Sunday, May 21, 2017

Brave - Svetlana Chmakova

Title: Brave
Author: Svetlana Chmakova
Publisher: Yen Press, May 23, 2017 (Paperback)
Length: 248 pages
Genre: Children's/Young Adult; Graphic Novel, Realistic Fiction
Started: May 19, 2017
Finished: May 19, 2017

Summary:
From the back cover:

What does it mean to be brave?

In his dreams, Jensen is the biggest hero that ever was, saving the world and his friends on a daily basis. But his middle school reality is VERY different - math is hard, getting along with friends is hard...Even finding a partner for the class project is a huge problem when you always get picked last. And the pressure's on even more once the school newspaper's dynamic duo, Jenny and Akilah, draw Jensen into the whirlwind of school news, social-experiment projects, and behind-the-scenes club drama. Jensen has always played the middle school game one level at a time, but suddenly, someone's cranked up the difficulty setting. Will those daring daydreams of his finally work in his favour, or will he have to find real solutions to his real-life problems?

The charming world of Berrybrook Middle School gets a little bigger in this highly anticipated follow-up to Svetlana Chmakova's award-winning Awkward with a story about a boy who learns his own way of being brave!

Review:
I read Awkward, the first book of this series, back in 2015, and to this day I can't say enough good things about it. I've read practically everything this artist has put out over the years, and this new series set in the middle school years really strikes a chord with me as a teacher. Brave, the new instalment, takes all the great elements from Awkward and just gives readers even more to love.

Rather than focusing on Peppi and Jaime and their respective art and science club friends from the previous book, this one focuses mainly on Jensen, and Jenny and Akilah who work on the school newspaper, though previous characters do make repeat appearances. Jensen is a boy with big dreams but also big problems. He's failing math class, is being bullied on a daily basis, and his friends in the art club frequently leave him out of things. When he gets roped into helping Jenny and Akilah with a social experiment related to bullying, Jensen finally acknowledges the problems he's facing. With the help of his friends he figures out how to face his problems, as well as those of others, with bravery.

Brave does an awesome job yet again of showcasing diversity in many areas, including body types and abilities: Jensen and a few other characters have larger builds, Akilah and Mrs. Rashad are Muslim, the math tutor uses forearm crutches, and there's even a background character with vitiligo. I can't applaud this enough, but I really wish this were the norm in our books and graphic novels rather than a notable exception. The author also does a great job of taking the issues in the book a step further than what you'd normally see or expect in a middle grade book. The bullying Jensen faces from his friends is very subtle, which is why he denies for so long that it is indeed bullying. They make him the butt of their jokes and forget to include him, very much a frenemy-type relationship, which kids experience all the time but you don't usually see portrayals of. Also, Jensen doesn't stop at just resolving the bullying related to him, he goes as far as to change the entire culture in the school, including being nice to and inclusive towards one of the boys who bullied him. I love that the author goes the extra mile to get down to the root cause of the problem rather than just the surface issues. I also love how there's a subplot of Felicity getting suspended for an unfair dress code "violation" and the kids all work together to show their outrage in a respectful, yet persistent way in order to bring her back. This issue is popping up everywhere lately, and I especially like how the teachers in the story backed up the kids completely and supported them.



Recommendation:
Not only is the artwork adorable and and full-colour, the content alone makes this a must-have for classrooms and libraries. Awkward has won several awards (kids love it) and I have no doubt that Brave will as well. I also hope that there will be more from this series in the future, it is one of my favourites in recent years.

Thoughts on the cover:
Not quite as detailed and packed to the brim as Awkward's, but I like it, and each character's pose completely reflects their personality.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Beauty and the Beast: Act Two - Megan Kearney

Title: Beauty and the Beast: Act Two
Author: Megan Kearney
Publisher: The Quietly, 2016 (Paperback)
Length: 325 pages
Genre: Young Adult/Adult, Graphic Novel, Fairy Tale
Started: May 17, 2017
Finished: May 17, 2017

Summary:
From the back cover:

A Man with no Heart is a Beast...

