Tag Archives: sports

YA Graphic Novel Reviews like whoa

After repeated requests from a very picky second grader for “books like Smile and Drama” (full-color, realistic, about girls), I decided it was time to get more acquainted with our YA graphic novel section so I could more easily pull out things for her (we have a couple of second graders who read in that section). So far I’ve only read one book that I would give her, but I already knew the author’s work and would have taken a chance on it. I will persevere – and the results will be here! Four for today:

9780062851062Just Jaime by Terri Libenson
Overall: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Oh how I felt for Jaime. Libenson has a way of hitting the nail on the head with middle school emotions. I was very impressed with Invisible Emmie, her first book in what appears to be this series, but this one lacked the same twist at the end. Nevertheless, it’s a solid read and also solidly in the Drama/Smile camp, all about those middle school friendships that change on you and the popularity games that take over your life. Jaime, who is kicked out of her friend group by stereotypical mean-girl Celia for not being mature, turns out to be more mature and eloquent than Celia. She stops gossiping and becomes friends with some of the kids they used to make fun of. Eventually her best friend, Maya, also leaves Celia and joins her, and they all live happily ever after. I also loved the small storyline with her mom reuniting with an old friend, and one teacher who is very nice to her, which was also lovely. There’s a fair amount of narration in the Jaime chapters (as opposed to the Maya chapters; the narration alternates between the two, in echoes of Invisible Emmie), making it a nice choice for patrons whose parents favor more text.

9781250068163Friends with Boys by Faith Erin Hicks
Overall: 4 out of 5 stars

I felt the title was misleading, because other than her brothers (who arguably don’t count as boys who are friends), Maggie’s main friendship in this story is with a girl, Lucy. But let me back up. Maggie has been homeschooled her whole life and is entering high school with her three older brothers, who have each entered as freshmen. Part (or all?) of the reason is that their mom, who did the homeschooling, has left. Maggie is surprised to learn that her brothers are well-established in school, something that is both to her benefit and has surprising repercussions in complicated school drama. Her oldest brother has some beef with some other guys, but being his sister gives her some street cred. Even Lucy, whose older brother is tied up in some of the drama, is aware of him. Maggie’s twin brothers are also well-known and have their own storyline of going through growing pains of establishing individuality. To round out the storyline, Maggie sees a ghost. Her and Lucy’s attempts to get rid of the ghost land them in trouble and mixed up with the older boys. I wouldn’t exactly call the boys friends though (hence feeling misled). Eventually, Maggie rounds up her brothers and they resolve things, and she and Lucy go on their merry way.

Homeschool-to-school transition like: All’s Faire in Middle School

9781416935858Mercury by Hope Larson
Overall: 3.5 out of 5 stars

I found the story a little hard to follow, and not just because it jumped back and forth between two time periods. I was intrigued to re-read my review of another of Larson’s graphic novels, Chiggers, from 5 years ago and see that I also had trouble following that story, which possibly has to do with it being black-and-white (I tend to have more trouble with those than comics that have even one additional color). One story line is of Josie in 1859 in Nova Scotia whose family is taken in by a con man, Asa Curry, who discovers gold on the family’s farm. He intends to marry Josie and when her father won’t allow it, apparently kills him. He leaves Josie with a necklace with something inside it that acts as a metal detector. Meanwhile, in 2009, Josie’s descendant, Tara, finds the necklace. Tara had been homeschooled for a couple of years until her house burns down and her mother moves elsewhere to work, leaving her with her aunt and uncle, who are a little weird about her mom, and same-aged cousin, Lindsay. Tara re-enters school with a bunch of kids who all know her story and joins the track team, which allows her to get to know Ben better, who she apparently looks like and has a crush on. Josie’s story ends with her father’s funeral (and Asa’s death as he is shot trying to escape from jail for the cons and murder) and Tara’s ends with finding some gold, with a touch of magic/magical realism.

Up for Air by Laurie Morrison

9781419733666by Laurie Morrison
Overall: 4 out of 5 stars

Twelve-year-old Annabelle is looking forward to another summer of competitive swimming and hanging out with her best friends Mia and Jeremy. But her school year ends harder than she thought, even with accommodations made for her learning disabilities (ADHD?), Mia is busy with her new lacrosse friends, and Jeremy is leaving for camp in Boston for a month. When Annabelle gets recruited to the high school swim team and gets to spend more time with cute Connor Madison, things start to look up. But it turns out that Annabelle isn’t really mature enough for high school shenanigans and makes some bad choices that get her injured enough to be off the swim team. After an adventure into Boston to track down her newly-back-in-the-picture dad (who turns out to have a new family and be in recovery from alcoholism), she comes to be more comfortable with where she is and stop rushing to grow up.

