Hannah Lamb

Jennifer Ziegler, best known for her Brewster Triplets series, introduces readers to a singularly memorable protagonist in Worser.

William Wyatt Orser, better known by his not-so-nice nickname, Worser, has had a rough go of it. His mother, a professor of rhetoric whom Worser considers one of his only intellectual equals, had a stroke three months ago that left her unable to speak. Since she’s not able to care for Worser on her own, Aunt Iris has moved in with them, disrupting Worser’s notions of peace and order.

Bullied at school and no longer able to find refuge at home, Worser dives even deeper into the world he loves best: the world of words. He spends his time working on his “Masterwork,” an epic collection of observations and musings on language that is his pride and joy. One entry explores what he dubs “Word Contradictions”: “If terrific can mean the opposite of terrible, why isn’t horrific the opposite of horrible?”

But letters and words can only go so far in satisfying the need for connection and companionship. Worser stumbles into just that when budget cuts force his school’s library to reduce its hours, setting off a chain of events that leads him to a group of kindred spirits who meet once a week in a nearby bookstore. For the first time, Worser begins to form meaningful and lasting connections with people who understand and appreciate him.

Worser is witty, sarcastic and often seems wise beyond his years. Although he sometimes behaves judgmentally toward those around him, he also possesses a charming awkwardness that will endear him to readers, and his character arc is satisfying. Outcasts and oddballs of all sorts will find Worser’s story relatable, and fellow word nerds will be especially thrilled by his thoughtful observations on the many eccentricities of the English language.

A true word nerd finds a group of kindred spirits in Jennifer Ziegler’s Worser, a middle grade novel anchored by a singularly memorable protagonist.

The Caldecott Medal-winning author-illustrator of The Adventures of Beekle: The Unimaginary Friend brings his whimsical and fun-filled storytelling style to a longer format in The Aquanaut, a graphic novel for middle grade readers.

Sophia Revoy’s family has always been involved in marine biology. Her father and uncle regularly go out to sea on long research expeditions, and they also opened a marine reserve and theme park called Aqualand in their hometown of San Diego. But five years ago, Sophia’s father was lost at sea during an expedition, and neither Sophia nor Aqualand has been the same since.

One afternoon, Sophia heads to the park to convince her uncle to help with her science fair project, her final hope of salvaging her failing grade in science class. On her way through the park to Aqualand’s labs, she bumps into someone in an aquanaut suit. She quickly discovers that the suit isn’t being worn by a person. Instead, it’s an animatronic device being piloted by a quartet of sea creatures: Captain Sodapop, a hermit crab; Carlos, a dumbo octopus; Jobim, a sea turtle; and Antonio, a tiny blanket octopus. Sophia is swept up in a series of mishaps and escapades with these unlikely friends. Along the way, she uncovers long-buried secrets about her father’s disappearance—and about Aqualand itself.

Dan Santat’s signature visual style lends itself beautifully to the lighthearted, adventurous tone of the story and its many moments of slapstick comedy. His panels are colorful and bright, and his characters are cartoonish in the best way. Santat excels in drawing human and sea creature facial expressions that drive home the emotions each character feels. The Aquanaut is a humorous and heartwarming tale about the lengths to which we’ll go to protect and care for our families.

A quartet of sea creatures may hold the key to Sophia’s father’s disappearance in The Aquanaut, a humorous, heartwarming graphic novel.

Beloved and bestselling children’s author Pam Muñoz Ryan offers a new tale featuring a compelling heroine, her supportive community and a shimmer of magic in Solimar: The Sword of the Monarchs.

Solimar’s quinceañera and her official coronation as princess of the small kingdom of San Gregorio are rapidly approaching, and she is about to face a lot of changes and new responsibilities. But all she really wants to do is witness the annual migration of the sacred monarch butterflies to the forest beyond the small village where she lives. 

During this grand event, something strange happens to Solimar, and she receives a magical gift that she doesn’t understand or know how to control. When dark forces threaten San Gregorio, Solimar must learn to harness her new power if she has any hope of saving her people, her family and her beloved monarch butterflies. 

In Solimar, longtime fans of Ryan’s books will recognize echoes of Esperanza Rising’s titular protagonist. Both girls take pride in their heritage and demonstrate strength and resilience when faced with situations that put them and the people they love in peril. These qualities make them easy to root for, but Ryan also skillfully tempers their exceptional qualities with realistic flaws, ensuring that they remain simultaneously admirable and relatable. 

