Emily Koch

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Anya is about to become a Moth Keeper, a guardian tasked with protecting the Moon-Moths. According to the lore in Anya’s desert village, the moths were a gift from the Moon-Spirit, who wished to show her gratitude for the villagers’ choice to forswear daylight. Instead, they live their waking hours at night so the Moon-Spirit doesn’t have to be alone. Every year, the luminous Moon-Moths pollinate the Night-Flower tree, which the village relies on to thrive.

At first, Anya is convinced that caring for the moths will keep her “warm inside even on long, cold nights,” but the temptation of daylight chips away at her resolve. When the solitude and darkness become too much, Anya makes a decision with consequences that ripple across the desert and history itself. In The Moth Keeper, Eisner Award-winning graphic novelist K. O’Neill portrays how isolation can break even the strongest will, but a supportive community can mend all rifts.

O’Neill (The Tea Dragon Society, Aquicorn Cove) has established themself as a phenomenal graphic novel creator for middle grade audiences. Their work often explores themes of community and the natural world, and The Moth Keeper is no exception. In one scene, Anya’s friend Estell tells her about the essential role that the Night-Flower tree’s pollen plays in the desert: “That’s the magic of it—it’s part of the rhythm of nature. Everything is connected.” 

In their signature style, O’Neill’s soft, gentle artwork invites readers into a fantasy world dominated by every shade of blue and yellow. O’Neill plays subtly with graphics conventions to great effect. By eliminating the gutter when folktales are being told, for instance, they convey the larger-than-life significance of the stories to the village’s culture. Similarly, double-page spreads of the vast, rolling desert landscape capture “the smallness one feels standing amid such scenery,” as O’Neill explains in an afterword.

O’Neill’s books have a singular quality that makes them difficult to compare to anyone else’s work, aside from their own. Although its world building isn’t quite as rich as in the Tea Dragon series and the character development not as deep as in Aquicorn Cove, The Moth Keeper is still a charming story that will delight O’Neill’s fans and new readers alike, drawing them in like Moon-Moths to a lantern. 

This standalone graphic fantasy from Eisner Award winner K. O’Neill will delight fans and new readers alike, drawing them in like moths to a lantern.
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Nichole “Nic” Blake and her father, Calvin, have moved 10 times in as many years. In Jackson, Mississippi, Nic has finally managed to make a friend, JP, by bonding over their shared love of the bestselling Stevie James fantasy book series, but there’s one thing Nic must hide from her friend. She and her father are Remarkables, born with a Gift that’s “more powerful than magic,” and this is the year that Nic’s father has promised to teach her how to use it, so long as she keeps it a secret from Unremarkables like JP. But when Nic’s 12th birthday arrives, Calvin instead gives her a hellhound puppy and the same old promise: “Next year.”

Nic’s world turns upside down at a Stevie James book signing when the series’ author, TJ Retro, reveals to her that the books are actually based on his childhood, with two characters inspired by Nic’s parents. The revelation sets off a chain of events that leads to Calvin making a number of his own confessions, including that he’s actually been on the run for the past decade. Nic, JP and a newly revealed relative are thrown into a quest for an immensely powerful weapon called the Msaidizi that offers the only way to clear Calvin’s name.

Award-winning, bestselling YA author Angie Thomas (The Hate U Give) makes her middle grade debut with Nic Blake and the Remarkables: The Manifestor Prophecy, the magnificent, hilarious and captivating start to a planned series. Nic’s opinionated running commentary makes her instantly appealing, and Thomas’ skill for conversational prose and dialogue shines. Rapid shifts in tone keep readers on their toes and turning pages as quickly as possible. For instance, Nic and her friends meet a spirit who shares that one of the best parts of being a ghost is going anywhere you want, including Beyoncé’s headlining set at Coachella, only to scramble to escape from skeletal hands that burst through the floor moments later. 

What makes this novel truly special is Thomas’ world building. She seamlessly intertwines fantastical Remarkable history with real-life Black history, as when Calvin explains that “nothing about any Black people started with slavery” and describes how “the Gift was first given to our ancestors . . . in Africa.” Fans of mythology will be delighted to learn that the Msaidizi has been used by folklore legends John Henry, High John and Annie Christmas. Just as captivating is the concept of Glow, auras of various colors visible only to Remarkables that signal the identities of vampires, giants, fairies, merfolk and Manifestors like Nic.   

