Annie Metcalf

Bree, a middle school math enthusiast, has just moved to Palmetto Shores, Florida, with her dad so he can attend a technology training program. Bree’s friendship with her new neighbor Clara helps alleviate the nerves of attending a new school, but disaster strikes on the first day of classes: Nearly every elective, including the math puzzles course Bree had looked forward to, is full. Bree’s only option is Swim 101. The problem? Bree is scared of pools and doesn’t know how to swim.

It turns out that Palmetto Shores is utterly obsessed with swimming, from the fancy prep school that always wins the state championship, to the diner whose menu is full of pool puns (“Sea Biscuits,” “Orca Julius”), to Bree’s own Enith Brigitha Middle School, named after the woman who became the first Black athlete to win an Olympic medal in swimming. Bree’s new friends, Clara and Humberto, along with her neighbor Miss Etta, convince Bree to face her fears and learn to swim. When Bree turns out to have a natural talent for racing, she joins the swim team with Clara and begins to embrace the water, developing a passion for the way competing makes her feel. But faced with stiff competition from Holyoke Prep, mounting tension among the team and a busy schedule that prevents Bree’s dad from attending meets, Bree’s newfound love of swimming may fizzle as quickly as it sparked.

Featuring a countdown-to-competition plot, well-developed and relatable characters and expressive, inviting art, Swim Team delivers an energetic, heartfelt look at an exciting sport, as well as crucial context about its history. As Bree learns, racism and segregation directly impacted Black people’s access to public pools. Although this meant many Black people were denied the opportunity to learn to swim, it also created a stereotype—voiced by Bree herself at one point— that “Black people aren’t good at swimming.” While Swim Team includes a few minor inaccuracies that may be distracting to readers who swim competitively, its depiction of swimming’s joys and challenges is spot on.

Swimming is only part of the story. Author-illustrator Johnnie Christmas, best known for illustrating Margaret Atwood’s Angel Catbird graphic novels, creates an affectionate portrait of Bree and her friends, a group of kids who love their sport, long to win and get up to some funny hijinks along the way. Christmas conveys the enthusiasm that Bree and her teammates have for working hard, improving their abilities and supporting one another, excellently portraying the way that sports can serve as channels for personal growth and lasting relationships.

Swim Team captures the fun of an athletic endeavor that can—and should—be enjoyed by everyone.

This energetic, heartfelt graphic novel captures the joys and challenges of a sport that should be—but hasn’t always been—freely enjoyed by everyone.

A group of teenagers must survive an interstellar disaster in Alone Out Here, a blistering standalone science fiction novel.

Leigh Chen, first daughter of the United States, is fortunate to have a spot on the Lazarus, one of several huge spacecrafts that will evacuate some of Earth’s population before a volcanic eruption renders the planet uninhabitable. Leigh and many of the Lazarus’ other young passengers are touring the ship when disaster strikes, forcing them to launch much earlier than planned.

It soon becomes clear that the Lazarus wasn’t fully prepared for the journey, and there are no adults on board. Attempts to communicate with anyone else in orbit or on Earth fail, and the truth sinks in: Leigh and a group of survivors are completely alone with no planet to return to, no viable destination in sight and only enough supplies to last a few months.

Leigh emerges as one of the leaders who start to cobble together a survival plan, as does Eli, whose mother would have been the ship’s pilot. Through Leigh’s methodical mindset, author Riley Redgate excellently establishes the enormity of the crisis. Everyone must begin training as pilots, mechanics, scientists or doctors to gain even a slim hope of success, let alone live long enough to create and educate future generations.

But what is lost amid this overwhelming focus on the future? Some aboard the Lazarus find it easier to leave the past behind than others, and Leigh tries to keep the peace between conflicting sides of a growing divide. As Eli’s decisions raise ethical concerns, Leigh questions her own neutrality and whether her skill for seeing both sides is preventing her from developing opinions of her own. Can Leigh discover what she stands for in time to save the crew—and her soul?

On the surface, Alone Out Here is an enjoyable sci-fi tale with many familiar elements, including a ticking-clock survival plot, plausibly futuristic technology, a lovely slow-burn romance and a cast of interesting, complex and diverse characters.

But what makes Alone Out Here compelling, even haunting, is Redgate’s fearless exploration of the deeper moral questions prompted by her plot’s high stakes: What is survival without memory? What if the cost of saving humanity was everything that makes us human? The result is a far more intense and emotional experience than readers may expect from the book’s premise, but it’s also a rewarding one for readers with the courage to ride along.

Riley Redgate’s Alone Out Here is a haunting sci-fi tale that fearlessly explores the moral questions prompted by its high-stakes plot.

