Linda Castellitto

For an entire month in 2018, science journalist Rachel E. Gross’ “vulva had felt on the verge of bursting into flames.” There were few options for contending with, let alone eradicating, the bacterial infection plaguing her nether regions. Her best hope? Boric acid—or, as her doctor put it, “basically rat poison,” which has been used since the 19th century in vaginal suppositories, as well as for killing roaches. Gross’ understandable alarm, as well as her frustration with her own anatomical ignorance, spurred her onto the wide-ranging investigatory journey she chronicles in her engaging and enormously fascinating debut, Vagina Obscura.

Thanks to entrenched sexism, any book about female anatomy and medical history is bound to have physically and psychologically harrowing passages. Gross’ is no exception. After all, it wasn’t until 1993 that a federal mandate forced doctors to include women and minorities in medical research. “Women—and especially women of color, trans women, and women who are sexual minorities—have historically been excluded from this supposedly universal endeavor,” she writes.

In addition to offering valuable historical context about the medical field’s reluctance to properly study cervices, ovaries, uteruses, et al., Vagina Obscura also serves up optimistic evidence for a more equitable future. Gross writes with enthusiasm about pioneering doctors and researchers and shares stories of the people who’ve benefited from their work. To wit: Australian urologist Helen O’Connell’s research on clitoral anatomy laid the foundation for reconstructive surgeries for genital-cutting survivors. Biologist Patty Brennan’s realization that female ducks’ vaginas rotate opposite to males’ corkscrew penises challenged scientific assumptions about copulation. The activism of Cori Smith, a 28-year-old trans man, has drawn attention to trans and nonbinary people with endometriosis. Gender-affirmation surgeon and transgender woman Marci Bowers is “pushing the boundaries of what surgeons can do to give patients the appearance and sensation they desire.”

Gross makes it clear that, if we want to advance our understanding and medical treatment of the human body, it’s going to take a village—one filled with people who are curious, compassionate and persistent. She’s certainly identified lots of them in Vagina Obscura, a book that is impressive in its scope and thrilling in the hope it offers to those whose bodies have previously been overlooked.

Vagina Obscura is impressive in its scope and thrilling in the hope it offers to those whose bodies have been overlooked by the medical establishment.

Stories have the power to change the world, especially in these captivating fantasy tales. The heroes of these books will enthrall and inspire as they battle dark forces and find their paths. 

The Legend of Brightblade by Ethan M. Aldridge book cover

The Legend of Brightblade

Prince Alto lives in a castle perched on a cliff above the seaside village of Dawn’s Bay. His mother is Lady Brightblade, ruler of the land of Skald, a setting splendidly depicted on a map at the beginning of The Legend of Brightblade, a standalone graphic novel by Ethan M. Aldridge.

Skald is enjoying an era of harmony thanks to victories immortalized in song by Master Eluvian, a gifted magical bard, but Lady Brightblade knows that conflict simmers beneath the surface. She’s determined to reach an agreement with Chief Dagda, leader of the trolls, to ensure that their peoples can safely work together toward continued peace and greater prosperity.

Alto, however, finds all of this boring. He just wants to play his mandolin and refine his magical musicianship abilities so he can be a hero someday, too. He’s fortunate to have Master Eluvian as his teacher, but he’s grown impatient with all the practicing. Alto feels ready to make his mark on the world now! After a frustrating conversation with his mother about his princely duties, Alto sneaks out of the castle, a wide grin on his face as he runs headlong into the life he’s been dreaming of.

At a bustling marketplace, Alto is delighted to meet Ebbe, a troll who also creates magic with her music. He’s less delighted when he crosses paths with an angry bard named Fell, who seems to have malevolent intentions. Soon, Alto feels torn between fulfilling his dream of forming a troupe with Ebbe and another bard, Clarabel, and following his instincts about Fell’s sinister plans alone. 

As Ebbe, Clarabel and Alto embark on a cross-country journey, questions mount: Just how angry will Lady Brightblade be at Alto for shirking his royal responsibilities? Will he, Ebbe and Clarabel work well as a trio? And can they stop Fell together before he destroys Skald’s fragile peace? 