It can be challenging to satiate the appetites of readers who devour beloved middle grade fantasy series like Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson books, Dhonielle Clayton’s The Marvellers and B.B. Alston’s Amari and the Night Brothers. Those readers will inhale Nic Blake and the Remarkables—and then begin counting down the days to its sequel.

Readers who devour series like Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson books will inhale Nic Blake and the Remarkables and then begin counting down the days to its sequel.
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Eighteen-year-old Imogen Scott obviously knows who she is. She’s a top-tier people pleaser and “the kind of person who has a favorite adverb (obviously, obviously).” She’s straight but a visible ally, having attended every Pride Alliance meeting at her high school and consumed as much queer media as she can.

As Imogen, Obviously opens, Imogen is spending her spring break visiting her childhood best friend, Lili, at Blackwell College. There, Imogen learns that Lili has, in an effort to fit in with her new group of ride-or-die queer friends, told a lie: that she and Imogen used to date. Suddenly, Imogen is pretending to be bisexual, a role she didn’t expect to find so comfortable—until meeting Lili’s friend Tessa. Three nights later, Imogen can’t help asking herself, “One girl can’t topple your entire sexuality, right?” 

Bestselling author Becky Albertalli’s latest novel offers a gentle, hilarious and authentic look at figuring out who you are on your own timeline. A heartfelt letter from the author to the reader included with advance editions of the book fills in anyone unfamiliar with Albertalli’s own coming-out story, and it’s easy to see how writing this novel must have been a cathartic way to allegorize her experience.

Each of the book’s nine parts constitutes a different day of Imogen’s visit with Lili, and this structure, combined with her intimate first-person point of view, provides an almost stream-of-conscious quality to the narrative. It also makes it nearly impossible for the reader not to love Imogen. As in Albertalli’s previous books, the dialogue is realistic, and text message conversations sprinkled throughout add humor and depth. Pop culture junkies will eat up all the But I’m a Cheerleader references (including the book’s gorgeous cover) and feel genuine disappointment to discover that the rom-com Shop Talk isn’t real.

There’s no shortage of coming-out novels, but there is always a need for more. Imogen’s coming out is unique, just as Albertalli’s was, and any reader will be able to identify with Imogen’s desire to be her true self while battling her fear of others’ judgment. Imogen will obviously be welcomed into the lives of Albertalli’s fans and new readers alike.

Bestselling author Becky Albertalli’s latest novel offers a gentle, hilarious and authentic look at figuring out who you are on your own timeline.
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Sixteen-year-old Maya Krishnan, an Indian American aspiring artist, lives in Citrus Grove, Florida, a suburb of Orlando with “two sides, like a coin.” There’s the side she and her friends live on, with a diverse community of people “who have thick accents and even thicker blood.” And then there’s the side of bake sales, white picket fences and bigoted remarks about immigrants. Maya seethes about the hypocrisy around her but is unsure how else to express her frustration other than through her art.

Maya’s portfolio attracts Juneau Zale, a wealthy white senior with a rebellious spirit. Juneau sees a spark in Maya and invites her to join the Pugilists, a secret society of students who use “art, pranks [and] mischief” to shine a light on inequalities in their school, such as the overpolicing of students of color. Soon Maya’s falling for Juneau, despite the cracks appearing in Juneau’s carefully crafted facade. As tensions at school rise and pranks turn into potential crimes, Maya will have to decide how close she’s willing to fly to Juneau’s sun.

In All the Yellow Suns, debut author Malavika Kannan captures the emotional turmoil of high school, with relationships as likely to bleed into one another as the watercolors on Maya’s palette. Kannan’s dialogue is natural in a way that reflects the author’s experience as a 22-year-old student of comparative studies in race and ethnicity and creative writing at Stanford University. She crafts beautiful prose filled with eloquent metaphors such as, “When two humans wear each other down, erode until their bodies fit together like clay—that’s what love feels like. Sanding somebody’s edges and crooks. Settling into their ridges.”