When Beauty came to the Castle to take her father's place, neither she nor The Beast could have anticipated the depth of the bond that would blossom between them. As Beauty tries to reconcile her sympathy for The Beast with her longing for home, he struggles to balance the demands of his unfeeling master with his growing affection for Beauty.

Events of the past cast a long shadow over the uncertain pair. They know nothing comes without a price, but an impossible love could be costly indeed...

Review:
Piggybacking off the last review of Act One of this series, Act Two is nearly double the size of the previous volume and packs a greater emotional punch (so many feels).

After the cliffhanger at the end of Act One, this volume starts off with flashbacks from The Beast's human past and quickly becomes a testament to the changing relationship between him and Beauty. This instalment reads like a slow tease, both in the romantic sense and in terms of the plot, slowly uncovering the mysteries of the story that still haven't been fully revealed yet. You might not notice it on the first reading, but on subsequent readings the symbolism and other references are more noticeable. My favourite scene for this is in Chapter Six where The Beast and Beauty are walking through a corridor and the paintings all around them are scenes from various myths and folktales featuring animal brides and grooms. Since I'm such a geek, I had fun trying to see how many I could identify at first glance and how many required looking up information to figure it out.



Recommendation:
As with Act One, you just need to read this, trust me. Act One and Two books can be purchased here. The entire comic, including Act Three which is currently in progress, can be read here.

Thoughts on the cover:
As with any series, I appreciate the continuity between covers for Act One and Act Two: a similar layout and colour schemes that go together so they look nice on a shelf side by side. The cover image is simply gorgeous, and I love the addition of Argus on the bottom.

Beauty and the Beast: Act One - Megan Kearney

Title: Beauty and the Beast: Act One
Author: Megan Kearney
Publisher: The Quietly, 2014 (Paperback)
Length: 170 pages
Genre: Young Adult/Adult, Graphic Novel, Fairy Tale
Started: May 17, 2017
Finished: May 17, 2017

Summary:
From the back cover:

A Rose in Winter...

When her father returns from a journey bearing strange stories and stranger gifts, Beauty takes it upon herself to fulfill his debt to a mysterious creature called only "The Beast".

But neither the soft-spoken Beast or the uncanny Castle where he makes his home are what Beauty expects. Both harbour more secrets than she could have anticipated, and neither will give them up easily...

Review:
I came across this artist's webcomic purely by accident while researching Beauty and the Beast adaptations. As many people know, fairy tale retellings are a passion of mine, and Beauty and the Beast is my personal favourite. As a literature major and currently an English teacher, I appreciate the new perspectives these retellings give to the original tales, sometimes to the point where I find the retelling a better version than the original. Megan Kearney's graphic novel adaptation of the tale is one of those. As an artist she not only manages to portray the lush and vibrant magical setting, but also evokes a full range of emotions through the characters' expressions and designs. As a writer, she takes a bare-bones tale and expands on it, giving both Beauty and Beast their own back-stories and motivation, crafting well-developed characters and relationships. Her dialogue between characters is charming enough to reflect the original fairy tale, but is also mysterious and dark to reinforce the more mature route her version takes.

I can honestly of all the adaptations I've read and seen of Beauty and the Beast, this one is by far my favourite (and not just for the pretty artwork and the fact that the artist is Canadian). The original story and many adaptations don't really hold up well to modern expectations of complexity in what we read. We want to know why the Beast demands Beauty for something as insignificant as a stolen rose, why Beauty can't just leave after initially arriving, how can she begin to have feelings for someone keeping her hostage, and exactly what happens to change the nature of Beauty and Beast's relationship. This version addresses all those concerns, and Kearney's answers to them more than satisfy my curiosity and then some. Plus, the little details and flourishes that you only notice on second and third readings are a delight to uncover: the meanings for the flowers drawn on the chapter pages, the classic literature and mythology references, and the latin verses throughout the castle.



Recommendation:
Read it, buy it, and then wonder why it took you so long to discover it. Act One and Two books can be purchased here. The entirety of the comic thus far (including the first few chapters of Act Three can be found here. I can't say enough good things about this, so you'll just have to take my word for it and go spend several hours reading and then wait impatiently twice a week for new updates just like me.

