A New Take on An Old Story: A Review of Travelers Along the Way

Travelers Along the Way: A Robin Hood Remix 
Aminah Mae Safi 
March 1, 2022 
Feiwel and Friends 
Ages 13-18 

The third entry of the Remixed Classics series, this young adult novel reimagines Robin Hood as a Muslim teen girl amid the Third Crusade. Rahma followed her older sister Zeena into the war, though really all she wants to do is make sure her sister stays safe. As the sisters travel towards Jerusalem, Rahma continually produces schemes to get them out of trouble. She initially steals a horse that she sees is being abused, only to find out it is the invading Queen Isabella’s horse. This and further thefts lead to her gaining a reputation as the Green Hood. Through their travels, Rahma sees how much the people themselves are affected by the war, and she repeatedly redistributes the spoils of her thefts to the common people who help her. The two sisters meet a variety of like-minded individuals who join them as the group’s schemes escalate. They eventually steal wealth the queen is bringing to negotiate with King Richard. They find a peace treaty with the treasure, learning that Isabella is planning to manipulate Richard into peace on her terms. This leads to a final plan, with the goal being to end the war in a way that is beneficial to the citizens of the land. 

The story is told primarily in the first person, from Rahma’s point of view. Occasional chapters are written in the third person and from the perspective of the invaders, such as Queen Isabella and King Richard. Large bold text indicates the location is shifting, which helps to ease the possible confusion when the point of view changes. The band of protagonists is diverse. While the main character is Muslim, supporting characters include Jewish and Christian representation. There is also an LGBT romance among the members of the group. The pace is quick, with Rahma’s group eventually reaching six members. They bond while the action itself occurs, allowing the story to move forward quickly. Back matter includes a brief timeline of the Third Crusade and an author’s note that encourages the reader to further research the time period on their own, rather than providing extensive notes of Safi’s own research. This novel is sure to appeal to teens interested in historical fiction, especially those looking for representation outside of what tends to exist in this genre. 

Bedtime Q&A: A Review of Goodnight, Butterfly

Goodnight, Butterfly 
Ross Burach 
Scholastic Press 
March 3, 2022 
Pre-k to 3rd grade 

In the third installment of Ross Burach’s Butterfly series, the titular Butterfly is awakened in the middle of the night by Porcupine as they are eating their breakfast. Initially, Butterfly is ecstatic at the new experience of being awake at night, learning about what it means to be nocturnal through word play and asking more questions than poor Porcupine can handle. The art shows this through an abundance of brightly colored images in Burach’s signature naïve style of mixed media art. However, as Butterfly tires, the fast pace of the early pages slows down significantly. The puns and traditional wordy jokes of the front half are replaced by sight gags, like Butterfly accidentally mistaking Porcupine for a pinecone. Questions from Butterfly peter out, even if Butterfly is still trying to make night time adventures for the pair to get into, and Porcupine is able to give some advice about falling to sleep. Burach shows the switch in tone using the color of the space between illustrations from a white to the more calm colors of lavender and indigo towards the end of the book. Burach’s use of framing and pace in service of comedy is impeccable. In early jokes, he uses cluttered dialogue and page turns to build tension while releasing it through punchlines. These are given room to breathe by the switch to a single, simpler composition for a spread. While the jokes are less set up later in the story, to aid in winding down, the page turns are still used to hide silly fun, like Butterfly using a book as a bed. In the last few pages, Butterfly finally decides to stop fighting sleep and Porcupine encourages them to think about calming ideas, teaching readers that if you want to go to sleep, it’s better to focus on calm ideas instead of questions you cannot answer. A colorful and funny addition to any bedtime book collection, just be careful, it might be too much fun to fall asleep to.

Storytelling Through Pictures: A Review of Isla to Island

Isla to Island 
Alexis Castellanos 
March 15, 2022 
Atheneum Books for Young Readers 
Ages 10 and up 

This wordless graphic novel follows Marisol, a young girl sent alone to the US when her homeland of Cuba becomes increasingly unsafe. When she first arrives in New York, she is miserable. The winter weather is nothing like what she is used to, and she does not understand anyone around her. As time passes, she comes to realize that home does not have to be restricted to one place. Marisol loves plants and teaches herself English by checking out books about nature from her school’s library. Her foster parents notice this interest and show her areas of New York that are reminiscent of home, even in the winter, like a botanical garden. As time passes and the seasons change, Marisol comes to see the same vibrant nature she loved in Cuba come to life in her new home. The story ends as she finally works up the courage to introduce herself to her peers at school, closing with an epilogue shown through photos the depicts her parents arriving in the US and Marisol herself eventually starting a family in the US. 

The book is primarily wordless, with text being used at the start and ending to label photos that set the scene. As art is the primary storytelling vehicle, movement through the story occurs with varying paneling formats. The style of the art itself is simply with uncomplicated backgrounds making the story easy to follow. When Marisol first arrives in New York, the art becomes black and white, with occasional splashes of color when she sees things that remind her of home. Through this initial lack of color, the visuals embody how terrible Marisol feels. Over time, the color returns to the illustrations, initially through the plants that Marisol sees and books she reads that make her feel at home again. By the end, the illustrations are once again in full color. Back matter provides additional context to the wordless story. This includes an explanation of Operation Peter Pan, the real-life program that brought Cuban children to the US, along with an author’s note and list of historical sources for those who want to do further reading on the topic. Isla to Island presents a touching narrative about the immigrant experience without the use of text, which allows it to have appeal to young readers who may be overwhelmed by lengthy books about this important topic. 

Monsters Among Us: A Review of Only a Monster

Only a Monster
Vanessa Len
February 22, 2022
HarperTeen
Ages 13-17 

In this first installment of a planned trilogy, debut author Vanessa Len lays down the foundations of a world where monsters live among humans, appearing no different from their human counterparts. Monsters’ primary ability involves travelling through time, though in order to do so they must “steal time” from humans, shortening the lifespans of their victims. Beyond this ability that is shared by all monsters, each also has an additional ability shared by their family line. The story’s protagonist, Joan, is half-monster, half-human, and the monster half of her family has intentionally hidden the full extent of their abilities from her. Shortly after accidentally using her powers for the first time and learning the truth about them, Joan also learns that her crush, Nick, has sworn to destroy all monsters. Joan escapes a massacre, where the victims include most of her own family. As Joan teams up with another survivor of the massacre, she must quickly learn how to navigate not only her powers, but the entire society and hierarchy of monsters living hidden throughout London. 

Despite being the first in a series, Only a Monster can stand on its own as the primary conflict is solved by the end of the book, with greater unresolved questions looming for those who will wait for its sequels. Its primary theme relates to morality, and the ambiguity of good versus evil, with the ever-present question being whether monsters are always evil, and heroes are always good. Another central theme is that of adapting to a new society. In the monster world, Joan feels out of place as she is half-human. Since her family hid the truth about monsters from her, Joan is not aware of monster society which has its own rules about what can and cannot be done regarding time travel, as well as urban legends which end up having truth to them as Joan learns more.  She also alludes to feeling out of place in the human world as well due to being of mixed race. The supporting cast is also diverse, featuring characters of various ethnicities and sexualities. While the story gets dark, and features depictions of death, it is not overly graphic. Fantasy readers who enjoy time travel and related themes, such as alternate timelines, are sure to enjoy this fast-paced read. 

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.