The fact that All the Yellow Suns is so intensely character-driven means the plot with the Pugilists doesn’t quite pack the punch their name promises. However, Maya is such a likable, passionate narrator that readers will relish the intimate story of her coming to terms with her sexuality. The large cast of side characters is spread thin throughout the book, though each is as complex as they can be for the space they receive. Juneau’s character is the most complex of all, fascinatingly difficult to pin down: a manic pixie dream girl who has a potential white savior complex and is battling internalized homophobia.

Darker than Casey McQuiston’s I Kissed Shara Wheeler and lighter than Courtney Summers’ I’m the Girl, this sapphic contemporary coming-of-age story is intensely realistic and beautifully heartbreaking and will capture the attention of readers who are passionate about activism.

Darker than Casey McQuiston’s I Kissed Shara Wheeler and lighter than Courtney Summers’ I’m the Girl, Malavika Kannan’s sapphic coming-of-age debut is beautifully heartbreaking.
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Frankie Bryant just wants to figure out what to wear for their band concert. Neither a suit nor a dress feels quite right to the nonbinary middle schooler. They’ve been through a lot since coming out, including being abandoned by their best friend, Dallas, who makes a show of using the right pronouns in front of adults but snickers about Frankie behind their back. Otherwise, Frankie’s life is fairly normal . . . until they save a golden retriever from bullies and are transported to a giant magical doghouse, where they are given a funny-looking helmet that allows them to talk to a group of superhero dogs called the Pawtheon.

In The Dog Knight, Frankie must prove that they possess the dog virtues—loyalty, kindness, honesty, justice, stubbornness and smell—over the course of six trials. Then they will be named the titular Dog Knight and assume a legendary role alongside the Pawtheon to protect the world from agents of chaos. The golden retriever, Platinum, believes Frankie can do it—but can they believe in themself?

Author Jeremy Whitley (creator of the Glyph Award-winning Princeless series) crafts a heartwarming and funny tale about being true to yourself and fighting for what’s right. His world building is adorable, thoughtful and highly entertaining, including the lore of how humans and dogs came to have a pact. The redemption of Frankie’s ex-best friend is messy and lengthy, and therefore realistic. The story arc wraps up nicely but has enough loose ends to leave readers wanting more from the planned series.

Illustrations by Bre Indigo (Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy: A Modern Graphic Retelling of Little Women) absolutely shine. Both humans and dogs have diverse character designs and dynamic expressions that will be sure to satiate hungry Raina Telgemeier fans. Their use of sound effects alternates between helpful onomatopoeias (such as Frankie’s drums making “tk tk tk tk” sounds) and humorous action indicators (such as the words “pet pet” appearing when Frankie pets one of the super pups). Colors by Melissa Capriglione (Basil and Oregano) are vibrant, with backgrounds that shift colors with characters’ moods and gutters that add to the tone—black during eerie night scenes and bright blue during an ethereal dog lore flashback, for example.

While this isn’t necessarily a story about being nonbinary, Frankie’s gender identity is essential to the narrative; for example, being truthful about how much Dallas hurt them passes the honesty trial, and finding the perfect outfit clears the smell trial. Too few children’s books feature genderqueer protagonists, and fewer still feature nonbinary protagonists in the type of heroic roles that their cisgender peers have played for decades. The Dog Knight is an excellent addition to a necessary and growing canon and will fit in nicely among Molly Knox Ostertag’s The Witch Boy series or ND Stevenson’s Lumberjanes series.

Frankie’s life is fairly normal . . . until they save a golden retriever from bullies and are transported to a giant magical doghouse by a group of superhero dogs.
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It’s the 26th century, and humans have colonized Mars with the help of artificial intelligence. Aspiring teenage inventor Clementine Chang needs a fresh start, so she books a one-way ticket to the Red Planet, where she has scored her dream job working in a robotics repair shop for an AI pioneer. There, she meets the infamous Dr. Marcella Lin, and her assistant, Kye, a humanoid custom-built AI with whom Clem is immediately fascinated.

When Kye begins glitching and seeing a strange child within his hard drive, he seeks out Clem’s help. As their relationship grows, the line between AI and human begins to blur for Clem, who resolves to help Kye break free, even if it means risking everything she came to Mars for.

