Til reviews The Stone Child by David A. Robertson

the cover of The Stone Child

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The Stone Child is book 3 in the Misewa Saga, following foster siblings Eli and Morgan, who discover that they can travel to another dimension when they put Eli’s drawings on a wall in their foster-home’s attic. Here, in Misewa, they meet animals who wear clothes and live in villages, but sometimes face major crises with which the children can help. The series incorporates Cree words and rituals, with identity as a powerful theme for the main characters, both of whom are First Nations.

This is the first book to introduce a romantic side-plot. Since it’s a middle grade novel, I hadn’t felt that was especially lacking, but it was introduced with characteristic nuance. This time Morgan’s friend Emily is along for the adventure. The girls share a nerdy friendship centered around a mutual love of outer space adventure stories, especially Star Wars; they tease each other and generally enjoy one another’s company. This would have been a perfect portrayal of a friendship even without the romance aspect.

As for the romance itself? Adorable. It progresses slowly, with little jokes and blushes, a tiny kiss on the cheek and full stop to ask if this was okay. Morgan and Emily have a relationship built on shared interests, respect for one another, open communication, and trust. Their nascent romance never rises to the center of the story, something I consider a positive. There are life-and-death stakes in this book. Morgan is struggling with her family. Though Emily is a consistent positive in her life, she’s never a distraction from Morgan’s questions of identity and belonging. One of my biggest pet peeves in any fiction is a character losing their sense of self for a romantic partner, so I adored watching Morgan stay honest to her path, even as she invited Emily to walk with her.

I don’t recommend starting with this book. The first in the series, The Barren Grounds, is the place to start. Even before Morgan and Emily’s friendship begins to wend its way toward “something more”, the series is filled with nuance—from Morgan, an angry girl with a huge and damaged heart; to her foster-mom Katie, so eager to do right but oblivious as a white woman fostering First Nations children; to how right and wrong play out on a generational scale. It’s at times heartbreaking and at other times pure delight. And, consistently, it’s an exciting adventure.

Danika reviews The Girl from the Sea by Molly Ostertag

The Girl from the Sea cover

Way back in 2016, I wrote a post for Book Riot called 5 Lesbian Mermaid Comics You Need to Read where I rounded up sapphic mermaid and selkie comics. There were far too few than I would like, but I was able to find a three page comic story from Molly Ostertag on tumblr about a girl who falls in love with a selkie. Obviously, I was delighted, and so imagine my surprise when I found out that the concept was made into a middle grade graphic novel! I love selkies, I love queer middle grade comics, so I needed to read it ASAP.

This follows Morgan Kwon, a 15 year old with a plan for her life. She’s going to keep her head down until she graduates, and then she’s going to become her authentic self. She just needs to wait it out. Her parents have just divorced, and her brother isn’t taking it well. She has a close group of friends, but she doesn’t feel like she can tell them her secret: that she’s queer.

When she was younger, she played with a selkie. At least, that’s what she remembers–but she’s written it off as her imagination. Then, she almost drowns and is rescued by that same selkie. The next day, Keltie appears on land in human form: something she can only do every 7 years. While they both clearly are romantically interested in each other, Morgan panics that Keltie–with her bluntness, her weird clothing, her unrestrained personality–will out her. But she doesn’t want to walk away, either, so she tries to balance these two lives.

I love the artwork here and the quiet exploration of Morgan’s character. She has to learn to be true to herself and embrace when life doesn’t go to plan–that it’s okay to let things get messy. I can’t wait to get a finished copy in all its glossy, full-colour glory!

I do want to give a clear content warning for nonconsensual outing. (Spoiler: her mom accepts her immediately.)

Danika reviews Space Battle Lunchtime Volume 3 by Natalie Riess

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I adored the first two volumes of Space Battle Lunchtime. It’s an all-ages graphic novel of a cooking competition(!) in space(!!) with a cute F/F romance (!!!) What more could you want? The first two volumes felt like two halves of a whole story. It finished with a happily ever after that made me sigh contentedly when I closed it. I wanted more, sure, but it had wrapped up. I accepted that this was a precious gem of a self-contained two volume story.

