Kevin Delecki

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Jab. Duck-bap-bap. Jab. Duck-bap-bap. Duckbapbap. Duckbapbap. Find your rhythm. Feel your fists against the pads. Know where your next move is and who’s on your side. In Torrey Maldonado’s Hands, getting stronger, faster and tougher is all that 12-year-old Trevor cares about. 

As the book opens, Trevor’s life has been turned upside down. His stepdad has been arrested for hitting his mom and has threatened revenge against her for calling the police. In that moment, Trevor promised himself that no one will ever hit his mom ever again. 

It doesn’t matter that grown-ups keep telling him that he shows promise—academic promise, artistic promise, athletic promise—or that his dad and uncles wanted him to stay in school so he could get out of the projects. What matters to Trevor is that he has to protect his mom and sisters, and sometimes, he thinks, you just have to solve things with your hands.

Trevor throws himself into getting stronger and learning to fight, first on his own and later with his friend P, who moves into Trevor’s building. But when the trainer at the rec center refuses to help with training because he promised Trevor’s Uncle Lou that he would help Trevor “not to think with his fists,” Trevor begins to wonder whether fighting will solve his problems or just make new ones.

Hands is a compact, fast-paced novel narrated in a poetic, stream-of-consciousness style. Maldonado uses short, staccato sentences like feinted boxing jabs to draw readers in, then rocks them with explosive uppercuts of words and emotions, knocking them into unsteadiness and leaving them uncertain how the next round will go. Trevor’s journey through fear, anger and abandonment toward finding support and true strength is authentic and hopeful.

At just 128 pages, Hands is Maldonado’s shortest work. Although its length makes it approachable for older but less adept readers, the book never sacrifices linguistic or narrative complexity. Readers who enjoy realistic, slice-of-life fiction will be quickly engaged by Trevor’s story, and Maldonado will keep them hooked through all 10 rounds.

This fast-paced novel uses staccato sentences like feinted boxing jabs to draw readers in, then rocks them with explosive uppercuts of words and emotions.
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Eb didn’t mean to mess up Flow’s brand-new shoes, and Flow would never hit a girl, but in Kelly J. Baptist’s Eb & Flow, an accident leads to angry words, then a fistfight and then a 10-day suspension from school for seventh graders Ebony (Eb) and De’Kari (Flow). As they stare down two weeks at home, where they’ll be surrounded by parents, grandparents, siblings, cousins, chores, homework and a whole lot of time to think, Eb and Flow must find a way to explain to their families and friends—and to themselves—what really happened.

During the suspension, Flow works through a list of chores from his mom and sneaks over to the rec center to swim. (His passion for the pool is why he likes to be called Flow.) Meanwhile, Eb is stuck at her grandmother’s house, even though her mom only lives a few miles away. She has to babysit her nephew, and she can’t even have her phone, because her grandma took it away. 

With each passing day, the situation between Eb and Flow evolves and escalates. At first, readers have only a murky awareness of the fight and the circumstances leading up to it, but Baptist slowly and brilliantly peels back the layers of Eb’s and Flow’s motivations and histories. A video of the altercation gets shared among their classmates, siblings and friends, and Eb and Flow tussle over the ways they’re each responsible for what happened. Each revelation forces readers to see the two characters anew. 

Baptist writes Eb & Flow in fluid free verse that alternates between Eb’s and Flow’s perspectives. The suspension gives the novel its structure, with each day composing one chapter. Baptist also skillfully highlights parallels between Eb’s and Flow’s lives, then braids them together in a realistic, satisfying conclusion. Expertly crafted with two wonderfully complex characters at its core, Eb & Flow is a masterful, moving middle grade novel.

This novel in verse set over the course of two seventh graders’ suspensions from school contains brilliantly crafted revelations that cast both characters in new lights.
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A boy and his dog—it’s the beginning of a story that’s been told a thousand times. But when the dog is a Bulgarian elf-hound who magically appears in the woods, the story might be a little different. Elf Dog and Owl Head by National Book Award winner M.T. Anderson, with black-and-white illustrations by Junyi Wu, upends familiar tropes with imagination, poignancy and just enough realism to allow the reader to see themselves in at least one character. 

Clay is sick of being stuck in his house with his morose older sister, DiRossi, and obnoxious little sister, Juniper. A global virus has shut down the world, and he hasn’t seen his friends for months. His only escape is to the woods near his house, where he ventures alone—until an amazing white dog comes out of nowhere to protect him from . . . something. “It must have been a bear,” Clay thinks, but was it really?