The Infinity Particle (Quill Tree, $18.99, 9780062955760) is a stunning standalone graphic novel that offers a tender and timely look at AI. Questions of autonomy and generational trauma ground readers in the humanity of this sci-fi tale, while small details such as chapter headings written in binary code build a sense of immersion in this futuristic world. The one complaint readers may have is wanting more—more background about the AI system, more time with Clem and Kye.

Wendy Xu (Tidesong) uses a two-color palette to great effect. Panels are largely shaded with blue, while sparingly used reds can instantly make scenes romantic or dramatic. Dynamic gutter backgrounds add to the visual appeal and mood. Xu plays with unique panel shapes; for example, scenes of Kye glitching are given a dreamlike quality with wavy outlines. Occasional chibi figures and exaggerations like giant sweat drops add lightheartedness and are sure to appeal to manga readers.

A hopeful vision of life alongside technology is a welcome deviation from the trope of antagonistic AI. The Infinity Particle is perfect for fans of speculative works with well-developed characters such as Molly Knox Ostertag’s The Girl from the Sea and Danie Stirling’s Crumbs.

The Infinity Particle is a stunning standalone graphic novel that offers a tender and timely look at artificial intelligence.
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Gone Wolf begins in 2111 with Inmate Eleven, a 12-year-old girl being kept in a tiny room. Her only company is her dog, Ira, who has been “going wolf” more often—pacing, narrowing his eyes and imagining he is free. Inmate Eleven is a Blue, which refers to her blue skin and hair. As a genetic match for the president’s son, she is designated to serve as his companion in a mysterious and sinister system. And as Inmate Eleven gathers more information about the world outside her room, she begins to feel the calling to go wolf too.

The narrative switches to Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2022, where Imogen—also 12 years old—is often told she feels too much. She used to rely on her brothers to help settle her worries, but now the pandemic has isolated her from everyone other than her mother and therapist. When Imogen connects with a Black college student in the Big Sister program through a mutual love for stories, she begins to open up and heal the sadness—the blueness—in her own heart.

Gone Wolf is divided almost evenly between the future and present timelines. Its first half effectively makes the reader feel as trapped as Inmate Eleven. Each chapter is followed by disturbing “flash cards” that the ruling Clones use to brainwash the society of 2111 into complacency. In parallel, the second half set in the present day uses excerpts from Imogen’s Black History for Kids textbook, which illuminate the resilience of Black Americans without shying away from the atrocities of slavery and racism. Both imagined texts demonstrate the power of choosing which narrative to tell.

Unlike her previous two young adult novels in verse—Me (Moth) and We Are All So Good at Smiling—National Book Award finalist Amber McBride has written her middle grade debut in prose. Her syntax shines with beautiful symbolism, such as, “I know that minds can’t be hurricanes but that is what it feels like.” “But that’s what it feels like” is repeated like a mantra throughout the book—yet another echo of verse. Both of Gone Wolf’s protagonists write poetry, which further allows McBride to slip some of her magic in.

Imogen’s therapist puts it best: “History and the truth are sometimes hard.” Gone Wolf examines the ways in which both the COVID-19 pandemic and slavery’s ongoing legacy impact Black youth while also celebrating storytelling’s ability to heal and bring us together. There is nothing quite like it.

Gone Wolf examines the ways in which both the COVID-19 pandemic and slavery’s ongoing legacy impact Black youth while also celebrating storytelling’s ability to heal and bring us together. There is nothing quite like it.
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Like many little boys, Darrin Bell wanted a water gun when he was 6 years old. Unlike the white boys in his neighborhood with slick black water guns, he received a bright green one, accompanied by “The Talk” from his mom. She explained that “the world is… different for you and your brother. White people won’t see you or treat you the way they do little white boys.” It’s The Talk that parents of Black children are all too familiar with in America.

Bell is a Pulitzer Prize winner known for his editorial cartoons and for being the first Black cartoonist to have his comic strips, Candorville and Ruby Park, nationally syndicated. The Talk, Bell’s striking debut graphic memoir, utilizes wit and emotional openness to chronicle the ways in which racism has shaped his life, from a police officer terrorizing a young Bell over his green water gun to protests in 2020 over the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor.