Another element common to many of Ryan’s books present in Solimar is a tight-knit village filled with vibrant characters who genuinely care for each other and feel a sense of love for their home. Much as she did in Mañanaland, Ryan creates a portrait of a community with strong beliefs. The people of San Gregorio have a deep respect for nature, especially the monarch butterflies, which Ryan conveys through awe-inspiring descriptions of towering oyamel fir trees and thousands of delicate butterfly wings glittering in the sunlight. Readers will be immersed in the natural wonders of San Gregorio and understand Solimar’s determination to protect them.

With many hallmarks of the Newbery Honor recipient’s best-loved works, Solimar is a satisfying fantasy adventure that will delight faithful readers and send new ones scurrying to shelves to discover more of her wonderful tales.

Newbery Honor author Pam Muñoz Ryan offers a new tale about a compelling heroine, her supportive community and a shimmer of magic in Solimar.

The range of graphic novels and nonfiction for children gets better, more exciting and more popular with each passing year. Even the choosiest young reader won’t be able to resist the charms of these wonderful books.

Marshmallow & Jordan

For the reader who carefully arranges their stuffed animals at the head of their bed every morning—and knows each and every one of their names

Growing up in Indonesia, Jordan is a talented basketball player who lives for the sport. She’s even named after her dad’s favorite player. After an accident two years ago, Jordan is also a paraplegic and uses a wheelchair. Although she’s still the captain of her school’s team, an official rule means she’s not allowed to participate in games against other teams. In spite of her teammates’ sincere efforts to make her feel included, it’s just not the same. 

Jordan’s life changes when she discovers an injured young white elephant at a park one day after basketball practice. She names him Marshmallow and, with help from her veterinarian mom, nurses him back to health. Jordan and Marshmallow become fast friends, but it’s soon clear that the connection between them runs much deeper. Marshmallow obviously needs Jordan’s help, but as it turns out, Jordan needs Marshmallow too. 

As Jordan leans on Marshmallow, he helps her begin to swim, and eventually she discovers a new athletic passion: water polo. But a worsening drought threatens the local water supply and the use of water for recreational purposes like swimming. Could there be a connection between Marshmallow and the much-needed rain?

Marshmallow & Jordan is a practically perfect graphic novel. Jordan’s strong spirit and earnest emotional vulnerabilities make her an appealing and relatable hero, and Marshmallow is irresistibly adorable as his big blue eyes shine with emotion. Lush and lovely, Alina Chau’s delicate watercolor illustrations are rendered in warm pastel tones. The book’s text is fairly minimal, so her images pull a great deal of the narrative weight, making this an ideal choice for young readers still gaining verbal confidence and fluency who would benefit from the unique interplay of words and images that graphic novels offer. 

This beautifully rendered tale, with its fluffy, marshmallow-sweet images, is all heart. 

—Sharon Verbeten

Another Kind

For the reader who has always felt a little out of place—except within the pages of a great book

Inside a hidden government-run facility called the Playroom, six creatures known as Irregularities are living out their childhoods quietly tucked away from society. There’s Omar, who’s half yeti; Sylvie, a will-o’-the-wisp; Newt, a lizard boy; Jaali, who can transform into a Nandi bear; Clarice, a selkie; and Maggie, who might be the daughter of Cthulhu. When the group’s secrecy is compromised and their safety endangered, government agents decide to move them to a more secure location.

Along the way, the powerful youngsters end up fending for themselves in a totally unfamiliar world filled with ordinary people who are totally unfamiliar with them. To survive, they must hide their unusual features and abilities—and avoid detection by dangerous forces that are hot on their trail. When the merry misfits meet other Irregularities and uncover rumors about a place called the Sanctuary, a place where they’ll all be safe, they’re determined to find it and make it their new home.

Trevor Bream’s narrative touches subtly on weighty themes, including gender identity, bullying and feelings of abandonment. At every turn, the story emphasizes the importance of self-acceptance and a sense of belonging within a community—empowering notions for young humans to consider.

Illustrator Cait May’s art is gorgeous. Just as Bream grounds their supernatural characters in emotional realism, May’s linework anchors this fantastical story in a detailed, realistic aesthetic. There’s a lightheartedness in her use of color that’s perfectly suited for a tale that never loses sight of its young characters’ optimism and hopefulness.

Another Kind is a magical graphic novel that movingly demonstrates the power of being different.

