Sara Beth West

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Kacen Callender dedicates their first foray into young adult fantasy, Infinity Alchemist, to “the younger me who always wanted to write a YA fantasy.” While this might make one imagine a teenage Callender dreaming of a future as an author, Callender explains it is actually in reference to their early days of their career, when they struggled to write fantasy. “It was very difficult at that time, for whatever reason, to get the story out,” they say. ”Infinity Alchemist had been percolating for a lot of years, so it felt like a massive triumph for me to finally write it.”

What made this book such a challenge in those early days? Callender points to their struggle to pull together all the many necessary threads of this narrative into a cohesive storyline: “I didn’t quite understand plotting yet. Now, hopefully, I do.”

Some readers might view this focus on plot and action as a departure from Callender’s previous books, which are character-driven and move at a slower tempo, titles that might be deemed “quiet” by the publishing industry. In Infinity Alchemist, “there’s a lot of fighting scenes, a lot of explosive battles, a lot of excitement, alongside the emotional depth,” Callender says. Yet with its theme of learning about one’s self-worth, Infinity Alchemist still has a characteristic Callender feeling to it.  “With all of my books, I tend to focus on a theme, some sort of internal healing and a message that I hope will resonate with readers,” they say.

Read our review of ‘Infinity Alchemist.’ 

One of the guiding principles of the fantasy world of Infinity Alchemist is that everyone has equal access to alchemy, but people still experience different degrees of success in learning alchemy, often due to the deliberate manipulation of the system by those in power. Protagonist Ash Woods is unusually gifted, but he has been denied access to the training that would make his power legitimate. Regarding the tension that creates, Callender says, “For me, it was always important that there not be a Chosen One, to include the idea that everyone is powerful and everyone is magical, and everyone is Chosen in the eyes of the Source or the Creator or what have you. I wanted to explain how power is internal; power is realizing that you are worthy without being gaslit by the idea of societal power.” But Callender adds: “You can feel power for yourself and feel that self-worth, but there are still other people who have the power to decide that you aren’t worthy. I wanted those different versions of power to be in conversation.”

“I wanted to explain how power is internal; power is realizing that you are worthy without being gaslit by the idea of societal power.”

Callender has a history of telling the stories of characters whose identities aren’t often represented in media, and Infinity Alchemist continues that work with a diverse cast of queer, trans, and polyamorous characters. Ramsay Thorne, for instance, is genderfluid, and the book seamlessly shifts pronouns throughout the character’s arc. This technique foregrounds Ramsay’s story more than Ramsay’s pronouns. “Ramsay comes to life in that way because it is going to be different for every reader, depending on where they last left the character. For example, I’m writing the sequel now, so for me the last I saw Ramsay, he was using he/him pronouns. But for you, having just read Infinity Alchemist, she was using she/her pronouns.”

Whether through the use of shifting pronouns or depicting a trusting polyamorous relationship, Callender’s work makes more visible the lived realities of countless people, and Infinity Alchemist is flooded with empathy and compassion. “That’s one of the great beauties of being able to write about these identities,” Callender says, as they explain how the imaginative act of reading allows anyone to “become” a character. “Even though you as a reader might not ever understand all the ways an identity can work, you can for a moment become that queer Black trans kid, and you’re understanding all of their wounds and their traumas and their grief and their healing.”

Callender builds on this idea: “Regardless of identity, that’s where a character is built: inside the idea that we all have these wounds that we either inherited or experienced. From my perspective, life is the story arc of healing those wounds.”

“That’s where a character is built: inside the idea that we all have these wounds that we either inherited or experienced.”

That wisdom comes through in every page of Infinity Alchemist. In the book, as Ash and Ramsay are coming to trust each other, Ramsay lists some of Ash’s more frustrating qualities, claiming him to be “selfish . . . and hot-tempered, and irrational, and you act without thinking.” Then Ramsay pivots to Ash’s kindness and curiosity, explaining, “It’s lazy to put a multifaceted human being, created from the alchemy of the universe, into a box of good or bad. No one is only one of the two.” When I ask Callender about the apt specificity of “lazy” here, they laugh and agree that it’s the perfect word. “It’s easy to decide that someone is good or bad instead of wanting to do the work. It’s a lot of work to look at a person and consider their traumas and wounds and all that has built them to be the person who they are today.”

We closed our time by discussing the relationships depicted in Infinity Alchemist and the way “polyamory reflects the concept of healing in the book, where everyone is worthy of love, and the idea that love cannot be limited.” Callender says, “I understand that some readers might ask why polyamory, or might not understand what it is as an identity. But it’s my hope that as there are more books with the topic of polyamory, it will be more accepted.”

Acceptance, self-worth, healing, love. “What’s better than that?” I ask, to which Callender replies, “Exactly.”