Most of the book is illustrated in shades of blue, with flashbacks that come on suddenly and disjointedly—like real memories do—in yellows reminiscent of sepia photographs. Flashes of red are often used during intense moments, and one particularly philosophical page uses a purple that only appears again during the climax. Hyperrealistic pop culture items placed throughout both unsettle the illustrations and ground the reader within the timeline of Bell’s life, from the early 1980s until present day. At the end, Bell even includes some of his most iconic editorial cartoons.

This book is heavy, both emotionally and physically. The size allows Bell to use graphic conventions unlike those he’s usually confined to in a four-panel newspaper comic strip, frequently doing full-page illustrations or removing the panels all together. But during several important conversations, including The Talk between Darrin and his mother, as well as The Talk he has with his own son, Bell returns to an even grid of panels that hearken back to his old format and emphasize how important each moment is.

The deeply honest conversation Bell is able to have with his son is especially compelling when presented in contrast with a much more limited conversation about racism he had with his father, shown through a flashback. Witnessing their generational growth filled me both with empathy for Bell’s father and with hope for what Bell’s radical truth-telling can bring.

Darrin Bell’s striking debut graphic memoir utilizes wit and emotional openness to chronicle the ways in which racism has shaped his life, from a police officer terrorizing a young Bell over a green water gun to protests in 2020 over the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor.
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In her second novel in verse, National Book Award finalist Amber McBride blurs the lines between fantasy and reality.

Eighteen-year-old Whimsy has been hospitalized for the 11th time in 10 years. Although her grandmother taught the young conjurer that “Fairy Tales are real, / magic is real,” she also offered a warning: “Careful, Whimsy, / sometimes your own mind will unroot you.” When a green-haired boy named Faerry is admitted to the hospital, Whimsy instantly identifies him as Fae. 

When the two are released from the hospital, Whimsy discovers that Faerry’s family recently moved to her neighborhood. As Whimsy and Faerry are drawn both to each other and to the forest at the end of their street, they discover that their lives have intertwined before, and they embark on a journey to a haunted garden where the embodiment of Sorrow has trapped a number of fairy tale characters. To free them and return home, Whimsy and Faerry must face a truth they’ve spent years running from.

In a lengthy dedication at the beginning of We Are All So Good at Smiling, McBride explains that the novel “borrows from my personal experiences with clinical/major depression” and that she wrote it to remind herself and readers “that whenever you find yourself in Sorrow’s Garden—you have tools & you can find a way out.” The book’s significant back matter includes mental health resources, as well as a playlist, a glossary and more.

McBride conveys Whimsy’s struggle with depression through unusual and striking language, text alignment and structure. Words and phrases frequently appear in parentheses, mimicking intrusive thoughts. When Whimsy speaks, the text is aligned on the right-hand side of the page, literally separating her speech from the rest of the text and reflecting the way her depression alienates her from herself. McBride often establishes and then changes structural patterns, mirroring the disorientating nature of recovery. 

We Are All So Good at Smiling elevates everything that made McBride’s debut novel, Me (Moth), such a success. Readers who loved Ibi Zoboi’s American Street or Anna-Marie McLemore’s Blanca & Roja will especially enjoy its blend of magic and emotion.

Amber McBride elevates everything that made her first book successful in this novel in verse that blends magic and emotion, fantasy and reality.
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Christina lives in Grangeview, Texas, population 12,000, where she’s used to being one of the only Asian American students in her classes. She’s dealt with teachers who struggle to pronounce her last name and classmates who make fun of her lunch. When she explains that her dad is from Thailand, another student corrects her: “I think you mean Taiwan.”

As The Tryout opens, Christina feels ready to take on middle school, but she doesn’t have any classes with her Iranian American best friend, Megan, whose own experiences of standing out in Grangeview uniquely enable her to understand Christina. So when Megan asks Christina to try out for the cheerleading squad, Christina agrees enthusiastically. Beneath the surface of The Tryout’s seemingly simple story of friendship and cheerleading lies a compassionate exploration of identity, what it means to be a good friend and the pull of popularity. 