And then! I randomly stumbled on a third volume! I didn’t know this was coming out! As someone who obsessively tracks new sapphic book releases, this was a shock to me. How could I have missed that this was getting a sequel at all, never mind one that was already out? I could hardly believe my luck.

This volume has everything I loved from the first two. There’s no baking competition this time–instead, Peony is baking for a fancy jubilee hosted by a space empress! It’s crucial that everything goes perfectly. Of course, that’s not what happens. In fact, the empress is poisoned, and now it’s a murder(-ish) mystery! This is a fun little puzzle set on a spaceship that is part plant.

I also really enjoyed Peony and Neptunia’s developing relationship. We get a glimpse into Neptunia’s past that explains why she’s so guarded and secretive. There is no drama here, though; they continue to be a happy, adorable couple.

If you are looking for a cute, cozy, comforting queer read, I can’t recommend Space Battle Lunchtime enough. Will this be the real final volume? I can’t find any information on there being a volume 4, but there was also 3 years between volumes 2 and 3, so that’s not saying much. Whether this is a charming epilogue to the original story or the beginning of an ongoing series, I am a big fan.

Danika reviews Goldie Vance: The Hocus Pocus Hoax by Lilliam Rivera

Goldie Vance: The Hocus Pocus Hoax by Lilliam RiveraI already know and love the Goldie Vance comics, but now it is also a middle grade novel series! The premise is that Goldie Vance is a sixteen year old girl who works as a part-time valet, part-time detective at a resort her father manages. She is the assistant to the hotel’s detective–which is apparently a thing?–and aspires to be a full-time detective when she’s older.

It has a 1950s feel, and Goldie is the plucky heroine we expect from a girl detective, except this one is a queer girl of colour! I love the comics, so I had to see how the novel versions compare. Although the main character is 16, she appears to be a little younger, which I think matches the 1950s aesthetic and definitely makes this work as a middle grade novel. When I worked in the children’s department of my local bookstore, I often wished there were more middle grade and YA mysteries–they are very popular for around 6-8 year olds and then inexplicably disappear–so I’m glad to see this will help fill that niche.

I was a bit worried about whether the queer relationship would be included in this middle grade version of the story–the comics are all-ages, but could easily be read by teens as well. Happily, it’s actually a big part of the plot in this volume.

A conference of magicians is happening in the hotel, and the stakes are high. The intimidating owner is demanding everything goes smoothly, because if this because a repeat event, it will be very profitable. Unfortunately, three of the waiters get food poisoning, and Goldie and a few of her friends at the hotel have to fill in. Meanwhile, Goldie is trying to plan the perfect first date with Diane. Unfortunately, she’s forced to be a server that night and has to cancel, and when they reschedule, the restaurant has been reserved for a special event. Goldie invites Diane to come to some of the magician performances happening at the hotel, which she happily accepts. But that’s not the end of her first date complications: someone is sabotaging the magicians’ performances, and she has to figure out the culprit–all while the son of the celebrity magician keeps following her around and telling her how to better do her job.

Was I proud of myself for keeping up with a middle grade mystery’s clues? Yes. I’m not usually a mystery reader because I am terrible at keeping track of details, so apparently middle grade mysteries are my level. I won’t comment on the mystery structure itself, because it seems silly to critique whether a mystery for 10 year olds is sufficiently complex for a reader triple that age, but this was an entertaining read full of memorable characters.

This finishes with a short comic at the end, which was a fun surprise. We see Goldie and Diane finally get to have their date together, and it’s adorable. I do think this translates well in the novel format, and I hope the series is long-running. This is technically the second book in the series, not counting the comics, but you don’t need to have read any of the other Goldie Vance books before this one: it’s a self-contained story.

Danika reviews Kenzie Kickstarts a Team (The Derby Daredevils #1) by Kit Rosewater, illustrated by Sophie Escabasse

Kenzie Kickstarts a Team by Kit Rosewater

The Derby Daredevils is a middle grade series following a junior roller derby team, with an #ownvoices queer main character. Now, if you’re like me, you’ve already clicked away to order a copy or request it from your library. And that would be the correct response. I am jubilated that we are finally at the place in queer lit where a mainstream early chapter book can have an incidentally queer main character. Break out the streamers, people. We’ve made it!

