Danika reviews Princeless: Raven the Pirate Princess Vols. 1-3

Princeless: Raven the Pirate Princess Vol 1

I finally got around to reading Princeless: Raven the Pirate Princess, a comic series that’s been on my TBR ever since I heard of its existence. I’m kicking myself for not starting it sooner, because it’s just as awesome I was hoping. Raven is the daughter of a pirate captain, and she was supposed to inherit the title. Unfortunately, her brothers stole that from her. Now, she’s determined to put together her own crew, get a ship, and regain what’s rightfully hers.

This is a diverse, all-women pirate crew bent on revenge. There’s an f/f romance between Raven and another member of the crew, who was a childhood friend until Raven betrayed her. (Friends to Lovers to Enemies to Lovers?) I can’t help but compare this to Lumberjanes for a) the all-women group of adventurers and b) hijinks, but Raven the Pirate Princess seems to be aimed more at teens than middle grade. There is more violence than something like Lumberjanes, and the relationships are more complex.

My favourite thing about the three volumes I’ve read so far is that I feel like I’m really getting to know the entire crew, not just the five on the covers. They all have distinct personalities, and they have their own close friendships and rivals within the group. In addition to the racial diversity and multiple queer characters, there’s also a Deaf character who uses sign language. Although there is a lot of action, and the plot progresses quickly, I felt like there was still attention paid to establish each character.

In addition to adventure and heartbreak, there’s also a lot of satire, especially making feminist points. I also loved the references that I caught (Doctor Who, Avatar, a Kelly Sue DeConnick appearance). I preferred the art in the first volume (that’s what’s the cover), though, and I did take a while to get used to the art in the second volume. In the third volume, there’s a subplot that I don’t feel great about. [spoilers/content warning about race, highlight to read] A black woman (elf) is held captive and treated like an animal. One of the people imprisoning her (he is wearing a turban and has light skin) befriends her, and begins to argue for her to have more privileges (like a room to be locked in instead of a cage), but is still imprisoning her. They fall in love. He breaks her out. I feel uncomfortable with the prisoner-falls-in-love-with-her-captor story line no matter what the context, but having the black woman character treated as an animal and kept as a cage just adds to the grossness, and I don’t believe there are any black creators on the team. [end] There are a lot of diverse characters, which helps, but I did personally cringe at that point.

I do want to continue with the story, though, and I’m excited to see where it heads next!

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

Danika reviews P.S. I Miss You by Jen Petro-Roy

PS I Miss You by Jen Petro-Roy cover

My first introduction to P.S. I Miss You was Jen Petro-Roy’s Entertainment Weekly article, where she talks about how her book didn’t get a tour through schools, because all but one school considered it “too mature.” That’s a shame, because this middle grade book has a lot to offer. It’s an epistolary novel, told in letters from Evie to her older sister, Cilla. Cilla is 16 when she gets pregnant, and her parents have shipped her off to live with her aunt in the country until she has the baby, gives the baby up for adoption, and goes to a Catholic boarding school. Evie can’t understand why her sister would sin, or why her parents would react so badly, or why Cilla won’t write back, and she processes all of these feelings through the letters.

I’m not sure it was the intention, but I was getting stressed out reading this book. As the novel progressed, I got more nervous about why Cilla wasn’t writing back. I seriously considered skipping to the end, but settled for tearing through it instead, even reading it while walking home. Aside from my anxiety about Cilla, though, I was also invested in Evie. She is adrift, trying to figure out how her life has changed so dramatically. She oscillates between being confused, frustrated, and angry. Meanwhile, she’s starting to get closer to the new girl in school, June. June is pretty and funny… and also an atheist.

As her friendship with June develops, Evie questions her own religious beliefs. When she presses June to explain why she’s an atheist, June puts the ball back in her court. Evie begins to wonder–if being Catholic meant her parents sending Cilla away, is it really a good thing? We see her questioning through the lens of the letters, which introduces a bit of a buffer. Evie thinks there’s something different about her friendship with June–but nevermind, no, forget she wrote that last letter.

The juxtaposition between Cilla and Evie worked really well: Evie is terrified to tell her parents about her growing suspicion that she may be gay, because she’s sure they’ll send her away, just like they did when Cilla “sinned.” She begins to reconsider if she really agrees with what she’s been told sin is. Her parents are deeply flawed people, and seeing that is painful. They are human, and they’ve made mistakes. But that doesn’t mean that Evie has to follow in their footsteps.

P.S. I Miss You is a heartfelt story about developing into your own person. I can see how it’s considered controversial, because it’s all about questioning what you’ve been taught to believe unwaveringly. It validates that your feelings–even if you are only 12 or 16–are just as valid, and you deserve to have the space to explore your own possibilities. I’d recommend this for middle graders and adults alike.

