by Carlos Hernandez
Overall: 5 out of 5 stars
This book starts with a bang and never looks back or slows down, which is partly due to a forward by Rick Riordan, though beginning the story with Hernandez’s skillful first chapter would be plenty gripping. Our hero, Sal Vidon, is always at the center of the action, of which there is plenty. Sal is able to reach through some sort of wormhole to other parallel universes and bring things or people through to our universe. Sometimes they come with things that then disappear back with them when they return, which is inconvenient (or in the case of food already in your tummy, very sad). Sometimes it’s your dead Mami or a sick baby you’re trying to make better and you wish you could keep. Sal’s father works on fixing wormholes.
There’s a lot to love about this book. We open on a scene with new-kid-at-school Sal, bully Yasmany, and Yasmany’s “lawyer” and student council president Gabi (like a 7th grade Cuban Hillary Clinton). The relationships between the three of them are very rich. Gabi’s family is fascinating and includes many adults she refers to as Dad, some of whom are male, plus a mom, and Sal doesn’t make a big deal of this when he learns it, so we never learn more. Gabi also has a baby brother who is in the NICU, so a fair amount of the story takes place there. Sal himself has type-1 diabetes, which is one reason my (also type-1 diabetic) boss shoved it in my hands to read. The information about diabetes is skillfully, if not own-voices-y, presented, not really didactic. Sal is a magician, which is how he gains entry into his performing arts magnet middle school in Miami, and magic plays a large role in the story, not just a quirky thing about him. Sal’s mother passed away several years ago and his dad married his vice principal – again, not incidental to the story. Sal loved his mother and loves his American Stepmom (which is how he refers to her almost always). He also has a habit of bringing back his mother from other universes (part of why they moved). Finally, Yasmany’s home life is, predictably, rough – and it’s his mother who is the abuser (unclear if his father is in the picture).
There are also relationships with teachers and other kids, as well as the same cast of characters from other universes with whom Sal and Gabi interact, all of which add richness and depth to the story. There’s also a fair amount of Spanish and spanglish, and some interesting slang (apparently in Sal’s world, being called a “sandwich” is an insult?). Altogether very well done and I’m looking forward to book 2, which should be out next year!
A graphic novel seems an interesting medium for this fantasy story, which required a few pages of worldbuilding to catch the reader up on the history needed to understand the plot. There are four (or five?) peoples, in each of the four directions, and they live in an uneasy truce with each other. Our heroes, some sort of anthropomorphic animals, set off on a quest at the end of the book. Honestly, I was a bit overwhelmed with all the unfamiliar names (maybe I’m just out of practice with reading fantasy?) to really dig into the story. As with often happens when I read graphic novels, I had a lot of trouble telling the characters apart, but at least this one is in color, so that was mitigated a bit. It’s a Very Serious Story, and I just didn’t connect with it. But it would probably be ideal for 4th graders (or strong 3rd graders) who are into Redwall or the Warriors series.
Hilo: The Boy Who Crashed to Earth (Volume 1)
by Judd Winick
Overall: 4 out of 5 stars
After the utter seriousness of the first graphic novel, I thoroughly appreciated the humor of Hilo, who falls to Earth with amnesia and immediately meets D.J, who greets him with an “AAAAAH!” and takes him in. Hilo adopts the greeting and uses it to great comedic effect throughout the book, to my delight. I didn’t 100% follow the storyline of Hilo’s origin and the conflict on his home planet, but I was so entertained that I didn’t care. D.J.’s old friend Gina also moves back to town and very little about either of them has changed so they fall right back into their friendship. D.J.’s family is large and loud (he’s right between two older brothers and two younger sisters and feels like he doesn’t do anything especially well) and Hilo’s appearance livens up his and Gina’s otherwise humdrum lives in a sleepy small town. Hilo’s irrepressible nature is catching, as is his favorite adjective, “outstanding!”
Great for fans of: Big Nate, Calvin and Hobbes, and the Flying Beaver Brothers
by Jennifer Chambliss Bertman
Overall: 5 out of 5 stars
12-year-old Emily Crane and her family are on a quest to live in all 50 states. Well, her parents are on a quest, and she and her older brother are mostly along for the ride, whether they like it or not. When their next moving truck takes them to San Francisco, though, Emily finally makes a friend who’s as into puzzles and games as she is. It’s also the home of her hero, the great Garrison Griswold, creator of the website Book Scavenger, which is part Little Free Library, part geocaching game. But Griswold suffers an attack that lands him in the hospital and his next game reveal is put on hold indefinitely – or is it? When Emily and her new friend, James, find a book they believe it is the first clue in the next game and Emily is determined to win it, even if there are two men after them to get hold of the book.