But on to the book itself! Admittedly, I’m a little older than the target demographic. Kenzie and her friends are 10 years old. Her best friend, Shelly, and her are obsessed with roller derby. Kenzie’s mom is a derby girl, but she can’t try out herself until she’s 15–that is, until a junior derby league opens up. Shelly and Kenzie are ecstatic, but in order to make sure they can stay the Dynamic Duo (and not be broken up into different teams), they have to form a 5 person team and try out together. But will being part of team threaten their Dynamic Duo stasis?

This is aimed at 8-12, and I think it’s a perfect fit for kids at around the Wimpy Kid stage. It’s short, and packed full of illustrations! (They’re every 3 pages or so.) I loved seeing the diverse group of kids come together–diverse in terms of race and personality. Kenzie’s dad is trans, and I think this is the first book I’ve come across where that is casually mentioned. Kenzie refers to his life before transitioning as him being like an “undercover agent.” Later, when she realizes she has a crush on a girl, she empathizes with that status.

This is the first book in the series, and it’s under 200 pages, so we really just get an introduction to each of the characters (as they get added to the team), and an idea of their interactions. From what I’ve seen, I like the characters and their varied relationships: I look forward to seeing the dynamics develop over the course of the series, and to getting to know each of the characters individually. (I think each of the girls on the team will have their own point of view title, and at least one other character is implied to also be queer.) [spoiler:] It’s implied that Kenzie’s crush returns the sentiment, so we’ll see how that develops over the series! [end spoiler]

The next volume comes out in September, and I will definitely keep going with it! If you have any kids in your life in the 8-12 range, pick this one up for them! It’s shades of Baby-Sitters Club and Lumberjanes, with its own derby flair. Perfect for kid daredevils with or without skates!


Danika reviews Hazel’s Theory of Evolution by Lisa Jenn Bigelow

Hazel’s Theory of Evolution by Lisa Jenn BigelowLisa Jenn Bigelow’s Starting From Here broke my heart and put it back together again. It’s one of my favourite queer YA books. I’m still waiting for the fan poster that has Colby, Cam (from The Miseducation of Cameron Post) and Ari (from Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe) all laying in the beds of their respective pickup trucks, looking up at the stars together. (I am not an artist. I need someone to do this for me.) When Bigelow’s Drum Roll, Please came out, I was eager to pick it up. It lived up to her first: a bisexual/questioning middle grade novel that has more to do with friendship and divorce and finding your voice than treating her orientation as an Issue.

So, of course, I jumped on her newest middle grade book: Hazel’s Theory of Evolution. This one follows a character with two moms, but we’re not in the 90s anymore: that’s not the point of this story. Hazel has just moved schools, which means that she’s been split from her best friend–her only real social safety net. At her new school, she feels isolated and weird. No else seems to understand her respect for earthworms… Her feelings are vented in her Guide to Misunderstood Creatures. Meanwhile, she’s reluctantly making new friends, including Yosh, a sarcastic guy with a mohawk who uses a wheelchair. She’s also bumped into a familiar face from her old school, who is now going by a different name and pronouns.

The biggest tension in this book, though, is that Hazel’s mom is pregnant. Again. And everyone seems determined to be cheerful and optimistic about this–despite the fact that she’s already gone through two miscarriages that were emotionally devastating for the whole family. Hazel feels trapped, unable to voice her fear and anger that she’s chosen to get pregnant again, and unwilling to confide to anyone outside of the family. In health class, she adds the names of her two miscarried siblings onto her family tree–and then erases them. Adds them again. Erases them.

Bigelow is masterful at exploring complex relationships between characters, which makes this story shine. Hazel is flawed and frustrated, making assumptions and asking awkward questions, but always from a place of caring. As her friends start to show romantic interest in others, she feels even more lost. This is the first middle grade book that I’ve seen explore the concepts of asexuality and aromanticism. Like Drum Roll, Please, Hazel is still figuring herself out, but it’s affirming just to see that possibility brought up in a middle grade.