Two-time 2021 Newbery Honor author Christina Soontornvat has written middle grade fiction and nonfiction as well as picture books. The Tryout is her first graphic novel as well as her first book with autobiographical elements. As a narrator, her fictional self embraces the complexities of life on the cusp of adolescence; she sees through social norms but still longs to be perceived positively by her peers. When Megan explains the Texas homecoming custom of enormous corsages called mums, Christina says that it’s “such a weird tradition,” but a thought bubble reveals that she’s also thinking, “I totally want one.” As she learns from some pretty big mistakes, Christina also reminds readers that raising themselves up isn’t worthwhile if it means putting others down.

Debut illustrator Joanna Cacao thoroughly captures the capricious side of middle school, and her dynamic panels convey Christina’s constantly shifting moods. Darkly colored patterns surround Christina when she is feeling self-conscious, creating an effective contrast to the light, glittery backgrounds of the ethereal cheerleading squad. In an especially impactful touch, similar sparkles appear behind Christina when she’s feeling confident. 

In her author’s note, Soontornvat explains that she never thought she would share the story in The Tryout, until she realized that “talking to one another and sharing our stories is how we make change.” The result is a book that balances loving where you’re from and still wanting to see it improve. The Tryout is a strong addition to the rapidly growing genre of autobiographical graphic novels for middle grade readers that will fit wonderfully on shelves alongside Kathryn Ormsbee and Molly Brooks’ Growing Pangs, Damian Alexander’s Other Boys and Tyler Page’s Button Pusher.

In her first graphic novel, Newbery Honor author Christina Soontornvat offers a compassionate exploration of identity, friendship and the pull of popularity.
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Twelve-year-old Lula Viramontes longs to be heard. She’s scared to use her raspy voice to stand up to her volatile Papá, who has decided that Lula and her sister will stop attending school so they can work in the grape fields of Delano, California. Lula is also worried about her Mamá, whose sudden illness has likely been caused by pesticides. But she has a seed of hope: Some organizations are leading a strike for better working conditions, and she must find the courage to convince Papá to join them.

A Seed in the Sun is a well-researched glimpse into the 1965 Delano grape strike and the 1960s movement for labor justice. Through Lula’s experiences, author Aida Salazar invites readers into the life of a child working in dangerous conditions. In an author’s note, Salazar is quick to point out that Lula’s reality still exists for many young people today, since “United States child labor laws (which protect children from exploitation) don’t apply to farmwork—the only industry in the nation that does not abide by them.” While the Viramontes are fictional, Lula and her family encounter real activists such as Dolores Huerta, Larry Itliong and Cesar Chavez. 

In two previous novels (The Moon Within and Land of the Cranes), Salazar established herself as an expert writer of middle grade verse narratives filled with beautiful metaphors and similes. Her skill is evident here, as when Lula describes her voice as “an orange-yellow mist / that comes and goes / like clouds.” Salazar also intersperses Spanish throughout all of her novels, which lends authenticity to her verse. Although non-Spanish speakers will easily discern the meaning of most of the book’s Spanish words and phrases from context, fluent Spanish speakers and those who use a dictionary or translator as they read will be rewarded with treasures, like how the book’s six section titles are words that signify aspects of the harvesting season.

Salazar’s text is dynamic, with words that flow across the page. Each poem has its own pattern, and Salazar is creative with indentation, alignment and overall form. For instance, when Lula and her sister go behind their father’s back to get union cards, Salazar relays what happens next in a single block of full-justified text, conveying Lula’s excitement and nervousness about her passionate rebellion. 

Readers gravitate toward middle grade historical fiction because it makes complex history tangible. A Seed in the Sun deserves a space on the shelf alongside Brenda Woods’ When Winter Robeson Came, which portrays another social justice movement in 1965 California, and Pam Muñoz Ryan’s Pura Belpré Award-winning Esperanza Rising, a modern classic of children’s literature that depicts the experiences of migrant workers.

Aida Salazar’s third novel in verse is a well-researched glimpse into the 1965 Delano grape strike as seen through the eyes of 12-year-old Lula Viramontes.
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Kwame Alexander opens a planned historical fiction trilogy with The Door of No Return, which takes place in 1860, near the end of the transatlantic slave trade. Eleven-year-old Kofi Offin lives in the Asante kingdom, in what is now Ghana. Kofi holds deep respect for his grandfather, the village storyteller, who always begins his stories by saying, “There was even a time . . .” In this time, Kofi has a crush on Ama, a girl in his class. In this time, Kofi and Ama’s teacher forces them to speak English instead of their native language, or face the wrath of his cane. And in this time, Kofi’s older brother, Kwasi, will unintentionally alter the fate of their entire family, and Kofi will have to draw on all of his grandfather’s wisdom to survive.

