Sam O.'s blog

The Inquisitor's Tale by Adam Gidwitz

Gidwitz tackles a slice of medieval history in the style of The Canterbury Tales and much of the book is narrated by various individuals being interviewed in a local inn. This story follows a young peasant girl with prophetic visions, a young monk with supernatural strength, and a young Jewish villager who can heal any wound (as well as the aforementioned Holy Dog). Gidwitz mainly focuses on their adventures during the first half of the story, how they got into their current predicament, how they met one another, and the enemies they conquer (such as a dragon, who, due to an unfortunate intestinal issue, breathes fire out of the wrong end). However, this story also covers serious topics within its pages, such as how can three children and a dog stop a book burning, deal with intolerance and discrimination because of who they are, or avoid members of the Inquisition?

The Big Bad Bubble by Adam Rubin

Everyone knows that monsters are scary, but what scares a monster? Bubbles that’s what! Rubin’s picture book humorously depicts monsters dealing with their own problems when the bubbles invade. One monster, after a bad bubble experience, is convinced all bubbles are scary and out to get all monsters. This monster creates a panic in the monster world, which will be unendingly funny to young readers, as these big monsters run, hide, cower, and otherwise embarrass themselves trying to flee the bubbles. Eventually, the monsters are able to gather their courage and learn that the bubbles are not as scary as they once thought, and in fact, can be fun.

The Wild Robot by Peter Brown

Peter Brown’s foray into middle-grade literature, The Wild Robot is a heartwarming story about a robot stranded on an island only populated by animals. Our heroine, the robot Roz, must learn how to survive on the island and how to coexist with the variety of animals who already inhabit the island. Roz is programmed to learn and adapt to her surroundings and eventually she learns how to communicate with the animals. After disguising herself as a bush, a boulder, or flower patch, and eventually earns their trust. Roz also has to learn how to be a parent after an unfortunate accident. The novel traces this growth and how Roz and the animals are able to work together and overcome challenges that none of them could have completed alone. This story touches on collaboration, compassion, creativity, and some of the deepest, and best, parts of human (and animal) nature.

The Journey by Francesca Sanna

The Journey by Francesca Sanna is the culmination of interviews the author collected at a refugee camp and is their combined story. This beautifully illustrated book tells the tale of one family as they are forced to flee their home and travel through forests, wade rivers, clamber over walls, and sail across the sea to find a safe place to live. The illustrations are surreal and mysterious, balancing the reader between both the real and the fantastic. While the illustrations are breathtakingly beautiful, the content is scary, inspiring, heartbreaking, and remains precipitously balanced between hope and fear. Pairing the two in this manner allows Sanna to delve into a difficult topic, without becoming too dark for the young readers it is meant to reach. Overall, Sanna offers no answers, she has merely opened a door, and leaves the floor open for conversation and imagination.

Shadow Magic by Joshua Khan

If you, dear reader, are ready for a scary, mysterious, and grim fantasy story about magic, necromancers, assassins, and enormous bats, Shadow Magic is the story for you. It manages to alter the traditional dichotomy of good and evil so often present in the fantasy genre, creating a deeply compelling and entertaining tale. Khan’s approach shifts and subverts expectations in delightful ways, illustrating that things are not, and should not be, as they seem. Because while the setting for the story is a land of sorcery, ghouls, zombies, ghosts and all of the traditional ‘dark’ magic, it is also a place of deep tradition, belief, and love. Children who like fantasy, scary stories, horror, zombies, and mystery will feel right at home in this spooky and fun story. Suggested for ages 10 and up.

The narrative weaves together the stories of Thorn, a boy far from home looking for his father, and Lilith Shadow, a young princess called upon to rule far too young. The perspectives and narrative style bounce between these two characters, showcasing the challenges and growth they undergo. Lilith begins as the ruler of Ghenna after the tragic death of her family and Thorn’s story starts when he is sold to Tyburn, Ghenna’s executioner, and taken to live in Ghenna at the palace and train as a squire. After an assassination attempt on Lilith, she and Thorn are thrown together, becoming friends. They dig into the mysteries of the castle, trace rumors about a necromancer of incredible power, discover why Lilith is forbidden from studying magic, and try to track down the would-be poisoner and Thorn’s father. Along the way, they make friends in surprising places, find a gigantic, carnivorous bat named Hades, and uncover shocking secrets about their families.