Photo of Kacen Callender by Bella Porter.

Having conquered several other genres, the acclaimed author discusses their young adult fantasy debut, Infinity Alchemist.
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Between the years of 1955 and 1958, Italian author Gianni Rodari wrote two newspaper columns for children: “The Mailbox of Whys” and “The Book of Whys.” With delightful illustrations by JooHee Yoon, The Book of Whys revisits Rodari’s whimsical responses to questions sent in by children throughout Italy. In a brief introduction, translator Antony Shugaar explains that Rodari replied not only “with the simplest and soberest of answers” but also “with wild imaginings that utterly reframed conventional thought until a purer logic shone through.”

The collection begins with a question sure to captivate young readers: “Why are grownups always right?” Rodari’s endearing rhymed verse response concludes with a confirmation “that ‘grownups’ are always right / Except for when they’re wrong.” This willingness to engage with uncertainty is a hallmark of Rodari’s style, as is the way he moves from science to ancient history to silly digressions, like in his reply to the question, “Why can cats see in the dark?” which starts seriously but concludes with verses about cats lamenting how they “can only dream of bacon.” Rodari also plays with proverbs, often to challenge them. When responding to the question “Why is gold so precious?” he refers to the “silence is golden” proverb, noting how it isn’t always true, especially when addressing injustice: “Those in the wrong just keep on going if those in the right have nothing to say.” In this way, Rodari invites his readers to engage with larger questions,including ethical ones. 

Yoon’s illustrations are an apt accompaniment to this collection: simple and straightforward colored pencil drawings evoking a childlike feel. Each piece provides a splash of color as well as a distinct design element, with some illustrations filling a whole page, others occupying only a small corner, and a few more unusual choices, such as the two-page spread featuring a border of walking figures. Together, art and text combine for a unique,wonder-driven work that will please adults and children alike.

JooHee Yoon’s distinct art and Gianni Rodari’s whimsical text combine for a unique, wonder-driven work that will please adults and children alike.
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Author of the National Book Award-winning King and the Dragonflies and the World Fantasy Award-winning Queen of the Conquered, Kacen Callender is widely celebrated for their ability to tell stories that reverberate across diverse viewpoints, and that gift is on full display in their first YA fantasy novel, Infinity Alchemist. In Callender’s New Anglia, magic is “an outdated term, used rarely.” It’s no longer reserved for the chosen few. Anyone can become an alchemist, though certification is strictly regulated.

Ash Woods is a talented young alchemist, but despite being the son of the famed alchemist Gresham Hain, albeit unacknowledged, Ash is denied admittance to the prestigious Lancaster school and thus ends up practicing alchemy in secret and illegally. Hain, a trusted professor, has a long history of taking on young apprentices like Ash’s mother (who died in poverty) and putting them to work in his secret quest to find the legendary Book of Source. Participating in this search took the lives of the heads of the House of Thorne—parents of Ramsay Thorne. Their public execution has made Ramsay an outcast despite possessing considerable intellectual and alchemical power.

Infinity Alchemist had been percolating for a lot of years, so it felt like a massive triumph for me to finally write it.” Read our interview with Kacen Callender.

Callender weaves a tight plot around these characters as Ash, Ramsay and Ramsay’s first love, Callum, join forces to find the Book of Source before Hain. As they search, they discover the truths by which they want to live their lives, as well as the many ways love can manifest in their world. Callender raises thoughtful questions about class, power, morality and family.

Infinity Alchemist is full of smart dialogue and moves with the kind of pace that will keep readers drawn in, but it is the overriding feeling of empathy throughout that elevates this resonant fantasy.

Full of smart dialogue, Infinity Alchemist moves with the kind of pace that will keep readers drawn in, but it is the overriding feeling of empathy that elevates this resonant fantasy.
Review by

Like the traditional Lion Dancers featured in their gorgeous Lunar New Year Love Story, graphic novel veterans Gene Luen Yang and LeUyen Pham combine their considerable skills, bringing a tender love story to life. Yang’s writing and Pham’s illustrations blend seamlessly to introduce readers to Vietnamese American Val (short for Valentina) and her on-again, off-again relationship with love.

Valentine’s Day has always been Val’s favorite—it’s her namesake—and as a kid, she embraces the holiday wholeheartedly: making valentines for all her classmates, speaking blessings over each one, and even sending her dad a valentine from her mom in heaven. But when a crushing pronouncement from her estranged grandmother reveals a massive lie in Val’s life, everything falls to pieces. Soon, Val has lost her faith in love. Then she meets Les, “hands down the prettiest boy” she has ever seen, at the Lunar New Year festival, and she decides to give herself one year before she gives up on her heart for good. Will Les be the true love she’s been looking for?