The beautiful white dog with strange red ears and the name “Elphinore” on her collar follows Clay home, and after some halfhearted searching, it appears that no one is looking for her. Together they begin to explore the depths of the forest. Elphinore leads Clay to places he’s never seen, including past a group of sleeping creatures older than time and to a village filled with owl-headed people, where Clay makes a new friend named Amos. As Clay’s world begins to overlap and clash with these new realms, he must decide where he, Elphinore and Amos all really belong. 

Elf Dog and Owl Head is a sly novel, told in a droll, wry cadence that conceals the increasingly fantastic nature of the story. Just as Clay begins to slowly realize the extent of the hidden worlds around him, so does the reader begin to understand the depth of the story being told. Clay, DiRossi, Juniper, their parents and even Amos and his community each relate to different feelings and situations of the real COVID-19 pandemic, thus allowing all readers to see themselves reflected wholly, not just positively, in the book. 

Anderson’s world, hauntingly rendered in Wu’s bold crosshatched pencil illustrations, is complex, broken, hopeful and real, even in its most fantastical moments. Like Clay, readers will want to continue to explore, even when they feel afraid to take the next step. 

The world of M.T. Anderson’s Elf Dog and Owl Head, hauntingly rendered in Junyi Wu’s bold crosshatched pencil illustrations, is complex, broken, hopeful and real, even in its most fantastical moments.
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Life would be easier if it were more like professional wrestling. It would be simple to tell the good guys from the bad guys, the “faces” from the “heels.” Everyone would know who will win, and it would be simple to decide who to cheer for. 

In Pura Belpré Honor author Celia C. Pérez’s Tumble, 12-year-old Adela “Addie” Ramirez is struggling with the fact that life isn’t quite as clear-cut as the wrestling matches she watches with her beloved stepfather, Alex, who has helped raise Addie since she was young. Addie will soon have a new sibling, so Alex has asked if she would consider allowing him to legally adopt her. But Addie can’t stop thinking about the one part of her life that Alex and her mom won’t talk about: the biological father she’s never met.

Author Celia C. Pérez reveals how the inspiration for ‘Tumble’ came from an unlikely source.

Professional wrestling is a big deal in Addie’s small town of Thorne, New Mexico, because the Cactus Wrestling League holds its matches in Esperanza, the town next door. With some help from her best friend, Cy, and the local historical society, Addie discovers that her biological father is Manny “The Mountain” Bravo, of the famous Bravo family of wrestlers. Eager to learn more about him, she insists that they be allowed to meet before she will discuss adoption further. As Addie gets to know the Bravos, she begins to learn that life is never as simple or as easy as right or wrong, good or bad, family or not family.

Tumble is a complex, emotional story about loss, self-discovery and belonging, about forgetting who you were and remembering who you are. Pérez’s depiction of Addie’s journey to connect with Manny and her extended family of grandparents, uncles, aunts and cousins—all of whom she feels were unfairly kept from her by her mother—shines with honesty and touching authenticity. Addie experiences fear, awkwardness and a growing sense of connection and acceptance as she comes to understand that sometimes, people cannot change who they are, even if it hurts the ones they love. 

Addie confronts a series of difficult choices, and although she wishes she could be like a luchadore and hide behind a mask, she must fight for what she wants and who she wants to be. Tumble reminds readers that sometimes heroes (and villains) are not who they seem—both in life and in a wrestling ring.

Read a Behind the Book essay from ‘Tumble’ author Celia C. Pérez.

Celia C. Pérez’s tale of a girl who learns that the father she’s never met is part of a family of professional wrestlers shines with emotion and complexity.
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Everything changed the night Danny Chen died. The Silence That Binds Us follows Danny’s parents and sister, May, in the aftermath of Danny’s death by suicide.

May and Danny’s Taiwanese American parents raised their children to be xiàoshùn: “obedient, respectful, caring, and every other desirable quality rolled into one intimidating word.” In the wake of their loss, May and her family struggle to move forward together. When a prominent, wealthy member of their suburban Bay Area community publicly claims that Asian American parents “push their kids so hard” and blames the Chens for Danny’s death, May must make an impossible choice. Should she keep her head down and stay silent, or should she speak up and tell her story, even if it means putting everything on the line?

The Silence That Binds Us depicts anti-Asian racism with raw, powerful honesty. It also explores complex webs of prejudice among and against the Bay Area’s ethnic communities, touching on subjects such as redlining and the myth of the model minority. Joanna Ho (Eyes That Kiss in the Corners) captures the emotions of characters experiencing racism for the first time as well as those who have never known a life without its toxic presence.

