Nicole Brinkley

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Without any career prospects after grad school, Alicia finds her dead-end retail job tolerable only because of two co-workers she sort-of calls friends: bright, bubbly Heaven and jaded, focused Mars. After a rare appearance at one of Heaven’s parties, Alicia tries to return to the Toronto apartment she shares with her mother only to be waylaid by River Mumma, the ethereal Jamaican spirit of the water. Somebody has stolen her comb, and if Alicia doesn’t return it to her in 24 hours, River Mumma will leave this world and take all her waters with her.

Unmoored by the request, Alicia sets off to find the thief. But as visions from her ancestors begin to overwhelm her, and wicked spirits called duppies start to chase down her and her friends, Alicia will need to choose a path, step into her family legacy and go where the river takes her.

Millennial ennui and Jamaican legend intertwine in Zalika Reid-Benta’s propulsive debut novel, River Mumma. Alicia’s quest rests on folk medicine and the oft-buried spirituality of diasporic communities, which Reid-Benta juxtaposes against modern issues of social media and poorly organized subway lines, but also uses to lend a mythic tone to her tale of young people struggling to find their purpose in a big city. 

The robust cast of characters, from Heaven’s spiritualist friend, Oni, to the creepy Whooping Boy duppy, keep the story feeling fresh as Alicia catapults between past and present, though River Mumma rightfully takes center stage with each appearance. “Water heals, water nourishes, water has power,” as Heaven declares, and Alicia’s family ties to the water spirit offer her a guiding light through the choppy seas of her late 20s. Ultimately, Alicia, Heaven and Mars learn to embrace the fullness of life over the apathy that helped them survive a mundane day to day. While these themes get lost on occasion, especially in the chaos of duppy attacks, the adventure along the way is worth a sometimes bumpy ride.

For those entranced by folkloric fantasy, and for fans of N.K. Jemisin and Kat Howard, River Mumma will be a must-read.

Millennial ennui and Jamaican legend intertwine in Zalika Reid-Benta's propulsive debut novel, River Mumma.
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Tony Keith Jr. started writing poems at age 13, and by his senior year of high school in 1999, he’s a well-liked kid with a beautiful girlfriend, a poet voted Prom King and the first in his family to go to college.

But Keith’s perfect life is an illusion: His family is struggling financially after his mother split from father; his grades aren’t high enough to get into college without effort; and he sees the Boogeyman everywhere he goes. Keith’s attempts to hide his Blackness and his gayness warp him into something he cannot recognize and give rise to the Boogeyman, which “is after [his] Blackness.” As high school ends, Keith needs to figure out who he is and if he can embrace what he has tried so hard to reject.

Now a spoken word poet and a hip-hop educational leader, Keith explores his adolescence in How the Boogeyman Became a Poet (Katherine Tegen, $19.99, 9780063296008), a memoir-in-verse that includes poems he wrote in high school as well as photos of teenage Keith.

Keith’s love of poetry and language—and the power of wielding both—radiates from the pages. Beginning in his teen years, he rejects the notion that he must write like the white authors his English teacher loves and embraces the African American vernacular he speaks, refusing to compromise on its validity. Keith reflects that “spending time with [his] poems must be like those therapy sessions [he] see[s] white folks go to in the movies,” and ultimately it is his poetry that wards off the Boogeyman and empowers him to embrace his personal truths. Keith builds a strong personal community—”him: me: us: we”—even as he moves between friend groups in college, giving him a place he can return to and people he can fight for. 

Though the details of the memoir—placing CD-ROMs in a shared family computer and sneakily paying for a subscription for AOL Instant Messenger—firmly place Keith’s life in the ‘90s, the things Keith endures will resonate with contemporary teenagers. The challenges of college, the struggles of understanding sexual identity, and the pressure to conform as a gay and Black person in a world that centers heterosexuality and whiteness are still relevant. Teens will find solace in his survival and flourishing as well as obtaining a glimpse of a fascinating time gone by.

Keith’s strong on-page voice will leave readers wanting to listen to his spoken word performances, but for those who prefer text, pair How the Boogeyman Became a Poet with Black Flamingo by Dean Atta, All Boys Aren’t Blue by George M. Johnson or Disorientation: Being Black in the World by Ian Williams.