—Justin Barisich

★ The Secret Garden on 81st Street

For the reader who knows that if you look the right way, you can see that the whole world is a garden

Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden receives a contemporary update in this thoughtful graphic novel. 

Mary Lennox is a loner, and she likes it that way. She doesn’t have friends in her everyday life, but she makes up for it by immersing herself in technology, especially via her cell phone and online video games. Her parents, who both work in Silicon Valley, aren’t home much, which doesn’t help Mary’s isolation. When they’re killed in a tragic accident, Mary must go live with her uncle, whom she barely knows. 

Uncle Archie keeps his New York City mansion tech-free, and Mary has an understandably hard time adjusting to his rules. But with help from her cousin, Colin, and her new friend Dickon, Mary begins to restore the rooftop garden at her uncle’s house. Gradually, Mary starts to acclimate to—and then thrive in—New York, working through her grief and forming meaningful connections along the way.

Adapting a beloved classic to a new form and setting is no small task, and it’s clear that author Ivy Noelle Weir and illustrator Amber Padilla did not take the challenge lightly. Their love for Burnett’s original novel shines through on every page and makes The Secret Garden on 81st Street a truly heartwarming experience. Padilla’s playful, cartoonlike style lends itself wonderfully to expressing the happiness and contentment that Mary slowly finds. Weir’s prose is refreshing and modern, with just enough nods to Burnett’s best-known lines to preserve the story’s classic roots.

Best of all, Weir revisits many of the themes of Burnett’s novel through a contemporary lens, approaching each character’s journey with sensitivity. Colin stays in his room all the time because of anxiety, while Uncle Archie is grieving the loss of his husband, Masahiro. These updates blend perfectly with some of the most powerful elements from the original story, such as the slow transformation of the garden and the ways that nature and human connection have the ability to heal us.

The Secret Garden on 81st Street is a beautiful and respectful new vision of a long-treasured tale.

—Hannah Lamb

Salt Magic

For the reader who would be more that willing to pay the hero’s price for a thrilling, out-of-this-world adventure

Hope Larson (A Wrinkle in Time: The Graphic Novel) teams up again with illustrator Rebecca Mock, her partner on Compass South, to create Salt Magic, an absorbing and fast-paced historical fantasy adventure.

There’s a hint of The Wizard of Oz to Salt Magic, which begins in our world, then launches its hero on a quest into a new, magical world before she finally returns home again. Twelve-year-old Vonceil is the youngest of five children on an Oklahoma farm in 1919. She is a determined and appealing character whose boredom and angst simmer on every page, perfectly conveyed through her many evocative facial expressions and especially her piercing eyes. 

As the story opens, Vonceil’s beloved brother Elber has finally returned from World War I after two long years away. Physically and mentally, he’s a changed man, and he seems to have no time for the fun he used to share with his littlest sister. Vonceil feels more alone than ever when Elber marries his sweetheart, Amelia, a local girl. Before long, however, a mysterious, wealthy woman in white named Greda appears in their small town. Greda was Elber’s nurse and lover in Paris, and she is so enraged to learn that Elber has married someone else that she curses his family’s farm, turning all of their precious fresh water into salt water. 

Vonceil feels responsible for Greda’s curse, having hoped that Elder would have a fabulous romance with someone from France and resented Amelia for marrying him instead. When she realizes that Greda is a salt witch, she sets out in the dark of night to try to make things right. So begins a fantastical journey that leads Vonceil to uncover not only Greda’s secrets but also numerous revelations about her own ancestors, culminating in a dangerous bargain to save the family farm and Elber’s life.

Mock’s illustrations make every enchanting, dangerous moment pop. Even a close-up of a seemingly simple handshake between Vonceil and Greta conveys the importance of their dire agreement. Other scenes expertly dramatize the desolate landscape Vonceil traverses, the inescapable power of the all-important salt crystals she discovers and the many strange creatures she encounters along the way. 

Salt Magic is a feast of a tale that treats readers to an epic battle between evil forces and a courageous, persistent young hero.

—Alice Cary

Other Boys

For the reader who needs to hear that they are never as alone as they sometimes might feel

Damian Alexander’s debut graphic memoir, Other Boys, is a powerfully compelling portrait of a boy learning to understand and accept himself.

Damian has always felt different. He and his brother live with their grandmother in a small apartment, because when they were very young, their father murdered their mother. Damian has also always enjoyed things that he thinks boys shouldn’t like, such as dolls, flowers and tea parties. He’s repeatedly been told that he’s too “girly” to fit in with boys, but girls often excluded him from playing with them because he’s a boy. His struggle to understand where he belongs has followed him all the way to middle school.