This book is rich in relationships and the reader is really inside Annabelle’s head. I thought it was extremely realistic to how kids can know what the right thing is and still be conflicted and want to fit in, and therefore make bad decisions. All the parts of dissecting a boy’s texts and actions felt exactly right and yet I could see, from an adult’s point of view, that Connor was just a player. Even once Annabelle is off the team, her teammates want to hang out with her and try to help her through this in an amazing show of female solidarity, which was another excellent piece of wisdom imparted with this story. I also liked how Annabelle’s mother and stepfather, Mitch (with whom she is close), relate to her not just as parents but as people at the end of the story. That seems like a huge piece of growing up and navigating changing relationships and I was very pleased to read it. Annabelle also makes peace with Mia and Jeremy, though things don’t go exactly back to how they were before, which was also satisfying.

One note on race is that Annabelle’s summer tutor, Janine, is black, which we learn through a comment on her hair and then on her outsider status, which could have been handled differently. The other social issues of note are that Jeremy’s older sister, Kayla, who is on the high school swim team with Annabelle, was treated for an eating disorder the previous year, so note that as a sensitive topic. (The author thanks Jen Petro-Roy for her assistance in understanding and representing eating disorder aftermath accurately.) And finally, Annabelle, Mia, and Jeremy are all day students at the private school on Gray Island (which is I think supposed to be Martha’s Vineyard?), so neither fully fit in with the other boarding students or the public school kids who are there for the summer. Annabelle’s learning differences make her feel even more like she doesn’t belong – but that’s another issue that gets resolved over the course of the story.

Adventure like: Nest by Esther Ehrlich
Relationship growth like: A Mango-Shaped Space by Wendy Mass

Darius the Great is Not Okay by Adib Khorram

9780525552963

by Adib Khorram
Overall: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Teenager Darius Kellner is clinically depressed and the target of bullies, which his dad thinks is Darius’ fault. He’s not your typical nerdy, Trekkie teen, because he also has an obsession with tea that comes from his Persian side of the family. He’s never been to Iran to meet his grandparents, but gets the opportunity when his mom learns that her father has a brain tumor. Their trip is loaded with significance and sadness, but also brings Darius new understanding of himself, his roots, and especially his father. He also makes what appears to be his first best friend ever, in his grandparents’ neighbor, Sohrab.

Among really cool things I learned a lot about: Darius’ grandparents are Zoroastrian and Sohrab is Baha’i, so there’s a fair amount about both religions and Persian culture generally. Both religions are minorities in Iran, which has some social/political dynamics that I was unaware of. There are mosques everywhere and they visit over Nowruz, the Persian new year – not to mention the culture of taarof, or back-and-forth offering and declining of hospitality, which Darius is not very good at. He feels most acutely American when he fails to taarof correctly and also when others speak Farsi around him, which he doesn’t understand.

Sohrab’s father was unjustly jailed years ago, and they receive upsetting news about him, causing Sohrab to lash out at Darius (who, to be fair, isn’t exactly comforting). This isn’t their first fight, in the few short weeks they’ve known each other; their first day, Sohrab takes him to play soccer with his nemesis, who teases Darius for being uncircumcised, and Darius is understandably upset with Sohrab for putting him in that position and for not standing up for him. But I loved how their friendship developed, and how hard it was for Darius to leave him behind and return to the U.S. They had many poignant moments of quiet, gentle friendship. And when Darius returns home, his own bully bothers him a little less, and his bully’s sidekick is downright nice to him.

What I loved most, though, was how Darius’ relationship with his dad developed. He was in Iran with his mom’s family, but he sees his dad through their eyes, and they have some lovely and also hard conversations about themselves and their relationship. While nothing is completely fixed, there is great hope for the future.

Merci Suarez Changes Gears by Meg Medina

9780763690496

by Meg Medina
Overall: 5 out of 5 stars

I was able to snag this one on Monday, right after it was announced as the Newbery winner but before it headed out on its rounds to all the librarians and other people who keep tabs with such things, and was able to finish it by last night. Phew! Merci Suarez is a 6th grade scholarship student at a swanky private school where she doesn’t always fit in. She lives in a small house right next to her aunt’s house and her grandparents’ house. Intergenerational living was part of Medina’s inspiration for this story, and it was really cool to see this portrayed in a kids’ book. I think it’s something that not many white Americans get to see, and in our blind allegiance to individuality, we can look down on it and not see the benefits. As Medina says, and Merci echoes, sometimes the loss of privacy between more distant family members can be hard, but what’s true at least in Merci’s case is that her overall extended family is a rock solid unit, which serves them well when times get hard.