The depiction of struggling through a world that centers heterosexuality and whiteness in How the Boogeyman Became a Poet will resonate with contemporary teenagers.
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Between jobs, Roy DeCarava would pop a new film canister into his black-and-white camera and capture the day-to-day lives of the neighborhood he called home: Harlem. As he photographed the world around him—from a young Black boy drawing with sidewalk chalk, to a sunlit Black woman standing in a white dress, or an older Black painter selling his work on the street—DeCarava amassed a world-renowned collection that honored his Harlem neighbors. 

Everywhere Beauty Is Harlem: The Vision of Photographer Roy DeCarava is the first book written about the life of the essential American photographer. Award-winning illustrator E.B. Lewis pays tribute by reenvisioning DeCarava’s iconic photographs as full-color paintings, imagining what DeCarava may have seen in the seconds before the film captured a moment forever in black and white. Playful juxtaposition of opposing concepts in the text, such as using eyes to listen or hungering for something that isn’t food, keeps the narrative bouncing forward. Emphasis on DeCarava’s search for beauty in every element of ordinary life—marked by the camera’s repeated “SNAP!”—provides a grounded base for relating to the photographer. Everywhere Beauty Is Harlem inspires readers to “look slowly” and discover a deep love for the everyday moments in their lives. After all, as author Gary Golio writes, “Life is how you look at it.” 

Quotes from DeCarava appear throughout Golio’s precise narrative text as well as a short biography in the backmatter that adds illuminating context and includes a statement by DeCarava himself, in which he proudly proclaims his intent to dignify Black lives and experiences through his work. A robust timeline puts into perspective the social and cultural changes that Harlem would have experienced throughout DeCarava’s life. Though the book lacks any of DeCarava’s actual photography, the biography and images of DeCarava and his camera will spark eagerness in readers for additional information. 

Everywhere Beauty Is Harlem honors a classic artist in a biographical picture book both beautiful and educational. Fans of Lesa Cline-Ransome or Carole Boston Weatherford will find this a worthy addition to their picture book collection.

This beautiful biographical picture book about the essential American photographer Roy DeCarava will inspire readers to “look slowly” and discover a deep love for the everyday moments in their lives.
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The Unnatural History Museum may be falling apart, but it’s Kess Pedrock’s home and contains almost everything she loves: mysterious and magical skeletons from Eelgrass Bog, her petulant and perpetually busy brother, and her best friend Jim, a demon trapped as a jarred shrunken head. Only her parents are missing, but maybe, when they come back from their trip in Antarctica, they can save the museum. Until then, it’s up to Kess.

One day, the museum finally receives a visitor in the form of a girl named Lilou Starling, who later reveals that her grandfather died and left her a mysterious map with a cryptic puzzle scrawled on its back. This puzzle can only be solved by venturing into the bog itself. Despite Jim’s warnings, Kess sets off with Lilou, determined to both save the Unnatural History Museum and impress her new friend. But between the burning watch fires and eccentric witches, Kess discovers that more of her life is tied up in the bog than she could ever have anticipated. And digging too deep might destroy the one thing she’s trying to save.

Mary Averling bewitches with her debut middle grade novel, The Curse of Eelgrass Bog, which straddles the line between slimy and sweet, concocting a fantasy world that balances snarky demons, magical bogs, concerned witches and awe-inspiring serpents.

The mystery left behind by Lilou’s grandfather will keep even the sharpest readers on their toes, leaving them gasping as the perfectly paced story comes to a head. Averling handles Kess’ emotional struggles—particularly her fluttery feelings toward her newfound friend, as well as her simultaneous sense of obligation toward and longing for her missing parents—with a nuanced yet optimistic lens that will endear Kess to readers.

Whimsically creepy, The Curse of Eelgrass Bog will delight middle grade fans, especially those who loved Claribel Ortega’s The Witchlings or Jacqueline Davies’ The International House of Dereliction. Readers who love fantastical stories—or digging for magical bones in the dirt—should add this to their shelves.