Aldridge’s detailed watercolor and ink illustrations bring his tale’s magical jam sessions to life in scenes that burst with color. Each musician’s magic has its own shape and hue. When Alto and Ebbe perform together for the first time, their joy is tangible as the swirling green flames of Alto’s magic swoop and dive around the diamond-shaped notes that flow from Ebbe’s cello. It’s just as affecting when Alto witnesses the purple coils of Fell’s magic surround the objects of his wrath.

Fans of fantasy graphic novels, including Aldridge’s Estranged duology, will revel in The Legend of Brightblade’s gentle humor and spirit of adventure. It’s thrilling to watch these young bards compose their own magical destinies.

The Ogress and the Orphans by Kelly Barnhill book cover

The Ogress and the Orphans

Newbery Medalist Kelly Barnhill’s The Ogress and the Orphans is at once a lovely fairy tale and a striking allegory, a fantastical story imbued with wonder and warmth that pointedly holds a mirror up to societal dysfunction.

The tale unfolds in the little town of Stone-in-the-Glen, which was a wonderful place to live until its library mysteriously burned down. That devastation proved to be a turning point in the town’s history: After the library, other buildings burned, too. Trees died, floods came, and eventually, the omniscient narrator says, “The whole town seemed to scowl.”

When a dashing newcomer arrived and slayed multiple dragons in short order, the beleaguered townspeople of Stone-in-the-Glen were so relieved that they elected him Mayor. Yet he did not rebuild the town nor foster connections among neighbors, and so the residents of Stone-in-the-Glen became entrenched in their isolation and ennui. 

At the Orphan House, however, things are very different. Thanks to Matron, Myron and the 15 children they care for, love still flows through all of its rooms. At the Ogress’ farm on the edge of town, things are different, too. After roaming the world for many human lifetimes, the Ogress has settled down in the hopes of someday feeling that she has found a place to belong. Her best pals, a murder of hilariously self-impressed crows, accompany her on her nighttime trips to anonymously deliver gifts to residents’ doorsteps, a gesture in keeping with her guiding principle, “the more you give, the more you have.” 

The orphans’ and the Ogress’ lives collide when young Cass runs away from the Orphan House and is returned safely by the Ogress. To the orphans’ shock, the Ogress is accused of kidnapping, and the townspeople, led by their devious Mayor, are determined to drive her away. They seem immune to facts and evidence, not to mention completely unwilling to listen to children. Barnhill’s solution to this pernicious problem is an exercise in creativity, strategy, kindness and the power of storytelling that is magnificent to behold.

The Ogress and the Orphans is a delight from start to finish. Barnhill writes at a steady, measured pace, and her magic-infused narrative thoughtfully invites readers to ponder the nature of truth, generosity and community.

Two fantastical books for young readers, Kelly Barnhill's The Ogress and the Orphans and Ethan M. Aldridge's The Legend of Brightblade are captivating enchantments.

Lena Gereghty had a rough go of it in medical school, where burnout and mounting debt drained her motivation. When her Aunt Clare, a renowned specialist in medieval botany, offered her an internship in Italy, Lena pounced on the chance to escape and heal. For two glorious years she felt purpose, joy and even a flickering of renewed passion for medicine.

Alas, those halcyon days suffer an abrupt end at the beginning of debut author Kit Mayquist’s Tripping Arcadia when floundering family finances draw Lena back to Boston. Her father was injured at and fired from work, and her parents desperately need her help. She’s primed to take the first position offered, despite a parade’s worth of red flags at the weirdest job interview ever—assistant to Dr. Prosenko, family physician for the powerful Verdeau family..

Lena soon realizes the Verdeau family secrets go far beyond rich people-eccentric into the realm of downright depraved. While she’s ostensibly meant to help the doctor tend to Jonathan, heir to patriarch Martin’s massive fortune, Lena is soon on duty for debauched parties at the family’s Berkshires mansion. The outfits are stunning, the food plentiful, the drugs slipped into attendees’ drinks so liberally that there’s a room just for treating overdoses.