Some of those times include helping take care of her twin 5-year-old cousins, which Merci resents, especially as she is trying to save up money for a new bike and wants to try out for the soccer team. But some of those times are about her grandfather Lolo’s decline into Alzheimer’s. I most appreciated Merci’s deep breath and taking the plunge into naming it with her new friends when they come over, instead of hiding it and being miserable and, as she says, leading to lies. Her family has a firm belief in telling the truth, which it turns out only Lolo is willing to break – to keep Merci from knowing about the Alzheimer’s. My heart broke for Lolo, wanting his beloved Preciosa to stay innocent and their relationship to go unchanged, and for Merci, who like many sixth-graders, is on the precipice between childhood and adulthood, and is very hurt by being treated like her 5-year-old cousins. Her older brother, Roli, is in on the truth, and is the one who finally tells her, after a particularly bad episode with Lolo shatters any illusions she may have had about what was going on.

I think this will be a hugely important book to kids whose families are grappling with Alzheimer’s disease. Issues of class difference are also dealt with very well; Merci’s parents are not well-off, but you’re not beaten over the head with it. Merci also deals with a mean girl at school, Edna Santos, who gets her just desserts without Merci having to rat her out. Merci has been on the edge of the popular group, led by Edna, despite being poor and having a lazy eye, but over the course of the book she finds some unexpected new friends and comes out stronger than ever.

Merci has a Sunshine Buddy at school, a new kid she’s supposed to befriend and help out. Her Buddy is a boy, which is already awkward at 6th grade, and doesn’t really seem to need her help. But she finds a way and it’s rewarding. There are some scenes with the group that includes her Buddy, Michael, and mean girl Edna, that also show them all straddling that line into adulthood extremely well. The other very realistic thing I liked was that Merci was frequently chastised for being late to school when she is being driven by her mother or brother. I completely empathized with her level of frustration with being punished for something out of her control, and I think a lot of kids will, too.

My one complaint is that the secret way she comes up with to help Lolo remember might just realistically set her up for disappointment. When he forgets, nothing will help him remember. For now, he comes back to himself and remembers her, but eventually he won’t. So her project is really more for her, in the end, though it’s portrayed as some sort of gift or cure for him, and I hope other kids don’t take it that way.

Crush by Svetlana Chmakova

9780316363242

by Svetlana Chmakova
Overall: 5 out of 5 stars

Chmakova has done it again. I devoured most of this graphic novel on my lunch break and it had me blushing and laughing along with the characters (ok, mostly blushing). I don’t know how she does it, but Chmakova perfectly captures the awkwardness of burgeoning middle school relationships. Jorge, who we’ve seen before as a minor character, stars in his own story of realizing he’s crushing hard for Jazmine – so hard, in fact, that he can’t even talk to her. He’s a big guy, and athletic, and quiet, which tends to hide his kindness. His mere presence acts as a deterrent for bullies, and he uses his power for good. When his friend Garrett gets in with the football team, a clique led by James, Garrett is psyched, but James gets Garrett to do mean and thoughtless things to others, including his best friends, Jorge and Liv. It culminates in some online bullying that Jorge is wrongfully accused of participating in. It all ends well enough, and even though they’re in middle school I could easily see Jorge and Jazmine staying together forever. There were also some awesome feminist tidbits that caught my eye: Jazmine talks about physically handling her own tormentor, which is awesome itself, and Jorge thinks she’s awesome for it, which is even more awesome (did I win for most uses of that word in one sentence?). The girls band together and really stick up for each other. One of the teachers (the drama teacher, I believe) brings her wife to a school event, the gym teacher wears a hijab, and there’s a character whose gender is unknown. I love all the representation in this series so far, and I hope she keeps writing it!

And She Was by Jessica Verdi

9781338150537

by Jessica Verdi
Overall: 5 out of 5 stars

Dara has just graduated high school and dreams of playing tennis professionally. She’s good enough, she just needs the money. But she’s always lived a life of limited resources with her mom. When she asks her mom for her birth certificate so she can get a passport to play a tournament in Canada, her mom gets weird. Then when she finds the birth certificate on her own, things get even weirder. Her mom’s name, Mellie Baker, is nowhere on the document; instead her parents are listed as Marcus Hogan and Celeste Pembroke.