Alexander has been convincing middle grade readers that poetry is cool since his 2014 book, The Crossover, for which he won the Newbery Medal. Like many of Alexander’s earlier books, The Door of No Return is told mostly in enthralling, action-packed verse. Alexander is an eloquent craftsman with a deep awareness of the power of every word in a verse novel, and that awareness shines on every page of this book. Typographic manipulation, such as changing the size of the text, is used sparingly, which makes those moments particularly impactful.

The book is not entirely written in verse, however. Each of its seven chapters begin with a prose story narrated by Kofi’s grandfather, Nana Mosi. These tales offer context and foreshadowing in equal measure, culminating in a heartbreaking ode to storytellers, “The Story of the Story,” in which Nana Mosi warns that “until the lions tell their side of the story, the tale of the hunt will always celebrate the hunter.” 

Some of Alexander’s most beloved works, including The Crossover, incorporate sports as both subjects and extended metaphors. Alexander continues—and elevates—this approach in The Door of No Return through Kofi’s aptitude for swimming. Kofi receives his second name, Offin, because he was born in the very river where he now finds sanctuary after school.

The story of African Americans did not begin during the middle passage. Every person who was enslaved came from a home with a rich history and unique culture. Their stories have been told in excellent books for young readers, including Sharon Draper’s Copper Sun; Nikole Hannah-Jones, Renée Watson and Nikkolas Smith’s The 1619 Project: Born on the Water; and Ashley Bryan’s Freedom Over Me. But many more are needed, and there’s no one better to add to this vital canon than Alexander.

Kwame Alexander brings his deep awareness of the power of verse to this story of an African boy named Kofi, set near the end of the transatlantic slave trade.
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Fifteen-year-old Harris Jacobus knows that people at his new high school will make assumptions about him because of his disability, a form of muscular dystrophy called spinal muscular atrophy. He levels the playing field by asking everyone he meets one simple question: “What’s your favorite color?” 

This is how Harris knows that Zander could be a potential friend. Zander’s favorite color is yellow, and Harris’ is blue, so only green separates them on the color wheel. It’s why Harris is willing to give 20-something Miranda a chance as his nurse (to “attend school with me and make sure I don’t die”), even though she’s still finishing up her nursing program. Her favorite color combination, orange-red, is blue’s complementary color (though it doesn’t hurt that Harris also thinks she’s attractive). And it’s one of the reasons Harris is captivated by Nory, whose locker is next to his: She refuses to tell him her favorite color. 

Harris has decided to use his new school as a “chance to finally start living a real teenage life”—going to parties, breaking curfew, maybe even having a girlfriend. When Miranda discovers Harris’ feelings for Nory, she decides to help them get closer. Eventually, Harris begins to question Miranda’s advice—and her judgment. 

In The First Thing About You, debut novelist Chaz Hayden offers a fresh perspective on a teen protagonist who longs to feel “normal” and check off a list of milestones (first crush, date, concert and so on). The book’s structure—five sections of varying lengths—beautifully reflects how time in high school can feel like it’s moving at different speeds depending on the situation, and short chapters mimic a fast-paced school day.

Harris’ conversational narration will resonate with teen readers (though some of his thoughts about gender border on stereotypical), and his experiences offer an invitation to question the very notion of normalcy. Miranda often blurs professional and personal lines, particularly during a scene in which she kisses Harris on the mouth without asking for or receiving his consent first, and some readers may find Hayden’s depiction of Miranda’s behavior disturbing. Even Harris gradually realizes, “I didn’t like the person I became around her.”

Like Harris, Hayden also has spinal muscular atrophy. He vlogs about his life on YouTube, where he reads aloud from and cringes at entries from his old journals, and he pours a similarly humorous, unflinching tone into Harris’ story. Fans of John Green or teen rom-coms will enjoy Hayden’s reminder that we are all trying to get others to look beyond our surfaces.

Debut novelist Chaz Hayden offers a fresh perspective on a teen protagonist who longs to feel normal in this humorous, unflinching book.

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