Mary Averling bewitches with her debut middle grade novel, The Curse of Eelgrass Bog, which straddles the line between slimy and sweet, concocting a fantasy world that balances snarky demons, magical bogs, concerned witches and awe-inspiring serpents.
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No role in the Temple is more highly prized than that of Herald: a human who lives among the gods and once a year, escorts an immortal through the Mirror into the mortal world to usher in a new season. Tirne relishes her position as Autumn’s Herald and will do anything to keep the role, from neglecting her friends to hiding her debilitating migraines.

But this year, when Tirne touches the Mirror, it shatters, trapping both her and the god in the mortal world. The resulting endless autumn and the crop failures that come with it aren’t the only things Tirne has to fear. The leaders of the Temple think she destroyed the Mirror on purpose and strip her of her duties. They keep an eye on her for traitorous behavior—when they aren’t bottling her blood to test on the Mirror.

The longer Tirne stays in the mortal world, the worse her headaches will get and the more human Autumn will become. If the Temple can’t figure out who shattered the Mirror, Tirne will. But as she digs, Tirne discovers lies that wrap around not only the Temple, but around the gods themselves.

Author Amy Avery pulls from Greek mythology to create the languid, fantastical setting of The Longest Autumn. The four gods of the seasons, their estranged father and a fallen god with shadowbeasts at his call are the foundation of the complex world of the Temple, and fans of Grecian-inspired fantasies will enjoy the compelling—if unevenly paced—story that unfolds within it.

As in the Hellenistic myths that influenced it, sex is at the forefront of The Longest Autumn, with near-constant discussion around who Autumn is courting, which of Tirne’s friends are sleeping together and who Tirne herself finds attractive. Sexual and romantic identities of all kinds are welcome in the Temple, but rarely do more erotic details make the page, placing this novel low on the proverbial spice scale. Rather, Avery is preoccupied with the messy politicking of religion, and Tirne’s decisions are largely driven by social turmoil between her friends and her unstable alliances, rather than romance.

Where Avery really excels is world building, which is original throughout. Tirne manages her chronic pain with medicine but also alchemical concoctions made from magical blood, the fascinating details of which impact the plot without detracting from Tirne’s dismantling of the stories she’s been told and the lies about the seasonal gods.

The Longest Autumn will appeal to fans of Jennifer Saint’s Elektra or fantasy readers looking for something quiet and character-driven.

The Longest Autumn will appeal to fans of Jennifer Saint’s Elektra or fantasy readers looking for something quiet and character-driven.
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As the apprentice to Mestra Aronne, 11-year-old Cinzia knows that strength lies in telling the truth. Together, she and Mestra Aronne print avvisi: hand-created newspapers that update the bustling city of Siannerra on the latest news.

When Mestra Aronne announces in an avvisi that the principessa’s brother is stealing money from hardworking citizens, she and Cinzia are dragged to the palazzo to be charged with treason. Cinzia manages to escape, returning to Siannerra with the help of the principessa’s strange but passionate daughter, Elena. Together, they set off to find evidence that Mestra Aronne was telling the truth and save her from jail, with the help of a pirate girl and her gang. Can Cinzia convince the people of Siannerra to help stop censorship in their city? 

The first collaboration between New York Times bestselling author Marieke Nijkamp and debut illustrator Sylvia Bi, Ink Girls pulls inspiration from Italian history as it explores the power of truth. The central issue of censorship is the most obvious echo of our modern era, but other subplots—including how city leadership can fail to consider marginalized groups, and how “not every family knows how to be a family”—also make this historical fantasy graphic novel feel fresh and relevant. 

Bi excels with spreads of the vast cityscape, and her charming illustrations feature inclusive character designs, though some of the panels are drawn at awkward angles. This shouldn’t be an issue for anything but the more eagle-eyed readers: the plot, pacing and colors are compelling enough to keep the story moving forward. 

Although the ending wraps up perhaps too neatly for a book with political themes, there is no doubt that readers will feel inspired. Back matter explains how avvisi actually once existed in Italy, and while the city of Siannerra isn’t real, Nijkamp and Bi hope their fictional girls can provide motivation to improve the real world. 