As he starts seventh grade at a new school, Damian has decided that the best way to avoid being bullied is to give his classmates absolutely nothing to bully him about. Damian is not merely planning to speak only when spoken to or to keep his voice to a whisper; he’s not going to speak at all. To anyone. But his silence doesn’t go unnoticed, and his grandmother arranges for him to see a therapist. With the therapist’s help, Damian begins to understand that he isn’t weird, strange or wrong. Meanwhile, he’s also discovering that not all boys are bullies, and some are even, well, pretty cute. The only way that Damian will find his place is by staying true to himself and finally speaking up. 

As he narrates in the voice of his seventh-grade self, Alexander skillfully uses flashbacks to fill in his personal history. His bright color palette balances the book’s darker elements, and his figures’ slightly enlarged faces keep readers focused on the emotion of each panel. Other Boys will be a life-changing read for any young person who is questioning their identity or searching for where they belong.

—Kevin Delecki 

Find more 2021 gift recommendations from BookPage.

Just try to resist the charms of these delightful middle grade graphic novels, perfect for gifting.

Marya Lupu’s parents are sure that a great destiny awaits her brother, Luka. They’re convinced that he’ll become a powerful, prestigious sorcerer. He’ll grow up to battle and maybe even defeat the mysterious force known as the Dread, which has threatened the kingdom of Illyria for centuries. And of course, the entire family’s fortunes will rise with Luka’s inevitable success.

Compared to Luka, Marya has never felt valued by her parents. Nothing she does pleases them, and her destiny appears cloudy at best. When Marya makes a crucial mistake on the day that the Council for the Magical Protection of Illyria comes to test Luka and determine whether he has the ability to wield magic and become a sorcerer, she puts all of their futures in jeopardy. The very next day, a letter arrives inviting Marya to attend Dragomir Academy, “a school dedicated to the reform of troubled girls,” and it seems Marya has even less control over her future than she thought possible.

As Marya bonds with her classmates—girls just like her, who have been told their entire lives that their only purpose is to serve the men whose magic supposedly keeps Illyria safe—they begin to realize that the threat posed by the Dread is not what they’ve been led to believe, and it may be up to them to expose the truth.

The Troubled Girls of Dragomir Academy is a story of secrets and sisterhood, and a powerful depiction of how people who have been marginalized can find collective power and fight back against systems that have worked to silence them. Readers who enjoyed author Anne Ursu’s acclaimed middle grade novels The Lost Girl, Breadcrumbs and The Real Boy will find much to love here. Marya is a strong-willed and inspiring heroine, and Ursu places her in an expertly constructed fantasy setting. Witty and wise, this is a satisfying and feminist fantasy that will leave readers begging for a sequel.

In this wise and witty fantasy novel, the fate of a kingdom may rest in the hands of a group of “troubled girls” at a mysterious magical school.

Author-illustrator Phoebe Wahl’s fourth picture book, Little Witch Hazel: A Year in the Forest, has a charming woodsy setting that readers will find enchanting.

Four vignettes follow Little Witch Hazel, a minuscule witch who wears a pointy red hat and lives in Mosswood Forest. With a determined spirit, Hazel tends to her fellow inhabitants of the forest in any way that she can, be that inspecting the source of a mysterious wailing tree stump, caring for an abandoned bird egg or taking some well-deserved time to unwind with her friends on a hot summer day.

Each story unfolds in a different season and opens with a title page depicting Hazel dressed for the weather and surrounded by the season’s flora—daffodils in spring, acorns in the fall and so on. Hazel’s can-do attitude and willingness to pitch in make her an appealing heroine. Using earthy shades of brown, green, red and blue, Wahl expertly captures Mosswood Forest and populates it with all sorts of quirky creatures whose interactions make a wonderful backdrop for Hazel’s adventures.

These sweet stories are an ode to the calm and peaceful magic of nature. Little Witch Hazel will make you feel as if you have journeyed deep into Mosswood Forest alongside Hazel and her friends. It will also make you long to seek out your own forest, to be immersed in nature and to discover (or rediscover) your own kinship to it, so that you too can enjoy what Hazel finds there: serenity, connection and fulfillment.

Author-illustrator Phoebe Wahl’s fourth picture book, Little Witch Hazel: A Year in the Forest, has a charming woodsy setting that readers will find enchanting.

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