Emily and James have help from a local bookshop owner named Hollister. There is a part near the end where they walk through a park past a homeless man in a sleeping bag and Emily comments in her head about staying away from there for safety, and it turns out the man in the bag was Hollister. He has graying dreadlocks and I appreciated the nod to race/class stereotypes that was turned upside down. On other interpersonal fronts, Emily and James have a fight about being a good friend, and Emily and her brother fight because he has stopped caring about book scavenging and being her friend and is more into his new favorite band. (Matthew is 15 years old.) Her teacher, Mr. Quisling, is rather inexplicably short with her on her first day of school, and he gets in the way of her plan to solve Mr. Griswold’s new game, though he turns out to be a good guy. Her parents also realize how much Emily would love to stay in one place for a while and end up putting the next moving plans on hold.
by Wendy Mass
Overall: 4 out of 5 stars
I am a huge Wendy Mass fan, but was surprised to re-read my review and remember that I was quite unimpressed (3 out of 5 stars) by the original Candymakers book. The four friends return for this adventure, which takes them on the road in search of mysterious, magical, blue cocoa beans. The beginning of the story rotates in perspective among the four; the middle section is told as one story but omniscient, jumping from person to person even within the same paragraph; and the end section is separate again. All in all, this made for some confusion – particularly in the beginning, when you experience the same day through each person’s eyes but jumping over the events that have already happened. For example, Logan tells how he came to be in possession of a box of his grandfather’s old letters and notebooks, and how he told Miles about it. Then during Miles’ account of the day, we skip right over that and go to him going through the box. It left me confused at points about what exactly the new narrator was reacting to, but then again, I have the attention span of a flea. Or a ten-year-old (which, it should be noted, is Mass’s target audience). This jumping around is the reason for the 1 star deduction – well, that and the fact that there were SO many threads to the story that I had a lot of trouble keeping them straight. Even now, I’m not sure that they were all wrapped up, but maybe that’s on purpose and there is a third book in the works. Who knows!
What I did like was the imagination in the story, and also that some of Mass’s other characters came together. Mia and her family from A Mango-Shaped Space, the eponymous Jeremy Fink, and the crew from Every Soul a Star all pop in at various points, and then are also together at the end. Even the group from Willow Falls gets a shout out. It was really nice to see them all again! There was a plot line of secret relatives coming out of the woodwork, about which I feel a bit wishy-washy. Having more than one felt contrived, and there were THREE to make seem realistic. I did like Daisy and AJ’s tricked-out RV and the vid coms, and also the eventual revelation of the origin of the magic beans / Paradise. The closing scene of the book has an unnamed (but male) character planting a magic bean in the tropical room at the factory, and I did not like that we don’t know who that was, only that it wasn’t Daisy.
One final note: There is much referring to things that happened in the first book, but just vaguely enough that I wasn’t sure exactly what had gone down. Definitely read them in close succession, or give the first one a re-read before picking this one up!
by Kazu Kibuishi
Overall: 4 out of 5 stars
Emily and her family move to an old house that’s been in the family for generations. Rumors are that the place is haunted, since Emily’s great-grandfather moved in ages ago and was never seen again. The night they move in, they discover the house’s secret and are sucked into an alternate-reality Earth, with new creatures and characters both good and bad. With the help of an amulet and her ancestor’s assistants, Emily fights to keep her family together.
Solid story and very imaginative. I only had to reread a few sequences twice to fully grasp what was going on. In one sequence, a scene between Emily and her mother echoes one from the beginning of the book in a very touching way. My favorite part is the sound effects, which are very accurate. I often find it hard to follow big action scenes in graphic novels, but this one did a pretty good job – in part, I think, thanks to the sound effects. I’m not sure I’ll read more than this first book, but it’s so popular in my library I felt like I had to! Like most graphic novels, it’s a quick read (took me about an hour) and satisfying, though the adventure continues.
The stakes are clear and high for Emily at each turn: if she loses her mother, she and Nevin are orphans. If she chooses to accept the amulet and her role as Stonekeeper, she can rewind time (and, the implication is, ensure that her father doesn’t die) and find happiness again. Etc. A post on the author’s website announces he’s working on books 8 and 9 as of May 2016, which will close out the series.
by Aaron Becker
Overall: 4 out of 5 stars
I was so excited to see this final installment of the Journey wordless picture book trilogy come across my path, but I was a bit disappointed. I remembered Journey and Quest as being visually breathtaking, but this one felt rushed somehow. Not one of the spreads was arresting and I even went back to the first two books to see if I was remembering them correctly. I was – they’re still as beautiful as ever. But I hadn’t noticed that some of the lines had the same sketchy quality as in Return. I think it’s just more prominent in this one, and for some reason it really stood out to me – possibly because the plot was not as engaging for me, especially because it consists of Dad coming and rescuing our heroine and her friends. Yawn.