An exciting read that carves out a unique spot in the middle-grade fantasy genre, Shadow Magic should not be missed. The story utilizes a dark tone and many gothic tropes, so the reader feels as though they are living in a permanent Halloween world. While this could easily become too tense, Khan’s writing style and tone keep the dark moments of the story from becoming overwhelming, while not short-changing their impact. The occasional illustrations in the book also add to the effect, lending form to many of the tales more unnerving aspects. Overall, a fun romp through a delightfully dark fantasy world.

Rat Queen, Vol. 1: Sass and Sorcery by Kurtis Wiebe

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before, a dwarf, an elf, a smidgen, and a wizard start a fight in a tavern… no, well, that is how the saga of the mercenary band known as Rat Queens begins. As the title suggests, there is plenty of humor and magic throughout this volume, but the story does not shy from mature themes and there are frequent bouts of intense violence. Rat Queens also flows as though the reader is playing through a classic D&D campaign, and while this could be seen as a hindrance, in fact this allows the story to soar. Wiebe has managed to capture the essence of a D&D campaign and turn it into a rollickingly fun graphic novel. Suggested for mature readers who enjoy D&D and fantasy stories.

After a rather energetic disagreement in a local inn, all of the mercenary bands in the city of Palisade, including the Rat Queens, are assigned a quest as a form of ‘community service.’ What none of them know is that there is a group of assassins waiting for them at their destination. After narrowly surviving this attempt on their lives, and an unexpected (as well as brutal) battle with a troll, the Rat Queens have to figure out who wants to kill them and why. This mystery drives the story and as the unidentified forces opposing the Rat Queens coalesce, readers will be rewarded with an epic showdown.

A fun and novel take on a classic genre, Rat Queens is a brutal romp through a world fantasy readers will find instantly recognizable. Populated with a crew of tough-as-nails, diverse women and driven by excellent storytelling and gorgeous art, Rat Queens: Sass and Sorcery is a story that should not be missed.

Pretty Deadly Vol. 1: The Shrike by Kelly Sue DeConnick

Set within a fantastical Old West world, Pretty Deadly opens with the legend of Death Faced Ginny, Death’s skull-faced daughter, and her quest for vengeance, as told by the young girl Sissy and her blind guardian Fox. However, there is more to the tale than is initially revealed, and as Sissy begins to dig deeper into Ginny’s legend, she triggers a long-simmering prophecy and quest that will shatter everything she thought she knew. While the story does have a slow beginning, the pace and scope increase throughout, revealing secrets, legends, and history that continually heighten the reader’s suspense and investment.

Overall, Pretty Deadly is a maelstrom of storytelling and imagination that will stick with readers long after the final page. This tale deftly weaves together many storytelling traditions that are not often part of graphic novels and emerges the stronger for it. The colors and artwork are perfectly suited to the story and evoke a surreal, yet viscerally real canvas for the story to play out upon. A violent and beautiful epic that is equal parts myth, fantasy, and fairy tale, all swirling together to create a haunting and unforgettable story. Suggested for mature readers who enjoy fractured fairy/folktales, fantasy, westerns, and adventure.

Princeless Volume 1: Save Yourself

Dragons, princesses, and adventure oh my! Welcome to Princeless: Save Yourself by Jeremy Whitley, in which damsels are very much not in distress, but rather rescue themselves, shattering gender stereotypes and poking fun at genre tropes throughout. Whitley has created a smart, incisive, and shockingly funny story that cuts deeply at the traditional conventions of fairy tales and fantasy. Whitley also manages to combat the whitewashing of the fantasy genre in this story as well, telling a diverse adventure tale involving characters of multiple ethnicities. While many stories would be bogged down by all of this stereotype smashing, Whitley’s story soars, enthralling the reader and creating a dynamic story in the vein of Brave and Frozen that will appeal to both male and female readers. While there are instances of mild peril and brief bouts of comic violence, overall this story is one that will delight most readers. Suggested for children ages 9 and up who enjoy fantasy, fairy tales, humor, adventure, and characters who save themselves.

