think it’s so important that kids going through such a thing had a book like “It’s Not The End of the World” to turn to. It’s important to be able to see yourself in the media you consume, and so kids who had to go through that having this reflection of themselves and a reassurance that it is, in fact, not the end of the world, must have been resonant. On top of that, it was very easy to read and Blume’s skills as a writer are on full display.

But all that said, I think that now that more books have been written about divorce as time has gone on, they would be better options to explore than this book. I thought that a lot of the characters were two dimensional, including Karen who seemed quite a bit younger in her voice than the twelve year old she was supposed to be. On top of that, every single adult in this book was just awful, and while I think it’s probably pretty realistic that parents going through this kind of thing won’t always be on their best behavior, they were almost flat out abusive. And it felt to me like this was almost excused by Blume, or at least written off as typical and what to expect from divorcing parents. I don’t know what the 1970s were like, but this seemed unrealistic and histrionic.

I get and appreciate “It’s Not The End of the World,” but I don’t think it holds up as well as I’m told other Blume stories do.

Serena’s Thoughts

So I’ll try to keep my half of this review from just repeating everything Kate said. But somehow, even though we grew up in completely different states and both loved books obsessively, I, too, missed the Judy Blume train. Part of this I think has to do with the fact that I was pretty solidly a genre reader from the get-go and my forays into contemporary fiction have always been few and far between, even as a kid. The only other Blume book I read was “Forever” and that was just because I was assigned it in library school (Kate and I were in this same class, but she wisely chose a different book option for this assignment.) I didn’t particularly enjoy that book. So it was with some skepticism that I started this book, knowing that I hadn’t been the target audience pretty much ever and didn’t loved my only other experience with her work. And, alas, it held true here.

Like Kate said, this book definitely had its time and place, and there’s no arguing with the general popularity of Blume’s work with many middle graders. Still today libraries circulate many copies of her more popular stories. That said, I think this one shows its age and in ways that make it particularly less approachable to modern kids reading it than others. Books dealing with how kids deal with divorce are still needed today, but this one’s approach is heavily cemented in the idea that Karen is experiencing a socially rare event, one that is distinctive enough from her peers’ experiences that she stands out. Not only are attitudes around divorce markedly different than they were in the 70s, but it is simply common enough that Karen’s situation wouldn’t have likely made her stick out in a crowd.

Beyond this, the adults in Karen’s life are almost uniformly letting her down in massive ways. So much so, that at times both parents read as cartoonish in their villainy. There are also elements in their parenting strategies that would fall under a much harsher lens than they might have at the time this was written. Like Kate said, their actions in today’s views could be seen as borderline abusive. But the parents weren’t the only one-dimensional characters. Sadly, I didn’t connect with Karen at all either. She felt largely like a stock character around whom this “afternoon special: divorce!” topic was being framed.

I see how Blume’s work can be highly readable, as I did manage to get through the book quickly. But between this book and “Forever” (a book where I had a lot of similar complaints, particularly around the flat characterization), her writing is definitely not for me. I’m hesitant to throw a beloved author for many under the bus, but…I ain’t seeing it. With this topic specifically, I think there are better books being written now that I would direct readers to before this.

Kate’s Rating 6: Definitely an important work for it’s time and honest in many ways, but now it feels a bit over the top with histrionic moments and pretty two dimensional characters.

Serena’s Rating 5: More interesting as an artifact representing a very different time period with regards to divorce than as an actual story.

Book Club Questions

  1. This book was one of the first children’s novels that had divorce as a main theme. Do you think that it holds up today?
  2. What did you think of the adults in this novel? Did you find them realistic?
  3. What were your thoughts on Val, Karen’s new friend and supposed divorce expert?
  4. Did Karen’s voice feel authentic?
  5. Do you think that “It’s Not The End of the World” is still a book that you might recommend to kids whose families are going through a divorce? Why or why not?

Reader’s Advisory

“It’s Not The End of the World” is included on the Goodreads lists “Coming of Age Stories”, and “Books for My Eleven Year Old Self”.

Find “It’s Not The End of the World” at your library using WorldCat!

Next Book Club Book: “Almost American Girl” by Robin Ha

Kate’s Review: “Black Canary: Ignite”

44433717Book: “Black Canary: Ignite” by Meg Cabot and Cara McGee (Ill.)