Bestselling picture book author Ho’s first YA novel is a deeply felt portrayal of a family shattered by tragedy and a thoughtful depiction of how injustice plays people against one another—and themselves—in order to perpetuate itself. In the end, The Silence That Binds Us finds its way through heartbreak to hard-won hopefulness and healing. As May realizes, “Every time we speak out, it is an act of love. Love is how we overcome fear.”

The first YA novel by bestselling children’s author Joanna Ho is a moving portrait of a family who find their way through tragedy to hopefulness and healing.
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Donovan didn’t mean to leave the book on the kitchen table. Gideon hadn’t planned to ask the new boy, Roberto, to be his partner for their school project. And Rick didn’t know that the courage Oliver displayed on their latest adventure would make him realize “just how deeply he loved Oliver.” In acclaimed author David Levithan’s Answers in the Pages, these boys’ stories—separate but inextricably connected—intertwine to explore the impact of a book challenge in a small community.

When Mr. Howe passes out copies of a book called The Adventurers to Donovan’s fifth grade language arts class, Donovan accepts one without much thought and leaves it on the kitchen counter after reading the first chapter. It’s only when his mom asks him about the book and then goes to see the principal the next day that Donovan begins to realize something might be amiss. The situation spirals quickly as Donovan’s mom begins a campaign to remove the book from the curriculum because of its supposedly inappropriate themes.

Answers in the Pages unfolds in three skillfully balanced threads: There’s Donovan’s first-person narration, as well as amusing chapter-length excerpts from the fictional Adventurers novel, which follows the exploits of Rick and Oliver as they make daring escapes, track down evildoers and save the day. Finally, third-person chapters introduce Gideon and Roberto, two boys who don’t quite know where they fit in among their peers until they find each other. Each thread would be compelling on its own, but Levithan pulls them together in the book’s conclusion to create an ending even more moving than the sum of its individual parts.

As long as books have been written and published, efforts have been made to restrict the ability of readers—particularly young readers—to access them. With nuance and grace, Answers in the Pages explores the dramatic impact that such restrictions can have on the readers who need those books the most. Notably, the novel refuses to villainize Donovan’s mom, instead depicting her actions as the result of a misplaced sense of care. “I know you’re on my side,” Donovan tells his mom. “Just not this one time. This one time you thought you were on my side, but you got it wrong.”

Answers in the Pages is an uplifting portrait of the strength it takes to fight for your story. It’s an important book with an essential perspective on a vital, timeless question.

David Levithan's Answers in the Pages entwines three narrative threads to explore the wide-reaching impact of a book challenge in a small community.
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Jennifer Chan Is Not Alone, Tae Keller’s first book since winning the 2021 Newbery Medal for When You Trap a Tiger, begins at “the end of everything” for friends Mallory, Reagan and Tess. During a middle school orchestra concert, Reagan’s phone buzzes with a text message from Pete, whose dad is the sheriff of their small town of Norwell, Florida: Jennifer Chan ran away. The news spreads quickly through the Gibbons Academy chapel, but only Mallory, Reagan and Tess have any idea where Jennifer might have gone or why.

Mallory never felt she fit in until sixth grade, when Reagan moved to town, became her best friend and taught her the secrets of middle school popularity and “how the world worked.” So when Mallory meets Jennifer, the new girl in their seventh grade class, and learns that Jennifer has no interest in following Reagan’s unspoken rules, Mallory knows that befriending her is a terrible idea. But Jennifer is a very hard person to say no to, and Mallory finds herself swept up in Jennifer’s epic mission to become the first person to contact aliens. As Mallory’s new friend and best friend clash, Mallory is caught between them—with devastating consequences.

Shifting back and forth in time between Jennifer’s arrival in Norwell and the aftermath of her disappearance, Jennifer Chan Is Not Alone depicts the difficult choices many young people face. It takes courage to be yourself instead of fitting in, to do the right thing instead of what feels good, even when you know it’s wrong. Middle school can be the hardest years of a child’s life, and Keller honestly explores many of the reasons why, including bullying, racism and the fear that one false move can bring your whole life tumbling down.

Jennifer Chan Is Not Alone is a frank, thought-provoking, sometimes painful but ultimately uplifting story about looking outside yourself to discover who you really are.

In Jennifer Chan Is Not Alone, Newbery Medalist Tae Keller explores the difficult choice between doing the right thing and doing what feels good, even when it’s wrong.
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For many kids, it would be the ultimate dream come true: to unexpectedly gain superpowers and be able to save the world! Unless, of course, your dad won’t let you.