Danika reviews Hurricane Child by Kheryn Callender

Hurriance Child by Kheryn Callender cover

Hurricane Girl is unlike anything I’ve read before. I have been basking in this new wave of queer middle grade books, because that used to be unheard of. Now, it’s become its own little subgenre (though obviously we could use a lot more!) This book comes from a completely different angle than George or Star-Crossed or Drum Roll, Please do, however. The queer middle grade I’ve read up to this point has been pretty light. They’ve been reassuring in their depiction of queer life: there may be some pushback, but overall being queer is safe and accepted in these narratives. Hurricane Child is not light or gentle, and it’s not afraid to complex–even overwhelming.

Caroline is twelve years old, and one year and three months ago, her mother left her and her father. Caroline desperately wants to reunite with her, but she doesn’t know where she is. It doesn’t help that she is constantly harassed at school, both by her peers and her teacher. Until a new girl shows up who seems to offer up a new world of possibilities.

This story takes place on Water Island in the Caribbean. While Caroline is first realizing that she’s having romantic feelings for a girl, the only reference point she has is two white lesbian tourists she sees in a shop. Kalinda–her crush–quickly renounces them (within earshot) as disgusting and sinful. Hatred of queer people is visible in this narrative. But there’s more going on here than just Caroline’s missing mother and her feelings for a girl. She also sees spirits, which means she sometimes sees and speaks to people whom I wasn’t sure were physically present. Her dad is hiding his own secrets. And her mother’s storyline concludes in a messy, unexpected place.

There are a lot balls in the air here, and I wasn’t completely sure how I felt by the conclusion. It feels realistic and difficult, but also has a dreamlike element. This isn’t a book I would necessarily give so readily to a young queer kid, because it does contain multiple scenes of hatred of queer people, but I also think this would be the perfect book for the right kid. I’m glad it exists, and I’m excited to see how this little subgenre grows in the years to come.

Danika reviews Drum Roll, Please by Lisa Jenn Bigelow

Starting From Here by Lisa Jenn Bigelow is one of my favourite YA books, so of course when I heard that she had a bisexual middle grade book coming out, I was eager to pick it up. Drum, Roll Please definitely lived up to those expectations. Melly is 13, and the day before she was dropped off at Camp Rockaway, her parents told her they were getting divorced. She’s had no time to process this before she’s tossed into this new environment for 2 weeks, and even her best friend being there doesn’t seem to help, especially when Olivia is too busy hanging out with her crush to remember her. Melly may be a drum player, but she has trouble finding her own voice. One way or another, these two weeks will change that.

I loved this book. It’s such a quiet read–fittingly. It’s about music and friendship and divorce and growing up and crushes, but mostly it’s just about Melly finding herself and being true to herself. She’s someone who is used to being in the background, to following along with whatever her best friend, Olivia, wants to do. But her parents’ divorce and the atmosphere of Rockaway Camp shift things, making it difficult for her to stay passive. Melly is placed in a band, and she has to find a way to communicate with her bandmates as well as find her own voice.

Meanwhile, her relationship with Olivia is complicated and thorny. Olivia is at first clingy, until she gets a crush and spends all of her free time with him. Melly is hurt, but she also isn’t sharing anything with Olivia. She keeps telling her that she’s fine and doesn’t want to talk about it. It takes one of her bandmates, Adeline, to break Melly’s shell, so she can finally talk about how she’s feeling. I loved reading about this tiny clueless bisexual’s first foray into crushing on a girl. She gets butterflies in her stomach, and then: “I looked at her hard, trying to understand. But I wasn’t sure what I was looking for, so how was I supposed to recognize it when I saw it?” Been there! The two of them are very cute, and I was happy to see Melly reaching out to develop new connections. The word bisexual isn’t used, but Melly does talk about having a long-term crush on a boy before.

I appreciated the complexity of the relationships and their dynamics. Olivia may not have been there for Melly as much as she wanted, but Melly wasn’t communicating with Olivia. Her parents may not have been fair to her to tell her just before she left, but maybe she wasn’t being fair to them, either. Melly needs to find herself and get in touch with her own emotions, but that doesn’t mean abandoning her empathy. Relationships–of all kinds–are complicated. Communication is difficult. And Drum Roll, Please doesn’t try to simplify it. We can be sympathetic from one angle and cruel from another. There aren’t easy answers.

Although I never went to a music camp (mine was theoretically a Christian camp, but that was mostly lip service to get funding), I thought Drum Roll, Please really captured the atmosphere of summer camp. Within a day, it feels completely normal, but it’s so different from the rest of your life. The activities, the atmosphere, the people–it’s as if this time exists in a bubble. Friendships tend to develop easily, and you feel like you’ve known these people much longer than a week or two. But once you leave, the memories seem unreal. Most of these people you’ll never see again, except perhaps at camp next year. Despite its ephemeral nature, that time felt formative–it definitely is in Melly’s case.