You don’t have to decide any of those things now. Life may surprise you. But whatever happens, whatever you decide is right for you, all of those things are okay. And when I say okay I mean good. There are so many good ways to be in this world.

Danika reviews Aquicorn Cove by Katie O’Neill

Aquicorn Cove by Katie O'Neill

I can’t get enough of Katie O’Neill’s artwork and stories. The illustrations are beautiful, captivating, and comforting. The pastel tones and softness of shapes matches the soothing tone of her narratives. In her author bio, she says that she writes “gentle fantasy stories,” and I think that’s the perfect description. This one definitely has a similar feel to The Tea Dragon Society: a sweet middle grade comic with a queer subplot.

There is a fantasy element to Aquicorn Cove, but fundamentally it’s about Lana and her father visiting to the seaside town she grew up in, before her mother passed away. They are staying with Lana’s aunt, helping to clean up after a storm damaged a lot of the town. Lana loves seeing her aunt and being back home, but her father is impatient to go back to the city–uncomfortable with the memories that haunt him here.

This is also a love letter to the ocean. Lana clearly loves being back by the water, and she nurtures a baby aquicorn she finds stranded in a tidal pool. The environmentalist message includes information at the back of the book about coral reefs and how we can take care of them.

The romance is between Lana’s aunt and an underwater woman creature (not a mermaid… she kind of reminds me of a Pokemon, but in a good way). In flashbacks, we see how they got closer, and then how they drifted apart. Their town depends on fishing, and it becomes a point of tension between them.

If you liked her other works, you’ll like this one, too. I’d especially recommend this to middle grade nature lovers, but anyone looking for a gentle fantasy story (especially with queer content) should appreciate this one.

Tierney reviews One True Way by Shannon Hitchcock

One True Way by Shannon Hitchcock

It is so exciting to experience the current burgeoning of middle LGBTQ fiction: it feels absolutely amazing (not to mention freeing) to have enough books out there to be able to pick and choose and categorize, and set aside what misses the mark in favor of reading the good stuff. Shannon Hitchcock’s One True Way is the good stuff.

After the death of her brother and her parents’ subsequent separation, Allie moves to North Carolina with her mom, hoping for a fresh start in the fall of 1977. Despite being the new girl at Daniel Boone Middle School, she quickly finds her footing, thanks to the kindness of Sam, the easygoing star basketball player who is friends with everyone. As an intrepid would-be reporter writing for the school newspaper, Allie is no stranger to asking tough questions–but she has to turn her gaze inward as her deepening relationship with Sam brings up questions she must ask herself–and Sam–and new feelings she has to navigate, while trying to figure out what kind of support they can get from the adults around them.

Coming out stories may be more oversaturated in fiction and pop culture geared toward adults and young adults, but a middle grade story like this (especially one that is so well-written, thoughtful, and tender) is nothing less than stunning–especially one starring a 12-year-old girl, set in the 1970s, and in North Carolina no less. This kind of historical fiction is sorely needed representation for today’s queer youth–and One True Way is all the more special for the representation it skillfully weaves in for its protagonist. Allie has a strong network of adult queer role models, from her Uncle Jeffrey, who is mentioned in passing, to Coach Murphy and Miss Holt, two teachers at her school who are quietly in a relationship with one another (and are friends with her mom). Hitchcock has built a world that reflects a possible reality–one that is neither maudlin nor saccharine, that showcases beautiful, unabashed queerness in many forms without shying away from depicting the existence of harsh realities (unaccepting family members, intolerant religious institutions, an inability be out for fear of losing one’s job…) for her queer characters.

Today’s queer youth deserve tender historical fiction about a girl and her new best friend realizing they have crushes on one another–with all the ensuing teenage angst, and a decent portrayal (without being gloomy or heavy-handed) of some of the serious aspects of being a queer middle schooler in the South in the 1970s. And even more than its portrayal of a queer love story, One True Way’s portrayal of queer community is a bold and important statement to share with queer and questioning middle schoolers. While I so wish I had had books like this growing up, I am so grateful that today’s kids have works like this to read (and have even more to choose from, depending on what tickles their fancy!): One True Way fills a much-needed niche, and beautifully so.