Lena struggles with culture shock heavily tinged with disgust and frustration: Martin is often cruel yet never challenged; Jonathan is quite ill yet drinks heavily; and his sister, Audrey, is magnetically appealing yet aloof. But Lena’s well paid so she goes along, despite becoming increasingly horrified at what she learns about the Verdeaus.

As Lena plots poisonous revenge (who says internships aren’t useful?), Mayquist embraces the gothic genre with delicious glee, peeling back a shimmery overlay of glamour to expose the rot beneath. With Tripping Arcadia, he has crafted a tale that thrums with eat-the-rich vibes and the exhilarating prospect of a have-not prevailing over the have-everythings. Its reckoning with the state of work in a capitalist society will energize readers, and they’ll be rooting for the flawed yet captivating Lena through every creative twist and dark detail.

Kit Mayquist’s debut is a gothic thriller that thrums with eat-the-rich vibes and the exhilarating prospect of a have-not prevailing over the have-everythings.

Readers who revel in sweet and swoony stories will be won over by this trio of tales that celebrate adoration and affection.

Golden Boys

Gabe, Sal, Reese and Heath have been best friends for as long as they can remember. They’re all high achievers and the only openly gay boys at Gracemont High School. But the summer before their senior year, the Golden Boys are heading off in different directions for the first time. Gabe is volunteering with an environmental nonprofit in Boston; Reese is jetting off to Paris for graphic design classes; Sal’s mom got him an internship with a U.S. senator in Washington, D.C.; and Heath is the newest employee at his aunt’s arcade in Daytona Beach, Florida.

The summer holds plenty to look forward to—even for Heath, whose trip is also an escape from his parents’ impending divorce. But as their group chats indicate, the boys’ futures loom large and nerve-wracking. Might their travels help them figure out what they want to do with their lives, or at least with their last year of high school? Will their tightly knit bonds loosen, fray or even completely unravel?

As in his previous novels, The Gravity of Us and As Far As You’ll Take Me, bestselling author Phil Stamper creates winningly realistic characters who earnestly explore the muzzy space between youth and young adulthood. Readers will root for the foursome to find joy and purpose. Stamper’s detailed depictions of the boys’ summer gigs are fascinating, and their interlocking stories give the narrative a buoyant momentum.

Naturally, there are romantic entanglements afoot as well. Gabe and Sal question whether their friends-with-benefits arrangement is sustainable, while unrequited crushes blossom into real love for . . . no spoilers here! Suffice it to say, there is some smooching amid all the moments of inspiration and revelation as the four boys make their way through a perspective-changing, horizon-broadening summer.

Fools in Love

Do you like your love stories fantastical, or perhaps futuristic? Are you a sucker for a superhero, tantalized by time travel or convinced that one day you’ll have your very own meet-cute with a royal in disguise? Whatever your fancy, Fools in Love: Fresh Twists on Romantic Tales is sure to satisfy. It’s a delightful assemblage of 15 swoonworthy short stories that put fresh spins on classic romance fiction tropes such as “mutual pining” and “the grumpy one and the soft one.” The settings are refreshingly varied, ranging from a space station to a fairy-themed sleepaway camp to a sled race through snowy mountains. There are puppeteers, golf champions, novice magical investigators and an aspiring starship repair engineer, too.

The stories in this romantic treasury were written by a mix of acclaimed and up-and-coming authors including Natasha Ngan, Mason Deaver, Lilliam Rivera, Julian Winters and 2021 National Book Award winner Malinda Lo. Editors Ashley Herring Blake and Rebecca Podos also contribute a story each. The table of contents helpfully delineates not only each author but also the trope included in their story, so that readers can search out their favorites. Of course, they can also just dive right in and let themselves be swept along into the wildly creative worlds the writers have created.