“Once you have the familiar, you can weave in the unfamiliar.” Read our interview with Gene Luen Yang and LeUyen Pham. 

While the majority of the narrative takes place during Val’s junior and senior years of high school, Lunar New Year Love Story will appeal to a broad audience, including younger teens. Though it is a love story, it embraces all kinds of love: romantic, yes, but also familial, intergenerational, spiritual and the special love between trusted friends. All these versions of love get tested, and readers will hope along with Val as she attempts to escape her family’s doomed relationship history. Yang writes wholly real teenagers: reflective and impulsive; seeking while still confident; aware of their ability to hurt and be hurt. Yang’s Korean, Chinese and Vietnamese teen characters share diverse cultural perspectives as they explore the art of lion dancing. Their teachers insist: “It isn’t just a dance. If you’re doing it right? It’s as if you two become one animal, with one heart.”

Gene Luen Yang’s writing and LeUyen Pham’s illustrations blend seamlessly to introduce readers to Vietnamese American Val and her evolving relationship with love.
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LeUyen Pham arrives early and is already telling stories as we wait for Gene Luen Yang to hop on the call. Laughing, she explains, “You get the right people in the right space, and we’ll entertain you, no matter what.” She’s talking about our conversation, which took place over Zoom, but she could just as easily be talking about her forthcoming graphic novel with Yang, Lunar New Year Love Story. Though they’ve been friends for years, this is the first project they’ve worked on together, and the collaboration was seamless. Pham describes their process as being “like two friends in class, exchanging notes.” 

As soon as Gene joins us, each artist can’t stop singing the praises of the other. It’s Pham who points out that Yang has just been honored with what he calls “a fancy award in Oklahoma,” which the rest of us would call the NSK Neustadt Prize for Children’s and Young Adult Literature (Pham was also a nominee for the prize this year). 

Read our starred review of Lunar New Year Love Story.

Of Pham, Yang says, “She can draw in multiple styles and do them all incredibly well. And because she comes from picture books, she has a painterly quality in her artwork.” According to Yang, sometimes picture book artists making the jump to comics struggle with the stamina required: “There’s just way more pictures in a graphic novel. But I think Uyen has mutant powers. She is shockingly fast.” What might take a comics artist years to draw, Pham completed in under eight months—including the coloring, a task many artists hire out. Yang quips, “There’s a saying in comics that to have a career, you just have to be two of the three: good, fast or nice. So I’ve told Uyen she can stop being nice now.”

Lunar New Year Love Story started from what its title suggests: a love story, and one close to Yang’s heart. When he and his wife of 23 years began dating, she hated Valentine’s Day, seeing it as a corporate scam. But, he explains, “I really liked her, so my workaround for that was to celebrate the Lunar New Year in a very Valentines-y way.” Noting the frequent overlap between the two holidays, he turned to love-themed Lunar New Year cards and presents, and from there, the tale of Lunar New Year Love Story’s protagonist, Val (short for Valentina), was born. 

Val also hates Valentine’s Day, but when growing up, she loved it. Her imaginary friend, who plays a considerable role in this graphic novel, was St. Valentine himself (Val calls him St. V.). Though Yang wrote the manuscript, the book was truly a collaborative effort. Pham explains the many ways Yang invited her into the story, asking about her first love or her imaginary friends, and including components of her answers in the narrative. “It’s not very often that you have such a generous writer, but Gene has no ego, and somewhere along the way, it went from being Gene’s story to kind of meshing together.” 

“Once you have the familiar, you can weave in the unfamiliar.”

Yang agrees: “I’ve collaborated with other artists, but this project is the one where there was the most bleed over in terms of responsibilities.” Pham insists on the greatness of Yang’s original manuscript (which, she says, he drew out entirely) and the incredible timeliness of it: “I had just gone to Milkwood (Sophie Blackall’s farm/creative retreat), and I was seeing these tremendous artists producing tremendous work, and everything changed for me. I came home and realized I didn’t have the heart for the project I had been working on.” Canceling that project made it possible for Pham to consider Yang’s book when it arrived. “It fell in my hands right at the moment when I needed something to fill the soul. That sounds really corny, and I don’t know how else to put it. I was looking for a soul-feeder, something I could put a lot of myself into.”

Pham did put a lot of herself into Lunar New Year Love Story, including her background and ethnicity. Yan knew he wanted “to tell a story about a Pan-Asian community, because that kind of community has been important to me.” The two explain that they had a number of conversations about Val’s possible ethnicity, before landing on Vietnamese. “That was the culture I understood and could communicate the best,” says Pham. When she first read the character of Val’s grandmother, “there was an immediate familiarity in her voice, and I thought, ‘I know exactly who this woman is, and I know exactly how I’m going to draw her.’ . . . It was all just my mom.” 