Mars reviews Hocus Pocus and The All-New Sequel by A. W. Jantha

Hocus Pocus and the All-New Sequel cover

All her life, Poppy Dennison has known the story of the frightening and magical events that took place in Salem on Halloween night back in 1993. It’s otherwise known as the day her parents really met, or alternatively as the one time her cool Aunt Dani got kidnapped and almost eaten by witches. To be clear, the witches in this book are characters leftover from a coven that was decimated during the actual historical witch hunts of Salem, Massachusetts and not modern practitioners of a particular faith, and should not be taken as such.

The three witchy Sanderson sisters, their book of spells, and the special black flame candle that legend says will raise them from the dead are all still part of the popular Halloween lore that surrounds Salem. Her parents’ part of that story is virtually unknown, and Poppy is determined to keep it that way lest her mean girl nemesis Katie Taylor finds out and makes her last two years of high school its own kind of hell.

For readers who are not familiar with the lovely classic Halloween film Hocus Pocus, have no fear because the Part I of this book is a very close retelling of the movie and sets up Part II very well, detailing Poppy’s own involvement with the Sanderson sisters. Some witches just aren’t very good at staying dead.

This was a surprising and fun read that I just couldn’t put down. With more action, adventure, and character development than I expected, we follow Poppy, her best friend and wingman Travis, her mysterious dream girl Isabella, as well as other characters both new and familiar as they race to stop a new plot hatched by the Sanderson sisters to help them achieve immortality and rain hell on earth. With their witchy powers enhanced by the rare blood moon, the stakes have never been higher (no pun intended).

Much like the original Hocus Pocus (Part I), this story is as much about family, friendship, and loyalty as it is about evil witches enslaving humans and damning their souls for their own enjoyment. Poppy makes a really relatable protagonist. Who hasn’t dealt with trying to mitigate embarrassing family history while tripping over a monster crush?

Whitney D.R. reviews Princess Princess Ever After by Katie O’Neill

Princess Princess Ever After cover

Princess Princess Ever After is a cute middle-grade story about two princesses who evade their royal duties, but find something greater along the way.

I have to admit, I was nervous to read this based on the cover.  I’m always leary when one of the main characters is of color and masculine-presenting (Amira), while the other main character is white and traditionally feminine looking (Sadie).  While this story involves two princesses, I thought Amira would more ‘princely’ and constantly having to save Sadie. In media, very rarely do we get to see a woman/girl of color be a damsel in distress, always having to save her white counterparts from various dangers (usually of their own making).

I needn’t have worried.  While Sadie did need to be rescued initially, she definitely held her own once she was free of her confinement.  Sadie and Amira aren’t pigeonholed into any particular (gender) roles. They show both vulnerability and toughness.  Sadie had to learn to stand up for and believe in herself and not let her magic be taken or downplayed by others. Amira realized she still had a lot to learn about herself and the world.  But together, these two princesses made a heck of team battling making battling and then making friends with different fantastical creatures and saving Sadie’s kingdom from her evil witch of a sister.

I will say that I wish there had been more about Amira’s kingdom and her background in general.  She seemed to have been from an Egyptian or South Asian-styled place with a family, but left it all behind.  That’s all readers really see and it was a bit disappointing.

There also wasn’t a lot of obvious romance between Sadie and Amira (mostly blushing and meaningful looks at each other), which isn’t surprising considering the age this book is directed to. And they spend so much time away from each other before they get their happy ending, though I understand it was so both princess could better themselves and, in Sadie’s case, her kingdom.  But readers do get a lovely wedding and happily ever after that was almost like a Disney movie.

All in all, Princess Princess Ever After was cute with great art and story.  I just wish there was a sequel or more pages that depicted Sadie and Amira’s time apart before reuniting after what seemed like years.  Middle school me would have love to have read this at that age.

3.5 stars