Publishing Info: DC Zoom, October 2019

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: Thirteen-year-old Dinah Lance knows exactly what she wants, who she is, and where she’s going. First, she’ll win the battle of the bands with her two best friends, then she’ll join the Gotham City Junior Police Academy so she can solve crimes just like her dad. Who knows, her rock star group of friends may even save the world, but first they’ll need to agree on a band name.

When a mysterious figure keeps getting in the way of Dinah’s goals and threatens her friends and family, she’ll learn more about herself, her mother’s secret past, and navigating the various power chords of life.

Review: While it’s hard to rate my favorite DC ladies in a specific order (as there are so many who are wonderful in their own unique ways!), I can say that Dinah “Black Canary” Lance is very high up on the list, like assuredly Top 5. Dinah has been given a lot of attention in the New 52 and DC Rebirth, and her back story has almost always been bleak and dark and indicative of how hardass she can be at times. When I stumbled upon “Black Canary: Ignite” by Meg Cabot, I was a little surprised that the woman who wrote “The Princess Diaries” took on a Black Canary origin story. But then, given that this is a graphic novel written for tweens, I did expect it to be far less dark than some of the stories Dinah has had in the past. Since I’m always looking for more Black Canary content, I checked it out. And what a good decision that was, because Meg Cabot gave Dinah a delightful and plucky storyline that I greatly enjoyed!

We meet Dinah as a rambunctious and snarky thirteen year old. She is in a band with her friends Kat and Vee, she wants to join the Gotham City Junior Police Academy, and tends to butt heads with her parents, as most thirteen year olds do. What struck me the most from the get go is that her life is functional, and she’s surrounded by people who love her and support her. Given that the most recent Black Canary storyline I read involved some serious Mom angst for Dina, thank you Meg Cabot for letting her live a happy early teenagehood! Dinah is funny and awkward, and she is flawed with her temper but cares for her friends. She is also perplexed by the fact that when she yells, things around her tend to break. Cabot was awesome in how she approached this, as Dinah, again, like most teenagers, just wants to be normal, and this crazy scream is hindering that. The situations when this arises are rather innocuous, but still hold pretty high stakes for a kid in middle school. As Dinah has to contend with his, she also has to contend with a strict principal who seems to be out to get her, and with her Dad, Detective Lance, who doesn’t want her to join the Junior Police Academy but won’t really tell her why. Dinah’s relationships are definitely the strongest aspects of this story, as I loved seeing how she interacts with her best friends Kat and Vee (even when things aren’t going great between all of them), and how she both loves but is frustrated by her parents, unaware of the secrets that they have that may shed light on her abilities. By the time she does have to reckon with her parents identities and what that means for her, Cabot had created a great coming of age story to go along with the origin theme.

Cabot’s dialogue is witty and snappy, which is what I’ve come to expect from her. She gives Dinah and those in her circle authentic voices, and had me laughing out loud multiple times as I read. The mystery, however, as to who is following Dinah and what they want with her, isn’t as compelling, if only because it’s pretty straight forward and then ends with a semi-interesting twist that wasn’t terribly surprising. While I was fine with the mystery taking backseat to what was going on with Dinah’s personal discovery of her Canary Cry, I’m not certain that it was supposed to be taking back seat. But it’s also important to keep in mind that this is written for an audience that is quite a bit younger than I am, so the way that I received and parsed out the mystery isn’t necessarily how it would be received by tweens. Therefore, I can’t really speak to its effectiveness.

And finally, the artwork by Cara McGee is so on point and charming. I loved the facial expressions, I loved that she would put hearts around Dinah’s parents when they were feeling loving towards each other or Dinah, and I loved the action moments. It’s the perfect accompaniment to the story at hand.

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“Black Canary: Ignite” is a charming as hell origin story for one of my favorite DC ladies. If you’re like me and love Dinah Lance, definitely find this story and read it.

Rating 8: A fun and clever origin story for Dinah “Black Canary” Lance with the Meg Cabot wit, “Black Canary: Ignite” does justice to one of my favorite super ladies!

Reader’s Advisory:

“Black Canary: Ignite” is included on the Goodreads lists “Strong Female Protagonist”, and “DC Comics by Women”.

Find “Black Canary: Ignite” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “Cheshire Crossing”

42583942Book: “Cheshire Crossing” by Andy Weir and Sarah Andersen (Ill.)

Publishing Info: Ten Speed Press, July 2019

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: The three meet here, at Cheshire Crossing–a boarding school where girls like them learn how to cope with their supernatural experiences and harness their magical world-crossing powers.