Ink Girls will resonate with readers facing censorship in their own communities, while also delighting those just looking for a historical adventure. Hand this to fans of Netflix’s The Sea Beast or pair with Niki Smith’s The Deep & Dark Blue and Ru Xu’s NewsPrints as stories featuring girl gangs and political intrigue. 

Ink Girls will resonate with readers facing censorship in their own communities, while also delighting those just looking for a historical adventure.
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tree. In order to get more fruit, Baby Bear needs to climb. As he begins to make the long trek up the tree, he runs into other red creatures: a tiny caterpillar, a frisky squirrel and a rambunctious hive of bees. Still, there is no fruit to be found!

But what’s that coming up over the horizon? It’s big and red and beautiful, and Baby Bear leaps to grab it—but tumbles back down to the world below, passing his newfound friends and falling back into the safety of Mama Bear’s arms.

Curiosity is the driving force behind Lee Gee Eun’s picture book The Red Fruit, which captures the natural wonder that all kids experience through Baby Bear’s desire to see what fruits he can find at the top of the tree. The book’s message doesn’t need to be subtle to be sweet: If kids try something and fall, their own Mama Bear (or the equivalent parental figure in their life) will be there to catch them.

Lee’s international honors include the Bologna Ragazzi Award. Her black-and-white artwork shines in The Red Fruit, where her minimalist illustrations create a landscape that feels wide despite the book’s trim size. Baby Bear’s quirky facial expressions are adorable and perfectly portray a child’s unbridled inquisitiveness. Lee’s splashes of red and yellow against the monochrome world will offer a great introduction to color for parents and teachers looking to educate.

Pair this sweet and beautifully illustrated story with Cat Min’s Shy Willow, Corey R. Tabor’s Mel Fell, and Grace Lin’s A Big Mooncake For Little Star for story times that explore the risks and rewards of curiosity.

The Red Fruit captures the natural wonder that all kids experience through Baby Bear’s desire to see what fruits he can find at the top of the tree.
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Aniana del Mar knows how to keep a secret. At her papi’s insistence, Ani keeps her swim meets and the medals she wins hidden from her mami, who fears the water after a hurricane destroyed her home and killed her brother. So when Ani’s body starts to ache, her joints swelling and her limbs radiating with pain, it’s not a difficult decision for Ani to keep it all a secret in order to continue swimming.

But then one morning, Ani wakes up in so much pain that she cannot move, and her life changes irrevocably. To help her doctors understand what might be happening, Ani must reveal to them—and to her mami—the truth about swimming. After Ani is diagnosed with juvenile idiopathic arthritis (JIA), she feels as though she’s losing her swim team, her ability to focus in school and her mami’s trust. She clings to her hope of getting back in the water, but how can she convince her family to let her swim again when all they seem to do is worry? 

Characters with chronic pain are underrepresented in children’s literature, and in Aniana del Mar Jumps In, Dominican American debut author Jasminne Mendez offers a welcome addition to this small but growing group. The novel has many strengths, including Mendez’s excellent portrayal of Ani’s family and skillful juxtaposition of Ani’s religious mother with her more spiritual godmother, but it shines brightest in Mendez’s approach to writing about Ani’s JIA.

Ani’s initial realization that her aches aren’t typical, her choice to conceal her pain and the spiraling effects of that choice all offer realistic glimpses of what it’s like to deal with chronic illness at a young age. After her diagnosis, Ani struggles with the disconnect between how everyone around her treats her—as someone who is courageous but fragile—and the fact that she views herself as a girl who isn’t brave, but just “managing [her] life now.” Her realization that she’ll never be able to return to being “Old Ani” is reassuring and empowering. In a poem titled “New Ani,” she reflects, “New Ani knows that this is her body and she can / decide what to do with it. // New Ani is learning that she is strong enough, / like Galveston, to survive storm surges and sea sickness.”

Mendez conveys all of this through clever, accessible narrative verse. She makes creative use of added space between words, lines and letters (l i k e  so), as well as capitalization (“DriBbLe CrOsSoVeR / SHOOT!”). Young readers will not only immediately recognize many of these techniques from their own text messages but also be able to easily replicate them within their own poetry. For those especially eager to try their hand, Mendez includes a short guide to the various poetic forms she employed.