And what worlds they are! In “Boys Noise” by Mason Deaver, two boy band members take an undercover trip to New York City, where they realize love songs just might be in their shared future. A modern-day annoyance—mistaking someone’s car for your rideshare—sets the stage for a shyly sweet flirtation in Amy Spalding’s “Five Stars.” Time travel is both suspenseful and achingly beautiful in Rebecca Barrow’s “Bloom,” while cheesy takes on a hilariously adorable new meaning in Laura Silverman’s “The Passover Date.” Fools in Love truly has something to please anyone and everyone who loves love.

One True Loves

Lenore Bennett’s parents are the epitome of Black excellence. They know the power of a plan and have instilled that ethos in their kids: Wally, their oldest, is going to law school; Lenore is off to New York University; and 10-year-old Etta is taking college classes.

But as Elise Bryant’s One True Loves opens, Lenore, a talented artist with fashion sense to spare, has other things on her mind. First, there’s senior prom, which she’ll attend dateless while dodging her jerk of an ex. After graduation, her family is embarking on a European cruise, which sounds wonderful but also stressful. Lenore’s parents already disparage her for trying lots of things instead of mastering one. What will they say if they discover that she’s been concealing the fact that she is still (gasp!) undecided about her college major?

While on the cruise, Lenore guards her secret and fends off her irrepressible best friend Tessa’s well-intended text-message advice about all things romance, which Lenore treats with great skepticism. She’s also highly irritated when she meets handsome Alex Lee, whose parents hit it off with hers. Lenore’s folks are, naturally, impressed by his carefully laid-out plans for medical school. As the cruise sails on, Lenore’s secret weighs ever heavier on her mind, even as her eye-rolling at Alex turns into meaningful glances. Might there be hope for Lenore to find love and fulfillment?

One True Loves is a heartfelt look at what it’s like to feel different from those closest to you and a cautionary tale about the ways in which people-pleasing affects mental health. It’s a winning companion to Bryant’s 2021 debut, Happily Ever Afters, that stands easily on its own, though fans will enjoy the glimpses into familiar characters’ futures. One True Loves offers warm empathy and wise perspective to readers who, like Lenore, are trying to figure out where—and with whom—they might fit in the big wide world.

Three YA novels capture the agony and the ecstasy of being young and in love.

Delight the teenager on your holiday list with a fabulous graphic novel or gripping true story guaranteed to make them swoon, giggle or gasp.

The Girl From the Sea

For the reader who longs to be carried away on the waves of a fantastical story

In The Girl From the Sea, author-illustrator Molly Knox Ostertag blends myth and realism to create a story about the things we’d rather keep submerged—and what happens when they surface with a splash.

Morgan Kwon is 15 and part of a power clique at her high school that serves as a frothy diversion from her unhappy family life. She’s just biding her time until she can move away from her small island town and finally come out as gay. 

One rainy night at the rocky seaside cliffs that are her favorite place to sit and think, Morgan slips on the wet stones and falls into the water. She’s rescued by a mysterious girl named Keltie, who is kind of cute, really, and an awfully powerful swimmer, but the instant connection between them threatens all the secrets that Morgan’s been carefully concealing from her friends and family. 

Ostertag (The Witch Boy) is an expert at conveying complex emotions and subtly shifting the mood from one panel to the next. Morgan is part of a group text message thread with her friends, which  includes numerous invitations that Morgan declines, at first because of her feelings of loneliness and depression, and later because Keltie is clearly not welcome among the group, even as she and Morgan are tentatively falling for each other. Ostertag initially depicts Morgan’s home life with her stressed mom and angry little brother in stark, silent scenes, but as secrets come to light and Morgan’s family reach out to one another, there’s a warmth to their time together that lifts off the page.

This graphic novel’s narrative flows so smoothly that you might find yourself reading it in one big gulp, and its resolution is bittersweet but hopeful. The Girl From the Sea is a wistful romance that will catch readers by the heart.