But the trio–now teenagers, who’ve had their fill of meddling authority figures–aren’t content to sit still in a classroom. Soon they’re dashing from one universe to the next, leaving havoc in their wake–and, inadvertently, bringing the Wicked Witch and Hook together in a deadly supervillain love match.

To stop them, the girls will have to draw on all of their powers . . . and marshal a team of unlikely allies from across the magical multiverse.

Review: I recently went back to work after taking my maternity leave, and one of my first tasks was to weed the children’s graphic novel section. I love a good weeding project, and whenever I go through graphics I usually find a few that I want to read, and by checking them out I spare them from being culled from the collection. This was how I stumbled upon “Cheshire Crossing” by Andy “The Martian” Weir. Was I surprised that the guy known for science fiction with hard science themes and snarky humor had written a graphic novel for kids/teens? For sure. But the fact that it starred Wendy Darling, Dorothy Gale, and Alice was incredibly fascinating to me (especially since these three have been brought together in graphic form before in Alan Moore’s, erm, shall we say ‘controversial’ “Lost Girls”.).

“Cheshire Crossing” is a cute and witty mash up of three well loved characters who played rather passive roles in their initial stories. While it’s true that Wendy, Dorothy, and Alice are all important figures within the stories they are from, and have become absolutely and rightfully beloved, they all kind of have things happen to them while the people and worlds around them do the ‘doing’. They wander through Wonderland, Oz, and Neverland acting as surrogates for the reader to explore, which is perfectly understandable. But in “Cheshire Crossing”, Weir gives them a lot to actually do, special powers that they bring to their initial visits, and explores what the consequences would be if three girls came back to their usual lives after going to magical places. It’s not too surprising that they are all seen as ‘crazy’ or ‘hysterical’, and have had to spend time in asylums before coming to Cheshire Crossing, which knows that they are portals to other worlds. The idea of hysterical women, especially at the time that these books were originally written, was very common, and I really enjoyed that Weir explored how our world would have no doubt marginalized and taken any kind of agency from these girls (and something I noticed was that there was no mention of Michael or Peter Darling, which makes me think that the two boys haven’t been institutionalized). Alice especially has a lot to contend with, as her time in Wonderland wasn’t exactly ‘pleasant’. She is by far the most traumatized, and dour, of the girls, and the most interesting because of it.

The one criticism I had about this story is that not very much time was spent at Cheshire Academy itself. While I appreciated that Alice, Wendy, and Dorothy very well may be sick and tired of being taken from place and place and poked and prodded, I had hoped that we would be able to see a little bit more of the motivation of Cheshire Crossing, as the idea of a school that is teaching these girls to harness the powers that they have inside of them (as opposed to the powers that have been lent to them at their various magical visits) is really appealing to me. Instead the three girls hop from world to world, getting into more trouble and inadvertently hooking up Captain Hook and the Wicked Witch of the West. Which is, admittedly, kind of the perfect pairing. Their nanny from Cheshire Crossing does follow them and try to keep them out of trouble (and it’s very heavily implied that this woman is Mary Poppins, though she isn’t called that by name), but she was cleaning up their messes as opposed to actively teaching them how to use their powers. Was it fun visiting Oz, Neverland, and Wonderland in this context? Sure! But I also wanted the grounding of the school so that the three girls could harness their powers even more. That said, this ended on something of a cliffhanger, and therefore there may be more stories in the future.

And finally, the illustrations are absolutely charming. They are done by Sarah Andersen of “Sarah’s Scribbles” fame, and the style is dreamy and pleasing to the eye.

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“Cheshire Crossing” is a fun exploration of three girls who deserve a little more credit and an expansion of three well loved fantasy stories. People who love Oz, Wonderland, and Neverland will find a lot to like!

Rating 7: A very cute mash up of three beloved children’s lit heroines, “Cheshire Crossing” has some good commentary on female marginalization during the time the original books were written.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Cheshire Crossing” isn’t on many relevant Goodreads lists, but I think that it would fit in on “Women Kicking Ass (Graphic Novels/Comics)”, and “Curiouser and Curiouser”.

Find “Cheshire Crossing” at your library using WordCat!

Kate’s Review: “Stargazing”

40864836Book: “Stargazing” by Jen Wang

Publishing Info: First Second, September 2019

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: Moon is everything Christine isn’t. She’s confident, impulsive, artistic . . . and though they both grew up in the same Chinese-American suburb, Moon is somehow unlike anyone Christine has ever known.