Dara’s search for what’s going on leads to a bombshell revelation by Mellie: she used to be Marcus and is Dara’s biological father. When Celeste died, she took the final steps to live as a woman and had to go underground and assume a whole new identity. To protect her daughter, she did the same for her. Now 18, Dara’s journey continues – she grabs her best friend, Sam, and hits the road to find the other half of her family.

Throughout Dara’s road trip, she receives emails containing more of Mellie’s story. By the time she tracks down the Pembrokes, she is furious with Mellie for the ways in which her decisions impacted Dara. But she comes around to understanding why Mellie did what she did, and even leaves the lap of luxury at her grandparents’ home, and the promise of a life as a pro tennis player, to stand by her mother (and – spoiler alert – face her fears about dating Sam). I thought I knew how this story was going to unfold, and there were a few surprises, which was great. I also appreciated the author’s note at the end, where she recognized that she is not trans herself, but tried to do the story justice. She also talked about the need to have Mellie’s story in an adult voice in there, which is unusual for YA.

Out of Left Field by Ellen Klages

9780425288597

by Ellen Klages
Overall: 5 out of 5 stars

Ten-year-old Katy Gordon is the best pitcher in the neighborhood. Even a Little League scout thinks so – until he learns she’s a girl, and then it’s game over. With two tomboy sisters and a self-made woman for a single mom, it’s no surprise that Katy dreams big. But for 1957, she’s stuck in her gender role, until she learns about all the other women who have played professionally for the past 60 years. Katy’s best friend, Jules, isn’t quite as much of a tomboy as she is, but it’s easy to see why the two are friends, even through the awkward reunion scene when Jules gets back from camp. Katy’s story is set against the backdrop of the beginnings of the civil rights movement, the space race, and the end of San Francisco’s minor league era with the arrival of major league Giants.

There are some seriously strong women in this story. Katy’s family, for starters; but also her Aunt Babs, who is as into baseball as she is and takes her and Jules to a double header for her birthday. There’s also Jules’ student teacher; the middle school gym teacher; and her classmate Chip’s aunt, who played for the Negro Leagues (based on a real woman). There’s a scene where Katy goes to Chip’s family barbecue to talk to his aunt and is the only white person there; not much is made of it, but in the year of the Little Rock integration (which they had been discussing in school), I was surprised not to get more internal reaction from Katy. I did like that she got in the newspaper in the end, and that she got to spend a day shadowing a sports reporter to cover the brand new San Francisco Giants major league team.

Nothing changes for Katy on the Little League front, and won’t until she’s too old to play, but she learns that some rewards for your work come for others down the line, and the story ends with a sweet scene between her and a younger neighbor girl who looks up to her. I loved Katy’s relationship with her mother, who has two older daughters and is very relaxed about parenting Katy, talking to her like a grownup a lot and knowing when to let her play hooky for important life experiences. My partner’s aunt grew up in San Francisco in the 1940s and 50s and loves baseball; I plan to get her this book as a gift. I’ll also see how the kids in my 4th/5th grade book club like it! I also learned that Klages wrote two other books which appear to be about Katy’s older sisters, and this is not listed as being part of that series, which is curious to me.

(Update: After I finished this, I was very much in the mood to rewatch A League of Their Own, which held up exceedingly well. I had forgotten entire scenes, like when the African American woman throws a baseball back to the main characters – the briefest and subtlest of nods to the fact that there were African American female baseball players then too, and I wondered why the movie didn’t talk more about them. And then, the next day, the Jewish Women’s Archive shared an article about one of the Jewish women who played on the team, and I realized I forgot to address Katy’s Jewish heritage! Both Katy (and, to a lesser extent, Jules) are very assimilated, which is maybe not surprising for post-Holocaust Jewish Americans. There’s also an article called The Hidden Queer History Behind a League of Their Own, which was really good, and reminds me that Katy’s aunt, who loves baseball, is very briefly referred to as having a roommate, subtly informing the reader that she might be gay.)