Family is an incredibly important part of Lunar New Year Love Story, with Val having to navigate the changes in her relationship with her dad and their volatile history. But it’s the love story that drives most of the narrative as Val tries to figure out if she’s doomed to never find true love. When she meets Les at the Lunar New Year festival, she starts to hope, giving herself a year to prove it’s possible. Along the way, she has to deal with Les’s rude cousin Jae, who turns out to complicate matters more than Val ever expected. Yang notes that they “purposefully tried to hit all of the romcom structure.” But Yang and Pham didn’t rest there. “Once you hit that skeleton, it lets you play with a bunch of stuff. Once you have the familiar, you can weave in the unfamiliar.”

For some readers, that unfamiliar might come in the form of the traditional lion dance that Val falls in love with, or the intermingling of Chinese and Korean and Vietnamese cultures, or even the references to Catholic saints and other aspects of the Christian church. When asked if it has ever felt controversial to include issues of faith, or if he’s been cautioned against writing about faith in his books, Yang replies, “In college, I had an amazing creative writing professor who once told me, ‘You should never write about your faith.’ She was a Romanian American and a practicing Buddhist, and I was a Chinese American practicing Catholic. Instead, she said, “Live your faith, and if your faith is part of your life, it will come out in your writing.”

Agreeing, Pham says, “There’s the stadium in which these dialogues are played out in public, and then there’s people’s private lives. And this story takes place in private lives, not in a public stadium. I prefer stories at that level, where we’re simply showing what life is.” She echoes that thought when speaking about ethnicity: “I like that the story is just a story that happens to have Asian characters in it. It has a universality to it.”

From family and friendships to religion and culture, Lunar New Year Love Story is a romcom that looks at the deeper aspects of life. Pham took an incredibly thoughtful approach to the novel’s colors: “We made the book into 12 chapters, representing each month of the year. Each month has a theme, which corresponds to a different color on the feng shui wheel. Everything connects with a meaning.” Yang adds: “There are five elements in Asian cosmology, and each of those is associated with a color, each associated with different parts of society and culture. So what Uyen did was she took this old, old philosophy and applied it here, and even if you don’t know all of that when you’re reading, you can feel a depth in the color.” 

“There’s the stadium in which these dialogues are played out in public, and then there’s people’s private lives. And this story takes place in private lives, not in a public stadium.”

Each partner insists it was the work of the other that made this book successful. “What I love about Gene’s work,” says Pham, “is that it’s always multilayered. It’s not a single story.” Like the lion dancers in their graphic novel, they know it takes two partners to make something beautiful and true.

The authors meshed together real details from each of their own lives to write Lunar New Year Love Story.
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If the best fiction taps into universal longings, it’s no wonder that middle grade novels often focus on protagonists who feel left out. Lisa Yee evokes this feeling with The Misfits #1: A Royal Conundrum, the first installment in a series focusing on Olive Cobin Zang and the other members of the Misfits, a secret group of young special agents.

Newbery Honor winner Yee teams up with Caldecott Medalist Dan Santat, and the result is a fun caper accentuated by Santat’s vivid illustrations. Olive, a Chinese American 12-year-old, knows that something is up when one day her InstaFriends account vanishes, along with all evidence of her presence at school. So when she’s called to the office and learns her mother (who travels constantly and doesn’t remember Olive’s birthday) is enrolling her at the Reforming Arts School of San Francisco (RASCH), Olive is not exactly surprised. Although she’s terrified that this might be a punishment—after all, RASCH used to be a prison—Olive won’t miss her old school. And because she feels invisible, she’s sure it won’t miss her either. The only person who would have missed her was her grandmother Mimi, but she’s been gone for months, though no one will tell Olive what happened: Her mother will only say, “She’s no longer with us.”

Once at RASCH, Olive feels instantly at home, a feeling that increases after she’s sorted into a pod of fellow outsiders. This team of kids brings unusual tech savvy and unique mental and physical talents (Olive’s Mimi was a circus performer who trained Olive on the trapeze) to their division of NOCK (“No One Can Know”), an elite force whose “mission includes ensuring the safety of the community, guarding the possessions of the citizens, and preventing civil disorder.” With their combined skills and immediate bond, the Misfits work together to uncover the mystery behind a string of jewel thefts and prevent their beloved RASCH from being closed by its patron, Dame Gloria. From mind-bending technology to sometimes hilarious hijinks, A Royal Conundrum has everything a young reader—especially one who feels invisible—could want.

From mind-bending technology to sometimes hilarious hijinks, A Royal Conundrum has everything a young reader—especially one who feels invisible—could want.

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