When Moon’s family moves in next door to Christine’s, Moon goes from unlikely friend to best friend―maybe even the perfect friend. The girls share their favorite music videos, paint their toenails when Christine’s strict parents aren’t around, and make plans to enter the school talent show together. Moon even tells Christine her deepest secret: that she sometimes has visions of celestial beings who speak to her from the stars. Who reassure her that earth isn’t where she really belongs.

But when they’re least expecting it, catastrophe strikes. After relying on Moon for everything, can Christine find it in herself to be the friend Moon needs?

New York Times–bestselling author-illustrator Jen Wang draws on her childhood to paint a deeply personal yet wholly relatable friendship story that’s at turns joyful, heart-wrenching, and full of hope.

Review: Back in 2018 I read the incredibly sweet graphic novel “The Prince and the Dressmaker” by Jen Wang. It was one of my Valentine’s Day ready books, and I was very eager to see what Wang was going to come out with next. Though I was a little late to the party with “Stargazing”, Wang’s newest graphic novel, once I did manage to get a copy to read I was eager to start. Much like her previous book, I devoured “Stargazing” in an afternoon, completely taken in by another sweet, gentle, and sometimes bittersweet story about identity and friendship.

Our main characters are Christine and Moon, unlikely friends who are both Chinese American girls with very different personalities and experiences. Christine is diligent and reserved, and feels the pressure to excel at her schoolwork and extracurriculars. Her parents are loving and supportive, and also want Christine to be connected to her culture, be it through Chinese language classes or through the church community. So it’s not terribly surprising that Christine is drawn to Moon, who is more of a free spirit and whose mother is doing her best to raise Moon on her own. Moon and Christine are perfectly suited foils for each other, as Moon loosens Christine up and Christine helps Moon adjust to a new community. Wang is very talented at showing how their friendship blossoms, and how it becomes multi-faceted and complex as time goes on. Christine envies Moon for her joyful and gregarious personality, but it’s clear that not everything is perfect for Moon and that she has some issues that go beyond usual childhood ups and downs. Eventually we get a reveal as to what is going on with her, which was a little out of left field and probably could have used a little more time dedicated to it if I’m being honest, but that isn’t really the main focus of the story. The focus is the two girls and how they change each other’s lives, and how great true friendship can be, even if it’s a little difficult to navigate when things get complicated. I liked both Christine and Moon a lot, for their strengths and weaknesses, and found them both relatable in a lot of ways, from Moon’s artistic bent to Christine’s nervousness about what others may think about her. She also does a really good job of showing the small rebellions that kids that age like to partake in, from Christine sneaking nail polish to Moon sneaking out of Chinese language class to make faces in the window. It was little things like that that I thought made this story all the more charming.

But the less obvious yet really on point (at least to me) theme of this book was that of identity, and how there isn’t one way to be part of a culture. Both Christine and Moon are Chinese American, but come from very different experiences. Christine’s parents are deeply involved in her life, and very focused on Christine’s academic and extracurricular schedules, thinking that she should leave distractions behind in order to succeed. Moon is a latchkey kid due to her mother’s need to work to support the two of them, and she doesn’t speak Chinese or have as much deep experience with various aspects of that part of her identity. But Wang doesn’t show either of these as ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ in regards to how these girls grow up and live their lives. If anything, the message is clear that both Christine and Moon are examples of what it’s like to be Chinese American girls, and that both experiences are perfectly normal.

On top of that, I’m still totally tickled by Wang’s drawing style. Her characters and panels are still seemingly influenced by manga or other similar styles, and yet the overall style is unique to Wang. I loved the little details that she puts in there, from a mild change of facial expression to the incredibly tantalizing images of food to the celestial beings that Moon is convinced she is seeing in her day to day life.

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“Stargazing” is a quick and cute graphic novel that is aimed towards kids, but can be enjoyed by adults as well. If you’re looking for something fast and sweet and a little bittersweet as well, this might be a good fit!

Rating 8: A cute and pathos filled examination of friendship, culture, and childhood, “Stargazing” is a sweet graphic novel that shows the power of childhood relationships and all the ups and downs that come with them.

Readers Advisory:

“Stargazing” is included on the Goodreads lists “Asian MG/YA 2019”, and “NPR’s Favorite Books of 2019”.

Find “Stargazing” 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 (note on this: I LOVED that not only did O’Neill incorporate a Deaf 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”.

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