—Heather Seggel

Passport

For the reader who has always suspected there was more to their parents than meets the eye

“¿Qué está pasando?” Early in her graphic memoir, Passport, author-illustrator Sophia Glock writes that this phrase—which means “what is going on?”—is her mantra at the Spanish-language immersion high school she attends in Central America. The phrase is a lifeline as Glock navigates the usual challenges of teenage life, but it takes on another meaning when Glock discovers that she is the daughter of CIA agents who have been keeping her in the dark. 

Growing up, Glock lived all over the world because of her parents’ ambiguous “work.” What work is that, exactly? She has no idea. The more questions she asks, the fewer answers she receives. Just keep your head down, her parents tell her. Stay safe, and if you can, why don’t you let us know what your friends’ parents do for a living?

When Glock reads a letter that her older sister, away at college, wrote to their parents, the blanks in her life begin to fill in, though she is too afraid to confront her parents directly. Instead, like any frustrated teen, she exercises her autonomy and starts telling lies of her own. Boys, girls, drinking and partying abound while Glock travels through the gauntlet of adolescence and the tension between her ever-accumulating little lies versus her parents’ one big lie threatens to boil over.

Glock’s depictions of quiet yet consequential moments, such as when she ponders the choices her parents have made, are especially spellbinding. Her sparse, restrained art style evokes the feeling of a memory play, a recollection both real and ethereal. She renders the entire book in only three colors: shades of a reddish pink, a cold blue and white. Her characters aren’t always easily distinguishable from one another, and while that can cause some confusion in the story, the overall effect is satisfying. After all, how much does Glock really know about the people around her? ¿Qué está pasando? In her author’s note, Glock concedes as much. ”These stories are as true as I remember them,” she writes. The CIA’s publication review board nixed some of the particulars of Passport before it was published, which makes the details that did end up in the book all the more dramatic.

A deceptively spare graphic novel chock-full of depth and beauty, Passport is an unusual coming-of-age memoir that’s totally worth the trip. 

—Luis G. Rendon

★ The Dire Days of Willowweep Manor

For the reader who loves spooky castles and fears no gothic terror, not even marauding zombie bunnies

Haley is so exuberantly dedicated to gothic romances that her exasperated teacher orders her to stop writing book reports on Wuthering Heights (and no, she cannot do an interpretive dance about it instead!). After school, Haley sets out for home in the rain, and lo! As she stands on a bridge, dramatically sighing, she sees a man struggling in the dark waters below. She dives in to rescue the floundering fellow, conks out after her exertions and awakens abed in Willowweep Manor, attended by a dour housekeeper named Wilhelmina. Have Haley’s period-piece dreams come true? 

Turns out, Haley has indeed been inadvertently catapulted into a world much like those in her beloved books. There’s a castle (complete with “baleful catacombs” and an on-site ghost) and verdant moors, as well as three handsome brothers—stoic Laurence, brooding Montague and vacuous Cuthbert—who took her in after she saved Montague from drowning.

But Haley soon discovers another side to Willowweep. It’s a gasket universe, a liminal space between Earth and an evil dimension laden with a substance called bile that destroys everything in its globby, neon green path. Can Haley help the brothers fend off the encroaching forces of darkness before it’s too late? 

The Dire Days of Willowweep Manor is a hoot right from the get-go, but when everyone bands together to defend the manor, author Shaenon K. Garrity’s tale becomes ever more hilarious and exciting. Humorous metafictional quips fly hither and yon as the characters take up arms, squabble over strategy and realize they’ve got to break a few rules (and defy a few tropes) if they want to prevail. 

Christopher Baldwin’s art is full-bore appealing. He has an excellent command of color: Brooding browns underlie characters’ stress while sky blues highlight Haley’s growing confidence. Facial expressions are little comedies unto themselves, including horses who side-eye Cuthbert’s silliness, and slack-faced bile-addled bunnies who adorably chant “Destroy.” 

The Dire Days of Willowweep Manor celebrates and satirizes a beloved genre while encouraging readers to defy the rules and become the heroes of their own stories.

—Linda M. Castellitto

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Looking for something to please a choosy teen reader? Look no further than these gripping graphic tales.

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