Myths & Sci-Fi Come to Life: A Review of Tiger Honor

Tiger Honor
Yoon Ha Lee
January 4, 2022
Rick Riordan Presents / Disney Publishing Worldwide
Ages 8-12 

In this sequel/companion to Dragon Pearl, Yoon further delves into a world that combines science fiction with Korean mythology. While events from the previous book influence the story, it can also be read as a stand-alone coming from a completely different point of view. This story focuses on Sebin, a nonbinary tiger spirit. They have always dreamed of joining the Thousand Worlds Space Forces to follow in the footsteps of their Uncle Hwan. Unfortunately, their acceptance letter comes at the same time as a message declaring that Hwan has been branded a traitor by the Space Forces. Sebin reports to the Space Forces, hoping to find out what really happened regarding their uncle and to bring honor to a family that has always prioritized discipline and loyalty to the family above all else. Sebin boards the spaceship Haetae, headed towards orientation. Almost immediately, things go wrong. As the situation becomes more dangerous, Sebin can no longer be held back by protocol. Ultimately, they are put into situations that force them to choose between loyalty to the Space Force and loyalty to their family.

The plot is fast-paced, opening with a prologue where Sebin describes their situation before backtracking a bit to characterize their family. After a few chapters of set up, the action begins. The first-person narration highlights the superhuman aspects of being a tiger spirit as Sebin mentions sensing the emotions of others based on scent. Sebin’s uncertainty in their decisions is a point of tension. While they seem to switch loyalties, this ultimately feels realistic for a 13-year-old thrust into a perilous situation. Diversity of gender identities is centered in both primary and secondary characters. Wearing pronoun pins is normalized, with Sebin noting them on others before settling on any pronouns. The Thousand Worlds is based in Korean culture, making most characters presumably ethnically Korean (as they have Korean names). Other nations are represented, with the Japan coded Sun Clan being highlighted most often. Back matter includes a pronunciation guide to assist with the names of characters and places. This book is sure to appeal to those looking for nonstop “unputdownable” action, with the blend of sci-fi and mythology adding a unique touch.

We Can Do Hard Things: A Review of The Struggle Bus

The Struggle Bus
Julie Koon
Kind World Publishing
March 8, 2022
Ages 4-8

Sometimes, when life gets really hard, the Struggle Bus shows up at the door. It grumbles and rumbles and seems completely hopeless. Lost in the fog and frozen by indecision and on its way up the mountain, the Struggle Bus breaks down. It is only with the help of friends that it can be set back on its way. And even then, it’s a hard and bumpy journey, but eventually, it finds the path, and arrives at the top of the mountain.

The Struggle Bus is a gentle rhyming story acknowledging big feelings and encouraging readers to never give up. Koon’s illustrations, a mixture of simple line drawings and watercolor, are rendered in soft, soothing colors that complement the supportive message of the text. Even amidst fog and uncertainty, the struggle bus continues on, reminding readers to feel their feelings but not let those feelings stop them from moving forward. With rhythmic text and onomatopoeia sprinkled throughout, this book is ideal for young people who need a little help to understand big emotions. At the end of the book, there are reflection questions and ideas for calming behaviors to utilize when “your bus breaks down” (p. 37). A diverse cast of characters and buses of all shapes, sizes, and colors let readers know that everyone rides the Struggle Bus sometimes, and that even the tallest, foggiest mountains are not insurmountable.

Self Discovery Through Lack of Effort: A Review of The Year I Stopped Trying

The Year I Stopped Trying
Katie Heaney
Alfred A. Knopf Books for Young Readers
November 16, 2021
Ages 12 and up

Mary has always been a good student and never gotten into trouble. One day she forgets to do a history assignment. She prepares herself for the worst, yet, nothing happens. This leads her to reflect on the purpose of doing her assignments. Has she been doing so well in school simply because she is supposed to? What does she even want for herself in life? Intentionally, she does as badly in school as she can, skipping assignments and classes. She also begins a romantic pursuit of Mitch, hoping his bad boy reputation will aid her in her “self-deterioration project.” As she gets to know Mitch, she is unsure if she truly wants to date a boy, sensing that just like with the schoolwork, she has always thought about boys simply because that was what was expected of her. Mary’s experimentation leads her to realize how preoccupied she was with how others perceived her. She ultimately comes to terms with the fact that she is not completely sure what she wants, and that is okay.

Heaney writes in a very casual, first-person style. Mary’s narration is often humorous and blunt. While she cannot express herself well to others early in the story, her character comes through in the narration style filled with inner thoughts. The setting of a suburban high school in the Midwest allows for diversity in the supporting characters, though this is not a focal point of the storytelling. The discoveries Mary makes as she tries to find herself and her purpose are ones that have value for any young person, overachiever or not. The straightforward style makes this an easy read, making the theme of self-discovery easily accessible to readers transitioning from middle grade to young adult fiction.