Our story begins, when the heroine, Princess Adrienne Ashe, decides she is tired of waiting to be rescued from her tower by a prince and convinces the dragon guarding her to aide in her escape. Once free, she decides to go on a quest in order to rescue her sisters, who have been squirreled away in towers of their own, accompanied by monstrous guardians. This drive fuels the story, and the subsequent three volumes in the series, but there are many other adventures and mysteries along the way. As our young heroine works toward her goal, she makes friends with a young dwarf blacksmith, Bedelia, who forges her an actually effective suit of armor (after much debate about what counts as armor), and begins to establish a reputation as a warrior. Ever-present in the story though, are the machinations of her father, King Ashe, as he plays his own game and works to track the runaway princess down.

Overall, an outstanding story that blends fantasy, fun, and adventure together into a delightful whole. The colors work together to create a vibrant story and the semi-cartoonish style keeps potentially tense moments light and adds additional humor to already comedic moments. As Comics Alliance said in their review, this is “… the story Disney should’ve been telling for the past twenty years” and one can only hope that Whitley keeps producing these exceptional stories and showing that women can be adventurers, have pet dragons, defy stereotypes, and save themselves.

Awkward by Svetlana Chmakova

Fans of Sisters, Roller Girl, and El Deafo will feel right at home in this story. A coming-of-age tale that deals realistically with bullying, anxiety, school drama, friendship, and forgiveness is hard to find, yet somehow Awkward author Svetlana Chmakova manages just that. This story grapples with the real trials that children face in school and avoids offering easy answers, but instead tackles overcoming anxiety to make friends, find forgiveness, and build bridges. These heavy issues are all balanced by a strong current of drama and humor throughout the story that will keep readers flying through the pages, eager to know what happens next. Suggested for children ages 9 and up who enjoy realistic stories about school.

The story begins with our heroine, Peppi, falling prey to social pressure on her first day of school and participating in the bullying of a fellow student, Jaime. The rest of the story is in many ways driven by her desire to find forgiveness and make things right. As the story progresses throughout the school year, we watch Peppi try to reach out to Jaime and the ways in which anxiety and the social structures of school create barriers to this action. Additionally, anxious and shy Peppi is heavily involved in the art club, while introverted Jaime is in the science club and the competition between the two clubs for a spot in the school fair forms an ever-present backdrop for the story. As these two characters find common ground with one another, their clubs seem to grow farther apart, creating issues not only for them, but also the school. Trying to balance these many issues and still have a good year in school would be hard for anyone, and watching these characters grapple with them is the crux of the story.

The artistic style is strongly reminiscent of anime and the colors create a hazy, dreamlike quality that helps draw readers into the story. Chmakova’s story tackles how it feels to be introverted and anxious, but she is also tackling the issue of separation between science/math and the arts and how this creates a false dichotomy that does not fully embrace the skills and interests of students. Overall, it is amazing for how many issues Chmakova manages to bring to light and it should not be missed, a truly excellent school story for the introvert in us all.

Red's Planet by Eddie Pittman

Fans of Zita the Space Girl will feel right at home in this charming graphic novel. While the bulk of the story takes place in space, featuring aliens, strange planets, and the loss of shoes, it is fundamentally a story about belonging and identity. While there are some scenes of peril that might be too much for more sensitive readers, this graphic novel tells an accessible and interesting story that will appeal to children ages 8 – 12 who enjoy action, adventure, and science fiction.

The story begins with our unnamed heroine, known only as Red, running away from her foster family only to be picked up by the police. However, before the police can take her home they are involved in a high-speed chase with a spaceship. Red ends up being mistakenly kidnapped and taken across the universe. There, she ends up in an auction hosted by an ancient creature known as the Aquilari, who collects rare and valuable artifacts from across the universe, but before the reader can learn more the ship is attacked by space pirates and crashes onto a planet nobody, not even the aliens, is familiar with. On this seemingly desolate desert planet, Red must learn to bond with her traveling companions, avoid the tiny, disproportionately hungry wildlife, and find a way to survive.

Funny and disarming, this story is a lighthearted romp through space. The colors and illustrations are vivid and dynamic, drawing the reader through the story. Pittman has an eye for color and knows how to use the art to enhance and provide comic relief for his text. While the plotting does need to be evened out for the sequel and there are several moments where the story seems to lag, overall Pittman has crafted a story that engages readers and leaves them eager to know what happens next for our stranded heroine.

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