Aniana del Mar Jumps In will be enjoyed by aspiring poets and readers who like moving novels in verse such as Jasmine Warga’s Other Words for Home and Andrea Beatriz Arango’s Iveliz Explains It All. It will strike an even deeper chord with any reader who, like Ani, has experienced chronic pain—even if they try not to let it show.

Debut author Jasminne Mendez offers a welcome portrayal of a young protagonist navigating chronic pain in this accessible and empowering novel in verse.
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Second-generation Syrian American Khadija Shaami lives to buck the expectations of others, especially her overbearing mother. She loves driving her huge, luxurious Mercedes-Benz G-wagon, has decked out her bedroom with Syrian flags and artwork and is the only Muslim girl who boxes at her gym. Leene Taher, a refugee from Syria, seems to embody all the stereotypes Khadija wants to defy. Leene is a respectful, diligent daughter who’s grieving the loss of her father and brother while trying her best to fit in and make friends in a new country. When Khadija’s mother invites Leene and her mother to live with them and all but insists that the girls become friends, both are positive that it will never happen.

Yet as time passes, Khadija and Leene realize that their differences might be useful to each other. Khadija can help Leene find her place in America, and Leene can help Khadija placate her mother and earn permission to travel abroad next summer. But as the two begin to reveal their secrets to each other, an opportunity arrives that could heal their families and cement their friendship—if they’re brave enough to pursue it.

The Next New Syrian Girl is a heartbreaking but hopeful story about two girls trying to do right by their families while finding their own independent paths. Syrian American debut author Ream Shukairy balances moments of joy—scenes at Khadija’s boxing gym, shared rides in the car that Leene dubs “the Tank” and a particularly funny reference to popular professional wrester John Cena—with weighty themes, including grief, depression, suicide, racism and war.  

The book’s brightest light is Shukairy’s depiction of how Khadija and Leene embrace their identities and come to value their unique passions and dreams. Their distinct voices flow well together within the novel’s dual-narrative structure, offering portrayals of two young women who refuse to let simplistic definitions rule their lives. This refusal is often literal, as Khadija frequently offers up dictionary-style vocabulary explanations before countering them with her own perspective, and Leene is equally fascinated by the concept of semantics, “the meaning of words based on context.” 

The Next New Syrian Girl could be more consistently paced—it’s front-loaded with repetitious details and races through its back half—but the large cast of supporting characters provides ample rewards. Standouts include Khadija’s emotionally complex mother and her kindhearted crush at the gym. Shukairy skillfully illuminates the many ways that Khadija’s and Leene’s lives are shaped by the presence and the absence of loved ones, and these dynamics lead to rich contrasts throughout. 

For readers who enjoy heart-wrenching, character-driven novels, The Next New Syrian Girl establishes Shukairy as a new author to watch. 

Ream Shukairy’s portrayal of two young women who refuse to let simplistic definitions rule their lives establishes her as a new author to watch.
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Seventeen-year-old Alonda is a straight-A student who never gets in trouble and does whatever her strict, overprotective guardian, Teresa, asks of her—all while keeping her dreams locked up tight inside. But when the sweltering June heat has her fleeing to the window of her Coney Island apartment in search of a cool breeze, Alonda spots something that sends those dreams tumbling out into the open: four teens practicing professional wrestling on the playground below.

It takes Alonda a week to work up the nerve, but she introduces herself to the ragtag group, and soon she’s joining them. In between her chores and her new job at a nearby amusement park, Alonda cuts promos (the speeches that establish characters and the personal stakes of matches), perfects hip tosses and hurricaranas and forms deep friendships with King, Lexi, Spider and Pretzel. But figuring out her own wrestling persona, the titular Alondra, is harder, because Alonda isn’t sure what she wants. Is it to wrestle in front of a crowd of adoring fans? Is it doing what her mother, who died when Alonda was 7, would have wanted? Is it to pursue her attraction to King, the handsome self-proclaimed antihero of their group, or her feelings for Lexi, the artistic in-ring superhero?