Miuko lives with her father, an innkeeper, in a quiet village in the realm of Awara, a place where women must abide by many rules and expectations. Miuko tries hard, but she’s clumsy, loud and opinionated—all of which violate how a respectable Awaran woman should behave.

While running an errand one evening, Miuko finds herself on the road during the verge hour, the time each day when the veil between the mortal and spirit worlds is thinnest. There, she is cursed by a demon and begins to transform into a demon herself. When the curse is discovered by the village priests and her father, Miuko must flee, setting off on a quest to reverse the curse.

Aided by a mischievous magpie spirit who can take the form of a boy and a quirky cast of supporting characters, both human and nonhuman, Miuko doggedly seeks to preserve her humanity and evade a vengeance demon bent on using Miuko’s budding powers for his own destructive ends. But as her journey continues, Miuko finds that there are benefits to the power, strength and autonomy that demonhood offers. Will she be able to keep herself and her new friends safe from harm while maintaining a grasp on her humanity? And if Miuko does manage to break the curse, will her old life—with all its restrictions—be enough for her? 

National Book Award finalist Traci Chee’s A Thousand Steps Into Night is an enthralling fantasy adventure that draws deeply on Japanese mythology and spirituality. With surrealism and charm reminiscent of Studio Ghibli films, the story unfolds in short chapters that are more sequential and interconnected than vignettes, but with demarcations that make each beat feel like a small folktale of its own. 

As she travels, Miuko crosses paths with the spirits of clouds, trees, monkeys and more, and these spirits help and hinder her in often unexpected ways. Although the spirit world can be frightening, many of Miuko’s most dangerous and upsetting scrapes result from interactions with the human world and its vengefulness, fearfulness and bigotry. But Miuko rallies delightful companions to her side, and they show her loyalty, compassion, bravery and kindness in the face of what seems like a hopeless fate. 

Filled with moments of sweet humor, gruesome realism and mystical excitement, A Thousand Steps Into Night is dreamy and thrilling. Teen readers will find its themes of discovering independence, building community and creating change inspiring. 

Traci Chee’s A Thousand Steps Into Night is an enthralling fantasy adventure whose surrealism and charm is reminiscent of Studio Ghibli films.

In the city of Setar, the capital of the kingdom of Ardunia, Alizeh works her fingers to the bone all day cleaning the 116-rooms of Baz House, a noble estate. At night, she works on commissions as she tries to establish herself as a seamstress. She can only survive this exhausting schedule because of her supernatural strength and endurance. Alizeh is Jinn, and while Jinn and humans have coexisted for many years, Jinn are considered untrustworthy and are not allowed to openly use their magic.

Even among Jinn, Alizeh is extraordinary, with more reason than most to put up with the abuses of life among the servant class. She has been on the run since the death of her parents, and a noble house with a large staff and plentiful security is the perfect place to hide. Yet there are parts of Alizeh’s story that are unknown even to her.

Kamran, crown prince of Ardunia, is destined to succeed his grandfather as king. On a visit home from his military duties, Kamran notices a strange interaction between a street urchin and a servant girl, and fears the servant girl may be a spy from the rival kingdom of Tulan. His suspicions set in motion a series of events he cannot control as Alizeh becomes a wanted woman who is believed to be a significant threat to the king. Kamran’s conflicting principles—loyalty to his king and conviction that Alizeh is not a danger—draw him down a path to find out the truth for himself.

A retelling of “Cinderella” complete with an aspiring seamstress on a crash course toward a fateful royal ball, This Woven Kingdom masterfully incorporates influences from Persian and Muslim history, culture and mythology. Exceedingly powerful but not invulnerable, the novel’s Jinn are an intriguing addition to the YA canon of such figures. Setar is vibrantly evoked, and its wintry climate and snowy landscape set it apart from books with similar plots and themes.

The novel’s standout feature is its language. This Woven Kingdom is a fairy-tale retelling that actually sounds like a fairy tale: Its characters speak like they’re in one, using formal tones and sophisticated vocabularies. That is not to say the novel is devoid of levity. Indeed, the grandiosity of Alizeh and Kamran’s banter adds to the intoxicating sense of wonder and flirtation that marks their interactions.

Tightly paced, with a rollicking set of twists and revelations and a chaotic climax that leads straight to a whopping cliffhanger of an ending, This Woven Kingdom is an exceptional fantasy that blends its various influences to addictive effect.

Tahereh Mafi masterfully incorporates Persian and Muslim influences into this exceptional, addictive “Cinderella” retelling.