In Sort of Super, the debut graphic novel by Eric Gapstur, 11-year-old Wyatt Flynn was covered in glowing space dust, doused with nuclear waste and electrocuted—all during a rapid sequence of accidents on “Bring Your Kids to Work Day.” Now he has a ton of amazing abilities, including flight, superspeed, superstrength, super tough skin and invisibility. He also has an overprotective father who will under no circumstances allow Wyatt to be a superhero until he’s at least 36 years old.

After Wyatt, his little sister, Adeline, and their father move in with Wyatt’s grandmother, Wyatt must navigate the ordinary challenges of a new school year while concealing the fact that he’s now, well, a pretty extraordinary kid. It all goes (mostly) smoothly at first, but when animals in town begin mysteriously disappearing, Wyatt enlists the help of un-superpowered but extremely smart Adeline to discover who has been stealing them and why.

Filled with over-the-top action and slapstick humor, Sort of Super is a fantastic graphic novel for younger middle grade readers. Perfect for kids who have moved on from Captain Underpants and Dog Man but are not yet ready for Marvel, DC and other adult superhero comics, Sort of Super introduces many tropes of the genre (hidden identities, secret villains, sidekicks who are better prepared than the superhero, expansive universes) without being trite or condescending toward the reader.

Wyatt and Adeline succeed because of their strength of character and their trust and belief in each other, and Gapstur surrounds them with wonderfully supportive adults. His art is bold and colorful, and it perfectly complements his storytelling and on-point dialogue. Sort of Super is a funny, engaging book that will leave readers eager for more adventures with Wyatt, Adeline and their extraordinary family.

Filled with over-the-top action and slapstick humor, Eric Gapstur’s Sort of Super is a fantastic graphic novel for younger middle grade readers.
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During times of war, every person must make their own choices—and their own sacrifices. In Great or Nothing, a creative retelling of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women co-written by Joy McCullough, Caroline Tung Richmond, Tess Sharpe and Jessica Spotswood, Meg, Jo and Amy March face choices and sacrifices after their sister Beth dies and the United States enters World War II.

The novel opens a few months after Beth’s death. The remaining March sisters have had a bitter falling-out and are scattered across the world. Jo has given up writing and moved to a big-city boardinghouse to work in an airplane factory. Amy has set aside her art, lied about her age and, without telling her family, joined the American Red Cross in London, where she serves as a Clubmobile girl. Meg has remained at home with Marmee to teach high school English and wait for John Brooke to return home from the war.

Each sister struggles with her choices and who she is growing up to become. Amy wrestles with the secret life she’s living, which becomes a bigger issue when she encounters Jo’s friend Laurie in a hospital in England. Jo yearns to write again and to understand how she feels about her adventurous reporter friend, Charlie Yates. Meg feels like she isn’t doing enough for the war effort, isn’t strong enough to hold her family together after Beth’s death and wonders whether marrying John, whom Amy has dismissed as a “boring old fuddy-duddy,” will make her happy. And Beth, who contributes sections in verse from beyond the grave, longs to intervene and wonders whether the choices she made in life were the right ones.

Great or Nothing will be enjoyed equally by devotees of Alcott’s classic novel and by readers who are completely unfamiliar with it. Alcott fans will delight in the creative ways the tale has been adapted to its 1940s setting, and the novel is full of clever Easter eggs.

Impressively, Great or Nothing also tells a cohesive, complete story through four distinct voices in four separate narrative threads, each written by a different author. By the end, readers will feel unique connections to each sister and their motivations, heartbreaks and joys. This is a compelling and tender historical coming-of-age novel with wide appeal.

Great or Nothing, a retelling of Louisa May Alcott's Little Women, explores the choices, heartbreaks and joys of Meg, Jo and Amy March after their sister Beth dies and the U.S. enters WWII.
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Flicker is pretty good, but flare is what everyone really wants, because in Fire Becomes Her, the world runs on flare. The magical substance has made the country of Candesce rich and powerful, but Candesce’s political elite decide who deserves access to the precious resource and who will be left in the dark. 

Like flicker, the illicit, bootleg version of flare, a good education and social connections not enough for 17-year-old Ingrid Ellis. Wealth and power are what she truly desires. Ingrid yearns to leave behind her impoverished childhood, forced to scrape by on bits of flicker just to keep warm. She longs for a life full of the magic, power and opulence available only to those with unlimited access to pure flare. Senator and presidential candidate Walden Holt’s son, Linden, seems to be the perfect way to get there.