Award-winning playwright Gina Femia’s first YA novel, Alondra, is a fast-paced, queer homage to summer in Brooklyn. Alonda and her band of hardworking misfit wrestlers are well-crafted and grounded, and Femia captures their close connections as she places them in dramatic yet familiar situations: making art, fighting with parents and caregivers, deciding what college to attend and exploring who they could be if they allowed themselves to be anything. Readers will yell, cringe and cheer as Alonda finds her bisexuality and her voice, as her friends find their footing as a troupe and as her guardian, Teresa, finds self-confidence after years of shouldering her burdens alone.

Alondra is set in 2015, which prevents Femia from referencing the numerous female professional wrestlers who achieved widespread popularity after shifts in the industry, beginning in 2016, resulted in greater support of female talent. Instead, readers will find mentions of figures such as John Cena, Eddie Guerrero and AJ Lee, which may make the novel feel dated for teens deep in the wrestling fandom. However, Alonda’s love for wrestling’s technical aspects, from the way her friends edit their video packages to the bruises she earns while squaring up with Lexi, shines through and acts as the perfect backdrop for her internal struggles with identity.

Like the best professional wrestling performances, Alondra is a heartfelt story that provides a realistic yet blissful experience.

In this heartfelt novel, Alonda joins a group of teens practicing professional wrestling and confronts questions of identity and desire in and out of the ring.
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Noah doesn’t know what to do since his best friend, Lewis, died in a car crash—not that anybody else knew Lewis by that name. Like Lewis, Noah is transgender, but it was a secret they kept just between them, and with Lewis gone, Noah can’t talk about his feelings with anybody . . . except, maybe, Mothman. 

Lewis believed in the cryptid, a humanoid figure with enormous wings first spotted in West Virginia in 1966, but Noah didn’t. Now Noah has come up with the perfect way to honor Lewis’ memory: He’s going to prove that Mothman is real for the sixth-grade science fair. He sets up an old camera to record potential appearances, researches Mothman sightings near his Pennsylvania town and writes letters to Mothman to try and get to know him better. But as Noah starts to think he understands a little of what it means to be a monster, he finds his efforts increasingly mocked by his classmates—except for three new friends who want to help. If Noah is brave enough to trust them with the truest parts of himself, maybe Mothman will show his face—or maybe Noah will find the strength to go looking for Mothman himself.

Robin Gow’s novel in verse is destined to join the growing ranks of queer children’s literature classics. Told through Noah’s thoughts and notes to Mothman, Dear Mothman is an affirming ode to queerness and a haunting, beautiful story about what it means to be different.

Noah’s fascination with Mothman begins as a desperate attempt to remain connected to the only person who truly understood him, but it comes to represent what it means to be a creature hiding in the world. Through his project, Noah finds the strength to move beyond a passive existence and do what Mothman cannot: show himself to the world. “What can I do / to show them what Mothman is like? / What I am really like?” Noah wonders. “Then, do I really want to show my class everything? // To show them everything / not just about Mothman / but what being a monster means— / how it’s like being a queer person? / That I’m a queer person. // The beauty of the unknown darkness / and wild magic / of a creature / so few people get to see.”

Queer and neurodivergent childhood experiences deepen this stunning exploration of identity. Noah’s new friends role-play as wolves on the playground despite being “too old” for such activities. Noah worries about his friends judging his emotionally overloaded outbursts and frets that they won’t want to hang out with him anymore. The whole group struggles to explain to their parents how differently they feel from the other children in their class—and how differently they feel from their parents.

Dear Mothman offers a beautiful and moving glimpse into the world of a child who deserves understanding and appreciation, but far more importantly, it’s a breath of fresh air for any queer reader. Noah’s journey honors all parts of the queer experience, regardless of how public that experience may be. This is a book that will make readers feel seen and, ultimately, leave their hearts full.


Read our interview with Robin Gow, who explores grief, queer identity and one of North America’s most beloved cryptids in Dear Mothman.