When Creativity Meets Office Supplies: A Review of Off-Limits

Off-Limits
by Helen Yoon
Candlewick
Available November 9, 2021
Ages 3-7

No “OFF-LIMITS” sign can stop a curious child from exploring the shadowy world of Daddy’s office and the excitement of discovering—oh joy!—office supplies. But what starts as an “I’m just looking” visit quickly escalates to an extravaganza of scotch tape and sticky notes. With delight that dances off the page, the child gets carried away with song, dance, and crafting galore until reality sets in—uh oh—and she sneaks back to her room only to discover that mischievousness and joyful abandon must run in the family. Yoon’s mixed media illustrations and color choices move deftly from the muted organization of Daddy’s office to the vibrant personality and exuberant creativity of a child lost in her imagination. Well-paced text and dramatic page turns add depth to this light and hilarious story, making it a brilliant choice for both storytimes and on-on-one reads. The child’s self-talk, both silly and insightful, follows her on the slippery slope from curiosity to joy to regret. And a last wordless page models forgiveness as parent and child sit down to a costumed tea party while wearing each other’s imaginative finery. Off-Limits is a love letter to office supplies and a celebration of indulging our curiosity and living in the moment.

Found Cryptid Family: A Review of Another Kind

Another Kind
By Cait May and Trevor Bream
HarperCollins/HarperAlley
October 26, 2021
Ages 10+

This graphic novel centers on six not-quite-human kids who initially live in the safety of a secret government facility nicknamed the Playroom until a security breach disrupts their lives. They are forced to go on the run, fleeing from a mysterious being known as the Collector. While on the run, they meet other “irregularities” who live hidden from society. They realize, too late, that a sanctuary many irregularities have headed towards is a trap set by the Collector and come face to face with him. The group and their new allies must find a way to overcome the Collector’s leech-like powers. In the end, the group prevails, making a new home for themselves in a safe place they had been searching for all along.

Readers are sure to appreciate the diversity of the cast as characters come from different ethnic backgrounds and LGBTQ+ identities. Additionally, there is a great diversity in the types of cryptids depicted, with the main cast featuring a half-Yeti, a will o’ the wisp, a bear shifter (Nandi Bear), an alien (Reptilian), a selkie, and a sea monster. A varied cast of secondary characters includes other types of creatures which are sure to appeal to readers interested in the supernatural. The art highlights the diversity of the cast with the use of a broad range of colors. Various paneling and lighting styles efficiently show off action and shifting moods as certain parts of the story touch on darker themes. While the backstories of central characters include dark moments, yet they overcome past hardships by sticking together. The moments the young characters spend together feel authentic as they banter. The two older members of the group face the responsibility of caring for the rest, particularly the youngest, who is 6 years old. At times, she takes childish actions that jeopardize the group, yet those around her show her nothing but love and support as she struggles to fully understand why she must hide what makes her different from “normal” people. The primary messages of embracing one’s differences and the importance of found family are ones that every reader is sure to learn from.

Baking with Pride: A Review of The Heartbreak Bakery

The Heartbreak Bakery
A. R. Capetta
Candlewick Press
October 12, 2021
Ages 14-17

After being dumped by a longtime girlfriend, Syd, who has always used baking to express feelings, bakes a batch of brownies that seem to magically break up everyone who eats them. This effect even reaches Vin and Alec, owners of the queer Proud Muffin bakery where Syd works and feels truly at home. With the owners’ relationship threatened, Syd worries that the Proud Muffin itself is in danger. Syd teams up with the Proud Muffin’s delivery person, Harley, to fix the mess, hoping to use newfound magical baking powers to bring all the broken-up couples together.

Told in the first person by Syd, who from time to time reflects on the experience of being agender, with a preference for no pronouns at all. There is additional representation of people from across the spectrum of gender identities. For example, Harley uses either he or they pronouns, depending on the day, with the day’s preference indicated by a pin. Syd and Harley have instant chemistry, leading Syd to open up about identifying as agender, despite an inability to express this identity to others. Capetta clearly incorporates personal experience into various aspects of the novel, describing its setting of Austin with love and delving into their baking experience by including recipes throughout the book. Filled with romance, heartache, and a touch of magical realism, The Heartbreak Bakery provides a chance for those with gender uncertainty to feel seen, a window into the agender experience, and a sweet treat for all.

Looking Towards Fall: A Review of The Leaf Thief

The Leaf Thief 
Alice Hemming 
Illustrated by Nicola Slater 
Sourcebooks Jabberwocky 
August 3, 2021 
Ages 4-8 

Squirrel wakes up one day to find that some of the leaves on his tree are missing. He concludes that there is a Leaf Thief on the loose and accuses other animals of having stolen his leaves. Over time, more leaves disappear, and Squirrel continues to panic, prompting Bird to show him the true Leaf Thief. Bird explains that the wind is taking the leaves, that this happens every year in autumn, and that the leaves will grow back in the spring, finally putting Squirrel at ease. 