Thoughts on the cover:
It's images like this that make me wish the comic was fully coloured. I love how everything is layered and gradually blends in to the next from top to bottom. I like the detail of Beast's cape being the tree canopy and Beauty's hair being the forest's floor.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Adulthood is a Myth: A Sarah's Scribbles Collection - Sarah Andersen

Title: Adulthood is a Myth: A Sarah's Scribbles Collection
Author: Sarah Andersen
Publisher: Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2016 (Paperback)
Length: 110 pages
Genre: Adult; Graphic Novel
Started: May 16, 2017
Finished: May 16, 2017

Summary:
From the back of the book:

Are you a special snowflake?

Do you enjoy networking to advance your career?

Is adulthood an exciting new challenge for which you feel fully prepared?

Ugh. Please go away.

This book is for the rest of us. These comics document the wasting of entire beautiful weekends on the internet, the unbearable agony of holding hands on the street with a gorgeous guy, dreaming all day of getting home and back into pyjamas, and wondering when, exactly, this adulthood thing begins. In other words, the horrors and awkwardness of young modern life.

Review:
I've seen and shared this artist's work on social media many times, so of course I picked up this volume. The content here in my opinion is going to appeal mainly to older millennials who tend towards introversion with a slight dose of social anxiety; I don't think boomers or even some Gen Xers would really get this style of humour. The former describes me quite well, so I thought this was hilarious. The art style is simple and quirky, so it works with the atmosphere and tone the artist is going for. The topics range from the bottomless pits that are women's purses, procrastination, the pros and cons of lacy bras, being in the zone while listening to music, insights into the introvert mind, and my personal favourite: the personification of a woman's uterus (I find the period comics insanely amusing).


Recommendation:
You've got to pick this up, especially if you're in your 20s and 30s and sometimes feel like you can't adult today...or most days. The artist has a second collection that just released back in March, so there is another one out there to satisfy readers. I almost want the artist to do a series of comics about parenthood so I can laugh about my insecurities as a mom as well as an adult in general.

Thoughts on the cover:
Simple and quirky, just like the comics themselves. You can't tell from a flat image, but the title font and the sweater details both have velvet flocking on them, which is a nice touch. 


Tuesday, May 2, 2017

We Are Okay - Nina LaCour

Title: We Are Okay
Author: Nina LaCour
Publisher: Dutton Books (Penguin), 2017 (Hardcover)
Length: 234 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Realistic Fiction
Started: April 24, 2017
Finished: May 2, 2017

Summary:
From the inside cover:

You go through life thinking there's so much you need...until you leave with only your phone, your wallet, and a picture of your mother. 

Marin hasn't spoken to anyone from her old life since the day she left everything behind. No one knows the truth about those final weeks. Not even her best friend, Mabel. But even thousands of miles away from the California coast, at college in New York, Marin still feels the pull of the life and tragedy she's tried to outrun. Now, months later, alone in an emptied dorm for winter break, Marin waits. Mabel is coming to visit, and Marin will be force to face everything that's been left unsaid and finally confront the loneliness that has made a home in her heart.

An intimate whisper that packs an indelible punch, We Are Okay is Nina LaCour at her finest. This gorgeously crafted and achingly honest portrayal of grief will leave you urgent to reach across any distance with the people you love.

Review:
This book has been on many "must-read" lists recently, and once you start reading it's fairly obvious why. The writing is simple yet gorgeous, and the subject matter is raw and touching.

Marin's grandfather died a few weeks before she was supposed to leave her California home for college in New York. Already an orphan since her mother died when she was three, Marin feels even more lost than before. She lives, but barely, going through the motions so that she doesn't have to face  her feelings regarding the circumstances of her grandfather's death. It doesn't help that Marin left without a word, taking barely anything with her. Months later during winter break, Mabel comes to visit to encourage Marin to come home to live with her and her family permanently, but Marin just isn't ready to move forward yet. That would mean coming to terms with feelings she isn't sure how to process.