As Ingrid pursues and (maybe, she thinks) falls in love with Linden, she is desperate to win his father’s approval. After she makes an impressive but unexpected display of magical strength during a raid at an underground flicker club, Ingrid is invited to join Senator Holt’s campaign. She offers to embed herself as a spy among the opposition and to pass along information that might ensure Holt’s victory. Things become complicated, however, as Ingrid gets to know the policies and ideals of the candidate she’s spying on. Along the way, her own worldview is shaken to its core.

In their second novel, author Rosiee Thor masterfully blends a fantasy setting inspired by the Prohibition era and a plot dripping with political intrigue. Fire Becomes Her thoughtfully explores complex themes including inequality, social hierarchies, families both found and chosen, and the possibility of redemption. Thor takes every opportunity to let these characters be uniquely themselves, and the range of gender identities and sexualities represented, as well as the nuanced forms of attraction and love depicted, are impressive and will be, for some readers, revelatory.

Fire Becomes Her is an imaginative, glittering tale about what it’s like to hold the kind of power that can truly change the world.

Rosiee Thor’s second novel masterfully blends a fantasy setting inspired by the Prohibition era and a plot dripping with political intrigue.
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June CL Tan’s debut novel is the tale of two haunted teens, one by traumatic memories of losing his parents and his rightful claim to the throne, the other by the absence of any memories whatsoever. 

Ahn feels stuck in the small village where she lives with her adoptive grandmother. She struggles to earn—and sometimes steal—enough to survive and grapples with the blank space that is her past. When her illegal magical abilities are discovered, she is brought to the palace, certain that imprisonment and execution will be her fate. 

Meanwhile, Altan is traveling through the country, tracking down and exacting vengeance on the people who murdered his parents and twin sister. Relying on his clan’s training and his friend Tang Wei, Altan is desperate to find the legendary Life Stealer, a person with a rare magical ability that’s integral to Altan’s quest. 

When Ahn’s and Altan’s paths intersect, they soon realize that working together will be more thrilling and more dangerous than either could have predicted.

Jade Fire Gold is a complex and fast-paced fantasy that alternates between Ahn’s and Altan’s perspectives. Readers will be quickly swept up in Ahn’s efforts to discover who she truly is and who she wants to become and in Altan’s battle between self-fulfillment and the personal sacrifice required to serve the greater good. 

The novel is vivid, thrilling and occasionally humorous as it honestly and powerfully explores colonization and oppression, the long-term ramifications of violent conflicts and how easily the truth can be lost when history is written by the victors. This mix of epic storytelling, Chinese mythology and adventure-filled romance marks the arrival of an exciting new voice in young adult fantasy.

This fast-paced fantasy blends Chinese mythology, adventure and romance. It’s an irresistible and exciting debut.
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Have you ever had one of those days where absolutely everything seems to be going wrong and there’s nothing you can do to change it? In Amber Smith’s Code Name: Serendipity, 11-year-old Sadie has been feeling this way all year. Her best friend, Jude, moved to Utah, she’s made an enemy of the meanest girl at her bus stop, her older brother has started acting like “a total butthead,” and something seems off about her grandfather, who recently moved in with Sadie’s family.

Then one day, while walking through the woods behind her house, Sadie hears a small voice in her head calling for help. She follows it and discovers Dewey, a stray dog with whom she somehow has a telepathic connection. Sadie knows that Dewey is just as lost and lonely as she is, so with help from her Gramps, she sets out on her greatest mission ever: convincing her moms to let her adopt Dewey. What Sadie doesn’t know is that this mission will accomplish so much more than she could ever imagine.

Beneath Code Name: Serendipity’s straightforward prose and grounded, almost ordinary conflicts lies a powerful and emotional story. Sadie is a remarkably realistic protagonist, and the challenges she faces are, for the most part, the relatable stuff of everyday life. She’s just received a processing disorder diagnosis and is starting an individualized education plan at school. She’s adjusting to a long-distance friendship with Jude. And she’s worried about all the small ways that her beloved Gramps seems to be changing. Although Sadie and Dewey’s supernatural quest to win over Sadie’s moms propels the plot forward, Smith’s nuanced, reassuring portrayal of Sadie and her family as they navigate a period of uncertainty is what sets this book apart.

Code Name: Serendipity is a warm, appealing novel about a girl who learns that even though it might seem like everything is going wrong, a bad day—or year—can always change for the better.

Amber Smith’s middle grade novel offers a reassuring, emotional story about a girl and her family navigating an uncertain time in their lives.

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.

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