I’m so happy to see another queer middle grade book out there. This is a great addition to the genre, alongside Star-Crossed by Barbara Dee, though I feel that Drum Roll, Please is a half step up in maturity–right between middle grade and YA. I definitely recommend this, whether for a tween reader or an adult. I really got invested in Melly’s story–and who can resist that cover!

Danika reviews Lumberjanes series (Vol 1-6) by Noelle Stevenson, Grace Ellis, Shannon Watters, and Brooke A. Allen

Lumberjanes is a series that’s been on my TBR for ages. I had read the first volume, and I’ve been recommending the series, but I’ve been saving the other volumes for some unknown reason. I’ve finally corrected that error and binge read volumes 1-6! (I’m still on hold at the library for volume 7.)

You’ve probably heard about Lumberjanes before, but just in case: this is a comic that follows a group of girls at summer camp, where they get into fantastical adventures. The strongest part of the series is the dynamic between the 5 main characters. They all have different personalities, strengths, fears, priorities, etc, but they are a tightly-knit group. They support each other. And we get to see each one spotlighted at some point.

As for the queer content, it is subtle, but it’s there. Later in the series (issue #17), we find out that Jo is trans. Throughout the series, there’s a romance between Mal and Molly. It starts off pretty subtle and in the background. There’s a lot of blushing. But they get their own arc in Volume 3, where they go on a picnic date. By volume 6, they kiss. The romance is never the focus of the story, and at the beginning, it’s a little bit ambiguous, but it’s there throughout the narrative, and becomes hard to miss that they have a romantic relationship.

This is such a fun series! As an adult, it was entertaining to binge read, but I’m also really glad that this exists as an all-ages/kids’ comic. It’s fantastic to have queer, trans, and poc representation in such a successful series. This is one that you can give to pretty much any kid from–I don’t know–9 to 17? The ages of the characters are fairly ambiguous, and it’s pretty easy to read, so it appeals to a wide range. Plus, it’s a way to get that representation in the hands of kids who may not have access to it otherwise.

Danika reviews Star-Crossed by Barbara Dee

This has been a much-anticipated read for me! Back in 2016, I saw a tumblr post by Barbara Dee’s daughter talking about the upcoming release of her mom’s book, Star-Crossed: a middle-grade book with a bisexual girl as the main character. The first middle-grade novel with a girl who likes girls as the main character! And with an adorable cover! I was sold, but it was still months before it came out.

Unfortunately, the next time I heard about this title (other than the endless reblogs on tumblr) was when I read Barbara Dee’s post, Please Don’t Talk About Your Book. (Which got me so upset that I wrote Let’s Talk About STAR-CROSSED: Why We Need Bisexual Kids’ Books, Backlash or Not at Book Riot.)

Needless to say, I was eager to read this story myself! I was pretty biased going into it, I’ll admit, but I felt that it lived up to the hype. This is a very sweet story that balances Shakespeare references with the dizzying experience of middle school crushes. The characters and middle school politics felt realistic and well-rounded. Even the “mean girl” isn’t dismissed as one-dimensional.

This story revolves around the 8th grade production of Romeo and Juliet, and there is lots of discussion about the play and Shakespeare. Each chapter starts with a related quotation from the play. I was impressed with the discussion that takes place with the material–the play is not only explained, but also critiqued and complimented by the kids performing it. I think it shows what you can gain from really diving into a story looking at in depth. It begins to be relateable and personally valuable.

As for the representation in the story, the word “bisexual” isn’t actually used, but it’s explicit that she acknowledges that she can get crushes on boys and girls. Mattie worries what people will think if they find out that she has a crush on a girl, but there’s very little homophobia on the page. (More detail and spoilers in following paragraph.)

[Spoilers] The only homophobia on the page is one kid saying “That’s gay” about something and the teacher and his classmate (the popular girl who’s been kind of a jerk otherwise) both immediately say that wasn’t okay and that being gay is nothing to be ashamed of. Mattie comes out to her sister, teacher, and friends without any of them really batting an eyelash. She doesn’t come out to her parents by the end of the book, but doesn’t seem worried about it. She asks Gemma (her crush) out on a date, and she accepts! [End spoilers]

This was a light, fun read, and I’m so happy it’s out in the world now. This would be life-changing for kids questioning their sexuality/romantic identity! It is fluffy enough that I don’t expect I’ll reread it or that it will stick with me in a huge way as an adult reader, but it’s well-written, entertaining, and much-needed.