As it honors all parts of the queer experience, this book will make readers feel seen and leave their hearts full.
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When his parents decide they need private time to “talk,” 11-year-old Simon and his sisters, Talia and Rose, end up at their grandmother’s century-old house for the week. Nanaleen’s house used to be a comforting place, but now it feels wrong: It smells like wet towels, there’s a scritch-scritch-scritching sound in the walls, and the water stain above Simon’s bed keeps getting bigger. Worst of all, Simon could swear there’s a ghost. He sees it in the shadows of photographs and the dark corners of rooms, and he knows it’s coming for them.

In order to save his family, Simon convinces his sisters to hunt for ghosts, the way they did when they were younger. But sleuthing feels impossible amid Simon’s anxieties about his family, Talia’s abandonment of him to spend time with a cute new friend and Nanaleen’s worsening forgetfulness. Then Simon finds an old photograph of Nanaleen’s sister Brie, who went missing during her senior year of high school. Maybe she’s the ghost that’s haunting Simon—or maybe it’s all that’s gone unspoken in this stressed-out family.

“Too often, when adults talk about ‘protecting’ kids from certain things, it really feels like they’re just trying to protect themselves from having a slightly uncomfortable conversation.” Read our Q&A with Lin Thompson about The House That Whispers.

There are no real ghosts in Lin Thompson’s The House That Whispers. Instead, the novel is a thoughtful, satisfying exploration of how secrets can weigh on the soul. Many concealments weave in and out of the narrative: Simon’s gender identity and new name, which he has yet to share with his family; Talia’s Sapphic feelings for her friend; Nanaleen’s declining health; and the underlying threat of a potential divorce between Simon’s uncommunicative parents.

Initially, the metaphorical haunting gives Simon a distraction from addressing all the problems around him, but eventually it leads to the discovery of his queer family legacy. His great-aunt Brie’s spiritual presence becomes a comfort for Simon (and Talia), proving the power of queer history to strengthen and encourage. Though not the spooky tale that some kids may wish for, The House That Whispers will still please readers of emotional middle grade fiction.

There are no real ghosts in Lin Thompson’s The House That Whispers. Instead, it’s a thoughtful, satisfying exploration of how secrets can weigh on the soul.
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Of all the creatures in Milkweed Meadow, the most gifted storyteller is Butternut. She’s one of nine rabbit siblings and by far the most anxious of the bunch. With “brambles” of disaster scenarios running wild through her mind, Butternut knows she has to use her intelligence—what her protective grandmother calls her “milkweed”—to survive in a world where she could be attacked by dangerous predators.

Butternut, however, can’t stop thinking about the creatures in the world around her and how their lives affect one another. When she tries to help some squirrels in need, a rascally blue jay steals one of her warren’s treasures, and Butternut’s defensive brambles momentarily disappear in a fit of fury. Although she considers herself a coward, Butternut climbs a fence and steals the treasure back, and along the way makes friends with a robin fledgling. 

As other creatures in the meadow begin to listen to her stories, Butternut finds herself questioning some of her grandmother’s advice and begins to build interspecies bonds despite the prejudices of her family—and the families of her new friends. And when disaster strikes, she must put aside what she’s been told in order to do what she knows is right.

With charming black-and-white illustrations from Caldecott Medalist Doug Salati (Hot Dog), Elaine Dimopoulos’ middle grade novel reckons with the realistic challenges of an untamed animal’s life while preserving the magic of wilderness. Butternut narrates the cozy woodland story with cheeky asides to the reader about how stories work: how she’s going to hold some information to build tension, and how she hopes you’ll love her cast of characters. Ultimately, readers will be left with the impression that, if they can be brave and put aside their stigmas, they too can have an adventure worthy of an audience the size of a meadow.

Young readers who squirm when bad things happen to animals will need to avoid this one: The novel starts with a blue jay stealing and eating a robin’s egg, and later, a car strikes a young mother coyote and leaves her pups orphaned. Children who understand the risky truths of living wild, however, The Remarkable Rescue at Milkweed Meadow will be left with a deep desire to become wildlife rehabilitators—and maybe convince their parents to start on that journey too. 

Readers will be left with the impression that, if they can be brave, they too can have an adventure worthy of an audience the size of a meadow.

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