Nothing much happens in the book in terms of plot. Marin describes her mundane routines, the girls reminisce while cooking dinner in an empty dorm, they wait out a power outage, etc.  The emotional impact on the other hand is immense. Between this monotony of tasks there are flashbacks of the months when school ended up until her grandfather died, where relationships are revealed and Marin's current behaviour suddenly makes a whole lot of sense. There isn't a lot going on plot-wise, and I can see some readers being turned off enough due to boredom. But if you're willing to stick to it, you'll get a lovely emotional portrayal of grief and relationships that's worth the effort.

Recommendation: 
Beautiful writing and a heartfelt story if you're the type that can get through a book focused more on emotional development than traditional plot.

Thoughts on the cover:
I adore this cover. Not only are the colours appealing, but the layering of images (Marin in her dorm in pink, the beach scene in the background in blue, and the snow in white) creates a nice, yet unsettling display.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

The Hate U Give - Angie Thomas

Title: The Hate U Give
Author: Angie Thomas
Publisher: Balzer + Bray (HarperCollins), 2017 (Hardcover)
Length: 444 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Realistic Fiction
Started: April 19, 2017
Finished: April 23, 2017

Summary:
From the inside cover:

Sixteen-year-old Starr Carter moves between two worlds: the poor black neighbourhood where she lives and the fancy suburban prep school she attends. The uneasy balance between these worlds is shattered when Starr witnesses the fatal shooting of her childhood best friend, Khalil, at the hands of a police officer. Khalil was unarmed.

Soon afterward, Khalil's death is a national headline. Some are calling him a a thug, maybe even a drug dealer and a gang banger. Starr's best friend at school suggests he may have had it coming. When it becomes clear the police have little interest in investigating the incident, protestors take to the streets and Starr's neighbourhood becomes a war zone. What everyone wants to know is: What really went down that night? And the only person alive who can answer that is Starr.

But what Starr does - or does not - say could destroy her community. It could also endanger her life.

Angie Thomas' searing debut about an ordinary girl in extraordinary circumstances addresses issues of racism and police violence with intelligence, heart, and unflinching honesty.

Review:
This book had so much hype leading up to its release, but unlike other books that receive similar pre-publication buzz, I had a feeling this book would completely live up to it. I wasn't wrong. This book is completely deserving of all the accolades it receives and more. I was recommending it to my students last week while I was reading it.

I am so happy that this book exists. This story is not only timely, but also incredibly powerful.

I also think everyone (yes, everyone) should read this book. Especially if you're white or otherwise privileged. Yes, I went there.

When Starr was ten, she witnessed her friend Natasha's murder during a drive-by shooting. That was the impetus for her mother Lisa and father Maverick to send all three of their children to a suburban school an hour away in her Uncle Carlos' neighbourhood, not only for a better education, but for a safer environment. Starr, and her brothers Seven and Sekani, learn to forever switch between two personas: their more polished, well-spoken selves they present at school, and their more relaxed authentic selves when at home in Garden Heights. Starr hates that she needs to do this, but she knows if she slips up at school, she'll be seen as the poor scholarship student from the ghetto who doesn't know how to act properly. Not only that, she'll jeopardize her relationships with her white friends and boyfriend and her chance at a better future that her parents worked so hard to obtain.

Amidst all this, Starr witnesses her childhood friend Khalil's murder at the hands of a cop. Not only does Starr have to testify to the police and the DA, but she also tries to hold things together at school, vowing not to let on that the "witness" mentioned in the case that's now made national headlines is actually her. The media and the offending police officer makes Khalil out to be a thug and a drug dealer (and all the kids at her school believe it), but Starr knows the whole story behind who Khalil really was, and is determined to not let his voice be forever silenced.