For fans of: The Lions of Little Rock and It Ain’t So Awful, Falafel (though not as funny)

Puddin’ by Julie Murphy

9780062418388

by Julie Murphy
Overall: 5 out of 5 stars

Clover City is back in this companion novel to Dumplin’. This time with Willowdean’s new friend Millie Michalchuk at the center, alternating with popular girl Callie Reyes. When Callie’s dance team loses its funding to compete for the national title, they take it out on the local business responsible: Millie’s uncle’s gym. But Callie is the only one recognizable from the security camera footage, so she’s left to work off the charges alone. Over the months as she works alongside Millie at the gym’s front desk, the two unexpectedly become friends, and what comes of it is amazing (though their motivations are not always clear). Millie draws Callie into her circle of friends who are somewhat diverse in both race and sexual orientation, complete with a brief-but-good slumber party conversation about asexuality.

Millie is on her own journey, one that has, at the outset, very little to do with Callie. She has a burgeoning relationship with Malik, which she is forbidden from pursuing because her parents are very strict (at least, she hopes it’s that and not that they’re racist). She is also trying to figure out how to avoid being sent to fat camp yet again and instead do a broadcast journalism program at UT-Austin. Her mother, ever the realist, tries to teach Millie that the world is biased against fat women on TV, especially as news anchors, but that doesn’t deter Millie. In the end, though, she needs Callie’s help and bravery.

The two girls feed off each other’s enthusiasm, confidence, and bravery for each other’s battles. Landing perfectly in the #metoo era, this book sends a powerful message of sisterhood and the importance of getting beyond messages of drama and competitiveness to tackle the real issues, the systemic misogyny that keeps women down. At the end, Millie is fat-shamed again by someone in “the real world” and stands up for herself (with the help of another overweight woman) in a very well-articulated way.

I was thinking of how to describe this book, especially in comparison to Dumplin’, and then I read Murphy’s acknowledgements, at the end of which she sums it up perfectly: “If Dumplin’ was about coming to terms with your own body, Puddin’ is about demanding that the world do the same. I wrote this book for all the fat kids who have waited too damn long for the world to accept them. Stop waiting. The revolution starts with and belongs to you.”

Rebound by Kwame Alexander

9780544868137

by Kwame Alexander
Overall: 4 out of 5 stars

In this prequel to Crossover, which focused on the relationship between twin 7th grade basketball stars and their basketball superstar dad, Rebound tells the dad’s story of going through similar struggles of growing up. I wanted to like this so hard, because I loved the original book, Crossover. And it’s completely Alexander – very well-written, complex characters and solid story, which can be hard to hit in a novel-in-verse. However, it felt very derivative, both of Crossover (dad dies young, basketball main theme, starting to like girls, dealing with grief, police and black boys) and of As Brave As You by Jason Reynolds, where the main character is sent away to his grandparents’ house for the summer and earns his keep. The repetitive themes, in retrospect, seem to allude to the cycle of health, poverty, and social issues that people of color are likely find themselves in, especially as hit home by Granddaddy who advises Charlie to choose carefully who he wants on his team, and that he can count on his family. The scenes where Charlie really breaks through and grows did not hit me as hard as they did in Crossover, which was disappointing. I did appreciate the ending, which wraps up the dad’s story and brings it back to present day (actually a little beyond – high school graduation) with the twins. I had read Crossover long enough ago that I wasn’t completely sure CJ was who I thought she was, and that was nice to have confirmed for me. I’m not sure which order I would recommend reading these books in, though probably the original publication order makes the most sense.

Insignificant Events in the Life of a Cactus by Dusti Bowling

9781454923459

by Dusti Bowling
Overall: 5 out of 5 stars

13-year-old Aven Green’s life was easier when she lived in the same town she’d lived in since she was 2 (when she was adopted) and people were used to seeing her in all her armless glory. But now Aven and her family are moving from Kansas to Arizona and she’ll have to make friends all over again, not to mention deal with the stares. But she perseveres, befriending a kid with Tourette’s syndrome and an overweight kid, and even getting the courage to join the soccer team (one sport she can definitely do well). I also liked how she describes how she manages many daily activities (but not in such great detail that it takes over the story), lists the pros and cons about them on her blog, and also refuses to answer more intimate questions (like how she wipes her own butt – so stop thinking about it already).

This was brought up in my book club as a Wonder readalike. Wonder was, well, wonderful when it came out, but now it’s almost trite. I’m always amazed at how well kids take to the story, and how they flock to the library when their teacher is reading it to get more books like it. I keep a mental list of readalikes and I’m definitely adding this one to it! It’s much less sappy than Wonder, and the story is not just about how other people see her, or her struggles in life. In fact, it’s a pretty typical middle grade novel.