In Loraille, the Dead are dangerous. If they’re not interred with the proper rites, dead souls can return in the form of spirits, ranging from harmless shades to rare and apocalyptically powerful Revenants. People blessed with the Sight can be possessed by the risen Dead, so Sighted children are brought into convents or monasteries to receive training.

At the Gray Sisters convent, Artemisia is different from many of her peers. She spent much of her childhood possessed by a violent spirit before the nuns found her. Now Artemisia has trouble connecting with others and no strong desire to try. She just wants a quiet life, performing rites and interacting with as few people as possible.

But lately, the Dead have been behaving more aggressively than they have in years, and the convent is unsettled by a harrowing attack. Amid the chaos, Artemisia is sent to fetch the convent’s most powerful relic, which contains a trapped Revenant. When the nun in charge of the relic dies, Artemisia must wield it to defend both the convent and herself against the onslaught. With no training in controlling the Revenant, however, she must rely on her natural ability and instinct to forge a tenuous and potentially heretical alliance with an unconventional, maddening spirit—an alliance that could be the only path to salvation.

Author Margaret Rogerson excels at creating fantasy worlds that feel lived in. In Vespertine, she draws on familiar influences, including medieval France, necromantic magic and a theocratic society, so that readers can fully engage in the world of the novel from the very first page. The book is remarkably psychologically grounded as well, unfolding in a first-person narrative that keeps readers close to Artemisia’s thoughts and her conversations with the Revenant. It’s a nuanced depiction of a protagonist who has been shaped by trauma and who seems, at times, neurodivergent. Artemisia’s intimate narration differentiates her journey in Vespertine from typical “chosen one” tropes and endears her to the reader.

Rogerson clearly delights in the gruesome and the grotesque, meting out choice details about horrifying spirits and unsavory causes of death. A few supporting characters (somewhat predictably to experienced fantasy readers) defy expectations and prove heroic in their own right. Vespertine blends darkness, thrills and satisfying characterization for an engrossing fantasy tale.

Vespertine blends darkness, thrills and satisfying characterization for an engrossing fantasy tale.

In 1893 Chicago, Alter Rosen lives on Maxwell Street, a neighborhood populated by Jewish immigrants like himself who have recently arrived from Russia and Eastern Europe. Alter’s life is difficult. He feels lucky to have found a job at a Yiddish newspaper when so many must work in dangerous slaughterhouses and textile mills. Alter works hard and saves as much money as possible to pay for his mother and sisters to join him in America. It’s a task he must undertake alone, after his father died during their own voyage two years ago. Alter must also keep his feelings toward other boys, especially his friend and roommate, Yakov, to himself. 

There are new tensions in the neighborhood to deal with as well. Despite the excitement over the World’s Fair, a series of disappearances—all teenage, Jewish boys—have troubled Alter’s community. When Yakov is found dead, the police declare it an accident and show no interest in investigating further. As Alter assists in the ritual cleansing of Yakov’s body, something strange happens: Alter becomes convinced Yakov is alive, feels their souls cleave together and then passes out. When he awakens, he feels changed by the experience, convinced that Yakov was murdered and determined to find answers. 

With help from Raizel Ackermann, a passionate anarchist and reporter for the Arbeiter Zeitung newspaper, Alter tracks down leads about Yakov and the other missing boys. His search reconnects him with Frankie, a charismatic criminal he knew during his early days in Chicago. Working together, the three race against time to uncover heinous crimes of abuse, coercion, corruption and hatred committed against the backdrop of the Gilded Age’s grand ambitions and gory underbelly. 

Author Aden Polydoros’ third traditionally published novel is a gorgeous, disturbing, visceral and mystical experience. Alter is an exemplary historical fiction protagonist. His perspective, opinions and concerns are fitting reflections of his time, religion and cultural background, but his journey of growth and self-acceptance will satisfy contemporary readers. The inclusion of a subplot drawn from Jewish folklore complements the primary narrative perfectly and adds a clever ticking clock to the story, and though the novel is long, it rarely loses momentum. The relationships between Alter, Raizel and Frankie are tender and playful and provide brightness amid an otherwise dark story.

The City Beautiful is steeped in vibrant historical detail, including the exhilarating but superficial atmosphere of the World’s Fair, the vile working conditions of the meat industry, the burgeoning socialist and workers’ movements and the era’s wave of Jewish immigration to America. Polydoros pulls no punches when depicting the horrifically inhuman treatment that workers (many of whom were children) experienced during this time, which some readers may find distressing. His unflinching and well-rounded depiction of Jewish American and immigrant history makes The City Beautiful a superb addition to the ranks of YA historical fiction. 

Author Aden Polydoros’ third traditionally published novel is a gorgeous, disturbing, visceral and mystical experience.

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