This book shows readers a type of life some of us can't even imagine. Whereas some children are taught that police officers are ones to seek out if they need help, Starr and her brothers are taught to not make any sudden movements in the presence of police and to keep their hands visible at all times.  Where some kids are made to recite religious creeds or prayers, Starr and her brothers are raised on the Black Panther's Ten-Point Program. There's actually a really touching scene in the book where Maverick makes Starr repeat a few of the relevant points when she wants to back out of testifying due to threats made against her family. A lot of people out there have trouble understanding what white privilege really is; this book is like a crash course in it (Maverick's conversation with Starr on pages 167-171 sums it up nicely).

The author not only manages to make an authentic, honest novel based on the Black Lives Matter movement, she also doesn't make it preachy. She subtly weaves threads of community and family together till readers realize that this is the other side of the news stories. You don't see the guilt the survivors feel. You don't see the lack of choices that led people to their present actions. You don't see the nightmares. You don't feel the fear of the riots right outside your house. You don't feel the slight of racist comments that people shrug off as a joke. You don't have to watch your every word and movement for fear you won't be taken seriously otherwise. This book reminds me why we make kids read books to begin with: not just to learn, but to gain new perspectives and empathy.

Starr is an incredible character. She's a realistic teenager thrust into circumstances most of us can't even fathom, and even though she's scared out of her mind, with the support of her family she does the right thing for herself and those around her. All the secondary characters were nicely developed as well; I loved Seven and his unique situation and the perspective he brings to Starr's family, and Chris was nicely written as well as he tries to really understand Starr's perspective. I adored the family portrayal, it was incredibly loving and realistic. Lisa and Maverick fight, but they resolve conflict in healthy ways and still love each other to death. There's a scene where Starr calls them her OTP and says she looks to them as a role model for what she wants in relationships (that's right parents, the kids are watching us). Starr's parents know their kids and what they need, and ultimately make some hard decisions that conflict with what they initially want for themselves.

The book is bittersweet, mixing serious tragedy with humour (like the numerous Fresh Prince references) and ends on a realistic yet hopeful note. In terms of the writing style, I'm not sure if I imagined this, but the writing subtly changes when Starr is in Garden Heights versus at school in the suburbs, it was a nice reinforcement to the dual persona idea that Starr grapples with.

Recommendation:
Everyone needs to read this. I'll even go so far as to say this should be required reading (heck, we can use it to complement To Kill a Mockingbird in terms of themes). Just go read this, you won't be disappointed.

Thoughts on the cover:
I love the simple white background with Starr front and centre (I love the detail on her shoes, nice touch from the book). The title font is written in such a way that it spells out THUG, which of course references Tupac Shakur/2Pac nicely.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Giant Days - John Allison, Lissa Treiman, and Whitney Cogar

Title: Giant Days Volume 1
Author: John Allison, Lissa Treiman, and Whitney Cogar
Publisher: Boom! Box, 2016 (Paperback)
Length: 128 pages
Genre: Young Adult/Adult; Realistic Fiction, Graphic Novel
Started: April 18, 2017
Finished: April 18, 2017

Summary:
From the back cover:

Susan, Esther, and Daisy started university three weeks ago and became fast friends. Now, away from home for the first time, all three want to reinvent themselves. But in the face of hand-wringing boys, "personal experimentation," influenza, mystery-mold, nu-chauvinism, and the willful, unwanted intrusion of "academia," they may be lucky just to make it to spring alive. Going off to university is always a time of change and growth, but for Esther, Susan, and Daisy, things are about to get a little weird.

Review:
This is by the same publishing company that releases Lumberjanes, so I'll be honest, I picked this up on that fact alone. And I wasn't disappointed.

Esther is a goth with a sarcastic sense of humour, Daisy is a sheltered girl who was previously homeschooled, and Susan is a bit jaded. All three are first-years at a university in Britain and get along swimmingly. The girls weather their first away-from-home encounters with being sick, dealing with chauvinistic boys, when pieces of the past come back to haunt them, and just navigating university life. Like Lumberjanes this series has a similar sense of humour, diversity in many areas, and passes the Bechdel Test (yay for female presence in comics!).

Recommendation:
Definitely worth a read if you're a fan of Lumberjanes or any of the other Boom! Box titles.

Thoughts on the cover:
I like this candid shot of Esther, especially against the yellow background.