Hemming primarily uses dialogue to tell the story, with different fonts used for each character. The text is laid out differently on each page, with large text used to accentuate Squirrel’s rising panic. He reacts dramatically to the situation, turning to his friend Bird for guidance. Despite the humorous nature of the situation, Bird takes Squirrel seriously, aptly explaining why the leaves are disappearing. Slater’s illustrations depict rich and vivid environments through a mixture of two-page spreads, single page spreads, and pages split into panels that make the storyline more dynamic. The colors of the autumn leaves are a focal point, though even the pages that do not depict leaves are full of vibrant colors. Paint and graphite textures scanned over the digital art give it a unique feel. Back matter further explains the changes that autumn brings. The Leaf Thief is a humorous story that will leave young readers amused while also providing information about a change they see around them in a straightforward and fun way. 

A Tool for Tomorrow’s Activists: A Review of This Book is Feminist

This Book is Feminist: An Intersectional Primer for Next-Gen Changemakers 
Jamia Wilson 
Illustrated by Aurélia Durand 
Quarto/Frances Lincoln Children’s Books 
August 3, 2021 
Ages 10-14 

A continuation of the series Empower the Future, which began with This Book is Anti-Racist and its journal companion, This Book is Feminist aims to describe intersectional feminism in ways that are understandable to young people. Intersectional feminism is explored through a mixture of the author’s personal anecdotes and statistics. The book is divided into chapters by concepts such as identity, justice, and power. Vibrant illustrations feature most prominently on the title page of each chapter along with art of important figures and quotations relevant to the chapter. Beyond these full spreads, nearly every page of the text is accompanied with bright illustrations highlighting diversity. Most of the chapters close with a “Call to Action” section, inviting readers to ponder how the concepts covered can be applied to their own lives. These prompts, along with the closing chapter, “What Does Feminism Mean to YOU?”, are sure to get young readers thinking about power imbalances that exist around them, not only regarding gender but also regarding the multitude of other aspects of identities covered under the umbrella of true intersectional feminism. The back matter of the book includes additional notes, a list of further readings, and a glossary of terms that are bolded throughout the text for greater understanding. This comprehensive text has something for both those who are new to the concept of intersectional feminism and for those who are familiar with the topic as it provides additional resources and lists of organizations working towards positive change, inviting those inclined to do so to research further and become activists themselves. 

A Tale of Crossing Fates: A Review of The Other Side of Luck

The Other Side of Luck 
Ginger Johnson 
Bloomsbury Children’s Books 
July 6, 2021 
Ages 8-11

Una and Julien could not be more different. Una is a Princess while Julien is a pauper, barely getting by day to day with the profits made from selling plants he forages with his ailing father. Yet both have something the other lacks. Una, wealth and comfort that Julien could only imagine. Julien, his father’s love. Una longs for parental love after her mother’s death leads her father into a depressive spiral. Even after he remarries, he only seems interested in his male children, leading Una to resent her gender. Una’s father then decrees that anyone who can bring him the rare Silva Flower will get a grand reward. This sets the events of the story in motion, eventually leading Una and Julien to each other and ultimately to the Silva Flower. 

Johnson crafts her setting carefully, with the start of the book rarely featuring dialogue amidst lyrical prose. The setting has a medieval feel, though the descriptions focus more on the physical setting – wildlife and nature that the protagonists spend much of the story trekking through – than the time period. Alternating viewpoints focus on a variety of characters beyond Una and Julien, providing insight once multiple things are happening at once. Character names as chapter headings help to keep track of the shifting point of view. As the story progresses, Julien and Una’s goals change as Una comes to terms with the loss of her mother and focuses on the present, prompted by Julien to realize that she can use her talents to show her father what she can do, despite her gender. While at times plot points are conveniently resolved, the theme of luck interwoven throughout the text make this believable and it allows for the plot and goals of the protagonists to shift unpredictably, leading to great moments of suspense. 

Review based on Advance Reading Copy 

Beyond the stars: A Review of Lights on Wonder Rock

Lights on Wonder Rock
David Litchfield
Clarion/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
September 9, 2020
Ages 4-8

Heather was searching for something more—magic, friendship, adventure, and aliens! So she spends her nights at Wonder Rock, doing all she can to attract the attention of a spaceship. When she finally gets her chance to jump aboard, Heather realizes she doesn’t want to leave her family behind. She grows up, loses the wonder of childhood, and has a family of her own, but never gives up waiting for her alien friend. When at last they return, Heather once again recognizes that she might already have all she needs here on Earth.

Litchfield’s thoughtful story explores themes of longing, hope, and curiosity about what other lives may be out there for us. His use of dark and muted tones for the forest, juxtaposed with the colorful and sparkling pages where the spaceship appears, help to set off the difference between how Heather sees her life and her expectations about what might await her in outer space. Double-page spreads of wordless panels put a unique focus on the two most important relationships in the story, with her son and her alien friend, and explain the pull she feels between them. Throughout, Litchfield cleverly uses light—sun, moon, and flashlight beams—to focus on Heather’s emotions and the devotion she feels to both her family and her dreams.